Flickr and Raccoon Dogs

Now there’s the title for a 70’s action movie if I ever heard one.

I got my copy of Pom Poko yesterday and watched it on the commute back to San Francisco. I’m impressed; Disney released it unedited. And with a pretty tasteful translation — they always refer to them as “raccoons” and never describe them as different animals, which is kind of a shame but perfectly understandable; and they describe at the beginning that the males can inflate and transform their “raccoon pouch” and leave it at that. There’s no cautionary or explanatory material anywhere else on the DVD, and it’s really not needed. (There are also no bonus features other than the original trailers, and a second disc containing the entire movie in storyboard format, but that’s no big surprise as this was never a huge blockbuster release even in Japan).

And I ususally hate English dubs of Japanese movies, but they did a pretty good job with this one. Some relatively big names for voice actors, including John DiMaggio (Bender from “Futurama” and Doctor Drakken from “Kim Possible”), Brian Posehn (again), and J.K. Simmons (from “Oz,” Spider-man, and the yellow M&M). I guess Disney can afford to hire anyone they want. I’m thinking it’s pretty damn cool that the movie was released in the US at all, and the fact that it’s a well-done release is just an added bonus. I’m also very happy I don’t work for Disney’s complaint department.

I’ve also been looking more at Flickr.com and am starting to catch on more to the appeal of it. I’m always late to the party with these internet phenomena, but it’s still worth pointing out. What’s neatest to me is the support for public forums and groups, and the ways that people are using them. Those networking sites like Friendster and Orkut are neat for the first couple of days, but after you settle all your “hey, that friend knows that friend! Small world!” incidents, it’s pretty useless. They try to create “communities,” but it just ends up being “so you like ‘Mr. Show’ too? Cool.” followed by awkward silence. And silences between internet geeks are the most awkward silences of them all.

The flickr people have realized that you can’t just facilitate people’s getting together, you’ve got to give them something to do. And, what’s most surprising to me, people have actually picked it up and run with it. What with this being the internets, there are of course the predictable “look at me naked” and “hey u live in sf too thats cool!!!1!” groups, but most of the ones I’ve found have been surprisingly clever and creative. Usually when you give a ton of people on the internets the chance to be creative, they don’t do much other than reaffirm the idea that 99% of everything is crap. But at least on the groups I’ve seen, people stay on topic or with the theme — “Tiki culture,” “Route 66,” “Most photographed landmarks,” “What your world looks like at 5:00” — and it ends up being pretty cool.

I’m actually encouraged to take pictures again. And just for their own sake, not to be “artistic” or as part of some larger project or some special event, but just because it’s pretty fun. An internet creativity experiment that actually encourages people to be creative; I never would’ve thought it possible.

I realize that I could use my RAZR to post on Flickr, but at that point I’d be turning into one of those guys who always talks about moblogging and geocaching and uses the term “blogosphere” non-ironically and refers to himself by his online handle. And SolGrundy don’t play that, yo.

Disney shows some balls

I just read that Disney is actually releasing Pom Poko on DVD in the US next week! This is my favorite Studio Ghibli movie and in fact one of my favorite movies, but I assumed that since Disney owned the US rights, we’d never, ever, not in a million years, no way no how, ever see a US release.

One of the reasons I like the movie so much is that it was my first exposure to an entire section of Japanese folklore. Before seeing Pom Poko, I’d never heard of tanuki. (Actually, it turns out I had, but I’d never made the connection.) But the “problem,” as far as Disney’s concerned, is that tanuki are always depicted as having huge testicles, and in the folklore it’s the source of their power. It’s non-sexual, or at least more a symbol of fertility than sexuality, but to Americans (myself included), the first reaction is always, “Whoa, check out the ball sack on that raccoon!”

Which is why I thought that once Disney bought the US release rights to all Studio Ghibli movies, we’d never see an American release of Pom Poko. It’s not just a case of how the characters are drawn, either; it’s actually the source of a couple of major plot points — one group of tanuki attack a police group using their scrotums, and another wise old tanuki turns his into a giant sailing ship. So Disney was left with the option of either going in and heavily editing the movie, or not releasing it at all. Since it’s a relatively obscure movie even among anime fans, I can’t imagine the money they’d make from the release would warrant the time and effort it’d take to edit it so heavily.

I haven’t seen it yet, obviously, so they could’ve turned the movie into a eunuch. But I’m encouraged by this interview with the translators, which suggests that they got around the concerns simply by translating “scrotum” as “pouch.” We’ll see.

And although I realize I’ve spent the entire post so far talking about testicles, the point is that it would be a shame to see it edited because it’s relevant to the folklore but such an inconsequential aspect of the movie overall. The real reason I love the movie so much is because it gets its message across so perfectly. It’s mostly an environmental message, like many Studio Ghibli movies, but it’s not reduced to platitudes or schmaltzy symbolism. It has talking animals throughout, but like Watership Down, they stay true to their nature. They’re not just furry stand-ins for humans, they’re really animals.

Or at least, they’re really animals as the traditional folklore portrays them. Tanuki are fun-loving tricksters, and they have difficulty fighting against the humans destroying their mountain specifically because it’s not in their nature to take anything too seriously. When they try to fight back on the humans’ terms, they fail. When they’re in hiding and the humans try to call them out by singing the traditional children’s song, the tanuki can’t help but sing back. And more importantly, when they try to deny their true nature and blend in with the humans, they lose the essence of themselves. I’m sure that it has something to do with the fact I was working for EA the first time I saw it, but the ending never fails to make me start tearing up, every time I see it.

Beats All You Ever Saw

So as I mentioned, I saw The Dukes of Hazzard movie, and it was dumb enough to warrant its own post. Seriously, this is an aggressively stupid movie. Pretty harmless overall, but damn is it stupid. But then, that makes it a near perfect movie version of “The Dukes of Hazzard” TV show. It’s less like the show and more like a cross betwen Super Troopers, “Jack-ass,” and NASCAR.

You’ve got to give some credit to the movie for making the characters real rednecks, not the pasteurized family-friendly pretty boys of the TV show (and for that matter, the Smokey and the Bandit/CB Radio crap that the TV show was trying to capitalize). The guys in this movie are way under-educated, they don’t shave, they say “sumbitch” and “shit” and “yeehaw” a lot, and they like drivin’ fast and blowin’ shit up just for the hell of it. And credit the movie for taking people that would be pretty gross and scary if you ever met them in real life and making them seem pretty harmless.

I read an interview with jessica Simpson where she was concerned about her performance and worried if she could pull it off; I don’t know where the hell that came from. She’s awful in it as an actress, but she’s not really there for her acting. And so that works — she’s astoundingly hot. Impossibly so — she crosses that line of “so hot she doesn’t seem real,” like Catherine Zeta-Jones, and then comes back around to just being hot again.

As for the guys, Stiffler as Bo is pretty much redneck Stiffler with a chia beard and his weird Neanderthal grin the whole time. Johnny Knoxville I hate to say anything about, because it’d just be saying the same thing as all those reviews and interviews that always get written about him. He’s just got charisma, there’s no other way to put it. You may not want to like him, but you do. He doesn’t hog the camera and grab for attention, he doesn’t play it too earnest or too goofy, he never seems like he’s outside the movie making fun of it — no matter what happens, he’s right in the thick of it, and he makes it seem tolerable. Whether it’s blowing stuff up with flaming arrows, being dragged around the back of a truck, making fun of blacks and Japanese people and gay guys, or listening to Willie Nelson tell stupid jokes.

Nobody else really works so well. Because of the director whose name I can’t spell and it’s not worth looking up, you get lots of Broken Lizard alumni, and a fair amount of pot-smoking. Willie Nelson had some influence on that too, I’m sure. They did stunt casting for a lot of the parts, but the biggest side parts like Roscoe and the creepy guy “Sheev” were given to Broken Lizard guys, who just aren’t memorable. And the director also drives home that this is supposed to be a movie by guys for guys — they’re going for the Spike TV audience big time.

Other things you’ve got to give it credit for: actually setting it in Georgia, acknowledging that Atlanta and rural GA might as well be two separate countries (although I don’t know why they went all the way to Atlanta for a university when they could’ve just driven to Athens), acknowledging that the Confederate flag on the top of the General Lee can be offensive to both blacks and whites without making too big a show of it, good use of narration (although of course without Waylon Jennings, sadly), and casting Joe Don Baker. Other stuff that doesn’t work: Lynda Carter, Willie Nelson, Burt Reynolds who just comes off as creepy and slimy but not in the endearing way you’re supposed to feel about Boss Hogg, and casting Joe Don Baker.

And it just occurred to me that I put more effort into writing about this movie than they probably spent writing the movie itself. It’s not even as if I’ve got much nostalgia for GA or the Dukes of Hazzard anymore.

Joims!

I’d planned on skipping War of the Worlds until it came out on DVD, or at least until I was watching it with someone else. But I was in Japan Town for dinner, one thing led to another, and I caught the late show.

I think Mr. Spielberg has been reading my blog, and I’m sorry I was so hard on the guy. The movie is relatively schmaltz-free, the music is understated, the reaction shots appropriate, and the cast can actually act. Dakota Fanning is just scary good; child stars are not supposed to be able to act that well. (Go Conyers!) And there are even scenes with Tom Cruise and Tim Robbins in them, together, and you don’t want to claw out your eyes or run screaming from the theater. That’s saying quite a bit. It’s pretty much exactly what I asked for — the tense and memorable action scenes that Spielberg is really good at, without the schmaltz and the neat & tidy message.

But man, is the result bleak. I mean, sure, the source material is pretty bleak, and when you do it as realistically as you can manage instead of having a layer of 50’s sci-fi irony on top of it, this is what you get. The reviews I’ve seen all keep saying “intense” and “relentless,” and that’s accurate. This is an old-school horror movie, from when people understood that “horror” meant less gore and cheap surprises, and more horrible things happening to people for no reason and they can’t figure out why or how to stop it. Imagine the T. Rex scene from Jurassic Park with better child actors and no goofy toilet gag, then repeat that for two hours.

So it ends up being very well-done, but kind of hollow. Spectacular effects and full-to-bursting with memorable scenes, but without any real depth to make it resonate. And I think that’s not the fault of the director, or the screenwriter, or any of the actors, but just that that’s as much as anyone could possibly get out of the source material. Adding a “life lesson” more blatant than the “don’t get too cocky, mankind” that’s already in there, would’ve come across as trite.

Instead, they decided to go as realistic as they could manage — no clumsy exposition (the narration just gave it a 50’s sci-fi feel, and was appropriate), no sudden epiphanies or life lessons, no gearing-up-for-the-big-battle, just random death, destruction, and confusion. You’ve got to give them kudos for that. (And kudos for having the leads of the 1953 movie show up in cameos). It ends up being pretty upsetting; when the attacks first start, both the kids ask if it’s “terrorists,” which gives he movie some relevance and makes life outside the theater seem even more dark and pointless.

Also, I’m pretty sure someone involved in the production has played Half-Life 2. Obviously they both use the same source material, but a lot of the scenes in the movie are like a live-action version of the game, with all the weapons to fight back removed. I thought it was neat.

Plus they showed a trailer for Peter Jackson’s King Kong before the movie. I’m going to watch the hell out of that movie. It just looks damn cool.

Spoilers for War of the Worlds after the link…
Continue reading “Joims!”

Internet Movie Fun Special Friendship Society

I signed up for Netflix again, because I needed another monthly expense and a source of meaningless consumerist stress and deadlines. They were very happy to see me back, and they had my queue and my friends list waiting for me and everything.

And that’s the thing. I’ve got one Netflix friend and that’s fine, but it’s just… I want more. Partly because my friends list looks skimpy and sad, and partly because all his movies are, how do I say it?, kinda Frenchy. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just gotta wonder why you hate America so much.) And mostly because I’m just curious to see what other people have in their queues.

So if you know my e-mail address, and you’ve got a Netflix account, see if you can add me to your friends list. If you’re on Netflix but don’t know my e-mail or don’t know what I’m talking about, then send me your address and I’ll get you on my list. And if you’re on Netflix and know my e-mail but don’t want to be on my list, then fine. Screw you.

It’s a UNIX system. I know this!

I found a copy of Jurassic Park for ten bucks today, so I picked it up, thinking what a great deal I’d gotten. What I’d forgotten, though, was: 1) the movie’s 12 years old at this point (it was released in 1993!), so it’s been relegated to “classics” pricing, and 2) it’s really not very good.

Maybe that’s not fair. I mean, there’s the fact that it was written by the evil Michael Crichton, and then there’s the blatant anti-dinosaur bias. And based on how much he delights in watching them suffer, it’s clear that Spielberg hates children almost much as he hates Dennis Weaver. But overall, it’s fine for what it is: a Steven Spielberg movie.

That’s not supposed to be as condescending as it sounds (as if Mr. Spielberg were all that upset about my opinion anyway) — dude made Raiders of the Lost Ark, after all. It just means that it has all the stuff he’s great at: pacing, tension, clear and understandable plots, incorporating effects without making them seem soulless, and memorable action sequences that are excellently choreographed.

It also means that it has all the stuff that he thinks he’s good at, but really just comes across as cloying and smarmy: interminably long and overdone reaction shots, obnoxiously swelling soundtracks, and plenty of scenes clearly intended to be clever, such as the T. Rex and the “When Dinosaurs Ruled the World” banner.

I’d forgotten about Spielberg ever since he tried to reinvent himself as a Serious Director with Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (I have to admt I haven’t seen either), but there’s still something about the guy that bugs me. The scene with the T. Rex attacking the jeeps at night is just unqualified brilliance. Even if the whole rest of the movie consisted of nothing more than grandparents and kids giving warm, knowing glances at each other while using the magic of love and a child’s imagination to bring a dying dinosaur back to life to a heartwarming John Williams soundtrack, the T. Rex scene would be awesome. As I remember, even The Lost World, a much, much worse movie, had a pretty bad-ass scene with a Winnebago falling off a cliff or some such. So the man’s capable of stuff which is just flat-out great.

So how does one explain the rest of it? Or in other words: from whence Short Round? Does the man really and truly believe that wacky and heartwarming ethnic sidekicks, or racially diverse little girls doing gymnastics to fight off velociraptors, are what’s required to give an action movie “heart?” When he’s got the little girl contorting her face in ways that just aren’t natural, and he keeps directing her “More! Really really big dinosaur! It’s going to bite you in half! And your parents will abandon you because you’re ugly! You’re more scared!” does he sincerely believe that this is what’s necessary to convey genuine emotion on the screen? Or is he the most pandering and money-minded son of a bitch on the planet, hobbling his talent to make something that he knows will sell to Middle America and gross 200 million instead of just 50?

And that, my friends, is why the internets is a great thing — blogs make it possible to bring you the freshest of movie reviews to the comfort of your home. Y’all may be saying to yourself, “Steven Spielberg movies can be cloying and pandering; yeah, thanks for the newsflash, Chuck.” But don’t think that the threat is over. War of the Worlds is coming out soon, and it’s got not only Tom Cruise but Dakota Fanning. Dakota Fanning, an up-and-coming child star who by all accounts can actually act. (And she’s from my hometown, by the way). And Jurassic Park IV is in the works!

Well, I suppose I could talk about Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but there’s not a whole lot to say. Angelina Jolie is incredibly hot, smart, funny, and just plain appealing, and I usually don’t like her. Brad Pitt is competent but basically a cipher. The movie is a lot smarter than it looks like from the ads, and it was a lot of fun to watch.

Not if anything to say about it I have!

I saw Revenge of the Sith Monday night, so I guess Star Wars is officially over. And I guess it was a pretty good send-off. The theater was more crowded than you’d expect to see on a Monday night, if not as crowded as you’d expect to see on the week of a new Star Wars movie. The crowd clapped for the Lucasfilm logo and the opening crawl, and again for particularly satisfying deaths and fight scenes. It seemed as if they were clapping to build up their enthusiasm instead of out of genuine enthusiasm, but it’s the same idea.

I’ve got two big “event movie” memories: one was waiting in line for four or five hours to see The Empire Strikes Back at Phipps Plaza in Atlanta, the only theater that was showing it, on its opening night. All thoughout the movie, there was no question that this was A Major Event. During the opening crawl, during big fight scenes, whenever a main character appeared on-screen for the first time, there was applause and cheering. Whenever Vader made an appearance, there were jeers and booing. During the big revelation, there were genuine gasps from everyone. No one was thinking about Joseph Campbell, or the demise of the art film in favor of commercial summer blockbusters, or merchandising deals, or implied racism, or any of the layers of irony and distance we’re supposed to look at Star Wars with now. Everyone was just there to get caught up in the spectacle and melodrama and wonder of it all, and it all just worked.

The second memory was of seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark at the Tate Center student theater at UGA; it wasn’t released on video yet, so this was the first time any of us had seen it since its original release. The theater was packed, and you got the same reaction from all the self-important, jaded college students. People cheered for Indiana Jones, hissed at the villains, laughed, applauded, and just enjoyed the thrill of seeing a classic action movie. The audience was used to big summer blockbusters by that point, and knew the movie inside and out, and of course as a college crowd was watching it with some since of liberal over-analysis and ironic detachment. But it still just worked.

It’s pretty much impossible to get that from a Star Wars release anymore; it’s been ruined not just by George Lucas himself, but by decades of over-analysis, artificially high expectations, over-familiarity, accusations of plagiarism or shallowness or whatever else people want to throw at it, and just age. There wasn’t so much a sense of wonder out of seeing Revenge of the Sith as there was a sense of inevitability, or of closure. It was just a case of wrapping everything up. “We’ve got to end a war, start an empire, have a bunch of lightsaber battles, kill a bunch of Jedi, get this guy into a respirator suit, and get these babies off to their respective home planets, all in about 2 hours. Let’s move, people!”

Still, while it didn’t manage to have the resonance or wonder that the original trilogy did, it did deliver on the spectacle. It was better than the first two, by far. But at this point, that feels like describing lessening gallstone symptoms to a doctor. It sounds like damning with faint praise to say that “there was nothing in the movie that outright sucked,” but with the Star Wars movies, the quality of the effects and the depth of the world has never been in question. So not sucking is a pretty big achievement. I’d say that Revenge of the Sith is good enough that it’s not a closer to the first three episodes, but it stands as a good prequel to the original trilogy.

In fact, it makes me wish that Lucas had just made the one movie as a prologue, and left all the Clone Wars and Fall of the Republic stuff to other people, like Genndy Tartakovsky. Where Revenge of the Sith really excelled was where it was like the Clone Wars animated series — minimal dialogue, minimal back-story, quick cuts between action scenes all across the galaxy. And maybe most importantly, staying true to the nature of the old serials on which the whole thing is supposedly based, where heroes and villains became resonant not by virtue of what they say but by how they look and what they do. The coolest characters are the ones with the least back-story and the least dialogue, from Boba Fett to Darth Maul to Count Dooku and General Grievous. And Darth Vader was a more interesting character in the first 15 minutes of Star Wars than he was in any of the six hours of Episodes I, II, and III.

But you could spend hours talking about what Lucas could’ve done with the prequels, which is something people are doing all over the internet and will most likely keep doing to a depressing degree. So I’ll just write my one recommendation: if you start the opening crawl with “War!” then you really should follow it with “Huh! Good God!”