Field Trip

Konnichi-wa!Because, apparently, I’m a moron, I decided to start watching Battle Royale at around 1 AM tonight. So tonight I can’t blame the insomnia on anybody else. Baka!

I’d been hearing about this movie for years, and I was actually afraid to watch it. The premise — Lord of the Flies meets “Survivor,” where a class of junior high kids are sent to a deserted island to participate in a government-mandated “game” where they all kill each other — could either be brutal satire or an exploitative hyper-violent action thriller. Either way, it was likely to be gruesome. And everyone who mentioned the movie prefaced it by going on about how violent it is.
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James Van Der Beek and them sisters from “Sister, Sister”

The title is from Mike Doughty’s song “Busting Up a Starbucks”. If I’m interpreting it correctly, the song’s about impotent outrage at “corporate culture,” pop culture in particular. So at least for the rest of this post, that’s exactly what it’s about.

And what a coincidence, because that’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Granted, the whole “high art vs. low art” debate is nothing new, but either I haven’t been paying attention, or within the last decade or so it’s taken a really nasty political turn.

Used to be it was just about intelligence and coolness. So the small nugget inside me which remains in denial and full of hope that I might one day be Cool, forces me to treat everything I like as a guilty pleasure. And I play Diablo while making fun of Dungeons and Dragons. Or I obsess over “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” while mocking both the ones who write fan-fics as “losers” and the ones who write academic books in defense of the show as trying too hard to justify their obsessions. Or I get teary-eyed at the Main Street Electrical Parade while complaining about empty spectacle and meaningless entertainment. I’m not sure exactly why those of us in the nerd and geek communities are so desperate to simultaneously knock down and defend the things we love, but it probably is due to this fantasy we all have of taking off our glasses and showing up for the Big Dance as the coolest kids in the whole school.

But now, to maintain my status as a Well-Mannered, Responsible Liberal, I have to rail against all of it because it’s all the work of the Huge Soul-Crushing Media Companies. Two of which have been my employers, making it even more difficult. Has there always been this gross, simplistic, nasty political tone to it all, or is that a recent partisan development? I mean, I’ve heard simple-minded people shout “television is the opiate of the masses!” and “corporate rock sucks!” and various complaints about media conglomerates and how “indie” automatically equals “better.” And of course I’ve heard plenty of people talk about Disney as if there’s a cabal of Eisner-led liches in Burbank strangling kittens and southeast Asian factory-worker children and using their blood to make pentagrams. (Which of course there isn’t, and I haven’t seen it.)

But now the accusation is that enjoying pop culture means you’re complicit in evil — EEEEEVIL! — for giving money to these horrible companies that you’re just too stupid to see through. We’ve been so indoctrinated with the philosophy that Big Corporations are Bad that it’s gotten mixed in with the high art/low art debate and become yet another way to polarize everyone. Every company larger than 200 employees is now Standard Oil, and there’s no such thing as a good corporation. Our only recourse is to boycott the media, buy organic, and if we must watch films, they should have Parker Posey in them or be directed by Europeans or Canadians. To do otherwise is no longer just stupid, it’s wrong.

Either people are getting more stupid and simple-minded, or the stupid people are getting more vocal, or I’m getting more moderate in my advancing years. I remember back around the time of the Exxon Valdez disaster, and how self-satisfied I was for boycotting the company; it made me feel as if I were really doing something. And it pains me to realize now that in spite of all the comic books and videogames, I grew up, and realized that it’s not about me and my petty grabs at being important for making meaningful choices against a cruel world. That instead, it’s a huge number of people all trying to make meaningful choices, and frequently making mistakes.

It’s comforting to be able to pick out the villains like Kenneth Lay and put a face to the huge, nebulous injustice, but I suspect that the reality is even more depressing. I believe the reality is that there are indeed many outright self-serving bastards trying to screw everyone else, but they’re outnumbered by the people who are really trying to make a difference (in the case of entertainment, to be creative) but impeded by the sheer size of the machine and its layers of bureaucracy. And all of them are far outnumbered by the people who just really don’t give a damn, but are only trying not to get fired.

As for the song: even if I’m completely off about my interpretation, it’s still a catchy song and a great turn of phrase. You can listen to it on his official site if you’re into that sort of thing.

And while I’m writing, my favorite line from the album is “You snooze you lose, well I snost and lost.”

By the way, Doughty’s in San Francisco September 30th and October 1st, playing at The Independent which is stumbling distance from my apartment. Who wants to go with me?

Angelias

Alias Season 3 CastI had another bout with insomnia last night, even after “helping” Alex move, and then drinking a whole lot of beer, the two things that should guarantee I fall asleep immediately. So what that means is that I finished another four episodes of “Alias,” and there’s just two discs left in Season 3.

At this point in the series, it’s reminding me a lot of the TV series “Angel.” Not in the content or the tone, but in how I’m responding to it. “Angel” is my quintessential love/hate TV series — there were so many characters and plotlines that I just despised, and which annoyed me enough to just give up on the show over and over again. But when they did well, it was some of the best television ever made.

They had the lame “lawyers are really evil” and “LA is really phony” gags that they just never put to rest, and they had some really loathesome characters that were supposed to be sympathetic, like Lorne the demon guy and Angel’s son. But then they’d have a killer storyline like the one where Faith came back and had more depth to her character in those two episodes than in an entire year of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Or the whole fourth season of “Angel,” where they had basically written themselves into a corner and had to cover up a pregnancy, but came out of it with a great season arc that all fit together and had episodes which were genuinely scary (and I didn’t think TV could scare me anymore).

And season three of “Alias” is kind of like that. Most of it just shatters all the “I know it’s implausible and over the top, but it’s supposed to be” good-will I’d built up. All the plot twists and change-ups and revealed secrets just seem like bored writers in afternoon meetings, moving characters around on a grid without even trying to come up with real motivations for them. The characters have gone from being two-dimensional but lovable, to one-and-a-half-dimensional and so boring that even they seem to be bored with what they’re doing. Here’s yet another scene where Jack breaks the rules to save his daughter. Here’s another scene where Dixon encounters somebody behind bars and vows vengeance. Here’s one more scene where Sydney shows teary-eyed determination. Here’s still yet another girlfight with the evil Allison Doren (who got an extraordinarily anti-climactic send-off). I’m still fine with being earnest, but that will only take you so far if you don’t have an engrossing story to back it up.

And the big villain of the season was so completely obvious from scene one, that I can’t tell whether or not the reveal was supposed to be a surprise. There are still two discs left, and I’m sure that they’ve got more plot twists to throw at the story, but so far it’s been a real yawner. (Although I will say that as soon as she started playing evil, she became 1000 times sexier. What that says about me, I don’t know and don’t want to think about.) And granted, the whole bit about Sydney’s missing two years was getting stale, but instead of throwing in some twists to make it interesting, they just blew their wad and explained the whole thing away.

So that’s the hate; where’s the love? Well, this is also the season where they really got the big budgets, it looks like, and they’d built up enough reputation to attract even bigger-name guest stars. And they had the freedom to do interesting stuff that didn’t quite fit in with the formula. Like the episode with Ricky Gervais as an IRA bomber: pretty neat. And the one with David Cronenberg as the doctor who sent Sydney on that whole dream-sequence episode: very, very neat. And Isabella Rosselini as the superspy that helps Jack: pretty lame episode overall, but she gave a great performance, even though she looks even more uncannily like David Foley in drag the older she gets.

I’m still unspoiled for the rest of this season, so I have no idea what the big cliff-hanger is going to be. And considering that the next season isn’t available on DVD until mid-October, I’m actually going to have to wait to see the resolution of this cliff-hanger. It’ll be interesting to see how long I can hold out before begging people to tell me what happens in season four.

After Life

Pete's DragonA couple weeks ago I was threatened by my friend Matt to reconsider my opinion of the videogame Resident Evil 4, or I couldn’t be friends anymore. Well, I re-tried the game and I still don’t like it. I don’t like shooting games without a mouse, anyway, so I was already annoyed. And when the villagers pushed a boulder on top of me, and the only way I could escape was by furiously pushing the A button like a monkey, I completely lost interest.

So in a desperate attempt to save our crumbling friendship, I rented the movie After Life from Netflix, and finally watched it last night to take a break from putting off the work I wasn’t doing. A few years ago, Matt had recommended the movie to me, but I could never find it.

It’s a neat movie. The premise is that after you die, you choose one memory from your life to take with you for eternity. It’s filmed like an indie movie, but doesn’t fall into all the pretentious traps that indie movies usually wallow in. It’s not overly obscure in order to hide the fact that it’s not really saying anything, and it also doesn’t have a single message you’re supposed to take away from the movie once you get past all the symbolism. Instead, it does what an “art film” is theoretically supposed to do: present an idea and let you make your own conclusions about it.

There’s enough of a plot — concerning the counselors who help the recently deceased choose their memory and then recreate it — to show different takes on the central question and to raise more questions about what exactly it is we’re supposed to be doing with our lives. But they’re presented as different ways people would answer those questions for themselves, not as an attempt to give The One True Answer. It avoids getting over-sentimental or relying on effects or gimmicks, presenting everything as completetly straightforward; it could be mistaken for a documentary, if filmmakers had unrestricted access to the afterlife clearing house. And as a result, the images are even more powerful — instead of relying on special effects, the movie depends on your own memories and how you form them and see them in your own mind.

But of course, you’re left asking yourself the same question: what memory would you choose, if you chose one at all?

My first thought was that it would be the first time I saw the Main Street Electrical Parade at Disney World with my family. I have such a strong memory of that, of being safe, protected, amazed by the spectacle of it, and being overwhelmingly happy. And of course, not long after I thought that, the movie showed one of the recently deceased choosing a memory of Disneyland, and the counselor telling her that all the teenage girls do that (ouch!) and helping her pick a better memory.

And after that, well, I’m stumped. I don’t have a single memory that incorporates all my friends and family, and they’re too important not to take with me. I need to either have all my friends together to do something ridiculously fun, or else get used to the idea of being a counselor.

The Importance of Being Earnest (About “Alias”)

What’s wrong with me? I forgot to talk about “Alias” some more.

I watched the last episode of Season 2 last night. The big surprises from the Season 2 ending were already spoiled for me, so I didn’t get as big a shock as the first-time viewers. But I’ve got to say: even though I knew it was coming, that was one hell of a fight. I guess graduate students can only afford apartments made out of balsa wood. I’d heard about the big cliff-hanger/twist as well, so that wasn’t a shocker; I was just waiting to see how they actually did it.

Everything from here on out to the zombies is still spoiler-free for me, so I’m waiting to see what they do with Season 3. I’ve heard varying reports on teh internets. Netflix will show me the way, since I’ve already got the first disc queued up.

With these shows that I’ve gotten obsessed over in the past (“Buffy” and “X-Files”), they’ve always had episodes where it seems as if they’ve painted themselves into a corner, and then magically turned it all around to reveal a whole new room. “Alias” takes more of the brute-force approach — they paint themselves into a corner, and then demolish the house. But it keeps moving; you’ve got to give them that.

Another thing I noticed about “Alias” after watching the bonus features and commentary (since there were only 2 episodes on the last disc, I had to watch something): it’s really hard for me to maintain a healthy cynical detachment from this show. I realize that the show is formulaic and filled with ridiculous contrivances and plot-twists, but they all realize that, too. It doesn’t matter. It’s like a roller coaster — if you keep telling yourself it’s fake and there’s no way you can get hurt, it sucks all the fun out of it.

There was a bit of an interview with Jennifer Garner on there, where she said that during the filming of the finale she kept crying in between takes because she felt so bad for Sydney Bristow and what she was going through. She said, “I mean, I know that she’s a fictional character of course, but she’s real to me.” That’s the key to the whole show. You can either roll your eyes at that, or you can take it at face value and play along.

They’re all so dead earnest about the show, which is why you can hear about double- and triple-agents and ridiculous plot contrivances and DNA strands and retinal scans and not be distracted by the absurdity of it all. And you can really think things like, “Man, how bad would that feel to have your mother who you thought was dead but actually turned out to be a double-agent spying on your dad who was also a double-agent and now she’s stabbing you with a cattle prod because she’s working with the man who killed your fiance in order to steal ancient super-powerful artifacts that grant immortality? That would really suck!”

And because they’re so dead earnest about it, I actually liked watching the blooper reel, which I normally despise. It’s just fun to see them all get to smile for once. And I got a kick out of watching the rest of the promotional stuff, even though I know it’s all just marketed and manufactured to be a star vehicle for Jennifer Garner and show star-struck brainless TV-watching masses just how charming she is. But dammit, she is charming!

I’ve been tired of irony for a while now — everything trying to be all self-referential and “dark and edgy.” I’m getting a kick out of seeing something that just says, “Yes. We have zombies.” And they’re not afraid of looking stupid, and they’re not saying it’s some joke or a metaphor for something “deeper.”

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.

I call foul!

Hooooooooooooooooooooly crap!

I just finished watching the first episode on “Alias”, Season 2, Disc 4. There’s only one other time I can remember that I felt compelled to yell back at the screen during a TV show, and that was an episode of “Twin Peaks” where Bob crawls out from behind a planter in the Palmer living room. The only thing that kept me from screaming back “oh hell no you didn’t just do that” at the last 5 minutes of this episode is that I started watching it at 1 AM and I got neighbors. (Plus, I’m a suburban white guy, so I shouldn’t be saying that kind of thing anyway).

I know I said they don’t like to drag out plot lines, and instead just throw everything at you at once, but this is crazy!

Everything after this is a big SPOILER for “Alias,” so stop reading if you haven’t been watching the show and think you might want to at some point.
Continue reading “I call foul!”

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.