Thursday, February 28, 2013

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

...yeah, I'm not going to bother reviewing this one. It's a stone cold classic. On the Wicker Scale it's right at the top. I mean, for Christ's sake, it's fucking Stanley Kubrick! It's one of the most influential movies ever, decades ahead of it's time. Even if you've never seen it you know everything in it. The opening with the monkeys, the monolith, HAL 9000, Also sprach Zarathustra, the starchild, it's all iconic. You don't need some punk kid with a blog to tell you that this is one of the greatest movies ever made. So yeah, this isn't a review or anything. I just wanted to talk about one scene. 

I first saw this movie when I was in high school and of course it was all lost on me. As somebody who, at the time, thought the headiest movie ever made was V for Vendetta it was probably a tall order to expect me to really get such a slow and complex movie. Jump to the present day. I'm in the middle of a Kubrick kick right now so I thought hey, how about giving this one another chance? Let me tell you friend, it blew me away. An absolute masterpiece in every way. Yet I was wondering, besides just being too young to appreciate it, why I flat out didn't like it. I saw a lot of movies before I was able to really get them, like On The Waterfront and The Shining, yet even if I didn't understand what they were trying to say thematically I still appreciated them as movies. 

2001: A Space Odyssey is different though. In a lot of ways, this movie breaks the boundaries of what we expect from a film and even from a story. In fact, if you aren't looking at this movie from a relatively scholarly point of view, it's going to be confusing to see what all the fuss is about. The story not only doesn't have a protagonist in the traditional sense, but also spans over thousands of years with little to no emotional stakes holding it together. The only characters who the audience really gets a feel for are Dave and HAL 9000, the onboard computer. Which is perhaps why his "death" is so heartbreaking.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Doogal (2006)

I honestly can say I don't think I have ever seen a movie like Doogal. In a way I've seen Doogal a million times before even knowing about it's existence because it truly is the defacto representative of a decade's worth of lazy cheap CGI animated movies put into one nice little package. It's a crappy looking movie voiced by actors who clearly lost a bet with Harvey Wienstien at some point. It's not particularly funny, with most of it's humor coming from obvious pop culture references and farting. It's not emotional in any way, in fact it's perhaps one of the most cynically made kids movie out there. It doesn't even really manage to make any sense whatsoever.

And yet, in it's own special way, Doogal is really fascinating. I don't think I've ever seen a movie that could possible give less of a fuck about, well, anything. Even the most blatant and obvious cash-grabs have some sort of effort put in by somebody along the line, but this? Nothing, nothing at all. It's not a so-bad-it's-funny movie. It's barely a movie. It's closer to being Wizard People, Dear Reader then it is a movie. Because I'm not reviewing The Magic Roundabout, the European animated film that was released a year before which just so happened to feature the same visuals as today's movie. No, I'm talking about Doogal, the American dub of said film that is so disconnected from what's on screen that it may as well be Brad Neely narrating it for us.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (Seasons 3)

As we discussed the other day, the unexpected quality programming of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic can be attributed to it's strong emphasis on character. It's cute and likable cast combined with it's abilities to tell simple, light morality tales helped raise it's status from 22 min toy commercial to critical darling. I really can't overstate how much the clear, strong personalities of not only the main cast but many of the ancillary characters made the show what it is, allowing the audience a chance to look at the different sides of these ponies. It sounds silly to those who haven't watched it, and maybe silly to some who have, but even when you're characters are candy colored horses it's possible to make them rounded, exploring multiple sides of their personalities and create fun scenarios for them to play out.

And then they forgot to do that.

Watching season 3 of MLP:FiM is like watching somebody who's going through an identity crisis. At some point in time the show's staff must have gotten this letter saying "MAKE THIS MORE EPIC" because good lord it's trying too hard to do so. With a 13 episode order, this season is the shortest one the show has done yet, and trust me that's a good thing. There must have been something going on behind the scenes. I don't know if it was creative problems, (Creator Lauren Faust had left the show halfway through season 2, so I'm not sure who took over the reigns after that,) a lack of time, pressure from Hasbro, pressure from a very vocal fanbase, or all of the above. The only thing I do know is that this season is definitely the most inconsistent that the show has done to this point.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (Seasons 1 & 2)

Children's entertainment is graded on a different curve from adult media, for obvious reasons. For parents the main criteria of a "good" kids show is something along the lines of "will my kid like this"? It makes sense that when evaluating a movie or TV show aimed at a very specific demographic the first and foremost characteristic to look out for is at such a basic level. That's why for years people considered kids media to be critic proof. Who cares what some dusty old critic thinks about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Care Bears? It's for kids and, therefore, out of sight and mind for adults.

This dynamic has been changing in recent years. Now, a kids show doesn't have to be seen purely on the most superficial indicator of quality out there. These pieces of entertainment can cross the generational gap, both entertaining children and engaging adults. Movies like the Toy Story trilogy, Wreck-It Ralph, and Coraline are not only blockbusters for the younger set but also beloved by adults. TV shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Adventure Time, and Gravity Falls show that a kids show doesn't just have to shut up the tykes for half an hour, but can even go deeper then that, blurring the lines between the typical "good vs. evil" struggle present in most mass media and touching onto humanism themes.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is right in between the older and newer views on kids entertainment. It's not a deep show by any means. Pretty much everything it has to say is right there on the surface, a chipper optimistic little cartoon about getting along with your friends. Yet the first two seasons of the show did manage to be engaging to those beyond it's immediate target audience of preschool girls. It does this being cute without being cloying, mixing solid character development with fun, if simple, animation and positive themes for an often overlooked demographic in this kind of new, smarter kids programming; girls.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Wizard People, Dear Reader (2004)

Ragtime Roast Beefy O'Weefy
Art knows no copyright. This isn't an advocacy for pirating or anything like that, because at the end of the day the guy who made your movie has to eat. But how much it costs to purchase a piece of media has nothing to do with the end result. The films of Kenneth Anger, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, and this year's Sundance hit Escape From Tomorrow (which holy cow I want to see so badly) don't have their artistic value stripped away from them simply because they didn't pay for the rights of a song or show Mickey Mouse without asking Disney first.

This is probably a strange tangent to take before discussing what's basically a guy talking over Harry Potter with a funny voice. Calling Wizard People, Dear Reader art is a stretch in of itself. In it's own way, though, Brad Neely's alternative audio track to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a pretty good example of remix art. By presenting his own take on this major Hollywood entity, Neely transforms Chris Columbus' bland paint-by-numbers entity into a separate creature, a tale of a hard drinking, hard fighting 11 year old who, with his companions Ronnie the Bear and the Wreched Harmony, battle against his Dracula father. It's also possibly the funniest thing to ever come out of the internet.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Where The Wild Things Are (2009)

There must be no harder job in screenwriting then writing for children. When adults write about children they tend to project themselves onto them. We don't see children as people, really. This is especially true in movies, where children are typically either depicted as mini adults or these naive semi-petlike waifs. They are these idealized versions of what we remember of our own childhoods. When looking through those rose-tinted glasses they become very fake. They don't talk like any kid really does. The two children in Jurassic Park are a good example of this, ("It's a UNIX system! I know this!") as are the various Home Alone moppets through the years.

The second hardest job in screenwriting is probably an adaptation. (Something the director of this movie knows quite a bit about.) Though great for producers, who know they have a built in audience, it must be hell for whatever writer is tasked with not only making the story fit into a film structure but at the same time not make fans of the original work come after them for any changes they might make. At the same time, they need to change stuff too in order to make the movie not be a paint-by-numbers retelling of the book. If you do that, you get Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. It gets even harder when the book they ask you to adapt is a picture book, less then 30 pages sometimes. So you're expected to make a movie that's at least an hour and a half long on something that can literally be told within 10 minutes while not changing anything too egregiously lest people who read the book complain. What a nightmare.

In 2009, writer Dave Eggers and director Spike Jonze were asked to do both of these things when they were approached to create a film based off of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book Where The Wild Things Are. Somehow they managed to not only pull this off, but did it incredibly well, taking the skeleton of the story and making it a moody film that manages to be introspective while still feeling kenetic and exciting. It captures both the hyper energetic part of childhood we all vividly remember, yet it also sheds light on the other, less mentioned part of being a kid. That fear of the world around you and that all this might not be around forever.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Cabin Boy (1994)

To paraphrase Oscar Levant, there's a fine line between genius and idiocy. This is especially true in comedy. If you look at a lot of brilliant comedy movies it's so easy to see how they would have failed if something had been juuuuuuuust a little different. If Bill Murray wasn't in Ghostbusters, it would have bombed. If Wet Hot American Summer wasn't played so straight, it wouldn't be nearly as good. It's a tricky line to distinguish sometimes, and it became nearly impossible to track in the 90s and early aughts. For every Wayne's World, you had a Night At The Roxbury. For every Office Space, a Me Myself and Irene.

In their attempts to find that next alt aesthetic to resonate with a mainstream audience, studios basically gave comedy writers a wide berth when it came to their projects. The results were really truly weird. As in "how the hell did anybody green light this" weird. Movies like Pootie Tang, Freddy Got Fingered, and Run Ronnie Run were all made under a variation of this model, and all probably rank up there with the strangest movies Hollywood has ever made. (Tellingly, Pootie Tang and Run Ronnie Run both suffered a lot from studio interference during their editing, showing that the studios got cold feet on this approach to comedy. All three bombed too, which is why you don't really see this stuff anymore.)

Walt Disney, under their Touchstone distribution wing, threw their own hats into the ring on this kind of comedy. The result was Cabin Boy, and it's...distinct. Originally a Tim Burton vehicle intended to be a tribute to Ray Harryhausen epics like Clash of the Titans & Jason and the Argonauts, the movie instead passed on to Adam Resnick and Chris Eliot once Burton left to direct Ed Wood. The Tim Burton connection is important because in a lot of ways the movie is similar to Mars Attacks!, another Burton movie. Both are clearly meant to be cult movies right out of the gate, and both tackle a genre long sedate by the time of their release. But while Mars Attacks! connection to sci-fi B movies is clear, Cabin Boy's is a bit more tangential.