Wednesday, February 24, 2010

David Lynch's Rabbits

What starts off a seemingly innocuous satirical mock-up of a modern sitcom slowly builds up an inexplicable sense of foreboding and dread. The nonsense phrases thrown around seem to gain meaning when you start realizing that questions are being answered before they're asked and conversations are taking place out of order. Laugh tracks play when time is mentioned, and long periods of silence stretch out in between. Vague references to the past creep in after a while. Is this purgatory? Disembodied demonic muttering eventually appears, but even without it, this is more like a dream of hell.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Waking Life (2001) Review

Waking Life (2001) Directed by Richard Linklater

Have you ever been at a party where everyone is stoned and you're the only sober one? That's what watching Waking Life is like. Unless you're fond of listening to quasi-philosophical yammering for an hour and a half, stay away.

That's not to say that it's entirely uninteresting. Lots of ideas about the nature of existence are thrown around in this movie, and some of them begin to show some promise, but before any one can be explored in any real depth, we're off to watch someone else ranting about something else. The ideas are about as deep as something you'd hear in a late-night college dormrooom bullshit session or by attending Philosophy 101 office hours. Take your pick. While the rotoscoped animation provides a little more visual stimulation than we would have had with a traditionally shot film, it doesn't add a whole lot other than being pretty.

Add to this the fact that most of the "conversations" are clearly scripted affairs wherein the characters name-drop philosophers, poets, and authors, and it grows tiresome. People just don't talk like this. Maybe I'm missing the point, but I'd rather get my philosophy from a book with a coherent point rather than in disjointed fragments from a series of animated talking heads. I expected to like this movie, but just found it lacking.

4 / 10

Pros: Kind of interesting at times. Nice animation.
Cons: No discernible point, at least that I could find.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

I Can Do Everything

The End of the World - Part 0: Why?

I have loved post-apocalyptic stories ever since I found When the Tripods Came in the local library as a kid. Imagining myself struggling for survival resonated deeply for some reason, and always has since then. What I liked most when I was young was the sheer grandness of survival. The apocalypse imbues even the most mundane acts and objects with a sense of monstrous importance and immediacy. You might not think much of buying produce at the grocery store, but what if it was the last you would ever eat? What if you had to fight for a can of food? What if gardening wasn't a hobby, but a necessity for life? In a culture of abundance, what's more exciting and terrifying than scarcity? Post-apocalyptic stories recast our everyday world in a new light. Things appear more or less the same on the surface, but all the rules have changed.

I don't think the nature of the apocalypse is really what matters. The point is to reduce society and humanity down to their essence and see how they really function under the ultimate stress test. Modern society and culture too often get in the way of our raw humanity. There's always a veil of expectations drawn in front of us that conceals how we truly think or would choose to behave. How many times a day do you make a decision to do or say something simply because it's the appropriate or expected thing? Remove large-scale society, and you remove the veil. What's underneath are your true feelings.

I also believe that fundamentally, the nature of the apocalypse is irrelevant. Whether it's a plague, a bomb, the undead, natural disasters, or simple societal collapse doesn't really matter. Granted, many stories choose a certain form of destruction for a reason. It's not a coincidence that most of the stories written in the 50's and 60's focused on annihilation by nuclear bomb, and that now we've moved on to plagues and other biohazards. There's a certain amount of commentary that comes along with each individual sub-genre. Zombies can be a metaphor for the perils of consumerism or the fear of society as a whole. Plagues can warn against playing god with biotechnology, or play on the universal fear of illness and bodily deformities. What matters most to me in a story though, is not the means of destruction, but how the characters react to it.

The exception to this is biblical or religious apocalypse stories (such as the Left Behind series). I'd argue that they focus mainly on themes of redemption, and follow a more traditional plot structure, akin to a morality play. It's not that these themes aren't present in other post-apocalypse stories, it's that their function is different. Religious apocalypse stories serve to instruct or warn humanity, while others serve to examine it.

There are different sizes and scales of apocalypses, and different lengths over which they've been examined, but the kind I want to focus on in more detail later on (and probably the kind that is my favorite) is the the "day after" story. In these stories, we see the collapse of society happen and still face the aftermath of the destruction firsthand. It's here that all the key events in its reformation take place. Wait too long and the apocalypse starts to become nothing more than a set piece. While it's interesting to see how society might re-form in full (as in A Canticle for Leibowitz, or in the incredible Liberation), it's the process of immediate reformation that I find most interesting (as in The Stand, or The Death of Grass). It's here that we get to take modern life and subtract society from the equation to see what happens. Maybe this focus is a bit too narrow, but it's where most of the action happens in my mind.

How would I live if the world ended? What would I do? Where would I go? Would I survive? And what would I have to do in order to live? How far would I push myself and my morals in order to ensure that I make it? These are the kinds of questions that I find myself asking when I'm immersed in a post-apocalyptic story, and these are the kinds of questions that I think get to the heart of what it means to be human.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Ninja Assassin (2009) Review

Ninja Assassin (2009) Directed by James McTeigue

Nobody will ever accuse "Ninja Assassin" of false advertising. You pretty much know exactly what you're getting into based on the title. My only questions are these: how does a film titled "Ninja Assassin" manage to take itself so seriously, and how on earth does it manage to fail at what it sets out to do?

The plot is pretty standard fare: an ex-member of a clan of ninjas is being pursued by his clan for deserting them. There's also a completely extraneous subplot about a European police agency tracking down the ninja clans. The "hero" Raito, is played by Rain (a Korean pop star), and as he seeks to take his ex-clan down, we're shown flashbacks of his past and his training at the clan's dojo.

If we were supposed to empathize with Raito due to his harsh upbringing at the dojo, then maybe it would have been wise to leave out scene after scene of him being abused by his sensei. After a very short while, watching children being beaten until they're bloody gets really tiresome. It also makes me certain that the adult Raito has grown up to be an emotionless sociopath. Rather than a likable anti-hero, we're given a creepy blank-faced killer who it's impossible to relate to.

I wanted a fun ninja movie - and granted, parts of this began to approach fun. Some of the battle scenes were decently choreographed for brief instances. One fight involving knives on chains was entertaining, although not significantly more than playing God of War at home. But most battles were blurry and overedited with a more-than-ample amount of CG blood added in to distract you from their faults. It's not the most terrible crime an action movie can commit, but there's absolutely no emotional investment in the battles to make up for their shoddy choreography. There's not a single character in the film we care about, so all the flashy fight scenes in the world don't mean a thing at the end of the day.

If there's one flaw that takes this film down, it's that it takes itself so seriously. There is not a single moment of levity in the entire thing. The dialogue in this film was scraped off the bottom of the barrel, and is peppered with lines like "You have a special heart." "Your heart is strong." "Your heart is weak." It's a shame that a movie seemingly fixated on hearts doesn't have one of its own.

3 / 10

Pros: Mindlessly entertaining at times.
Cons: Takes itself way too seriously to be fun. Not a single likable character.

Tips for North Carolinians from a "Snow Pro"

This weekend, due to some atmospheric fluke, North Carolina (where I happen to reside) fell prey to a rare occurrance - it was snow, ha ha. Several inches fell overnight on Friday. In North Carolina this is called a "statewide emergency." I lived in Minnesota for ten years, and we called this "a good day in April". To be fair, the lack of any sort of snow removal services left the roads pretty dangerous, but there are still some basic things I think everyone should know. I have used my expertise to develop this list of tips for those not quite accustomed to the wintry weather.

1. Your four-wheel-drive truck slides as easily as my Ford Taurus.

Friction doesn't care that you've got testosterone running through your fuel-injection system. Slow down. The surface area of your tires is only slightly greater than that of mine Your tires are made out of the same stuff as mine and unless you've got chains on yours, you're sliding around just as much as me.

2. Don't let your kids sled in the street. Ever.

This weekend my neighborhood turned into a veritable sledding party. Every family in town was out there with their kids sliding around. Lots of fun, except they were all sledding down the street. I know it looks like the street has disappeared! But trust me, it is still there underneath the snow, and my car is driving down it. Anything below bumper level is not likely to be seen by me, especially if it's moving swiftly towards my car.

3. Despite their apparent absence, the lines in the parking lot still exist.

And it is still possible with some moderate amount of geometric reasoning to align your cars in an orderly fashion. Usually you're either parallel or perpendicular to some feature of the landscape, such as a sidewalk, kart korral, or little divider island thing with a tree. If all else fails you can line up with the car next to you.

4. A toboggan is something you sled on, not something you wear on your head.

I was so confused the first time I heard a crime alert on campus. They described a man who had been accused of something, standing so tall with these facial features, wearing a black coat and a black toboggan.


A few months later I found out that they meant a hat. I realize that these two things are usually only used in cold weather, so it may be a bit confusing. However, it's really quite simple - a toboggan is a type of sled, and the thing you wear on your head is most commonly called a "stocking cap," "snow hat," or even just "hat."

5. Produce will return after the "big melt."

So don't buy it all please. I actually could not find an onion to buy on Friday.