Archive for January, 2010
This is the latest Subway commercial featuring Olympic gold-medalist Michael Phelps, intended to tie in to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
I’d like to take a moment now to say why this commercial is so very, very dumb.
- Michael Phelps bursts through the pool wall. The first time I saw this commercial, all I could think was, “He’s going into that turn way too fast.” Then he bursts through the wall. Why would you want me to associate fear with your sandwich, Subway?
- Not getting what makes Michael Phelps great. Michael Phelps is an amazing athlete who has broken all sorts of world records and won an astonishing number of Olympic medals. He did this by swimming. Through water. This commercial, though, assumes that is not amazing enough. No, Michael Phelps must swim through land. Now, Michael Phelps is no longer an amazing Olympic athlete, he is simply a below-average CGI figure, somewhere between Tremors and Bugs Bunny.
- Jerod. Unlike every other spokesman in existence (except maybe Luke Wilson for AT&T), Jerod is in every single Subway commercial. This is to remind you that Jerod was once fat, but then he ate at Subway and became the huggable Jerod we feel indifferent toward today.
- Vancouver. Jerod calls to Michael Phelps, who is wearing earplugs and swimming through concrete, “See you there!” Where? Apparently, Vancouver, which is where the Winter Olympics will be held in 2010. Why is Michael Phelps going to the Winter Olympics? I have no idea. But it is urgent that he must get there, urgent enough that he is swimming through the ground. Later we learn it is “so he can get to where the action is.” People, Michael Phelps doesn’t go to where the action is, the action comes to him.
- Olympic athletes eating fast food. One of my favorite Olympics traditions is watching the McDonald’s commercials where smiling Olympic athletes eat massive piles of greasy cow meat. I always think, “They didn’t get to the Olympics by eating at McDonald’s.” But that’s not the thought I have watching Michael Phelps sell Subway subs. All I can think is, “Michael Phelps consumes 12000 calories a day. He could eat three Dominoes pizzas for dinner as part of his regular diet.” Just because “Michael Phelps fuels up with the mega-tasty Subway Turkey Melt” in no way reflects anything about whether you or I should eat one.
Stay tuned for analysis of future stupid commercials.
Some spoilers for Terminator Salvation, but it’s not like you were going to watch it anyways
Terminator Salvation fails for a number of reasons. It’s about 30 minutes too long, and all the dullest, most senseless, least compelling sequences come in the second half of the film, leaving the viewer with a sour taste. That’s a shame only because there are some pretty nice action set pieces in the first half. But what stands out about the film is its ham-fisted attempt to reflect on the classic science fiction question, “What makes us human?”
You see, in Terminator lore, machines are bad and humans are good. So when Salvation attempts to break new ground, it does so by introducing a character that is partly human and partly machine. This is then supposed to provide a philosophical quandary both for hybrid (“what am I?”) and for those who interact with it (“what is it?”). (Apparently this has become the standard fourth-film-in-a-franchise question, since Alien: Resurrection posed the same question, but with alien-human hybrids instead of machine-human hybrids.) Perhaps in more deft hands this could have been an interesting question for a film. Instead, it is in the hands of McG (Charlie’s Angels, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle), the pens of John D. Brancato & Michael Ferris (Surrogates, Catwoman), and the grunting of Christian Bale (Reign of Fire, Newsies).
Not having anything interesting to say about the interactions of humans and machines, the filmmakers decided to blow stuff up. Personally, I am in favor of blowing stuff up on screen. It’s fun to watch. Maybe not in the second hour, when the filmmakers have lost track of who we care about and why, so we have no reason to root for any of these characters to survive. We just hope our bladders survive the two hours it takes to finish the film. But not content to blow stuff up, McG, Brancato, and Ferris also decide that they should say something. This is a science-fiction film, after all, and therefore must have pretenses to philosophical navel-gazing.
So here is what they do. They create a character that is partly human and partly machine. Half the film’s heroes argue that the hybrid is fully human, and the other half argue that the character is fully machine. Apparently, the writers decided that there would be added emotional resonance if every person in the film was an idiot. This is called “screenwriting.”
As a philosopher (yes, I really do have a postgraduate philosophy degree), one thing I try to do in exploring difficult questions is start with the facts. Applied to this film, in wondering what we should think of a human-machine hybrid, and important fact to consider would be this is a human-machine hybrid. Apparently, this never occurred to anyone involved with the making of this film. They decided that it is much more interesting to ask “Is it fully human?” or “Is it fully machine?” In other words, they could never reach the part where they actually do some philosophical reflection, because they are too stupid to acknowledge the single most basic fact that the entire film is built around. Somewhere between deciding to make a film that introduces a human-machine hybrid and actually making that film, they lost track of that single basic idea.
Now, it would be wrong to say the movie fails because of some intellectual fault in the film. As an action spectacle, this film fails because it is boring. But sometimes boring science fiction films can be saved by the interesting questions they address. This is why we still watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris. And it is also why you should watch Moon, the low-budget space flick that nobody saw last year. Better acting, a more compelling plot, and an interesting question at the center (albeit one that is raised to explore psychological and emotional elements rather than strictly philosophical implications). While I don’t think Moon is an excellent film, I can guarantee that you won’t leave it with that gross, McG-y taste in your mouth.
I have very little to say about music in the year 2009. I wasn’t even planning to do a recap or best-of, but then I realized that last.fm shows play counts by album. So here are my most-listened to albums that were released in 2009. And you can always see what’s in my ears at my last.fm page. (I should note that when songs are played back-to-back, it only counts as one play, which hurt albums that I usually listened to sequentially like Bitte Orca. It also is obviously biased toward albums released earlier in the year, like Noble Beast.)
- 154 plays: U2, No Line on the Horizon
- 140 plays: Andrew Bird, Noble Beast
- 118 plays: Neko Case, Middle Cyclone
- 117 plays: Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest
- 117 plays: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz!
- 106 plays: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, s/t
- 99 plays: Metric, Fantasies
- 92 plays: Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career
- 88 plays: Sin Fang Bous, Clangour
- 85 plays: Mos Def, The Ecstatic
- 83 plays: Monsters of Folk, s/t
- 79 plays: Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion
- 75 plays: Blind Pilot, 3 Rounds and a Sound
- 69 plays: Passion Pit, Manners
- 69 plays: Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca
- 61 plays: Ida Maria, Fortress ‘Round My Heart
- 59 plays: Bishop Allen, Grrr…
- 59 plays: The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You
- 50 plays: God Help the Girl, s/t
Pretty big spoilers for Gone with the Wind
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…
“A dream remembered” gives the viewer a pretty fair handle on how to read the film. The film’s heightened emotions, narrow focus on Scarlett O’Hara, and whitewashing of the unpleasant aspects of slavery in the Old South fit the model of the retelling of a dream. Like a person giving a first-person narrative account of a dream, we are told a solipsistic account of a world that a cold-eyed viewer would recount much differently.
More than the narrative structure, there is another way that dreams figure into the story of Gone with the Wind. The first half of the film (the two hours leading up to the intermission) is the story of Scarlett O’Hara’s slow waking up from a dream. Scarlett, particularly in facing the death and stench of the make-shift military hospital in a church, wakes up from the dream life she has been living. In fact, Dr. Meade shakes Scarlett and tells her to “Wake up! Wake up!” And, unfortunately for Scarlett, she does wake up at the end of the first half, when she returns to Tara, her family’s plantation and vows to never be hungry or poor again. She is waking up from a dream and in doing so finds life to be a horror (much like the awakening in Mulholland Dr., come to think of it). And for Scarlett, awakening to the world around her leads her to lie, cheat, steal, and murder her way through life.
Interestingly, this is the same conclusion about life reached by the film’s other protagonist, Rhett Butler. For the first half of the film, he enters and leaves the story at well-spaced intervals. Like a bodhisattva who has awakened from dream-life yet still walks the earth, Rhett Butler is the only character in the first half of the film who is awakened to the dream-like state of the white characters in the Old South. Like the awakened Scarlett O’Hara, he has the very un-Budhhist attitude that the awakened life is one where anything goes – robbery, fornication, anything that benefits him. In his first speaking scene, Rhett even chastises the eager Southern gentlemen for their “dreams of victory” – a clear statement that he can see through the dream they are living in to the world that has already arrived without their knowing. And his decision is not to side with their gentlemanly honor, but to act as a smuggler out to line his pockets.
In an interesting reversal, Rhett attempts in the second half of the film to re-enter the dream life he accurately punctured in the first half. But his attempts to live in a dream are doomed, as his attachment to Scarlett is doomed. He cannot become a gentleman, and Scarlett cannot become a lady. And the one dream from which Scarlett never awoke was her dream of Ashley, which she realizes too late was only a dream. Rhett knew this all along, as he tells her in the films closing scene, “I’m leaving you, my dear. All you need now is a divorce and your dreams of Ashley can come true.” She has realized by now that it really was just a dream, but she has awoken too late to salvage her real marriage.
Like all dreams, the Old South was always illusory. The happy slaves, the code of gentlemanly honor, the concentration of wealth in the few landowners were all unstable at best and delusional at worst. The Old South is a remembered dream, a dream that never was as it is remembered.
Trailer-level spoilers for Up in the Air and medium spoilers for Drag Me to Hell
Manohla Dargis called Up in the Air “a well-timed snapshot of an economically flailing America.” A. O. Scott called it “a classic in the making. In 50 or 60 years when people want to know what life is like in this anxious, strange moment of recession at the end of this decade, they’re going to look at this movie the way we look at the movies of Preston Sturges or Frank Capra to find what life was like in the ’30s. … It captures something very deep and very sad about the way that we live now in a light-hearted and comic way, and I think that that’s brilliant.” And those descriptions are exactly right, but they’re about the wrong movie.
They are talking about Jason Reitman’s fine character study of a man who fires people for a living. It’s the one booming business these days, but even this job is unsettled as George Clooney’s character, who has trouble forming relationships with anybody, realizes his job is being replaced by an up-and-comer, played superbly by Anna Kendrick. The film is very aware of its prestigious ambitions and careful tone, and it is a moderately successful film that is a big-issue story masquerading as a small, intimate story. It’s pretty good. You should see it.
But, with all due deference to Mr. Scott and Ms. Dargis and the many others who have made similar claims, Up in the Air is not the 2009 film that best captures “this anxious, strange moment of recession at the end of this decade.” For that, we should turn to Sam Raimi’s throwback horror film Drag Me to Hell.
Drag Me to Hell is the story of Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), who in her role as insurance officer at a regional bank branch, decides to try for a promotion to assistant manager despite knowing that doing so requires her to make “tough decisions” that will impress her boss. The first such decision is to deny a third extension on a late mortgage payment; unfortunately, this is an old gypsy woman who begs Brown to reconsider, and in refusing to do so, shames the old woman. Being a gypsy, she curses Brown, who spends the next 60 minutes chased by a demon who claims her soul. Why is this the film that best captures the feeling of 2009?
“Actually, it was the bank that took the house. I just work there.”
Before entering a by-the-book horror-film third act, Drag Me to Hell is largely about the psychological consequences of working in a capitalist society. Brown is torn between doing what she knows is right and doing what she knows will help her get ahead in her workplace. She feels threatened by her boyfriend’s parents, who see her as a failure for not being born successful. She feels threatened by her male coworker who is gunning for the same job, and taking every opportunity to demean her. But she chooses to work within the cold machinations of capitalism, even when she knows it will hurt others. She will sacrifice an old woman’s future to keep her job secure and get just a little ahead. We see the devastation wrought by the financial sector on this old woman. The film doesn’t even attempt to cloak it as a case of capitalism-run-amok with greedy robber barons destroying the country; Brown is doing what makes sense for her job, since her bank will earn nice fees for foreclosing on the house. We watch the pitiable woman being beaten down by a system that doesn’t stop for her, and the subsequent shame. And we also see the shame to Brown as she participates in this. Early on, she attempts to deflect the guilt of her actions onto the company for which she works, but the film is a slow realization that she must face up to her guilt rather than hide behind her company.
“You deserve everything that is coming to you.”
After the gypsy woman attacks her, Brown suffers a mental break. (Notably, most of the film could be read as a psychotic break suffered by Brown; almost no one else experiences the terrors that she experiences, even when they are in the same room, unless they are already “believers.”) Like someone fired in a massive downsizing, Brown believes that she deserves what is happening to her. People who have been fired often feel like they are at fault rather than the company or person who fired them; if only they had worked harder, they would have been okay. They feel guilty, like they deserved what happened to them, even if that is not the truth. And certainly Brown goes through this as well. She, and the viewer, know that her actions led to this point, and that she must face the consequences herself. That feeling of deserving what is coming to you perfectly captures the feeling of the displaced worker, even though Brown deserves it and many downsized workers do not.
“It was my decision and it was wrong of me.” “You have such a good heart.”
The shame to those destroyed by the system, the guilt of those complicit in the system, the difficult choices faced by those still in the system. These are the feelings of 2009 that Drag Me to Hell captures and Up in the Air does not. After all, Anna Kendrick’s character got hired coming right out of college! And she had multiple job opportunities! Up in the Air may have some nice things to say about changing ideas of corporate loyalty and growing old, but nothing hits 2009 where it hurts like Drag Me to Hell. [BIG DRAG ME TO HELL SPOILER] When Christine Brown recognizes that what she did was wrong, it is too late for her. Having a good heart in the end wasn’t enough. She had to face the consequences of staying in her job. And the film’s final scenes are a working out of her survivor’s guilt.
2009 was hell. Sam Raimi captured it in a way worth remembering.
Here are my picks for the Top 10 films of the 2000s. These lists are always a little silly (will I still like my No. 1 pick in 10 years? how many times must I rewatch a film to be sure I love it? who cares what I think?), so you might be more interested in my list of 5 essential films of the decade that didn’t make my 1o-best list. Those five all reveal something above movies in the last 10 years. Enjoy.
- Inglourious Basterds (2009) – Quentin Tarantino films generally leave me a little cold. I love the flair, the humor, the knowledge, but his plots are too often thin vengeance flicks that leave you feeling stupid for not catching all his arcane film references. But here, finally, QT has a plot worth loving, a revenge story that says something fascinating about the nature of revenge (forget what others say, this is not wish fulfillment), and a film that you can watch without feeling frustrated at your lack of movie trivia. Devastating, beautiful, terrifying, hilarious, tense, thoughtful. Bravo.
- Moulin Rouge! (2001) - It takes a bold storyteller to tell you no less than three times how the film will end yet still have that ending leave you moved. Somehow Baz Luhrmann manages to do it, while reinventing the musical, the movie soundtrack, the star vehicle, and the smash cut. The most exhilarating and shamelessly romantic film of the last 10 years. Spectacular. Spectacular.
- Zodiac (2007) – This is one of the few great films about research. It is simultaneously an obsessive portrayal of obsession and masterful twist on the tired serial killer genre. Subtle use of CGI, and a stellar cast. Like QT at No. 1, this is a film a head and shoulders above the director’s (David Fincher) other work. This film still haunts me.
- In the Mood for Love (2000) – Perhaps the most beautiful film of the decade.
- City of God (2002) – An epic that feels intimate.
- No Country for Old Men (2007) – The best comedic filmmakers are also the best dramatic filmmakers.
- I (Heart) Huckabees (2004) – I love comedies. I love films about ideas. This is a comedy about ideas.
- Elephant (2003) – Devastating to watch.
- Mulholland Dr. (2001) – What begins as a genre pastiche ends with a suggestion that reality is the true horror.
- Ratatouille (2007) – Everyone has a favorite Pixar film; mine is an ode to creativity and creators.
5 Essential Films of the 2000s
- The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2002, 2003, 2004) – Redefined the blockbuster. The first film feels corny to me now, the second is still thrilling, and the third is still boring. But it brought attention to the possibility of a blockbuster entertainment that is also a smart film, and was one of the first to let fans in to the filmmaking process (and more than a little marketing) by using a thing called the Internet.
- My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2003) – This film defined the goal of distributors of independent films in the 2000s: through slow release and word of mouth, hope a film finds a huge audience. (Idea: why not buy good films, let them find their modest audience, and make a small profit rather than get into bidding wars for films you hope will make a huge profit?)
- The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) – Along with Wedding Crashers, it showed there is an audience for R-rated comedy. It also launched the Judd Apatow phenomenon.
- The Royal Tenenbaums (2002) – Each time I’ve watched it, I’ve found this film trite, dull, needlessly formal, and on-the-nose. But, like Punch Drunk Love, it has a passionate following among people who watch only a few movies but like to feel like they are very smart movie watchers. It seems like every Sundance picture tries to recapture the alleged magic of this film.
- Yi Yi (2000) – I have not seen this film. I’ve seen many lists with this as one of the great films of the decade. And since an essential part of film-going (at least for us amateurs who can’t run the festival circuit) is not seeing every great film, I’ll let this stand for all the great films I didn’t see this decade.
Significant spoilers for Avatar; medium-sized spoilers for Aliens
When I was a kid, my favorite movie was Return of the Jedi. (Now known as Star Wars VI.) It’s not that I was especially fond of the Ewoks. Any kid knows that their treehouse homes are way cooler than the Ewoks themselves. It took me many years to realize it, but what fascinated me about Return of the Jedi is that the Star Wars universe suddenly was transplanted into a verdant forest. After the khakis and browns of A New Hope and the blacks, whites, and grays of The Empire Strikes Back, to suddenly see the speeder bikes racing through a lush forest of greens made the whole world more real. I grew up around forests, and seeing speeder bikes and light sabers in a forest was the coolest thing ever. Ever since, I’ve found science fiction stories set in wooded areas to be very compelling. (Similar for fantasy stories like The Lord of the Rings, or sci-fi set in that other great untamed area of Earth, the sea.)
So I was pre-disposed toward the world of Avatar, created by the man who made The Abyss (about strange life in the ocean depths) and Aliens (about the strange interaction of biological life and mechanical steel). Watching the film, I was struck by Cameron’s fussiness. Here is a man who never leaves an inch of frame unfilled. Showing off his command of technology and filmmaking, Cameron plugs every scintilla of his computer-generated world with some creepy-crawly, some background figure, something to fill the frame. When depicting the rich world of Pandora, this adds to the thrill that I felt watching Return of the Jedi as a kid. But over the course of 162 minutes, I did find myself occasionally yearning for the sparse landscapes of No Country for Old Men, a film content to let its characters drift through barren landscapes and barely decorated hotel rooms. Like the Coen Brothers used those repeated shops of nearly empty landscapes to engross the viewer in the moral emptiness of the universe they depicted, Cameron uses the lush greens and blues of Pandora to demonstrate the biological and spiritual connection the Na’vi have to their planet.
As a side note, Cameron also seems to forget about his camera. He’s so interested in filling the frame, that he forgets the cinematic possibilities of changing viewing angles. Of course, he expertly crafts the flying scenes, but it is not until a rush down the halls of a spaceship (strongly reminiscent of the Alien films) that we see the camera put in motion in a way that adds to the storytelling, rather than just showing off the admittedly wondrous world that Cameron and crew have created.
And of course, this world is supposed to be made even more life-like by Cameron’s embrace (and advancement) of 3-D technology. And I must say, at times I was really sold on the tech. Watching a spaceship glide through space, like we’ve seen a thousand times in Star Trek and Star Wars and a dozen other outer-space epics, I had never seen one quite as realistic as the ship at the beginning of Avatar. At other times, though, the 3-D effects were simply laughable. Any shot with multiple foci (for instance, a character walks across the foreground, a computer station sits a bit further back but still in focus, and more activity occurs at a distance in the background) comes across in the comical style of Captain EO. And fast moving characters were very choppy, at least in the theater where I watched. (I’ll be interested to see if that is still the case in 2-D.) Frankly, I’m glad I gave Avatar a chance in 3-D, but it will be a long time before I bother watching another film in 3-D. The pain and price just aren’t worth the payoff. It was barely worth it this time.
But back to the world of Pandora. Cameron presents the Na’vi as a mish-mash of indigenous peoples who have more to teach the “civilized” than the “civilized” have to teach them. As morality tales go, this one is a groaner. As a good liberal, I prefer it to a paean to the military or a we-can-do-no-wrong propaganda campaign. But the deadly serious New Age-y religion (captured in an unintentionally hilarious group hug-and-swing that recalls the Wachowski Brothers’ dance marathon in Matrix Reloaded) and the uber-intense way that Cameron enforces his point is, shall we say, less than subtle. And like many attempts to show how much we Westerners have to learn from indigenous peoples, the film slides into a subtle form of liberal racism. You see, these savages are noble savages. Look at how they commune with the animals they kill for their survival. Look at how connected they are to the world around them and each other. (Succinctly captured in those three oft-repeated words, “I see you.”) Clearly, the film pounds into our brains, we Westerners have much to learn about ourselves and our world from the National Geographic sort. As if to bring out a big yellow highlighter to make sure we don’t miss the point, the central characters among the barely clothed Na’vi are motion-captured and voiced from three African-American and one Native American actors. So the only time we see people of color in the film, that color is blue. (The lone exception is Michelle Rodriguez, whose Latino skin is two shades darker than her lilly-white pals.) I’m not claiming that James Cameron is a racist in any strong sense of that word. That word is too important. But his film does reveal a tendency to paint (blue?) a portrait of people of color as noble savages who could teach a thing or two to white Westerners who come after their resources. And that is a subtly racist message, at the very least in its racial essentialism, which is one short step from stereotyping, and in its praise of “noble savage” qualities in native people.
But the issue of race pales (ha! a pun!) in comparison to Cameron’s shockingly anti-military message. Watch movies for long enough, and you’ll see your fair share of anti-war films. But you’ll have to watch a long time to find a film that is not only so anti-war, but anti-military. What’s the difference? An anti-war film chronicles the terrible consequences (on soldiers, civilians, the land) of waging war. It may emphasize the futility of war. But it can also present soldiers positively in the face of these terrible evils. Even anti-war films can present soldiers as heroic, brave, virtuous, and wise. Cameron’s film bluntly opposes the very idea of a mechanized military. We consistently are presented with a contrast between Colonel Miles Quartich (Stephen Lang), the film’s clear villian, and every other character in the film. He’s not a scientist who just wants to learn, like Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). He’s not a noble warrior like Tsu’tey (Laz Alonso). And when given the choice, he chooses evil (=Western =militaristic =colonial) when Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) chooses good (=indigenous =communal). The film’s only other villain is Parker Selfridge (the always-welcome Giovanni Ribisi), who stands in for the cash-hungry mission leader who is here to rape and pillage the land for profit.
In case the trailer or the description so far hasn’t made it clear, the film is a thinly disguised allegory for the war in Iraq, with that thin disguise coming in the form of an allegory of colonization of North America, with just a splash of Vietnam for color. Like a said before, the film isn’t exactly aiming for subtle.
What strikes me about the message of the film is how it inverts many of the images of Aliens, which Cameron directed nearly 25 years ago. In Aliens, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley enters a giant walking robotic suit to battle the titular alien, who is a queen defending her progeny. In this story, the hero uses technology to defeat an alien biological life form that is following its biological imperative to defend its young. In Avatar, a similar suit is used by the evil Colonel Miles Quartich to defend himself against a tribal leaders defending their clan. The same images of a technological exoskeleton fighting an alien are used in both films, but to remarkably different effects. In one, a battle between mothers is made equal by human technology. In the other, military technology is the very evil that is being battled, since it is what enables the destruction of these people, their home, and their sacred places. It’s as though Ellen Ripley, at the end of Aliens decided to join the acid-for-blood alien and fight the Company because, after all, what business do we have on her world?
Avatar is an ambitious film that holds an interesting place in Cameron’s corpus. Its images suggest Aliens, but its message suggests The Abyss. For a big-time Hollywood director, Cameron has always been a critic of moneyed power, and he takes that further in Avatar then he ever has before. It’s visually rich (maybe too rich – I recommend a strong shot of espresso to ease digestion), and thematically blunt in a Steven Spielberg manner, but, like many of Spielberg’s films, a rather stunning filmmaking achievement.