Monday, July 5, 2010

Huh, what?: The Last Airbender

It's rare when a film comes along and reminds just how bad it can get. Usually, even some of the worst movies have something you could gleam from them, even if it's a Mystery Science Theater 3000-induced chuckle. Ed Wood's films were cheap, starred non-actors and had stupid plots, but they at least they followed one or two proper film making rules, and I thought Glen or Glenda was genuinely thought provoking.

But The Last Airbender? Jesus fucking Christ. There is not a single thing right about this film. It seems to break even the most basic, most essential storytelling rules, and just out-right refuses to be engaging. I don't know who is the most to blame for this. Director M. Night Shyamalan, even at his worst, can still engage his audience. Is this bland cracker of a film the fault of the studio, the producer?

I expect we'll learn a lot of telling behind-the-scenes stories about this film. The way it's poorly put together, with bad narration filling in for actually having to show us anything, and I'd like to assume that M. Night originally turned in a two-and-a-half hour cut that the studio forced him to trim it down to a hundred minutes. But even if that's the case, I don't think any amount of additional scenes could fix this film's fundamental problems.

There's no humor. The action is slow and boring. 90% of the characters are completely irrelevant to the plot. The acting is wooden. There's no sense of scope. The film world lacks detail. The CGI creatures are pointless and unimaginative. And from what I hear, the film is a pretty big disgrace to the animated television show from Nickelodeon. I haven't seen more then an episode, but if this film has done one thing, it's compel me to check the series out.

I strive for more eloquent prose in my reviews, but for The Last Airbender, I got nothing. So, as simply as I can say it, don't see this movie. It is a bad movie.

Giving into Boundaries: Toy Story 3

I decided to create this film blog, one of thousands, in part to have an official home of my thoughts of cinema. I've writing two articles for The House Next Door for the two time they opened up for reader submissions, and with each one, I really had no information to give for the "about the author" blurb. I wish I did, but besides a brief stint as a writer for a MST3K-knockoff group, I'm not exactly dressed to impress. So let's build to that, shall we?

My first article for THND concerned the nature of Pixar films with the idea of predetermined boundaries. Lines in the sand that can be crossed, but the Pixar filmography seems to be unsure if one should cross them or not. On one hand, there's no reason rats can't become great cooks, robots can't grow beyond their programming, and ants can't take care of themselves. On the other hand, superheroes are born and not made, old men should stay at home and remember the good ol' days, and toys should be nothing but toys, even if they are capable of being more.

Toy Story 3 is far more playful with the ideas presented in the first two Toy Story movies, perhaps in part because Pixar's head honcho John Lasseter, the director of the first two films, stepped down for Lee Unkrich, a longtime Pixar editor and co-director.

In the first film, spaceman action figure Buzz Lightyear had to come with grips with not actually being a Space Ranger, but more so come to grips with being submissive instead of proactive, despite there being no perceived penalty towards moving in the presence of a human (I imagine all the toys in the world suddenly revealing they are living creatures might cause world-wide panic, but there's no problem with scaring a Sid every know and again).

Likewise, in the second film, cowboy doll Woody had to come to terms with what he perceived as his own mortality, that someday his owner Andy would not want to play with him anymore. When presented with the option of being more-or-less immortalized in a Japanese museum or returning to Andy and facing his fate, Woody opts out for what the unwritten laws of toydom tell him to do.

The rules of the Toy Story universe seem pretty damn religious when you break them down. These rules are written by some higher, unseen being, and while you may not be immediately punished by breaking them, you'll be sorry you did when the end comes. And the end finally comes in Toy Story 3, when our little Christians/toys must finally face Judgment Day. Andy is going to college, and the fate of the toys remain unclear. Do they end of in the attic and hope Andy passes them down to his children years later on (purgatory)? Do they get thrown out (hell)? Does Andy take them as keepsakes to college, postponing the inevitable (I don't know, life support)?

Through a series of miscommunication, the toys end up at what first appears to be a toy's heaven: Sunnyside Daycare, where there are always children who want to play with you. However, under it's sunshine-and-gumdrops exterior is a controlling, corrupt system, led by the teddy bear Lotso.

Lotso's story is really the core of the film. We learn in flashback that Lotso was originally lost by his owner during a visit to the park, and after making a difficult journey back to his owner's home, discovered that was replaced with another Lotso-brand teddy bear. Resentful, Lotso took control of the Sunnyside Daycare as kind of a twisted revenge. Instead of owners replacing toys, toys replaced owners, as kids continuously rotated in and out.

If we continue the religious motif, then Lotso's story seems to parallel to that of Satan. Satan, the highest of all angels and the "brightest in the sky," refused to bow to God and tried reinvent the system. Lotso, the leader of the Sunnyside Daycare toys and originally seen as one of the nicest toys we've ever encountered in the series, sought to make the owners serve him instead of him serve the owners.

Eventually, both Satan and Lotso are cast out of paradise into a realm of fire. Hell for Satan. A junkyard for Lotso. Lotso drags the main characters down with them, and the toys face an end of intense burning and torture. However, all but Lotso are saved, this fate is not meant for them. (Incidentally, if they make a Toy Story 4, I'd like to see Lotso rise as the ruler of discarded toys in the junkyard to continue the Paradise Lost narrative)

In the end, it is neither heaven, hell or purgatory for our heroes, but instead a kind of reincarnation, as they find themselves in the hands of a new owner. Their reward for giving into the boundaries and just submitting to their fate.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Summer of '85: Follow That Bird

(The following was written for The House Next Door on June 15th, 2010)

One could almost see it as a celebration. By 1985, the original audience for the children's educational show Sesame Street were just beginning to graduate high school and move into adulthood, and the show was still as successful as ever. This success stemmed from its ability to encompass the average preschooler's life experience and compress it into a microcosm, with the creatures of their wild imaginations and supportive adults coexisting and teaching together. Also, Cookie Monster was pretty goofy.

Sesame Street was a safe, warm place for a child to be, but like real life, serious issues would crop up at random. The most famous of these incidents was the death of elderly storekeeper Mr. Hooper in 1983. As in real life, these issues could not simply be swept under the rug—they affected everyone. Death, serious injury, the loss of a home. In August of 1985, Sesame Street took a gamble and not only released their first theatrical film, but decided to make it on a more specific issue than they were used to, namely child protection services and biracial families. Cookie Monster was still pretty goofy, though.

After a fun prologue featuring Sesame Street's two biggest stars, Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird (both performed by Caroll Spinney), Follow That Bird opens with a pullback shot over a noisy, disorganized board meeting consisting of nothing but Muppet birds. These are the Fine Feathered Friends, and their job is to "place stray birds with nice BIRD families." They pass around a folder with a profile and photos of a "sad, sad case that needs OUR urgent attention." It's Big Bird, and as one member rightfully points out, there's nothing in the file to indicate that Big Bird is unhappy with his life on Sesame Street. This causes an uproar among the board, and we are introduced to Miss Finch, the tallest and most imposing of the FFF.

Miss Finch: "We all know he can't be happy. He needs to be with his own KIND. With a bird family."

As with many Muppet-related projects, Sesame Street works on multiple levels that allow both young children and adults to enjoy it. Usually, that means sly hidden references that'll go over the average preschooler's head. While a kid may enjoy the original series' "Would You Like To Buy an O" because it's catchy and teaches them letters, adults can enjoy its parody of bootleg rolex salesmen.

Follow That Bird is a bit of a different animal, though. While kids will and have enjoyed the film as a sweet-and-occasionally-exciting road trip with all their favorite Sesame Street friends, parents are presented with far deeper themes to consider. For example, when Miss Finch confronts Big Bird alone about him not being around other birds, Susan (Loretta Long) and Maria (Sonia Manzano) eavesdrop from behind the door, not interjecting, not interacting. It's easy to forget that this eight-foot bird is just a child, no older then the children who watched the show on a daily basis. Who at that age can grasp ideas like "his own kind" or being put in a new family?

Big Bird: "I'm not really leaving, I'm just going away."

The adults of Sesame Street seem to have forgotten this when they let Big Bird go without much more then a group "We'll miss you." Big Bird is placed in the care of the Dodos, who may be birds, but are also totally square, living in a birdhouse version of a 1950s Pleasantville and wearing boring, muted colors, and they are total morons, unable to recognize Big Bird as he gets off his plane.

In my favorite moment of the film, Maria reads a letter from Big Bird to the rest of the people on Sesame Street, describing his life with the Dodos. The letter is far more positive then reality, as we cut to shots of the Dodos' pathetic attempts at work and play, and they are so caught in their own world that at no point do they even seem to acknowledge Big Bird's existence. At the end of the letter, things become very clear for everyone on Sesame Street.

Maria: "So that's my new home. I should be happy here… What's wrong with me?"

It's Big Bird blaming himself in the way that a child may blame himself for his parents' divorce that seems to trigger the people of Sesame Street, makes them realize that they should have done something, said SOMETHING, and when Big Bird runs away from the Dodos and starts trekking towards Sesame Street on foot, everyone springs into action and tries to make things right.

This is when the film turns into a minor road trip movie, and while it's fun and offers some well-shot farmland scenery, it barely touches the themes already established. Miss Finch is traded in for stock kid film villains the Sleaze Brothers (SCTV's Dave Thomas and Joe Flaherty), who want to capture Big Bird to be the main attraction for their rundown carnival. Cookie Monster eats a car, Oscar the Grouch and Maria go to a Grouch diner and get into a food fight, Bert and Ernie get a biplane and reenact North by Northwest, and there are several musical numbers before the rest of Sesame Street finally retrieve Big Bird.

With Big Bird safe, Miss Finch makes her return, and we once again face the question of whether or not Big Bird would be better off with "his own kind."

Maria: "He doesn't need another family. He has one right here, and we all love him.

Miss Finch: "But he's a bird. He'd be happier with his own kind."

Maria: "Well, we're all happy here on Sesame Street, and we've got all kinds. We've got people and cows and we've got Bert and Ernie and there's dogs and birds. We've got monsters and kids and there's Honkers. Why, we even got Grouches!"

Miss Finch can't deny this, and Big Bird is allowed to stay. Sesame Street earned Big Bird back, and the status quo is restored. Everyone cheers. We can go back to letters and numbers as the Count counts the credits. It had been sixteen years, and Sesame Street was still here. One could almost see it as a celebration.

Pushing at Boundaries: The Two-Faced Ideology of Pixar

(The following was written for The House Next Door on October 7th, 2009)

"YOU. ARE. A. TOY! You aren't the real Buzz Lightyear! You're... You're an action figure! You are a child's plaything!"

"You piece of dirt! No, I'm wrong. You're lower then dirt. You're an ant!"

In Pixar's first two feature length films, Toy Story (1995) and A Bug's Life (1998), after a violent confrontation, two of the main characters are face to face. One of them berates the other in defense of an age-old system of master and servant, a system that the other character actively denounces because this system gets in the way of his lofty ambitions. In both films, the plot centers on this conflict of those who wish to uphold boundaries and those who wish to break through them.

However, there's one main difference. In the film's ideologies, Buzz Lightyear is wrong, and Flik is right.

The fact that the films were made so close together and were both directed by John Lasseter makes the comparison even more jarring. It's the perfect example of what appears to be an internal ideological struggle throughout Pixar's filmography, a ten-film ping-pong battle between boundaries and boundary-breakers, with neither side having the clear advantage.

These ideas go all the way back to 1987 with Lasseter's short film Red's Dream. Red, a discount unicycle in a bicycle shop, spends a rainy night dreaming of upstaging a circus clown, freeing himself of the boundary of needing a rider, and finding success. However, Red awakens to realize that he is neither wanted nor capable of upstaging anybody, and submitting to his fate, returns to his lonely corner, dejected.

The short Knick Knack, made in 1989, followed similar themes, though in a far less depressing manner. A tiny snowman in a snow globe tries to escape the literal plastic boundaries to get some tail, but after several failed attempts grudgingly gives up.

The physical boundaries of these shorts would be transformed into a more metaphysical form for Toy Story. No actual reason is given for why the toys aren't allowed to move when people are around; it's simply an unwritten rule that they follow to the letter. It's not like in Jim Henson's 1986 made-for-tv special The Christmas Toy, in which the toys would more or less die if caught out of position. When Woody and Sid's army of mutant toys break the rules to save Buzz, there are no negative consequences to their actions. The toys simply follow the rules because it's what they've always done.

This makes the conflict between Woody, a walking symbol of traditionalism, and Buzz, whose own catchphrase is about reaching beyond "infinity" (the ultimate boundary), all the more ideological. Eventually, it takes forces greater then Woody (a Randy Newman song and the almighty god known as television) to make Buzz submit. Unlike Red and Knack, Buzz does find peace in this much more humble position.

Then A Bug's Life showed up, and everything was turned on its head.

The boundaries once again became physical, as unwritten dogma was replaced with a violently enforced life of servitude. Like Buzz Lightyear, the character who dares to break out of these boundaries, a worker ant named Flik, actively attempts to advance his people, in this case with technology. However, unlike Buzz, Flik doesn't give into the system. In fact, his resolve against it becomes so strong, it manages to convince everyone else to break free in a violent upheaval. This change in ideology is so sudden that it's hard to attribute it to simply Lasseter or the whole of Pixar simply changing their minds on the issue, and Lasseter's films to follow don't help to clear things up.

Toy Story 2 (1999) seems to be a reevaluation of the system presented in the first film. In it, Woody is given the option of being observed constantly in a museum, which would mean giving in fully to the system and almost certainly never moving again (unless Woody is going to a cheap museum that can't afford security cameras). However, after some soul searching, he realizes that this isn't what he really wants, pulling back from the system just enough.

However, while on the surface Toy Story 2 may be about finding a happy medium within the system of toys and children, on a deeper level it's just as much about giving in to boundaries, but this time the boundary of mortality. Like the "don't move when people around" rule, there are ways for toys to beat mortality, but to do so would be wrong. The roles are reversed, and now Woody has given in as Buzz once did, and he too has found peace with it.

Cars (2006) isn't all that concerned with boundaries as it is with values. Selfish racecar Lightning McQueen finds a satisfying life in giving to a near-dead Route 66 community, putting his own dreams of fame and victory behind him to give the underprivileged their chance. McQueen is a lot like if Buzz Lightyear actually WAS a space ranger, but decided to play the role of toy anyway. There are no boundaries stopping McQueen from getting what he wants, but getting it would still be wrong. We are asked to reevaluate our own desires and decide if they have real value to us. It's a confusing matter when it's all put together, and short of asking the man directly, it's hard to determine how Lasseter feels on the subject of boundaries and boundary-breakers.

However, this matter is hardly confined to just Lasseter. Brad Bird's two Pixar films are also in direct opposition with other.

In Bird's The Incredibles (2004), there are two kinds of people, those with powers and those without. While it's never clarified, it's implied that these powers are a matter of genetics, and those without them will never get them. This leaves to a worldwide racial conflict that forces those with powers into hiding. The film follows one family's attempts to be able to reapply their abilities and break the boundaries set up the other side.

While it seems like a clear-cut case of boundary breaking in terms of the hero's story, things are murkier on the side of the villain. Syndrome was once Buddy, a hero-worshipping non-powered kid who, through technology, attempted to rise to the level of those with powers. His rejection from the other side made him only more determined to match them, and eventually decided that the whole world should be on the same level as those with powers. An evil scheme for racial equality.

Which side is it in this conflict that's establishing the boundaries? In the end, the wall of separation is rebuilt, and equality is vanquished. Those with powers finally have what they want, and nobody else can take it from them. They are the boundaries.

Ratatouille (2007) has a different take on the matter. Whereas in The Incredibles the character who wanted to bridge the gap between two kinds of people was the film's arch-villain, the character who wishes to do the same in this film is its hero. The film concerns a rat that wants to break the racial boundaries and bring the world of rodents and fine dining together. "Great artists can come from anywhere," states food critic Gusteau, declaring all boundaries null and void. I wonder if he'd feel the same about superheroes.

Monsters Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003) and WALL-E (2008) are more ambiguous on the matter. Like Cars, they're largely about self-reevaluation. They're about Sully discovering that laughs are more energy efficient then screams, Marlin realizing that his son is more capable then he thought and the people of the Axiom finding a world outside their consumer lifestyles aren't so much cases of boundary breaking as they are boundary redefinement. Personal boundaries have been replaced by less-confining real life boundaries.

If Up (2009) was Pixar's final film, it'd be a fitting microcosm to this issue. Carl Fredricksen lives his life with his wife wanting more then their simple existence allowed. After the death of his wife and the threat of his home being taken away, Carl decides to finally break from his boundaries and seek the adventure he'd always wanted. When his house rises into the atmosphere, Buzz Lightyear goes to infinity and beyond. Flik overthrows the grasshopper's rule. Lightning McQueen becomes a superstar. Remy becomes a world-class chef.

But it turns out, this is not what Carl really wants. He wants his simple existence back. He wants to be loved by Andy, to help his friends in Radiator Springs, to keep Nemo safe, to win the Most Screams record. So, Carl goes and exorcises his demons. First, he throws away his dreams in the form of the trinkets he collected over the years. Then, he defeats the man who inspired him. Finally, he says good-bye to the ghost of his wife, his whole reason for doing this.

But he keeps the zeppelin. Because you never know. Like Pixar, he might just change his mind and break some more boundaries.