Thursday, February 28, 2008

Why is this not on the headline of every paper?

My perusal of the drudge report last week yielded this: "Automated Killer Robots are a Threat to Humanity."

I have three reactions. First, it's redundant. Aren't all robots automated? Isn't "automated" a derivative of "automaton," which is just another word for robot anyway? Second, that kind of seems like a no-brainer. I mean, if there really are automated killer robots out there, isn't it pretty obvious that they would be a threat to humanity? Third, if automated killer robots actually are threatening humanity, why is this not being trumpeted from the rooftops? Must be the liberal media with it's pro-robot agenda.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cinematographicus: Across the Universe (2007)

We picked this one up at Target last week. I remember being intrigued by it when it came out, hearing classmates review it positively, thinking I might see it, and then forgetting about it. The main idea is that it is a love story / hippie drama musical pieced together out of Beatles songs. The first comparison that comes to mind is Mama Mia!. Except that Across the Universe was not on Broadway, and of course, that it is an insult to all coolness to compare the finest rock songs of the 20th century to the disco drivel of Abba.

Watching this movie is kind of like watching two hours of MTV---old school MTV, when there were actually music videos instead of a mind-numbing, horizonless expanse of "reality" TV programming. Like any decent music video, there's a heavy emphasis on creative camerawork, and making the visual aesthetic reflect the music. The difference is that there is some plot continuity, less overt hero-worship of musicians, and no straight band-playing scenes.

No, it's actually closer to Moulin Rouge, both stylistically and thematically. Both films depart from the standard stage-inspired musical template by weaving the music into the plot, and keeping the story going through the songs. This makes for a more pleasant viewing experience than the stage-based template where the plot is continuously put on hold to show off the singing or dancing abilities of the actors. It's better adapted to the screen, where long singing and dancing scenes can invoke more yawns than smiles. See the 1965 film version of Rogers & Hammerstein's Cinderella as an example of the worst offenders.

And both films deal heavily in the ideal of the restricting and destructive nature of society pitted against the liberating ideals of love, sex, music, art, and of course, drugs. The absinthe-happy bohemians of Moulin Rouge are a pretty straight parallel to the psychadelic hippies living in New York in Across the Universe.

But the hippie narrative departs from substance-induced reveries and love fest of Moulin Rouge, when Across the Universe portrays the social upheaval of the 60s---the Detroit riots, the assassination of MLK, and the specter of Vietnam brooding over the whole film throughout. This adds a bit more weight and substance to the film (but not that much---it's still a musical). The Vietnam sequences also create some of the more interesting visual imagery---a spectral, almost skeletal Uncle Sam singing out of a recruiting poster and an Iwo Jima-esque group of young men in underwear and combat boots, struggling to carry an enormous statue of liberty over rice paddies and jungles in "I want you (she's so heavy)," and flaming strawberries dropping out of an airplane's bomb bay over the jungle in "Strawberry fields."

Like with the Beatles' own music, there's also a thematic progression. The opening scene is a sad, seaside rendition of the opening lines of "Girl" basically lifted from Moulin Rouge's rendition of Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy." The next scene opens to "It won't be long" with a picturesque sock-hop scene and continues with stereotypical high-school scenes of football players and cheerleaders. But by the end, the darker and more more psychedelic tunes dominate as it all takes a downward spiral. The low point is "Happiness is a warm gun" when we see one of the main characters, shell-shocked in a military hospital, sung to and tranquilized by a nurse played by Selma Hayek. But it all ends predictably with "All you need is love."

I had two favorite scenes. The first, "Let it be," is sung to the backdrop of the Detroit riots cross edited with scenes of a family learning of a soldier's death. It eventually turns into a gospel song at a funeral, and is actually kind of moving.

The second, "Revolution" shows off the integration of music, and especially of lyrics, into the plot. It's also just a great song.

There are things I could have done without. There was a scene, for example, where the main character, who is clichédly an artist, draws his sleeping naked girlfriend. We see a nipple. But it's not just the nudity that bugged me about the scene, it was the uncanny parallel to the naked drawing scene in Titanic. Anything that reminds me of Titanic gets minus 10 points at the outset. But this was doubly wrong because the chain of connections leads incestuously back onto itself: Titanic starred Leonardo DiCaprio, who also starred in Romeo and Juliet which was directed by Baz Luhrmann (who names their kid Baz, anyway?), who also directed Moulin Rouge, which serves in many ways as a template for Across the Universe. That's only four connections. That's like marrying your cousin and is totally unacceptable. Unless of course your cousin is Kevin Bacon. Then it's inevitable.

And the psychadelic descent, while interesting (and while maybe an accurate portrayal of the spirit of the 1960s), got a bit too weird for me. On the up side, it did include Bono making a cameo appearance to sing "I am the walrus."

Overall, my reaction is positive, but don't set your expectations too high.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Jobs Americans Won't Do: Win Oscars

All acting Oscars went to foreigners this year, and foreigners also won various other Oscars as well. I'm waiting for some nonsensical rant from an anti-immigrant zealot to declare the end of the American film industry since non-Americans are doing so well.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cinematographicus: "Serenity" (2005)

In a move that would once more prove that Fox is a network of complete morons, Firefly died in 2002, shortly after seeing the light of day. Its questionable numbers in viewership were certainly not helped by the fact that Fox aired the episodes out of order (the very pilot wasn't aired for two or three weeks after the SECOND installment was shown!), juggled its time slot like a hopped-up circus clown, and unreasonably would go weeks on end without airing a new one. The last four episodes of the season had been produced but never saw the light of day until the DVD release a couple years later.

The show's premise was creatively original and fresh, something that hadn't been done in some time. Classified as a "Sci-Fi Western" (side note: did you know that "Star Wars" was originally labeled a western?), the show followed a retired Confederate rebel who'd earned his veteran status in an intragalactic battle with the Alliance, the future's Man and governing body that performs unspeakable acts of horror and downright intrusion in the name of justice and peace. Mal, now captain of a small crew aboard a ship they use to run their business as smugglers, spends his time running jobs and quietly avoiding run-ins with the Alliance by keeping his work as far into the outskirts of society as possible.

What's more to add to the very Western feel of the premise is that, despite advancements in technology, shotguns and revolvers are still common weapons. Mal carries a sidearm in a holster around his waist on a regular basis. There's also an episode that involves the transportation and herding of a large number of cattle. Certainly an unorthodox setting for an attempt at pop culture success, but nonetheless delightful. Mal's the type of character you love to watch. He doesn't put up with the silly, cliche-type setups that most pop culture icons find themselves in (he's more likely to blow a bad guy's head off than listen to his attempt at a monologue), and thus provides a critique of formulaic storytelling and melodrama. Each and every member of the crew is also a treat in his or her own respect.

Joss Whedon, creator of Firefly (and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, among others), managed to draw a cult following after the show's cancellation. It was strong enough to get the studios to back a feature film that took us back to this universe, and it was the preview of this film that sparked my interest in these characters (I didn't watch any television, aside from bits and pieces of Carita de Angel, from 2001-2003 and therefore missed the series' original airing). An old roommate of mine owned the DVD set of Firefly and let me watch the pilot before hitting up the theater for the film.

Hands down, "Serenity" is one of the most well-constructed movies I've ever seen. In addition to all the excellent elements carried over from the TV show, the visuals are greatly enhanced by the budget of a major motion picture, the story's intensity is kicked up about ten notches, and the action sequences are all the more stunning. You know how, in most films, you can somewhat predict the overall outcome of the story, depending on their genre and inciting incidents? Well, the genius of Joss Whedon's tale here was that it somehow managed to keep me guessing the entire length of the film! In fact, there was a long stretch of the story where I felt an utter sense of hopelessness for Mal and his crew -- there was NO way they were going to walk away from this situation, even if they were to succeed in their ultimate objective (and, in fact, some of them don't). The sense of doom was thicker than Christina Ricci's forehead!

The other major element of "Serenity" that makes this movie so interesting to me is its message that teaches the viewer to never be a fence-sitter, but to rather take a stance on issues (of any magnitude) and proactively stand by them. This theme is illustrated as Mal finds himself having to wrestle with the fact that merely "staying out of the Alliance's way" is detrimental and imprisoning, not to mention unjust to the people who have less power than he to oppose their iron fist. The point is not to always come out on top, the point is to do what you feel is right and embrace that part of you. The theme is a very important message, and a very unique one at that, given the large number of films that seem to teach us no more than "don't get carried away with science" or "BFF's are more important then selling out for romance."

Finally, if NOTHING else convinces you to rent this movie right away, know that it's jam-packed with awesome action sequences. Not only are there some complex, explosive space battles (side note: Whedon opts to go with a slightly more scientific approach to the outer space battle sequence in that, when an explosion occurs in the vacuum, there is no accompanying "kaboom!" sound), but one of the major characters (who is an inciting incident for the entire series) surprisingly breaks out of her mellow shell and delivers some fan-freakin'-tastic hand-to-hand combat scenes that WILL blow you away.

I give this film a definite 10/10 rating and sincerely hope a sequel is made one day.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Playlist for Chicago.

So I'm going to the Windy City on Thursday to compete in the Jessup International Moot Court Tournament. I need a good collection of tunes to accompany my travels and entrance into the land of the Bulls and Bears. I'm thinking a of a good mix of Chicago-related songs, oral argument related songs, and just plain good tunes.

So what are some good ones to include?

I only make one stipulation. The "eye of the tiger" is not allowed. That song wasn't too bad but then it got way overused as a psych-up song for high school sports teams. Then it got even worse when it got overused as a psych-up song for middle-school girls basketball teams. Then it plummeted even further when it got overused as a psych-up song for cheerleaders. To use it as a psych-up song for a moot court team would just be adding insult to injury.

Maybe I need three lists: one to enter Chicago, one to leave Chicago triumphantly if we place well, and one to leave Chicago despondently if we get knocked out early.