Pilot: The Event

Behold, NBC’s intended successor to LOST.  It’s tightly-paced, unfolds in a mosaic narrative style, with interlocking character arcs, mysteries abounding, and a plane.

The plane is important.  It increases the LOST resonance, and is important in the plot.

Only one episode has premiered, but sofar, I’m intrigued.  Go below for Spoiler-ed discussion.

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Scott Pilgrim vs. the Narrow Demographic

This is going to get deep into Spoilers, friends.  See the movie, then read this post.  If you’ve generally agreed with my reviews, than just go see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and come back to read this post after.

The film adaptation of Bryan O’Malley’s geek-tastic Scott Pilgrim comic series hit the big screens last week…to unimpressive monetary results, bringing in just over $10 million, 5th place behind 1) The Expendables 2) Eat, Pray, Love 3) The Other Guys and 4) Inception.

Its rating is in the high 80%s, higher than all of the movies which beat it monetarily (except Inception).  It has tons of geek appeal.  So why did it “bomb”?

Here’s the thing — it’s very particular geek appeal.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is for people who (preferably) share several or more of the following traits:

  1. Played a lot of video games as a kid
  2. But they have to be games of the NES to SNES era with MIDI music
  3. And should include a lot of 2-d fighting games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, as well as Legend of Zelda.
  4. Have been in a band.
  5. Follow their town/city’s underground music scene.
  6. Enjoy hyper-kinetic narratives.
  7. Understand what a Bob-Omb is.
  8. Know what a 1UP does.
  9. Watched Seinfeld.
  10. Have had several painful breakups and carry around romantic baggage.
  11. Enjoy expressionistic and highly stylized storytelling.

Moreso than possibly any movie in recent memory, the very celluloid upon which the Scott Pilgrim movie is filmed is comprised of Geekdom.  Geekiness was like oxygen.  The film is densely coded with visual and auditory references to geek culture, from comics to video games, but also to sitcoms and with commentary on the romantic comedy genre.  It starts with a chiptune version of the Universal theme as the screen shows a slowly turning old-school video game graphics rendering of the Universal globe.  The opening credit sequence is rife with visual allusions to video games and comics.

If these references go over your head, Scott Pilgrim may not be for you.  It’s easy to position as a representative narrative for Generation Y (or Generation X, depending on who you ask), which also leads into another point that some have raised. Why, though, do some reviewers find it necessary to rag on the target demographic of a film that they (the reviewer) ostensibly didn’t understand or enjoy?

See, for example, this NPR story, which links to a number of the negative review (more of the film’s target audience than the film itself): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129150813

Did you read that story?  Ok.

So what we have here is a movie that is really most effective for a narrow demographic, and somehow that makes it a bad movie.  Do reviewers pan a romantic comedy when it doesn’t try to appeal to people outside the ‘chick flick’ audience?  Or rag on an action movie when it fails to transcend its genre and compete for an Best Picture Oscar?

What about Scott Pilgrim is it that attracted such rancor in reviews?  Is it the same thing that lead to the film’s mediocre box office performance?  i09.com’s Cyriaque Lamar gives several reasons in this article: http://io9.com/5613417/scott-pilgrim-vs-the-lamentable-weekend-gross-++-what-happened

But I don’t know if I think those reasons quite add up.

Some may call Scott Pilgrim’s “failure” a referendum on geek culture, heralding the end of the Age of the Geek.  I’m more inclined to point at the fact that the film uses a great deal of medium and genre emulation in its cinematography, as the film at turns replicates comic books, video games, the fighter genre of games, sitcoms and the indie drama/comedy. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World leaps nimbly between those styles and referents, and for a viewer conversant with the Recommended Reading/Viewing/Playing, it works.  I’ve never laughed so continually or so un-selfconsciously at a film in quite a long time.

This wasn’t a film where geek culture was being re-packaged for the majority, like the X-Men films or Iron Man or Spider-Man films.  In these cases, a character and/or story well-known in the geek community is re-told and re-purposed for a general audience, adapting it to be more understandable, with a smoothed-out backstory less laden with decades of continuity.  While Scott Pilgrim was adapted and streamlined for the screen, it was still (for me) very much a geeky movie for geeks, and never apologized for it.

It’s also important to discuss the Hipster aspect of the film.  Pilgrim of the movie is less actively a geek than he is in the comics, and instead comes off as in no small part a slacker hipster kid — he has little life ambition, plays in a band, but isn’t any good at it, and only shows agency and energy when it comes to Ramona and then his fight scenes.  There are a number of places where Hipster culture and Geek culture overlap, which I find amusing since for me, at their hearts, Geekiness and Hipsterness are antithetical.

In my evaluation, Geekdom is at its core a culture of geniune enthusiasm.  You “geek out” about something when your enthusiasm shows to a degree which may be seen as excessive to some.

By contrast, Hipsterness for me is about irony — it’s about taking an attitude/position towards something.  Hipsters associate with cultural materials or behaviors, but they do so to comment on them in a kind of Bertold Brecht way — Hipsters drink PBR because of its blue-collar associations, made ironic by the fact that most Hipsters come from decidely white-collar backgrounds — Hipsters listen to music and then take a ‘been there done that’ attitude to it.

Not being engaged in Hipster culture, my ideas about it are nowhere as developed as my thoughts on geek culture — but it’s worth the time to talk a bit about Hipsters for Scott Pilgrim, due to the associations on the part of both the film and the source comic (which delves deeply into the Toronto scenester world).

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World combines Romantic Comedy, Battle of the Bands, Fighting Game and Coming-of-Age tropes and tale-types, positing a world where young men and women have troubled romantic and personal histories as they fumble around trying to learn how to be themselves, but despite that complication, the world can be made simple by the application of the video game logic — Scott Pilgrim can bring his video game experience to bear and literalize the metaphor of “dealing with baggage from your S.O.’s exes” by fighting them in sequence.  Scott Pilgrim literalizes several more metaphors of romance/baggage, from the ex who can still “Get into your head” (the chip) to being your own worst enemy (Nega-Scott!).

Some have discussed Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as a musical, but instead of singing, the characters fight — they still have soundtracks that convey the emotions of the scene, but express themselves and resolve conflicts via juggles and 64-hit combos and leveling up rather than in singing.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World will likely even out or turn a profit, given the chance that it will develop a strong record of DVD sales and home-release viewing.

If you read this blog, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is probably for you.  I enjoyed the hell out of it, and plan to see it at least once more in theatres, delving deeper into the thickly-laid references.


This post will be in two parts — the first part will be a spoiler-free review, the second an essay of in-depth thoughts and reactions based on a complete, spoiler-laden perspective on the film.  Be warned.

Previews and trailers for Christopher Nolan’s Inception have been atmospheric, vague, and beautiful.  Marketing copy and later trailers give a vague sketch of the plot outline:  DiCaprio is the leader of a group of corporate espionage experts who are tasked to implant an idea inside someone’s dreams.

From the preview materials, the formula seemed to be as such:

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind + The Matrix + Dark City.  Which had me well-sold right there.  The actual result is a science fiction heist movie and psychological thriller, which is even better.  I’m a fan of Nolan’s work, especially Memento, The Prestige, and his Batman films.

DiCaprio plays Cobb, a world-class extractor (a thief who goes into people’s dreams and steals their secrets), is part of a crew of dream thieves that include Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, showing good action hero chops), Nash (Lukas Haas) and then later Ariadne (Ellen Page), Eames (Tom Hardy), and Yusef (Dileep Rao), assembling a dream-team (pun-tastic!) to pull off an Inception.  Where extraction involves taking information from a dream, Inception is the process of putting an idea into someone’s dream in such a way that the subject thinks the notion is their own — the idea becomes a meme, replicating itself in their subconscious and then filtering back into their conscious thoughts — Inception, while difficult, can make a change substantial enough that it re-defines a person’s life.  High stakes?  Check.

The film is visually brilliant (the coolest thing for me was the spinning room, which I hear tell was a practical effect with a full rotating set — major awesome), with shifting and crumbling dreamscapes, unrelenting and powerful music from Hans Zimmer, and nuanced performances from the impressive cast.

This is the kind of movie that you need to see unspoiled, then go outside the theatre with your friends and discuss for two hours.  And I love those kinds of movies.  Inception is my vote for best movie of 2010 (so far).

And now, the spoiler-tastic bits:

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Review: Kraken by China Mieville

China Mieville has been one of my favorite authors for a number of years now. As the figurehead/poster boy for the New Weird, many writers have rallied around Mieville and followed in his footsteps or taken jabs at him. The New Weird was a big deal in the literary end of the SF/F community for several years, and is less popular now, but continues with bits here and there. I’m invested in the New Weird personally, given that I’m about to start shopping a New Weird novel to agents/publishers.

Mieville’s immediate previous novel (The City & The City) was less loudly New Weird and more urban fantasy/crime, but with Kraken, Mieville’s uncontainable imagination and penchant for the grotesque returns in full force.

Kraken starts with unsupecting Billy Harrow, an employee at the Darwin Centre in London who worked extensively with a deceased giant squid. Which means that when the squid (giant container and all) disappears without a trace, people come knocking on his door, including the Cult-crimes-response squad of the police as well as a pair of assassins. In keeping with the well-trod Urban Fantasy structure, Harrow gets pulled into the world of secret London, with all the knackers and movers and shakers behind the scenes.

Mieville’s secondary ideas are better than most any writer in the business, from the Chaos Nazis to Londonmancers (ala Jack Hawksmoor of The Authority) and police-esque ghost constructs summoned up by using tapes of old police procedurals. Mieville has a great facility with these details, great to small, that make the setting breathe and feel endlessly and messily lived-in.

Billy Harrow spends most of the novel on the run as warring factions, including an Animate Tattoo gang-boss, the eternally-neutral Londonmancers, and a Kraken-worshiping cult (which venerated Harrow’s specimen as a God, or at least, a Demi-God) forces move and converge to bring about/avert the apocalypse. Of course, anyone who wants an apocalypse works to make sure that it’s their apocalypse that comes about. No one wants to sideline in another group’s End Times.

The novel shifts easily between perspectives, bringing in other POV characters to convey the story and weave the weird tapestry that is Kraken‘s London. Mieville’s familiarity with/love of London and all its (weird) reality comes through clearly, helping contextualize the incredible craziness that he layers throughout the rest of the book.

Mieville’s language is very advanced, and sometimes challenging. It’s more accessible than in Perdido Street Station, but more obscure than in The City & The City. The baroque language is consistent, however, and usually well-contextualized. It’s just not a novel to hand to an average 15-year-old (an exceptional reader of a 15-year-old may be just fine, however) and it’s not the book to go to for a casual read. The book demands your attention, but if you give it, the book rewards you with unparalleled imagination, strong pacing, and chilling creepiness. (Goss and Subby are, for my buck, one of the creepiest henchmen duos ever).

Disclaimer: this review was written based on my experience reading an ARC, so keep that in mind in case the final version displays any differences.

Review: Kick-Ass

This review is about the film, rather than the Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. comic.

Directed by Matthew “Layer Cake” Vaughn and co-written with Jane Goldman, this film elevates hyper-violence to the category of camp, in company with such films as Wanted and Shoot ‘Em Up. Roger Ebert called the film “morally reprehensible.”

Well, it is. And that’s the point. Kick-Ass is a parody by means of Reductio ad Absurdum. The violence and improbability of the premise is pushed so far that it falls into what I call the Moore Continuum, which condemns all superheroes as ultimately tending towards psychosis or fascism (or both). In this case, the superheroes fall by the side of Rorschach — sociopathic masochists guided only by their own moral code. The titular Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson) is the most moderate of these figures, far outpaced in his sociopathy by Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz)and her father/trainer Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage, channeling Adam West’s Batman). The super-hero cast is rounded out by Christopher Mintz-Please (aka McLovin) as Red Mist.

In particular, the 11-year old Hit Girl is shown as brainwashed/raised with a worldview that desensitizes her to violence by interpreting vigilante slaying within the context of a game. A sequence towards the climax of the film gives us the action from Hit Girl’s POV in a manner evocative of a 1st person shooter such as Doom or Halo, complete with reload animations.

Big Daddy and Hit Girl are easily seen as analogues of Batman and Robin, and Big Daddy also parallels the Punisher. Since no heroes have actual powers, they fall into the “street level” hero category, where the vigilante aspects of superheroes are drawn with a sharper focus. The bad guys in street-level superhero stories are customarily thugs and crime bosses, rather than invading aliens or armies of secret cyborg nazis.

Kick-Ass addresses the question “why hasn’t anyone become a superhero?”

In our world, the answer is “they already have. But not in the way you’d expect.” Individuals like Mr. Silent and Doktor DiscorD (both in Indianapolis) and across the world with groups such as the World Superhero Registry are stepping up and pursuing the spirit of superheroics without breaking the law. Heroes such as Mr. Silent patrol the city and act within the law while working to allay fears and help people feel protected.

Kick-Ass goes far, far beyond the level of Mr. Silent or any of the Real Life Superheroes. Comics geek David Leziwsky orders a scuba suit off of the internet and intervenes in a carjacking. Given that he’s an untrained average teenager, he gets the living daylights beaten out of him, then stabbed in the gut. Massive surgery leaves him with metal plates in his body and head and nerve damage which becomes his “super-power” — he can take a beating and keep going.

In his mis-adventures, he becomes a YouTube and Myspace phenomenon, leading to ubiquitous Kick-Ass memorabilia and increasing his popularity. He runs across Hit Girl and Big Daddy, who have the actual training to take on large numbers of armed opponents. It helps that they use lethal force without remorse, stabbing slicing and shooting at whim.

I’ll end my plot recollections here for now, as there are some notable twists.

Kick-Ass is not for anyone who isn’t a fan of hyperviolence or ridiculousness. It leaps a jet ski over the top, then trampolines over a shark and never looks back. But as campy as the action is, the emotional reality of the situation is powerful for the characters. Kick-Ass confronts the idiocy of his attempts to be a hero when he doesn’t have the training or the equipment to succeed, and the reality of loss and revenge are keenly felt by Big Daddy and Hit Girl, who reprise a Punisher/Batman-style origin story of tragedy and loss. By counter-example, David shares his own tragic past — but instead of being murdered by a criminal, his mother died from a brain aneurysm. His rage cannot be anchored to a guilty party, unlike Spider-Man, Batman, Daredevil.

An unexpected surprise was the 3-D John Romita Jr. art during the recollection of Big Daddy’s story of loss. The camera zooms across 2-D traditional comic-panels, but as it turns and moves, the panels come alive in 3-D, giving greater depth and texture to the art of Romita Jr. (standing in for Big Daddy’s paintings on his half serial-killer, half police officer target/crime board.) It was a deft artistic touch that acknowledged the film’s sequential art heritage as well as highlighting the art of Kick-Ass‘ co-creator.

I’m not a big Mark Millar friend in general. I love his Elseworlds Superman story Red Son, which tells the tale of a world where Kal-El’s escape shuttle lands in the middle of Russia instead of the American Heartland, leading him to become a gleaming example of the triumph of Socialism, positioned as national foes with American hero Lex Luthor rather than as rival claimants on the American Spirit. In Red Son, the critique of the superhero flows naturalistically and doesn’t take arrogant pleasure in itself. In other Millar works, I find the aggressive testosterone-filled action to be smug and self-important (evident in later arcs of The Ultimates and in Civil War. In the case of the Kick-Ass film, the overblown testosterone-y action draws attention to its own faults and invites critique, where I feel some of his other works lack the same self-awareness.

If you’re a superhero fan, Kick-Ass is certainly worth your time and money — more and more superhero films are being made, and it’s films like Kick-Ass that show another part of the genre conversation than films such as Iron Man or The Dark Knight. As a genre rises, parody comes with it. Parody is a way for the genre to show its self-awareness and show that it’s aware of its blind spots and its pock-marks. Parody and deconstruction doesn’t necessarily lead to re-construction or reform, but it maintains the conversation and keeps artists and fans from consuming and engaging with stories in the genre without reflecting on its motifs and assumptions.

Review: Doctor Who “The Eleventh Hour”

New Doctor, new Companion, new look.

In “The Eleventh Hour” Matt Smith steps into the role of The Doctor, one of the most recognizable and longest-running figures in science fiction television.

I’m not much of a Whovian. I’ve watched occasional old episodes and chunks of episodes, the whole Eccleston series, chunks of Tennant’s run, and now the first offering by Smith. The New New Who is run by Steven Moffat and co-stars Karen Gillian as Amy Pond.

“The Eleventh Hour” starts out with The Doctor, freshly regenerated, hanging out the edge of the TARDIS as it careens through the atmosphere and sky of Earth. He crash-lands the TARDIS and spends several minutes running around very manically with a little girl, Amelia Pond. I wasn’t a big fan of the cravings/food preferences sequence, but it was a change for Smith to start to feel out the role. Smith is clearly drawing influence from Tennant’s impressive run, but there are shades of other doctors as well.

Smith is only a couple months older than I am, but doesn’t come across as “young.” He seemed more to me as energetic, refreshed/renewed. If anything, he’s a very old soul in a new and lively body.

The episode wasn’t the strongest I’ve seen in Who-history, but it was well-carried on the dynamic between Smith and Gillian. Karen Gillian plays Amy (formerly Amelia) Pond, who met the Doctor as a young girl when the TARDIS crash-lands, and builds a whole mythology around him when he disappears and doesn’t come back for 12 years. (Twelve years, four therapists, and countless hand-made dolls). The Doctor next sees Amy as a policewoman when he’s trespassing. Amy Pond, as a character, is very well-established throughout the episode, and has a history more intertwined with The Doctor than most season-long companions (to my knowledge).

There’s plenty of frenetic running around, a little bit of technobabble (impressively little technobabble, actually) and creepy aliens. The new TARDIS interior is very posh, combining futuristic with retro. (Steampunk? Maybe a little). Plus, by the end of the episode, this new Doctor has found himself, stood up to a fleet of aliens, and channeled the “I’m old as hell and more dangerous than a fleet of Daleks. Do not F@&# with Earth. It’s under my protection and I’ve put a lot of effort into it” awesomeness of the previous Doctors. One of my favorite bits in the episode shows a montage of each incarnation of the Doctor (all ten previous actors), with the fully-composed Smith stepping through the hologram to deliver the final line of his “Go away” rant — a great touch and a fine introduction to the finalized new Doctor.

The rest of the season seems to have a great deal of promise, including a return of the super-creepy Weeping Angels from “Blink,” Daleks, Cybermen, World War II dogfighting, and more.

This is a great time to get into Doctor Who, as the episode is a more-than-passable pilot for new viewers. It’s a good idea, especially for a series that has an history that dates back almost fifty years and more than 700 episodes.

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution

This is one of the two kinds of reality tv that I like. The first kind is where competent people excel at doing awesome things, shows like Project Runway, So You Think You Can Dance, etc.

The other is shows where activism and social change are made accessible and exciting.

In Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (ABC, Fridays at 10/9 Central), Celebrity British Chef Jamie Oliver (The Naked Chef, Cook With Jaime, etc.) comes to Huntington, West Virginia to begin a revolution in public school food (presumably, he’d like to reform all eating in the USA, but the show focuses on schools). The choice of Huntington is prompted by a CDC report listing Huntington as the unhealthiest town in the country, with the highest instances of obesity-related illness and death.

Three episodes have debuted so far, garnering strong ratings (The Friday at 10PM slot isn’t a great slot, so it’s perhaps not as hard to win).

There is a bit of inflated drama, but overall, the series is a depiction of a sincere pursuit by Oliver, who has already revolutionized the British public school food system.

One of the clips used to promote the show comes from a segment where Oliver is trying to hype up excitement for his test-run doing meals in an elementary school. He goes into a 1st grade class and asks them to identify vegetables such as a tomato, a cucumber, and a potato. The students were unable to identify any vegetables correctly when prompted. This is how separated from real food many children are, and how separated they are from the process of cooking and food-making.

Oliver begins with a test week in an elementary school, competing with dietary regulations that call french fries a vegetable and require 2 servings of bread/grain per meal, but only one serving each of veggies and fruit. Oliver struggles with the dietary requirements, a combative head cook at the school, as well as a obstinately skeptical local DJ.

Oliver opens “Jaime’s Kitchen” as his base of operations to host demonstrations, teach families/kids how to cook simple, healthy meals. As the series goes on, he’s worked with a particular family, recruited a group of high-school students to be his spokespeople in school and help him raise money for a county-wide training to help their school cooks be able to prepare Oliver’s healthy fresh meals on time and budget.

This series is a frank and powerful look at Oliver’s diet/cooking activism in a place that most desperately needs some kind of revolution/reform. Oliver’s sincerity is clear at all times, as he sets himself for an incredibly tough uphill battle (if he’d picked a less challenging setting, it’d doubtlessly not make as good television — they do have to get ratings to survive, after all).

The easiest way to understand this series is to go ahead and watch it. It lacks the artificial drama and competitive greedy backstabbing of The Biggest Loser and is far more grounded in reality than a show like Dance Your Ass Off. It focuses on fresh, real food, rather than artificial/additive-laden and greasy food, showing that it can be beautiful, delicious, and isn’t too difficult or expensive to prepare. Real food may take longer and cost more than box microwave dinners or highly-processed crap, but it’s an investment that’s worth making for nearly everyone. It’s easier for me to say this as a privileged middle-class guy, but the fact remains that real food in reasonable portions is demonstrably better for your health, and in a nation where diabetes is prevalent and weight-related diseases and deaths are scarily high, it’s hard to argue on any basis other than money.

A note for the Fat Studies community: Weight by itself is not vilified in Jaime Oliver’s Food Revolution. The show focuses on instances where poor eating habits and weight have lead to demonstrably negative health effects. A Teenager likely to develop diabetes before they turn twenty. A highschooler with liver spots that may cap her life expectancy in the early twenties. A girl who lost her father and uncle to weight-related illnesses. Being fat is not the problem — eating unhealthily in a way that creates weight-related illnesses and death is the problem.

I’ve quickly become very passionate about this show. I watched the first two episodes with my girlfriend, who is a big foodie and cook. I come at it from a developing love of diverse food and cooking, but also as someone who had weight issues as a teenager due to a sedentary lifestyle and a terrible diet (not helped in any way by the public school food system). We ate decently at home, but I was given the freedom to make unhealthy eating choices (massive soda consumption, junk food, etc.) and only later developed a real awareness for how bad those foods were for me, as well as learning the skills of and appreciation for cooking for myself with fresh, real food. I’m still learning those things. When I’m at home from a selling season, living alone, it’s harder to work up the motivation to cook real meals for one. To that end, I bought the companion cookbook, Jaime’s Food Revolution, and will be trying to host friends/join friends for family-style meals of real, healthsome food.

Knowing that certain foods are bad for you, on an intellectual level, is one thing. But it takes an accessible and realistic alternative and the means to transition your habits to make a real, lasting change in your life. Oliver’s show is trying to show that process with one school, leading to a school district, with Oliver’s ambition being to revolutionize school food and general eating habits in the USA, a much larger task than his already-impressive feat in his homeland.

All of the episodes are available on hulu, and there’s information and recipes on the website here: http://www.jamieoliver.com/campaigns/jamies-food-revolution

I hope you give the show a shot, and even if you don’t like the show, I think it’s sentiment and agenda are commendable.

Review: How to Train Your Dragon

Dreamworks’ latest offering is one of their best.

How to Train Your Dragon focuses on the story of a Viking named Hiccup, who is scrawny, clumsy, and not at all possessimg the traditional Viking virtues of strength, battle-lust and a horn-laden hat (we can see here that this movie’s traditional viking is one of the Looney Toons tradition).

Hiccup is instead, an engineer, and a smith’s apprentice. He yearns to impress the lovely Astrid, a fierce young lady Viking. His clumsiness and odd sensibilities instead make him both a laughing stock and somewhat of a menace to his village.

This is a problem because his village is already plagued by dragons. In this world, there are dozens of varieties of dragons, from fat and ponderous pests to the fierce Nightmare and the seldom-seen and never-killed Night Fury.

Hiccup disobeys orders and runs out in the middle of a raid, deploying his latest invention, a net-throwing device. He manages to hit and bring down a Night Fury, but no one believes him.

Hiccup later finds the Fury, but cannot bring himself to kill the dragon, discovering that it is as terrified of him as he is of it.

Instead, the two begin a friendship. The night fury’s tail was maimed in the raid, so it is incapable of escaping the mountain lake glade where it crashed. Hiccup designs a prostetic wing-fan for the dragon, whom he names Toothless.

Hiccup is enroled in dragon training by his father (the Viking chief Stoic the Stout, voiced by Gerard “Sparta!!!” Butler. Hiccup uses the knowledge gained about dragons from Toothless to excell to the amazement of all.

Later on, Hiccup must choose between his dream of being a might warrior and his friendship with Toothless. The film ends in a great action sequence and finishes up with a good lesson and a cute conclusion.

Aside from positing dragons as not the bad guys, there isn’t a great deal of originality in the film, but it doesn’t matter. The characters are likable and relatable, the dragon species neatly distinguished, and the story confidently told. It’s accessible for kids but compelling enough for an adult audience. It’s as delightful as Kung-Fu Panda, if not a gut-bustingly funny for lack of Jack Black.

An early favorite for one of the best films of the year and a likely best Animated Feature contender, How to Train Your Dragon is great for all ages and very much worth seeing in theatres. The 3D is used somewhat sparingly, mostly for dragon action, and decently done, though I’d say not essential for enjoying the film.

Review: Up in the Air (DVD)

Up in the Air (adapted from the novel by Walter Kirn) focuses on Ryan Bingham (played by George Clooney), a man who travels for business for more than ¾ of the year and is most at home when he is flying.  The mundanity and stress of air travel doesn’t get to Ryan Bingham.  Due to the fact that he has nearly every loyalty perk available at the Hilton, Hertz, and American Airlines, traveling to him is a delight, where he is constantly greeted by name and shown the best of treatment.  He makes single-serving friends on flights, seamlessly crashes other people’s parties at hotel conference suites and moves through the world with great efficiency, completely unfettered by attachments or permanency.   He is developing a reputation as a motivational speaker with his program “What’s in your backpack?,” which teaches that material possessions are just ballast, and that the emotional connections with people are just another kind of ballast, tying us down in one place and grounding us with emotional inertia.

That is, until two women come into his life and provoke him to question his way in life.  The first, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) is a fellow unfettered traveler.  They flirt by arguing the relative merits of various car rental companies, boast about their elite statuses and frequent flier miles.  They tumble into bed before both flying off their separate ways in the morning, making plans to meet again with the same pragmatic efficiency that dominates their business life.  The other woman who upsets Ryan’s status quo is Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a young Cornell grad who is a new hire for Ryan’s firm, promising to revolutionize the business.  Ryan’s constant travel is in service of a company that is hired to downsize employees and offer assistance in career transition.  What this really means is that Ryan comes in to fire people so that cowardly or compassionate bosses don’t have to do it.  Ryan Bingham (and the people at his company) are the psychopomps of late capitalist downsizing, acting as 21st century Hermes to the souls of the recently terminated.  In an economy tearing itself to shreds following the crash of 08, Ryan’s company is up while the rest of the country and much of the world is down.

In one of several powerful moves, writer-director Jason Reitman (of Juno and Thank You For Smoking) uses non-actors in the roles of most of the downsized employees.  He brings in real people who have faced losing their jobs and captures their reactions, their emotions, their heartfelt pleas and desperate stories, stories that resonate with great strength.  Most everyone in the USA knows someone who has lost their job when they couldn’t afford it, and this helps make the film almost painfully timely.  Production on Up in the Air began before the wall street and housing crash, before the unemployment rate climbed above 10%, but because of that timing, Up in the Air has become one of the touchstone films for the contemporary US job climate.

Natalie comes in to CTC (Bingham’s company) with a Glocalization approach – make the global local.  She puts forward a system where instead of flying “transition specialists” like Ryan from city to city to personally oversee the downsizing, the company can perform their duties via web-conferencing from their home office in Omaha.  This threatens to destroy Ryan’s frequent-flier-mile-chasing, rollerback suitcase lifestyle.  Ryan objects, and is tasked with showing Natalie the ropes.  He provides prejudiced but effective advice on efficiency in travel, as well as sharing his love of flying.  He teaches her how travel has a way of making all places one place.  Kendrick’s Natalie is a very contained, restrained, buttoned up young professional woman, a woman that wants career mobility but also the comforts of a traditional family life with an ideal husband whose qualities she enumerates with the matter-of-factness of a technician naming off features in a designer computer.  She contains emotion well, which makes it all the more striking when her Cornell-taught professional walls come crashing down.

Much of the film rides on the back of the three leads.  Clooney and Farmiga find a comfortable intimacy for their characters as two people used to being alone in a crowd find themselves becoming a team and falling in love.  Keener’s Natalie comes to be a surrogate daughter to Ryan, as she challenges his worldview while learning from it and coming to see that the world does not care for her five, ten, and fifteen year bullet-point life plans.  Vera Farmiga is effortlessly sexy as Ryan’s match and opposite.  One of Alex’s best lines, to Ryan, asks him to think of her as him, but with a vagina.  Farmiga effortlessly oozes sensuality and maturity, in contrast with her junior co-star Keener (though as Retiman says in the commentary, they are playing the same woman at two points in her life, 23 and 38-ish).  Clooney is of course the central figure, as we begin and end with his story.  Clooney’s signature charm serves very well in making Ryan Bingham a likable character instead of an insufferable entitled hermit.   Ryan is believable as the right man to help people through what for many is one of the worst days of their lives.

As a “transition specialist,” Ryan is an artist, rolling with people’s various reactions to getting fired sometimes with strength as needed, sometimes with compassion and encouragement.  He is not their friend, he is not their enemy.  He is their guide in the journey from their old job to their new life.  Much as the people at Hilton, Hertz and American Airlines make Ryan’s journey smooth, he works to make the journey of the recently-terminated a bit more tolerable.

The film maintains tone well, has a strong style and point-of-view showing the world of travel through Ryan’s eyes at first and then letting realism creep in as Ryan comes to depend on people more and make himself vulnerable.  The ending is a calculated question that each viewer must answer to themselves.  It is a film that is easily read as provoking thoughts in the viewer such as “what is important in my life?

Extra features include a commentary with Director/Writer Reitman as well as Director of Photography Eric Steelberg and First Assistant Director Jason Blumfeld.  They discuss the casting, the actor’s performances, the pressures of their multi-location set, as well as editing and lighting and other appropriate matters for crew-end commentary.  The commentary is insightful, but not particularly remarkable as film commentaries go, with most material coming from Reitman himself, talking about his previous films and how they helped lead into Up in the Air.  In addition, there is a featurette about Shadowplay, the company which did the opening credits sequence for this and Reitman’s other two films, as well as deleted scenes and trailers.

One of the sequences in the deleted scenes shows Ryan buying a condo in Omaha (instead of a rented one-bedroom) and nesting there, making a home for himself where previously, home had been the sky and the apartment was just the layover spot between trips.  It shows Ryan putting down roots and putting effort into a localized life – he goes running in the neighborhood instead of on a treadmill, shops for groceries, and tastes the life that he had shunned before.  I believe that this sequence’s omission in the film does the theatrical release a disservice, even though I understand Reitman’s commentary about why it was cut (he wanted to minimize the delay between two critical scenes, with Ryan & Alex at the wedding and then in Chicago).  However, as is, the ending of the film felt incomplete to me in a way that proved disappointing.   Ryan’s arc at the end of the film felt more complete when I mentally integrated the Omaha sequence into the film.

On the personal level, this film resonated with me a lot.  I mean a lot a lot.  I work as a traveling salesman, so I do a fair amount of flying, and a great deal of driving for work and staying in identical hotel rooms far away from the woman I love and my friends back home.  In Ryan I can see the elite status fliers that I see pass me in line, I see reflections of my boss and my boss’s boss, men who travel for a living, and have spent many years growing expert and comfortable with living out of suitcases and garment bags.  The isolation that the film clearly shows (first as irrelevant to Ryan, then deeply felt as the film goes on) is very real to me and I imagine to anyone who has to spend a reasonable or unreasonable number of nights each year away from home, sleeping in a foreign bed in a place that is not “home.”  Bingham has a good lesson to teach in the way he makes all places one place, collapsing the world into a string of experiences and moving confidently through the world of travel.

At the end of the day, I have to agree with what he says towards the end of the movie.  “If you think about it.  Your favorite memories, the most important moments in your life.  Were you alone?…Life’s better with company.  Everybody needs a co-pilot.”

Up in the Air is a brilliantly acted, stylish film that is highly topical and timely, emotionally resonant, and critically adored (with Golden Globe, Screen Actors’ Guild and Academy Award nominations among others).  It’s a good view for fans of subtle comedy, mature romance, and anyone who’s ever been fired, had to fire someone, or spent too many hours on flights, in airports, and away from the ones they love.

Review: Stargate Universe “Air Part 1&2”

I watched the Stargate film back in 1994 when it came to theatres, and then when Stargate: SG-1 came around, I didn’t bother watching it.  I watched a season-and-a-half or so of Stargate:Atlantis, and was usually amused. But I have many friends who swear by various parts of the Stargate-verse, loving SG-1 and trashing on Atlantis, loving-but-criticizing-Atlantis and not caring about SG-1, etc.

So when I saw that there was a new, supposedly stand-alone Stargate series, I took notice.  The casting of Robert Carlyle in the lead went a long way towards getting my attention, as did the concept.

For those not already in the know, here’s the breakdown:  Stargate Universe is about a group of people who get trapped on an ancient spaceship made by a predecessor species only known as the Ancients.  The ship was designed to tour the universe, and from time to time opens up a dimensional portal (the Stargates, natch) to a habitable planet in the surrounding galaxy.  The Stargate remains open for a finite amount of time, and the ship is on auto-pilot, preventing the heroes from taking control of its route.  Using the gate to get back to Earth or to get from Earth to the ship (called the Destiny) is tremendously-plot-says-don’t-do-it difficult.  The tone seems to be substantially darker than previous Stargate series, prompting people to dub it Stargate Galactica or BattleStargate, likening it to the critically-acclaimed 2004-09 Battlestar Galactica.

The overall formula seems to be (Stargate + LOST) x (Sliders + Battlestar Galacatica) = Stargate Universe — which is certainly not a bad mixture of inspirations.

A more detailed and spoilery review follows:

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