The Matrix: 10 Years Later

On March 31st, 10 years ago, a film called The Matrix hit movie theatres and took the film industry/pop culture world by storm. It lead to copy-cats in content, style, and in technology (The Matrix‘s ‘Bullet-cam’ became the ‘effect to do’ for the first several years of the 21st century in action movies)

It was lauded for its originality, but really, it was a combination of a plethora of influences and cultural properties which helped/help define a generation (Gen X, as the creators, Andy and Larry Wachowski). It was Hong Kong cinema made in the US, it was a live-action anime, it was pop-philosophy and comparative religion, it was cyberpunk and a blockbuster film all rolled up into one.

Transmedia Storytelling

It also launched one of the more successful transmedia properties of the last decade, as indicated by its use as an example in Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture chapter “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling)” (Jenkins 2006).

The Matrix universe has grown from one cultural work to include three films, a collection of animated shorts (The Animatrix), several video games (Enter The Matrix, The Matrix: The Path of Neo), including a MMO (The Matrix Online), comic books (The Matrix Comics), and a variety of merchandising tie-ins.

As Jenkins says,

The Wachowski Bros. played the transmedia game very well, putting out the original film to stimulate interest, offering up a few Web comics to sustain the hard-core fan’s hunger for more information, launching the anime in anticipation of the second film, releasing the video game alongside it to surf the publicity, bringing the whole cycle to conclusion with The Matrix Revolutions, then turning the whole mythology over to the players of the massively multiplayer online game. Each step along the way built on what has come before, while offering new points of entry. (Jenkins, 2006).

In the hands of fans

An intrinsic part of successful transmedia storytelling is the creation of a setting that is generative of many stories. The premise of the Matrix allows for a nearly limitless number of stories to be told in a number of genres (A Detective Story is much more in line with the look and feel of Film Noir, whereas “Program” is steeped in samurai action (Chanbara). Since the Matrix itself is a programmed shared universe, it can be modified to fit different desires and perspectives. Why is it that Detective’s Ash world looked so different than Neo’s world? It’s not difficult to read in the possibility that there are/were a number of servers, with different settings (a noir world, a cyberpunk world, etc.) But even without having to fill in the gaps of the setting by making these readings, there are many different places for a number of stories. This allows for fan creativity to enter into the picture, another essential part of a vibrant transmedia property.

The Wachowskis/WB can lay out the official path of transmedia cultural flow between games and films and comics, but if transmedia storytelling universes are maps, there is space beside the roads and outside the buildings in addition to those official pathways and locations. There is always room for fan-fiction, other games, fan art, vidding, and much more.

I remember playing a home-brewed Matrix table-top roleplaying game the summer of 1999, a game designed by friends so that we could tap into the awesomeness of the Matrix setting, even drawn in as limited a fashion as it was when the only data point was the original film. The mythology/setting of the Matrix had proven compelling enough to lead us to make our own ways to interact with the Matrix universe on our own terms, when not provided with an official outlet. A smart transmedia author/creator will encourage this informal/unofficial play/interaction, as it inevitably leads fans/customers back to the official parts, the ones that convert into sales.

Benefits of the transmedia approach

Unofficial transmedia play is free advertising. It keeps fans thinking about the property and shows/develops their level of involvement and investment. The more you play in the world of the matrix, the more it can matter, and so the more you will continue to play, and the more you will reach out to others to join you.

The Matrix universe was far from the first transmedia storytelling venture. George Lucas’ Star Wars had become comics, video games, action figures, trivia games, board games, memorabilia and more decades before The Matrix. However, The Wachowskis & Co. did utilize new media technologies and digital cultural socialization to further its popularity with a strong online presence. The Matrix Comics were first shared online, and preview videos of the Animatrix were available exclusively on the web before the DVD release.

A transmedia approach also allows a cultural property to become a franchise, with film, television, comics, video games, and other media to be tied in, allowing a tv show to reach out to video gamers and to comics readers, building its fan base with every new node in the transmedia map.

Other properties since have followed the transmedia model, but we can remember The Matrix property as one of the most commercially successful examples in recent memory. While opinions on the 2nd and 3rd films vary wildly, it is hard to deny the economic success and cultural impact of the Matrix property, and much of that is due to a transmedia storytelling and marketing approach.

Video — Forever’s Not So Long

More proof that you don’t need a big budget or a long time to tell a good Speculative Fiction story.

You’ll want to watch this un-interrupted. Set aside ten minutes and enjoy.

Forever’s Not So Long from garrettmurray on Vimeo.

Done? Good.

This is one of my favorite modes of Speculative Fiction. The kind that doesn’t need lasers or robots or magic or anything but a single What If used to interrogate the human condition. With hours left to live, two strangers set aside panic and walk hand-in-hand along a path they both know is painfully short, carrying on with life, making a connection they almost invariably wouldn’t have made if not for the impending apocalypse.

Because at the end of the day, it’s all about making connections, sharing experiences, bringing joy into one another’s lives, brief though they may be.

Review — Watchmen

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen was long considered an un-filmable work.  It pushed the formal grammar of comics to new levels, and remains among the top superhero deconstruction narratives.  This review will fully discuss the comic and film versions without pause for spoilers.

So when I heard that a film version was coming, I was suspicious.  The promo shots and trailers and interviews painted a pretty picture, but the big questions remained:

Would Watchmen be able to translate to the film medium and retain its efficacy?  Could it do for superhero films what it did for comics, and for the supers genre?  What would have to change for it to do so?

The film version of Watchmen opens with the Comedian’s murder juxtaposed with Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable.”  The visual style is striking, more polished and shiny than Gibbons’ Watchmen, which was studied and deliberate in its messiness.  The use of music throughout grounds the story within its historical context.

One of the most inspired innovations of film version of Watchmen is the opening credits sequence.  The film shows several living photographs over the cource of the alternative history.  We go from Nite Owl knocking out a crook in front of a theatre (which pinned as being a Batman easter-egg) to Silhouette kissing a nurse in a re-work of the iconic ‘soldier coming home kissing nurse’ picture:


The film takes cues from Moore and Gibbon’s intensely dense intertextual text with this and other allusions.  It shows Sally Jupiter’s retirement party as a re-figuring of the Last Supper:


It also posits the Comedian as one of the gunmen in the Kennedy assassination, and so on.  And the thing tying it all together is Dylan’s “The Times Are A-Changin'”.  By the end of the sequence, you know what’s different in the world, you know what the stakes are for the film.

For the most part, Zach Synder’s film of Watchmen follows the graphic novel closely.  The Black Freighter text-within-a-text is omitted, to be released separately as a DVD.  The basic story beats are there, with more of an emphasis put on the energy crisis aspects of the cold war, such that Ozymandias and Dr. Manhatten’s efforts to fight the dwindling Doomsday Clock by creating a revolutionary energy source.

Synder’s Watchmen turns up the graphic detail of violence, drawing attention to the hyper-violence of the genre in addition to the hyper-sexuality of the fetishistic costumes and their role in the sexual lives of the heroes.

The Moore Continuum

In my earlier post about the Moore Continuum, I talked about how Moore’s critique of superheroes established two ultimate fates of the superhero:  A superhero ultimately becomes a Fascist or a Psychopath.  Dr. Manhatten represents the superhero being used as a totalitarian tool or weapon of mass destruction, ending the Vietnam conflict in a week of action.  The Comedian presents the superhero as a sociopathic rapist turned tool of the establishment (as opposed to the outlaw hero.

Superheroes have been more commonly establishment heroes or outlaw heroes depending on the character or the times.  Superman is more usually an establishment hero, Batman and Spiderman more frequently an outlaw hero).  Within the history of Watchmen, heroes began as outlaws, were accepted and embraced by the establishment for their work in WWII, used by the establishment in Vietnam, then outlawed by the Keene Act.


Among the other notable changes is the fact that the female figures in the film have had their smoking habits removed, despite the chain-smoking of the comic.  This while Comedian is still allowed his cigars — this ties into the new default cultural assumption now that associates smoking with moral fault.  Comedian is an antagonistic/villanous character, so he gets to smoke.  But the Jupiter women are figured as victim and heroine, so they aren’t directly associated with that behavior.

In general, Laurie is allowed to be more heroic and agent than in the comic, participating in most of the current-timeline fight scenes and pulling her own weight alongside Nite Owl II.  However, the entire narrative of Watchmen remains a critique of the gross excesses of the figure of the superhero.

Feet of Clay

We’ve examined the ‘villains’ of the piece, but what about our protagonists?

Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II — an overweight middle-aged shut-in trust-fund kid who wanted to join in the fun, and is impotent without the fetish of his costume and ther aphrodesiac of crime-fighting.  Dan is a self-insert character for any and every superhero fan, any kid who grew up loving superheroes so much that their motives are comprimised — is Dan in it because he wants to do good, of because he wants to matter, to be strong, be powerful, be desirable?

Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II — A woman who is defined entirely by her relationships to other characters.  She goes into heroing to follow after her mother, falls in with Dr. Manhatten and becomes his sole link to humanity, then imprints on Dan when Dr. Manhatten slips away from her, re-creating her hero worship while acting as a hero herself because she doesn’t know anything else.

Walter Kovacs/Rorschach — A dangerous sociopath raised in a broken home and consdered worthless growing up, he found refuge in crime-fighting, found a way to channel his rage into righteous fury into (somewhat) socially-acceptable channels.  For all that he is a crime fighter, he is also a racist misogynist bigot who mooches off of his fellow heroes and unquestioningly murders criminals.  His fetish is the Rorschach mask, which he calls his ‘face’ — Kovacs has abdicated his identity and given himself over to his superhero identity, to escape his painful past.

Our ‘heroes’ are far from the paragons of virtue that characters like Superman or Spiderman are made out to be.  Now any given hero has their weaknesses — it makes for more human, compelling figures for a hero to transcend their faults to do the right thing.  But the weakness and faults in Watchmen’s heroes run so deep that every step of the way, their actions are suspect, must be judged in context with each character’s less-than-heroic motivations — Dreiburg for virility, Jupiter for validation, Kovacs for control.  The film does a fine job of following suit with Moore and Gibbons’ storytelling in this regard, such that by the end of the narrative, the protagonists are less reprehensible than the villains, but are hardly role models.

The Ending

In the comic version of Watchmen, Ozymandias created an alien invasion scare by teleporting a giant alien corpse into Times Square, creating a rallying point for humanity to unite against an external threat.  The alien is seeded throughout the series, gestured at and shown in parts.

In the film, Ozymandias instead uses the energy sources he and Dr. Manhatten had been making, and replicates effects associated with Dr. Manhatten.  He plays on established fears of the godlike figure and re-works nuclear apocalyptic anxiety to provide the unifying threat that ends the Cold War.

In both cases, Rorschach’s journal makes its way to the New Frontiersman, which would raise enough questions about Ozymandias’ involvement to bring down the whole house of cards.  In the comic, the New Frontiersman is established throughout the series, but in the film, it is included at the very end without introduction.  Regardless, the point is that after Dan and Laurie agree to lie to preserve the costly peace, the truth will come out anyways.


I doubt that Watchmen will revolutionize superhero film the way that it changed superhero comics.   It presented an impressive visual style, but satisfied itself by re-creating and somewhat re-working the story.  The credits sequence alternative history was powerful, but even with the evocative usage of music (even though Battlestar Galactica fans will forever associate “All Along The Watchtower” with Cylons).

The film’s first weekend performance ($55 million) was, when we take the recession in context, is impressive.  Depending on second-week dropoff and general reception, will determine how the film will be remembered in terms of the superhero film trend.  We may see other film adaptations of famous comics, though for many of the leading franchises, the adaptation process complicates the possibility of direct adaptations.  Marvel Studios continue building towards their massive crossover Avengers film, following the unexpected success of Iron Man and their competition’s success with The Dark Knight.  Superhero films don’t seem to be going anywhere yet, and the film was not adapted in such as to condemn or indict other superhero films or their franchises.

If you’ve read Watchmen, seeing the film will let you see iconic moments brought to life, though the adaptation is not perfect, and the changes made have provoked negative reactions from fans, but other fans have been satisfied with the adpatation and noted the increased role given to Silk Spectre II.  If you haven’t read the comic but are interested in the supers genre, it’s worth a look to see a critique of the genre brought to the big screen.  But then go read the comic afterwords.

Review — Sukiyaki Western Django

The western and samurai film genres have long been intertwined.  Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo have been re-worked as The Magnificent Seven, Fistful of Dollars, and there are many more in the same vein.

Therefore, a parodic homage to the film Django is far from unprecedented.  Sukiyaki Western Django is a Japanese version of the Italian Spaghetti Western, directed by Takashi Miike, best known in the USA for films such as Ichi the Killer and Audition.  Sukiyaki is a common, simple Japanese dish that is easily comparable to spaghetti.  Therefore, where an Italian western is a spaghetti western, a Japanese one is a Sukiyaki Western.

Sukiyaki Western Django employs the Nameless/Man With No Name character as a drifter who wanders into a town in Nevada.  The town has been driven into the ground by a conflict between the Heike and Genji clans, who are both searching for the legendary treasure the town is supposed to contain.  The Heike wear red, the Genji white–the Red/White connection is equated to the War of the Roses, including Taira no Kiyomori (of the Heike), who insists people call him Henry (as in Henry V from Shakespeare).  The gold rush is also an opportunity for the two clans to reprise their famous conflict from the Genpei war, which is depicted in the Heike no Monogatari (Tale of the Heike).  The characters in the film refer to this older conflict, as well as directly alluding to Yojimbo, where a nameless warrior (who gives an obvious pseudonym) sells his services to both of two warring clans and pits them against one another.

The town of ‘Nevada’ (written in Kanji) is a bizarrely seamless fusion of Old West and Old Japan, with raised rooves and rickety wooden houses.  The sign/gate above Nevada looks like a torii if you squint, but it’s alongside actual torii in the town.  The members of the Heike and Genji clans predominantly use guns, but Minamoto no Yoshitsune, named for the legendary Minamoto hero, is always seen with a katana.

A number of the bizarre things in the film are more easily understood when a media scholar combines genre studies with an East Asian Studies degree (which I conveniently have).  The scene where Yoshitsune shoots Kiyomori/Henry from afar evokes the legendary archery prowess of the pre-samurai bushi, who would fight duels with their long bows at great distance. The katana was really the second iconic weapon of the samurai, just the one that has become more recognized and fetishized post-facto.

One of the characters, Bloody Benten, is a violent version of the Fortune (goddess) Benten (Sarasvati in Buddhism/Hinduism).  Benten is the patroness of ‘everything that flows’ — oration, music, etc.  As Bloody Benten, she is more associated with flowing blood rather than flowing words.  Benten is also associated with fortune/riches (again relevant in the film).

Quentin Tarantino plays the Token White Guy in the film (the other Caucasian character is a one-line part as a servant of one of the characters, reversing the older stereotypical role of the Chinaman/Oriental assistant), despite that all of the characters are speaking in English.  Tarantino’s character also violently breaks the fourth wall in referring to the naming of one of the characters (Akira).  Tarantino’s character says that he was always just an old-school anime otaku — Akira being named for the manga/film, but also alluding to Akira Kurosawa.  The opening scene of the film and Tarantino’s other scenes with him at his normal age rather than being in a clockwork chair and covered in makeup to evoke the old-looking-superpowered-children in Akira are all shot on a soundstage with a painted background and a cardboard/something sun held up by clearly visible string.

Sukiyaki Western Django is probably too dense, too post-modern and intertextual for most audiences, and is a failure on that level.  Intertexuality should never come at the cost of understandability, and Miike cannot expect viewers to all already know the following texts:  Heike no Monogatari, Django, Yojimbo, Fistful of Dollars, Akira, etc. as well as having a genre knowledge of westerns, samurai dramas and Japanese history/culture, the War of the Roses and Shakespeare.  Without the touchstone knowledge, the film is confusing at best, an incomprehensible bizarre mess at worst.  However, if you know more than half/three-quarters of the above references and some others to go with them, you might enjoy it for the gloriously bizarre mish-mash that it is.

Review — Role Models

The 2008 film Role Models stars Seann William Scott, Paul Rudd, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Elizabeth Banks, and more.

Scott and Rudd are Danny and Wheeler, promoters for the Minotaur energy drink who end up doing stupid comedy things and get sentenced to do 150 hours of community service.

Danny and Wheelerare paired with youths in the Sturdy Wings program (in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters mode).  The overall message of the film is ‘find something you love and be happy with it and with who you are.’

The part of the film most interesting to me is the depiction of geeks and geekdom.  In the plot with Danny and Mintz-Plasse (aka McLovin’ from Superbad).  Mintz-Plasse is Augie Farks, a bespectacled teenaged role-player who does boffer LARPS (Aka hitting your friends with padded weapons).

Augie’s mother and step-father/mother’s boyfriend look down at Augie’s hobby and want Danny to help them bring Augie into the ‘real world’ — but they do so without having ever gone to watch Augie at LAIRE (Live Action Interactive Roleplaying Explorers).  Danny too is initially put off by Augie’s hobby, but after watching and then partaking, he sees the ways that LAIRE provides a social outlet for Augie, allows him to channel his passion into something that encourages exercise (even light exercise) develops skills (Augie sews/embroiders a badge for Rudd to wear), and is the place where he sees his crush, Esplen/Sarah. Danny urges Augie to talk to Esplen/Sarah rather than just longing after her from afar.

Overal, the representation of geekdom and boffer LARPs is even-handed to positive.  The people involved are clearly having a great deal of fun with their hobby, with a large, active, and welcoming community.  Some take things very seriously, to the detriment of others’ experience, but that happens everywhere.  Danny’s embracing of LAIRE helps bring both pairs together at the end.  Augie’s mother and step-kinda-not-actually-father see the group playing at the end, see how much it means to Augie, and come to appreciate it (and him, for who he is).

There’s a great exchange between Danny and one of the LAIRE players that captures the fun aspects of LAIRE and the hobbies it represents:

Warrior: I’m DEAD I’m DEAD!
Danny: Sorry, Sorry.
Warrior: Fun though right?
Danny: It’s a blast!
Warrior: Contagious! I know!
Danny: Totally.
Warrior: Come back next year, we need people.
Danny: Ok
Warrior: Give me you email!

The warrior then remembers he’s been killed and over-acts his death.

In the battle Augie saves his crush Esplen from being killed, kills the King, and is finally killed by Esplen at the very end while he was celebrating his victory over the King.  At the bonfire party after the war, Augie goes over to Esplen to congratulate her.  Esplen/Sarah asks him to be her King (since she’s now the Queen), and then he kisses her.  It’s all very cute awkward adolescent geek romance.

Augie’s part of the story is precious at times and fairly simple, but I’m happy to have more representations of  geekdoms where the geeks are clearly humanized and their hobbies seen not as something to out-grow, but something to be enjoyed.  Not that LARPs are all automagically wonderful and not that I think people should only be involved in LARPS/gaming/fantasy, but I’m pleased to identify Role Models as part of a more positive/realistic representation of geek cultures in mainstream media.

Review — Done The Impossible

Once upon a time, there was a show called Firefly.  It had fan-favorite Joss Whedon at the helm and a distinct view of the future, a western-flavored future that wasn’t about the people in the shiny organized space ships.  Instead, it focused on the people on the edge, misfits and outcasts.

It was plagued from nearly the beginning by interference from executives, and was canceled in less than a season.

But the fans were not done with the world of Firefly, nor were those involved in its creation.

Done the Impossible is a documentary that tells the story of the Firefly/Serenity-verse, through the lens of fans of the ‘verse.  The documentary is not for the unitiated, instead, it is itself a work of fandom, a gift from a team of Firefly fans (Browncoats) to the community.  With narrations from fans, cast & crew, Done the Impossible talks about the show, the time between Firefly and Serenity, and then the arrival of the film.

In years past, I’d thought that a combined ethnographic/cultural studies analysis of Browncoats would make a good book-lenth project.  I still do, as Done the Impossible has not already done that work.  I’m not very involved with Firefly fandom myself — I watched the series the first time around and told my friends, then sent my DVD set to make its way throughout my friends groups.  But I did not partake in much if any of the intense and highly active grassroots campaigning and guerilla marketing that is discussed in the film.  In this case, I would have the positionality of being one of ‘the Browncoats’ without being as much of an insider as with other groups.

Firefly fandom is intriguing in that we can look at it and confidently say that it was the fans’ efforts which led to the creation of Serenity.  Creator Joss Whedon repeated a line from the series at the first of the Serenity early screenings:

“We have done the impossible, and that makes us mighty.”

The line is the source of the documentary’s title, and has become a rallying cry for Browncoats, a reminder of the power of guerilla marketing and grassroots fan activity.

There have been ‘Save my favorite show’ campaigns before, but while the Browncoats’ efforts didn’t bring back the show on TV, since its cancellation, Firefly has had two comic series, a tabletop role-playing game line, a major motion picture, and continues to have a strong and active fan-base.  Browncoats continue to host ‘shindigs’ and other events, sharing their passion of a show that like its namesake, shone brightly, went dim, and then shone again just as briefly.

Don’t look to Done the Impossible for an introduction to Firefly, or even as an ethnographic work explicating fandom in general.  It is a specialized work done from within a fan community for that fan community.  If you’re already one of the flock, then pull out your Browncoat, pour some Mudder’s Milk, and join in the geek-fest.

Another, post-review note, about positionality:   There are many ways to be a fan within a community, different degrees of engagement.  To use Firefly as an example — there are people who watched Firefly and liked it.  There are people who consider themselves fans, but don’t necessarily identify with the Browncoat movement.  Then there are any number of different levels and types of involvement within the Browncoats, from fan-fiction to convention organizing to costuming to fan art to role-playing games to podcasting to guerilla marketing and more.  These people are all members of the fan community to different degrees.  There are a lot of ways to be a fan, within one fandom and across many fandoms.  This becomes readily evident at any general convention, where fans move between groups to share their passion for shows, games, films, comics, and more.

For a fan-scholar, you’re never going to be as into everything as the people you interview/work with.  I may be able to speak most of the dialects of geek (video gamer, comics geek, anime otaku, role-player), but in any given situation, I can’t assume I know more about a fandom than anyone I’m talking to.  They get to exercise mastery of knowledge as a result of their involvement, and in turn, I exercise my status as a scholar and serve to represent fans to members of another community, that of the scholars (who may or may not be fans).  Scholarship in fan studies has always been in an interesting state, given that there are well-established and vibrant fan scholars who may not have the same academic credentials but do similar work.

Questions of power, authority, agency and positionality are never far from any ethnographic study, even moreso in fan studies and media studies.  Scholars are accountable to the public and should always be aware of their cultural power — even though we are a part of the panopticon like everyone else.

Escape From City-17 Part One

The Purchase Brothers have released the first episode of a Half-Life 2 fan video Escape From City-17.

Episode 1:

Now that you’ve watched it — here’s the really impressive part — the first two episodes were made on $500. It’s a marvel how far you can get when people work for the love.

The video liberally uses effects and designs from the video game to great effect (which also serves to make the production cheaper) — the flatline sounds for the Combine Police, the gun FX, and re-works the computer effects of the tripods and Combine ships.

We’ve seen only a bit of characterization so far, but the premise provides more than enough narrative momentum for now.

Escape From City-17 is one of a growing number of professional-level fan videos which, through new media outlets such as YouTube, serve as a training and proving ground for up-and-coming directors/animators/actors. It’s a formula already proven by Felicia Day’s The Guild, LonelyGirl15, etc. Escape From City-17 is additionally impressive due to the effects involved. Rather than having to move to LA (or an equivalent film center–I’m going to speak from a USA perspective) and spend years trying to break in, creators can make their own works, distribute and advertise via YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, etc., and some of them break through. The chance of success may not be any better than breaking in by going to LA, but the opportunity cost is much less, as it doesn’t force creators to up-root and move across the country/world.

This is only the first episode, so we have more coming. The Purchase Brothers have already been in contact with Valve, so I imagine we will see much more from this team.

Review — Coraline (film)

Coraline is adapted from the Hugo-winning Neil Gaiman novella (illustrated by Dave McKean) and directed by Henry Selick, who directed The Nightmare Before Christmas. It is advertised as the first stop-motion film created for 3-D.

The voice acting is strong, meshing well with the character modeling chosen for the film version.  The film makes a few changes from the novella, most notably in adding a companion character for Coraline, Wybie Lovat.  Wybie provides some exposition that contextualizes the events at the house, and is part of the film adaptation’s efforts to flesh out the story into a shapen and scope that fits the medium and the time (111 minutes).

If you don’t know the novella, here’s a short synopsis:

Coraline Jones is an inquisitive, curious explorer of a nine year old girl.  She and her family have moved into an apartment in an old house in the country, but is ignored by her parents, who are both writers.  In the film, her parents are up against a deadline, which accounts for their distaction.

After exploring the house and the environs, she finds, inside the house, a door to nowhere.  The door leads to a mirror of her apartment, but with her ‘Other Mother,’ who looks the same except for black buttons as her eyes.  As Coraline’s visits to the world of the Other Mother continue, the wonderous turns to the delightfully creepy, as Selick and his team build on Gaiman’s surrealist vision to deliver a story that is tight, symbolicaly rich but never confusing.

To speak more about the voice talent — Dakota Fanning gives the right balance of youth, curiosity and spunk for Coraline, Teri Hatcher plays from distracted to warm to terrifying as the Mother/Other Mother, and John Hodgeman puts in a great supporting performance as the Father/Other Father.

Coraline is one of a sadly few film adaptations of novels/textual works where the adaptation both adds to the original work while doing justice to its source material.  Selick’s film Coraline gives a visual/auditory experience which enriches the textual experience of Gaiman (and McKean, if you have the illustrations)’s novella.  A viewer can easily appreciate the film version without having read the book, as did my sister.

The film is currently playing in 3-D for a limited time, and I highly recommend that everyone take the chance to see it in 3-D.  Unlike “Chuck vs. The Third Dimension,” Coraline makes striking use of the 3-D technology, enhancing critical emotional moments and providing texture for the film.  The 3-D provides a depth of field, makes the high-emotion moments ‘pop,’ and creates an overall more visceral experience.

Movie Mini-Reviews

I’ve been both ill and snowed-in this week.  Therefore, I’ve seen a few movies of late.  Here are some short thoughts.

Blue State ( 2007 ) Breckin Meyer is Bleeding Heart Liberal John, who promises on TV that he’ll move to Canada if Kerry loses the 2004 election.  He is joined by Anna Paquin as the cute but guarded Chloe.  John is more than a bit preachy, but luckily Meyer carries it off well — he’s annoying about his views, but in the disbelieving desperate way, that gets explained well throughout the film, and it captures the disbelief and despair of the time.  Anna Paquin plays cute but world-weary rather than falling into a Garden State-esque Manic Pixie Dream Girl role which is so common for romantic comedies.

100 Girls ( 2000 ) — Tries to examine the conflicting cultural factors surrounding gender in a feminist age, dating, and love.  College freshman Matthew (Jonathan Tucker) is trapped in a dark elevator of a girl’s dormitory and meets/sleeps with the ‘love of his life.’  In the morning, he is left with only a piece of her underwear.  Matthew spends the year trying to re-connect with the girl, learning and discussing with the camera topics like feminism, masculinity, gender, dating and love.   The discussions of gender and love make this more of a meta-romantic comedy, examining the process and the biases as the story plays out.  The end product is laudable for its effort if not the execution.

Kung Fu Panda ( 2008 ) Jack Black is the voice of Po, a panda who has grown up on legends of kung fu, but is stuck working at the family soup restaurant.  Meanwhile, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) eagerly awaits the appointing of the Dragon Warrior, a prophesied hero who will be entrusted with the ultimate kung fu secret.  His students, the Furious Five (Tigress, Monkey, Viper, Mantis, Crane–the five animals of five animal kung-fu) vie for the honor and the burden of the role.  When Po is revealed as the Dragon Warrior, Po learns the difficult truth of Kung Fu and the other martial artists re-think their preconceptions as Tai Lung (former disciple of Shifu) escapes his prison and returns for vengence and the Dragon Scroll.  Kung Fu Panda is a rare film that succeeds as both an Anthropomorphic Animal Comedy and a Kung Fu Movie.  Black is more lovable than annoying, and the moral lessons throughout are clear but not annoying.  An unexpected gem of a film.

The Dark Knight ( 2008 ) Christopher Nolan’s vision of Batman returns as Batman (Christopher Bale) is trapped in an escalating conflict between the Joker (Heath Ledger) and White Knight District Attourney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckart)–who is dating Bruce’s former beau Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal).  Dark and tense, emotional and psychological, Ledger and Nolan give us one of the all-time most compelling versions of The Joker.  The Joker, Dent, and Batman pull and push one another, vying for the fate and soul of Gotham.  One of the best films of the year, and one of the best if not the best superhero film of the decade.

Smart People ( 2008 ) Dennis Quaid is Professor Lawrence Wetherhold, curmudgeonly widower English professor at CMU.  Ellen Page (of Juno fame) is his too-perfect teenage daughter Vanessa.  Balancing out these two is Thomas Haden Church as Lawrence’s adopted brother Chuck.  Chuck tries to lighten his family up, while Dr. Janet Hartigan (Sarah Jessica Parker), a former student of Wetherhold’s, tentatively makes advances.  Lawrence and Janet stumble through the early stages of romance while Chuck’s efforts to get Vanessa to loosen up escalate beyond his intent.  A contemplative study of people smart enough to be idiotic around other people and the more ‘normal’ people who love them.

Wristcutters: A Love Story ( 2006 ) Surprisingly uplifting for a story about the limbo-world where suicides go to live out some kind of purgatorial life.  Patrick Fugit is Zia, who kills himself after being dumped by his beloved Desiree (Leslie Bibb).  Zia is joined by his fellow suicide Eugene on a cross-country quest for Desiree, who Zia learns has ‘offed’ as well.  They are joined by Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), who would be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl if the suicide-world weren’t one completely bereft of smiles.  A stealth/slipstream speculative fiction story about depression, suicide, and finding hope in the depth of darkness.

Gray Matters ( 2006 ) A Coming-Out story wrapped in a Romantic Comedy.  Sam and Gray Baldwin (Tom Cavanagh and Heather Graham) are a joined-at the hip duo, actually brother and sister.  When they make efforts to find love and distinct lives, Sam meets Charlie and the two have a whirlwind romance that goes from meeting to betrothal in one date.  Gray and Charlie get on swimmingly as well–too well in fact, as Gray realizes she’s fallen in love with Charlie as well.  The Romantic Comedy between Sam and Charlie is really just the inciting incident for Gray’s own story of self-discovery, as she comes out to herself and then her family, learning to find the balance between maintaining her close relationship with her brother but also searching for love on her own.   More than a little cheesy, and mostly un-nuanced in its depiction of lesbianism, but it is one of many small steps towards normalizing GLBTQ culture in the US — Gray’s homosexuality is never condemned, but accepted by her family, work, and therapist — the conflict for Gray is with her own doubt, and in the confusion and hurt feeling between her and her brother.

In the hopefully-not-too-distant future, I want to do a Ethnographic/Cultural Studies project on romantic comedies and how members of Gen X/Gen Y use/are effected by Romantic Comedies in how they approach/consider love, gender, and romance.  This intention makes watching only-passable romantic comedies much easier/justifyable.

Return to Leverage

Leverage has arrived on TNT, and we’ve now had four episodes (the pilot which I discussed earlier and three more).

As the show settles into its digs, we can see what the series is likely to look and feel like in an ongoing fashion.  Leverage is clearly over-the-top, trading mimetic realism for the joyous fun of heist and con-man action where Awesomeness is a clear and present aesthetic agenda.

In “The Two-Horse Job” and in “The Miracle Job,” the characters’ backstory is central both to the reason for the team taking each case and also plays out in the interpersonal drama between the leads and the guest-star clients.   Other characters’ investment in the individual jobs waxes and wanes based on their personal beliefs regarding the lines which the team has to cross along the way, which keeps the procedural formula from growing stale.

Leverage plays like a 21st century A-team, but instead of being a group of ex-special forces soldiers, the show draws more upon the caper, heist, and do-gooder fixer traditions of series including Mission: Impossible, Burn Notice and films like Ocean’s Eleven, among many others. The characters are a WASP-y ex-insurance claims investigator, a black geek-chic computer hacker, an Autism-spectrum super-thief, an actress who is abysmal in productions but inspired in confidence games, and a wise-cracking thug.  The actors bring enthusiasm and oddity to their characters, making sure that each character is just a couple degrees off-center for their archetype.

We’ve also been introduced to an ongoing antagonist for the characters in Jim Sterling, played by Mark “Badger” Sheppard.  Sterling is a worthy opponent for our team, having taken over in the job formerly held by Nathan Ford (Timothy Hutton), the team’s leader.

One of the main reasons the show is compelling is that for all the heroes’ schemes and plotting, things keep going wrong.  They have a good idea which goes much further than intended, and then they need to come up with a new scam to un-do the earlier scam.  This scrambling and reversal forces the characters to go out of their comfort zones, improvise, and get into more trouble.

Table Talk and The Joy of Planning

The show also plays like a tabletop RPG game, unsurprising since the show and certain traditions of tabletop play draw influence from the same sources.  Each character is an expert in their niche, they have diverse and intriguing backgrounds, and most of all, they bicker and banter over planning in a way that is highly reminiscent of any number of gaming sessions where characters spend more time thinking of the plan than actually executing those plans.

And here’s the thing — in a caper/confidence game situation, the planning is one of the most fun/exciting things.  The architecture of a scam, the construction and unfolding of a human Rube Goldberg machine provides one of the main aesthetic thrills of the narrative mode which Leverage makes its home territory.

Where shows like LOST have used extended flashbacks to provide B-plots for episodes, portraying characters at different stages of their life to show character growth or lack therof, Leverage often goes for quick flashbacks to provide punchlines to jokes our to counter-point/undermine what a character is saying in the present.  Leverage‘s flashbacks are more mad-cap, and provide a fair amount of the sjow’s Over-The-Topness.

Leverage is a show to watch, and has the benefit of Prime-time cable-drama ratings expectations rather than Network Prime-Time expectations.  I doubt Leverage will ever be a big hit, but it may be able to achieve a strong following based on its quirky and compelling over-the-top caper action.