Sunday, October 18, 2009

Inside Each One of Us Is...

First off, I want to say to anyone who plans on seeing this movie to toss out any expectations you might have before doing so. Going to watch this while having ideas about what to expect will not prove fulfilling, and this movie really deserves the chance to be experienced for what it is, not what people think it should be. I can guarantee you that it will probably not be what most people are expecting, but that doesn't mean it's bad. In fact, it's probably one of the best movies I've seen in a while, and certainly one of the most ambitious.

That makes it sound complicated, and on one hand it is, but mostly it's not. It's just made in a way that makes us think in ways we're not used to. This isn't a movie that champions the story, the important parts aren't what's said or what's done, it's what's felt. I really believe this is movie you have to experience emotionally, not intellectually, because it's ultimately about emotions that aren't fully comprehended but are nonetheless present. In some ways, it's difficult to experience because these emotions are present in just about everyone, but they're not always pleasant. It's a movie about childhood and what it's like to be a kid going through life transitions, and every kid has gone through them. Not in the same ways, but the feelings are probably pretty universal, and that's what makes it hard to watch at times.

It's not a feel-good movie the way we expect children's movies to be, it's more honest. I didn't find it depressing the way many people did, nor did I find it cathartic or uplifting. It's difficult to describe my response to it because I'm honestly not sure what I feel aside from respect for everyone involved in making it. It's a challenging movie, but it's not hard to understand when you stop trying to figure it out and just experience it.
The performances are fantastic. The kid playing Max, Max Records, never once seems like he's acting to me. This is a really challenging role for anyone, but particularly a kid because it's all internal. There are no Shakespearean soliloquies about what's going on with him, he doesn't try to explain it to anyone because he himself doesn't know what's going on inside him. But there are things going on, very specific things, that have to be projected for the audience to understand, and he does it phenomenally. The Things, too, are wonderful. The voice actors are all brilliant, especially James Gandolfini as Carol-- he's probably one of the most complex parts of the film aside from Max himself, and he just owns it.

But it's not even those performances, the actors inside the Thing suits never hit a wrong note with their body language, and the CGI expressions for their faces are some of the best animated acting I've seen done. There's so much subtlety in those faces, so many little things that hit emotional points with the audience in the brief flash they're onscreen. It's something you only notice in hindsight because I didn't notice it at all when I was watching it. That's how I know something is really done well. There was one part at the end with no words spoken, but to do so would have marred the emotional impact it had on me. It was probably the closest thing to an emotional climax the movie has, and it was beautiful because no one had to explain it.
I could try and talk about the film some more, but it's hard to do when you're trying to explain something like a feeling to a person who hasn't experienced it. (The film itself even does this a few times in the way that children explain things when they don't have the words.) So to the people interested in it, go see it, but leave your expectations and fuzzy childhood memories at the door. Leave all your baggage outside the theater, stop trying to make sense out of it, and just let the film be what it is. Doesn't mean you have to like it, and some people won't, even if they "get" it. But just try to take the film on its own terms and realize it's not the sort of film you're probably used to seeing-- it's trying something new. That alone makes it worth seeing in my book, regardless of how successful it is in the end.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

"Moonlighting" and the Defense of Domestic Violence

I've been watching a lot of the old Moonlighting show recently for a paper I'm writing for my History of Television class, and I've noticed a distinct change in tone from the writing in the third season. Previous seasons always tackled the idea of "the battle of the sexes" with the two leads, David (Bruce Willis) taking the role of the lowbrow, laid-back, street smart, sexist guy and Maddie (Cybill Shepard) taking the role of the uptight, uptown, aloof, cultured, feminist woman, butting heads over just about everything while clearly just wanting to rip each other's clothes off under it all. Season three was more of the same, but I can't help but notice a very discernible shift in loyalties on the part of the show itself. Instead of trying to present Maddie's side (and her character) as understandable and reasonably angry with her partner's grating and unprofessional behavior, it goes out of its way to construct her as an overly judgemental harpy who needs to be brought down a few pegs, preferably by her suddenly more reasonable and more often correct partner. Her character is harshly criticized and often shamed far more frequently than his is, and a much bigger deal is made about taming her 'shrewish' behavior than about confronting David's personality flaws-- in fact he's more frequently constructed as the sympathetic hero just looking out for her and trying to humanize her than before.

There are plenty of examples of this at work, like the Christmas episode which takes the Dickens approach to Maddie's humbug attitude: her staff is angry because she's keeping the office open until Christmas to work on a case they'd already accepted (I'd be angry, too), but she's been stressing about making ends meet since they have so few cases, even covering her employees' paychecks herself when there wasn't enough money in the company account, and on top of it all, her sick aunt, whom she'd been meaning to visit in the hospital but hadn't gotten to yet, died that morning. As sympathetically as the episode starts, it quickly goes on to show her how terrible she's been in wishing that she hadn't kept the business open by showing her how people's lives would have turned out without it-- Agnes the kindhearted receptionist wound up the cold, steely president of a greeting card company (supposed to be a reflection of Maddie herself), David wound up engaged to a supermodel and even bought Maddie's house because of "a very good year" which is never elaborated on, and Maddie herself wound up broke and alone, crashing her car into a wall. All this is to get her to repent her humbug ways and drop the case so everyone can have Christmas off. There is a token bit where the three people who had been particularly mean to her apologized when they found out about her aunt dying, but it's really Maddie who's shown to have the most to apologize for.

However, I feel the most blatant example of the shift in writing comes from the episode "The Man Who Cried Wife", only the second one of the season. Here, a man is shown coming home to his philandering wife, whom he strikes so hard, he kills her. He's so remorseful over this that he doesn't call the police or relatives, but instead drags her body to the woods, buries her, and doesn't say a word to anyone. Until he starts getting phone calls from her, that is. So he goes to hire some private detectives to figure out what's going on, but Maddie doesn't want a thing to do with a man who hit his wife, no matter how remorseful he may have felt about it afterwards. David disagrees and thus follows one of the most one-sided, flagrantly biased debates on the entire show.

Because we all know it's all right to hit someone as long as you feel really bad about it afterward and the person "had it coming". Come on. So after this, of course Maddie's so shamed by her irrational dislike of a man who killed his wife in a fit of passion and then buried her in the woods, that she apologizes and joins David on the case. David, as he so frequently is in these episodes, is coldly condescending and clearly supposed to represent the more "realistic" attitude about passion and spontaneity that excuses and forgives both the husband here and Maddie for their physical displays of anger. There's no point of contention that it was wrong for either of them because they were angry and provoked into behaving in such a way. (For my money, Maddie hit David way too much in the whole show, but I guess in the 80s it was still funny and acceptable for women to slap men because men were manly and could take it. Or something.) Once again, Maddie is shamed and brought down off her high horse while David gets to play the condescending educator who can sanctimoniously forgive her after the realizes the error of her ways.

I don't hate the whole show, really. But some of these episodes sit in a really icky place with me.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

But Does She Wear a Wonder Bra...?

I realized I hadn't made an animation-related post in a while, which must be something of a record for me, so time to fix that.

Okay, so I've never really been a Wonder Woman fan. No real reason behind it, I have nothing against the character, she just never really snagged my attention. I never saw the Linda Carter TV series, I never watched Super Friends, and the only WW comics I have, I actually bought for the Huntress mini-stories in the back. I've seen some Justice League cartoons, but she really never appealed to me in those-- she just seemed like a stodgy, stuck-up, humorless, statue with way too many superpowers (I had no idea she could fly, that seemed like overkill to me). She just seemed like they took Batman's personality (minus the genius-level intellect-- she's not stupid, just not a super-genius), and stuck it into a supermodel's body with Superman's powers and called it good. Others disagree and that's cool. I didn't have much investment in her before that and her portrayal there just put me off of her even more.

So when I heard about an animated WW movie coming to DVD, I wasn't really interested until I heard who the voice cast was. Kerri Russell does not conjure the image of a stony killjoy, and I'll watch pretty much anything with Nathan Fillion in it, since I think he's both dishy and fun. Add to that the fact that I happened to be watching someone on Deviantart (Lauren Montgomery) who turned out the be the director of this movie, and that was enough to spark some interest in me to see it.

It was a lot of fun. By far one of the better direct-to-DVD releases for superheroes I've seen so far, which was gratifying in its own right, but it also actually made me care about the character for the first time. I wish they'd make a TV series based around this, or at least a sequel, because I'd love to see more of this WW and the world she lives in. I really did have a blast watching it, and they did a good job of giving the characters some humanity and something for the viewer to identify with. You can understand why the Amazons would want to seclude themselves from the rest of the world, you can understand WW's frustration with the culture shock of a world run by men, as well as Steve's frustration at being criticized all the time.

When a girl kicks your butt, it means she likes you.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. For people who don't know how the story goes, basically there's an island secluded from the rest of the world where the Amazons live-- in this version it's because waaaay back in the day, they were enslaved and abused by Ares, the Greek god of war and this was how Hera was able to give them time to heal-- and men are not allowed to set foot upon on pain of death. Hippolyte, the ruler of the island, wanted a daughter and made one out of clay (or in this case, beach sand) and the child was given life by the gods, along with other virtues such as strength, speed, wisdom, and beauty. Diana (they liked to mix and match Greek and Roman names, I guess) is the one who would become Wonder Woman, when years and years later a U.S. fighter pilot named Steve Trevor would crash land on their island and need an escort back home. Diana proves to be the most qualified for the job of ambassador, and since she's the only one who hasn't seen the outside world herself, she's by far the most eager to go. And so begins Princess Diana's adventures in "Man's World".

It takes a confident woman to wear that in public.

In this movie, Diana has another reason to leave the island as well-- when the Amazons defeated Ares thousands of years ago, Zeus imprisoned him on their island, but soon after Steve arrives, he escapes. Diana's mission is to both return Steve to the U.S. and to find Ares and stop him from wreaking havoc on the modern world. So she's got her work cut out for her on her first trip away from home.

Steve realizes too late that Amazons remove their sense of humor when they hit puberty.

Now as much fun as the movie is, it's not perfect. The 'battle of the sexes' that Diana and Steve engage in through most of it feels somewhat dated because of some of the points of contention. I can't speak for anyone else, but I haven't heard the issue of men opening doors for women brought up in like twenty years, but maybe I'm out of touch. It just felt like it missed the point sometimes, or left out a few decades of progress in gender relations. Steve's such a pig it's almost ridiculous at times, and that comes off as somewhat flat (he seriously tries to get Diana drunk while he takes her "sightseeing" at some hole in the wall bar), and he has this really off-the-mark speech in a hospital later that is just... sort of... ugh. He's so much of a pig through the movie it's sometimes hard to understand what she sees in him, at least in terms of romantic compatibility-- this makes me want to see if they could flesh him out a bit better in a sequel, since it felt like they fumbled with him in this.

Comparing sizes is evidently universal.

It also commits the faux pas of mistaking masculinity for strength, and in fact seems to have trouble validating traditionally feminine or intellectual traits. It sort of makes a token effort, but then undermines it almost immediately by defaulting back to the 'masculine' stuff. Given that so much of the film revolves around these ideas, I think it's a fair gripe, but the rest of it is so much fun, I don't have much trouble forgiving it.

They did a really nice job with the animation, too. I wanted to take stills of some of my favorite scenes because there are some really gorgeous compositions, but I'm on a new computer and haven't figured out how to do any of that yet. But they did a pretty decent job of giving it an 'epic' feel without the budget for an epic movie, and some of the fight sequences have some nice pieces of animation. I like the designs for the most part, though Steve's rather plain-looking and blah, which might have more to do with his coloring than anything else. But I like that the Amazons have some musculature and broader shoulders, and that they gave Diana a more "Greek" nose than she's traditionally drawn with. And people change their clothes, too! I like it when cartoon characters have more than one outfit to wear. There was one design that came out of left field and I'm sort of ambivalent about it (you'll know which one I'm talking about if you see it), but they tried something new, anyway, which I tend to like, even if the end result isn't what I personally would have gone for.

They never explained where the invisible jet came from. I don't know if I like that or not. I sort of do and sort of don't. It's pretty inconsequential either way, I just remember wondering about that. There are some other plot holes, too, but they're sort of spoilery, so I won't get into them.

Wondy's workout tapes sell big with horror fans too.

I will say that the big climactic showdown had some neat elements in it, particularly the big nod to the old Harryhousen sword and sandals movies from back in the day. I thought that was pretty cool. And I can't speak for anyone else, but I really, really enjoyed seeing WW take some pretty serious smackdowns and then get right back up again and return the favor. I find that immensely gratifying after years of seeing women either take minimal damage in fights or taking no part in them at all. I wouldn't want to see it all the time because then it would get boring, but it is really nice to see a woman get to be tough and resilient.

Overall, I'd really recommend it to anyone who might be interested. It's got flaws, yeah, but I just have so much fun watching it, they don't mar the experience for me.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


Masala Chai

Or "chai tea" as it's commonly referred to in the US. What most people don't know is that moniker's an oxymoron: "chai" means "tea" in many countries, including India. (Trivia: the Japanese word for tea, "-cha", is likely derived from the same term.) What most people are really referring to is masala chai, a popular drink from South Asia. As I understand it, "masala" is a word that refers to a given mixture of spices (chicken tikka masala, a very popular dish in Indian restaurants, refers to a different mix of spices from masala chai, but they both refer to specific mixtures in their own right), so "masala chai" translates to something like "spiced tea".

And while I haven't had the officially official stuff they make in India, I have had some from a couple of Indian restaurants where they didn't use a box mix. Seriously, it's so much better than the stuff you get at Starbucks. I've taken to making it myself at home, and it's really not hard. The worst part was trying to track down cardamom pods where I live, but now that I've done that, I can make as much delicious, creamy, cinnamony, gingery, peppery goodness as I can handle.