Friday, January 29, 2010

"The Namesake"

I've never seen a film from director Mira Nair all the way through before, but if they're anything like this one, I'll add them to the list. There's a warmth and a tenderness to this movie that permeated every frame, and it captures the feeling of being slightly out of step with the world surrounding you. In that respect, it's similar to Persepolis, which I reviewed last year, and I suspect it's a very familiar story to immigrants and ex-patriots living anywhere in the world. Not only the first-generation immigrants, but the struggle of their children, often caught with one foot in one culture and one foot in another, frustrated that they are part of both and yet not wholly belonging to one. It's also a very skillful portrayal of two generations of a family, exploring the course of their lives in such a way that both are sympathetic even in their different perspectives. One of the people I viewed it with compared it to Zhang Yimou's To Live, and I think it's a fair comparison; though the family there didn't deal with relocating to a totally foreign culture, the film did explore the course of their lives during the major upheavals going on in China in the mid-twentieth century. It's in the exploration of the human characters that the films both plant themselves and through which the audience is allowed to explore something that they might never experience personally, but is still mostly universally understood.

The trailer for this movie is rather misleading. I saw it sometime last year and was expecting something very different, and I'm honestly glad for that. I love it when I can watch a movie and not be able to predict where it's going. There were instances where I did, and there were cinematic tip-offs about them, but they're pretty minor and they didn't detract from the experience of watching it. But really, overall, I think my biggest pet peeve about the film is its trailer (which isn't the film's fault, but the marketing department).

The impression I had was of a young interracial couple embarking on a journey to India to connect with the man's heritage and in the process discover things about his parents' lives from before he was born. That is not what the movie's about at all. It's much less trite and contrived than that, it's a much more personal story, and it doesn't indulge in the surface-level exotifying of the culture that the trailer seems like it might. At its core, it's about a family living their lives, stuck between two cultures, and in particular about the eldest son coming to terms with his identity as part of both. I think that Gogol (Kal Penn) is a central character, certainly, but I don't think he's the very center of the film. I felt like the parents, Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) were both equally as important and equally weighted. We see their lives first, get to know them a bit before they know each other, and then watch them grow into a loving couple, and then into loving parents. We understand the choices they make, we understand them as people first, and we never lose that insight even as the focus switches to their children. I found myself able to empathize, sympathize, and understand where both the parents and the kids were coming from, even as they clashed, and it was a wonderful thing to be able to see. The kind of perspective the film offers is one I appreciate more as I get older and marvel at how narrow and self-centered my focus was when I was a teenager and young adult. I think part of me is grateful when I see that in films because it reassures me that I wasn't the only one going through the same thing.

There are so many wonderful things to say about this film. I love that it doesn't vilify either culture-- Ashoke and Ashima come to America for opportunities for their kids, not because they're fleeing some terrible injustice in India; their son Gogol's WASPish college girlfriend is a nice, intelligent person with loving parents who cares for him, but just doesn't understand his family's culture enough to be there for him in the way he needs; his wife later wasn't a bad person, she just wanted something different than he did and they weren't a good match; Ashima's feelings of isolation aren't because of specific cruelty or insensitivity of Americans, but because she doesn't feel completely at home in the culture and misses India; Gogol's high school classmates tease him about his name, but he does have friends who stand up for him as well. There's no "bad guy" here, just the gentle friction of people trying to find their place in a society that isn't quite made for them, and their own ways of dealing with it. It's a very thoughtful movie, a carefully and even lovingly crafted movie with particularly warm and nuanced performances by Khan and Tabu, and absolutely beautifully shot. Penn does a fine job with his role, and it's a nice dramatic turn for him after the success of the Harold and Kumar movies, but it's Khan and Tabu whose performances shine here and drive the heartbeat of the film.

It's based on a novel with the same title by Jhumpa Lahiri, and I'll most likely end up reading it just to be able to spend more time with the characters. I'd recommend it to anyone who's interested in Indian culture, or in beautiful film, or to anyone who has ever been part of a family.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Your Friendly Neighborhood Webcomics

Okay that wasn't even remotely clever, but I have a deficit of talent for naming things.

So probably no one who reads this knows that one of the first webcomics I ever read regularly, Dar!, ended recently. Not in a sad way, the author was just ready to move on, which is the proper time to end things as far as I'm concerned. But it got me to thinking about how many comics I used to buy and read every week from my local comic book store, how I haven't read any of them in years, and how many webcomics I still read and enjoy. So, in light of the fact that I should probably be doing something else with my time tonight, I'm going to give a brief rundown of my favorite online comics.

Dar! , by Erika Moen. Erika and I have been vaguely aware of each other online for probably close to a decade now, I think, which is probably why I've been as aware of her comic as I have been for so long. It's just an autobiographical comic about her everyday life, starting with her as a sophomore in college and ending with her life as of December 2009. It's pretty frank most of the time, which I admire, since a lot of people feel the need to 'pretty' themselves up for autobiographical work, but Erika seems to revel in her warts. It's often NSFW (that's Not Safe For Work, in case anyone doesn't know), and spends some time traveling down some dark corners as Erika goes through the upheavals of depression, wrestling with her sexual identity, finding love, breaking up, graduating, working, finding love again, wrestling with her sexual identity again, and the general ordeals of life. That makes it sound less funny than it was, and it was funny. Most of the NSFW content comes from the humor, with loads of "dick and fart jokes", as Erika puts it. And yet, it's even more interesting because she's so candid about her sex life and her bodily functions. It never felt like she was trying to shove it in anyone's face to make herself feel edgy, it's just how she shared what she found interesting or entertaining from her life.

Girl Genius written by Kaja and Phil Foglio, and drawn by Phil Foglio. I was aware of Phil Foglio's art long before I knew about this strip, since I spent a great deal of my adolescence reading Robert Asprin's "Myth" book series, some of which he illustrated. His style is very distinct and it might take some people-- more used to regular comics or manga-- a little while to adjust to it, but I think it's well worth the time investing in it. The series has been running for a number of years now, so there's a lot of story to catch up on, but it tends to go pretty fast once you get started. It's a gaslamp adventure series centering on a young woman named Agatha with a mysterious locket that gets stolen early on in the story. This seems to be a very bad thing, not because it held precious memories for her or was of particular monetary value, but because it seems that there is something inside Agatha that the locket repressed that may or may not be good to unleash. As the webpage touts, it's full of action, adventure, romance, and mad science, and it is chock full of all of them. But in a good way. It's a really fun series if you like gaslamp, or slowly unraveling mysteries, or fun inventions, some irreverent humor, large casts of characters, complex political schemes, and some good, old-fashioned Victorian melodrama. It's a lot of fun to watch Agatha go from a timid, unsure young woman into a strong, confident, take-charge young woman over the course of the story. And I love seeing the almost fugue states of creativity the Sparks (geniuses) in the story go into when they're really getting into their work. I've had days where I can relate to that feeling. (This also just won a Hugo award the the last year, which is pretty cool.)

Platinum Grit, written by Danny Murphy and Trudy Cooper, drawn by Trudy Cooper. It's hard to describe what this comic is about beyond the characters. There is a plot in the form of a slowly unraveling supernatural mystery involving a Scottish castle (relocated to Australia-- I think. it might be in Scotland) and some sort of family curse. The one whose family is cursed is one Jeremy MacConner, a talented physicist who's hopeless at talking to girls or having many friends. His cousin, Dugan, seems to be an homage to the Highlander series, as he's immortal, violent, and rather a bit of a prick towards poor Jeremy. Early on he and Jeremy duel for inheritance of the family castle, and has since randomly popped up in Jeremy's nightmares, but nothing else so far. Aside from nearly being killed by homicidal family members, Jeremy spends his time being abducted by aliens, being abused by his friend Nils, reading books on physics, being comatose, being assaulted by supernatural forces, and generally trying to stay alive. He also likes playing with his pet pig, Arthur.

Jeremy's friend Nils is the second in the trio of main characters, and she seems to spend most of her time either teasing him mercilessly (abusing him emotionally, more like), having one-night stands with random guys she meets out, being rather wacky and outrageous, and sometimes extremely drunk. Of course Jeremy has a crush on her, despite all the abuse she heaps on him, because she's just the sort of girl who can get away with doing that and he's the sort of guy who'll take it. She doesn't seem to be phased by any of the weird things that happen in Jeremy's life, she just takes them in stride and tends to get violent and weird right back at them.

Enter Kate. I'll be honest, I didn't really get into the story until she showed up in the sixth book. Of anyone in the story, she's the one I identify with most, and the anchor of sense and reason in a group of loopy characters and unusual happenings. Kate's a journalist, cynical, chainsmoking, sarcastic, witty, and a former roommate of Nils's. She picks Jeremy up on a roadtrip (he was left naked on the side of the road by Nils) and in the process gets dragged into his crazy world. She seems to have developed a bit of a thing for Jeremy and hates the way Nils treats him, though her issues with her go back much further than that, as the two have a prickly relationship from the get-go. She doesn't deal well with the weirdness and tries to ignore or rationalize it at first, which leads to several tantrums and a lot of tension on her part, but she keeps coming back to it because she just can't walk away.

It's fun to watch Cooper's art style evolve over the years and I have to say, she's really fantastic with not only drawing what's happening, but in setting a mood and pacing a story just right. Her 'acting' with the characters is great and they each have their own, very distinct personalities visually. And the mystery of what's happening with Jeremy's family is even more compelling because of the mortal peril he finds himself in so often. No one knows why it's happening or how to stop it, and neither do we, but we're so engaged with the characters that we really want the guy to be okay. Plus it's funny.

The Order of the Stick, by Rich Burlew. I haven't done a lot of tabletop gaming, just one stint several years ago as an attempt at bonding with friend who did it. I thought it was fun, for the most part, though I don't pine for it. But even without that brief exposure, I'd probably still find this comic funny. It's another long-running webcomic, but the art itself doesn't really evolve, since the characters have all had the exact same design since the first strip, save for their clothes. But it's interesting to see how the storyline and characters' personalities have evolved from being pretty simple into increasingly complex without becoming overly so. It's a spoof of/homage to tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons, and it's less like the characters are occasionally self-aware (making references to saving throws and hitpoints) so much as they are the creations of someone playing the game and getting wrapped up in their character but still being aware that they're rolling the dice to see what happens. Or maybe the characters are self-aware, I'm not entirely sure, but it's beside the point. It makes me laugh, it's a fun adventure, and I love all the characters.

Shrub Monkeys, by Katie Shanahan. Sort of like Dar!, this is a (mostly) autobiographical comic, but it's primarily silly humor. Katie, or K.T., as she refers to herself, is an animator in Toronto and creates these strips with the aid of her younger brother "Shagster" and sister Hes. It's mostly humorous strips about KT's struggle with school and later work, hanging out with her siblings, roommate, or boyfriend, and basic, everyday life. Just punched up a bit with exaggeration, extremely silly faces, and a slightly warped sense of humor. She's another one whose work has steadily evolved over the years, and her background in animation is clearly beneficial to her layouts. Fun stuff in this one, I love seeing when she's posted a new one.

Hark, a Vagrant, by Kate Beaton. I'm fairly new to this, but I love odd, dry humor, and this has it in spades. I also love irony and satire. I need to start reading it more regularly.

I think that's about it, off the top of my head. Anyone else out there have webcomics to recommend? I'm always looking for ways to procrastinate.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

IDNTTWMWYTIM: "Common Sense"

(I wrote a big mash-up of my thoughts after seeing Sherlock Holmes last weekend, but I realized as I was finishing it up that I didn't want to post it anymore. So now you get the lazy post.)


sound practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like; normal native intelligence."

So this would be things like 'if you put your hand on a hot stove, it'll get burned' or 'don't run with scissors'. It implies a comprehension of cause and effect based on life experience. A normal adult would be expected to know these things, however children are often (repeatedly) told not to do them because they haven't fully grasped the idea of "effect" yet. These examples of common sense are ones that hopefully become adopted as children grow older and gain things like empathy and the ability to anticipate. 'Cause nobody wants to have to tell their 40-year-old brother to quit jumping on their new couch in his muddy hiking cleats.

There is another meaning to the term that most online dictionaries don't have (and it therefore falls into the arena of this blog-- popular culture), and it involves truth in contrast to commonly held beliefs. If you break down the term, "common" implies something that is widespread, ordinary, or shared by a group of people, and "sense". In other words, it's often used to describe an idea that is commonly held to be true amongst a certain group of people, regardless of the actual truth or validity of it. For example, the prevalence of what's called "scientific racism" in the United States prior to World War II-- the use of so-called scientific theory to explain why certain races were intrinsically superior to others and therefore deserved dominance over them.
Here's an old illustration from Harper's Weekly "demonstrating" the supposed similarities between the Irish and the African races, and their contrast with the Anglo race. The caption is difficult to read, but the basic gist of it is that the Irish were descended from African people who had migrated up to Europe through Spain and eventually arrived in Ireland where they bred with indigenous people there-- who were "low types", descended from the "savages from the Stone Age"-- and were subsequently isolated from the rest of the world, no longer part of the process of natural selection, and therefore inherently inferior to the anglo race from the rest of Europe. It seriously says "made way for superior races" in the last line.

Now, clearly this has no bearing whatsoever in scientific fact (I love that the author evidently believes that there are races that didn't descend from the stone ages), and is an excuse to justify the "common sense" that Africans and the Irish were naturally inferior beings to white Europeans (who weren't Irish). Implicit in this is the "common sense" that Africans are inferior-- that didn't even need to be explained in the text, the author assuming the readers would already understand that as a fact. I have seen other illustrations that supposedly demonstrate how much closer Africans are to apes than other races are, but it's the same basic concept as this one focusing on the Irish. It's the presentation of speculation in an attempt to justify a personal belief based in the common sense of the time (that darker races were naturally inferior to lighter and non-Irish ones) with little to no basis in scientific evidence. (In fact, many scientists today believe that race is a social construct, not a scientifically quantifiable category.)

So to summarize, common sense can be a good, useful thing (don't try to talk while drinking a glass of water), but it can also stand in the way of critical thinking. If people in the past had adhered strictly to common sense ideas, those us us living today wouldn't know about plate tectonics, the age of the Earth, evolution, psychology, chemistry, physics, and countless other advances in our understanding of nature.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Post-Holiday Post

Well, another year and another decade have come and gone. I thought about trying to come up with some sort of nostalgic look back across one of them before 2010 came, but there were so many other blogs out there that said all I'd have to say and more. I don't have a good grasp of my walk through this decade anyway, it's like trying to remember every move you made in the middle of a drunken, off-the-cuff dance-- you know you were doing things, and maybe a few of them stand out, but in retrospect it was just this chaotic mess that somehow got you to where you are now. The best you can do is look back at it and be amazed at how far you managed to come.

So many people have done great retrospectives (check some of those links at the right hand of the page for a few), that I feel I don't have anything to add to them. So instead, on the first day of the new year, I'm going to look ahead to what I'm looking forward to. I have no idea what's coming down the pipe for me this year, but I do have expectations in a general sense.

1) Things will change. Change is constant and inevitable, and much as I dislike it at times, I don't think it's a good or bad thing in and of itself. It is what it is, and I'm the one who makes meaning out of it. The best way to get through it is not to fight it, but adapt to it.

2) I will be exposed to new ideas. These ideas are likely not new in the general sense so much as they are new to me. Or maybe they will be very old ideas that I've forgotten, or will see in a new way. Some I will like, some I will not. But they're all a valuable part in my learning to grow beyond the state I'm in now.

3) I will look back on the ideas I had and the things I've said now with a slight sense of embarrassment. At least I hope I will. If I've got everything figured out now, I've got some very boring decades ahead of me. I just hope I remember that even then, I won't have it all figured out either, and I hope that I'll have learned to be a little kinder to my younger self than I am now.

4) I will watch a lot of movies. Hopefully I will like some of them. I really hope that I love at least a few of them.

5) I hope that I will continue to meet people who challenge me, who inspire me, and who connect with me in some way. I also hope I can hang on to the people who put up with my quirks, my ego, and my insecurities. I feel like I'm in a very different place than I ever have been in my life, and in some ways it's exhilarating, and in other ways it's lonely.

And so this post has some relevance to the topic of this blog (and I feel less like a sappy blowhard), here are some trailers for movies I'm looking forward to, for various reasons.

The Wolfman

Alice in Wonderland

And just for the sake of perspective, here are trailers for some of my favorite movies from the past year.

Inglourious Basterds


Where the Wild Things Are

Some of those trailers are better at describing the movie than others, but still. That's a mighty fine lineup for one year.