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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (6/30/08) 11:49pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, The Brad Neely Animation Showcase, WALL●E [spoilers]
TV:  <none>
Books:  The Taming of the Shrew [Arden, 2nd edition]

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
Ah, the 80s.  This was the time when Shane Black sold his second screenplay, Lethal Weapon, for a quarter of a million dollars, and just went uphill from there.  He wrote stories about tough guys with guns, he wrote action-movie one-liners, and he wrote in a style that felt like a off-duty New York cop on his third scotch who'd cornered you to tell you a great f***ing story that you won't f***ing believe.

Then in '96 he sold The Long Kiss Goodnight for four million dollars, and disappeared for a decade.

Then he came back as writer and director with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.  And as much as he tries to evoke film noir with his story, you can't help thinking back to those punchy action movies from the 80s.  The homophobia feels quaint and the damsel-in-distress feels like a throwback, but its ballsy, tough-guy banter was a breath of fresh air after seeing so many recent action films with dialog of no particular interest.

His screenwriting habit of throwing in asides to, say, the studio reader assigned to read the script carries over into his self-aware narrator, who occasionally stopped the film to complain about the writing, or an overlooked detail, or his own narration.  (About which:  tough luck.  "Look around -- you see another narrator?" he asks.)  Ordinarily this sort of "oooh, meta" thing irritates me, but Mr. Black gets a pass because he's actually funny.

Apparently his writing method is to spend months and months filling a shoebox with bits of ideas that he finds interesting.  And... yeah, that makes sense.  The movie is full of little details that would make somebody who's written a bunch of action movies sporfle with laughter and furiously scribble on a slip of paper:  the Russian Roulette bit; the accident that befalls Harry out of nowhere; the jump cut after "MAKE A CHOICE".  It carries that perverse glee that goes with deliberately writing a scene 'wrong'.

And yeah, there's a plot, and it twists this way and that, incomprehensibly, but this is one of the few cases where I'll forgive that.  The show isn't about its plot, and the twists occur mainly so we can watch the characters react to the twists.  The point of this movie is not being surprised, or even particularly impressed, with how the solution to the case comes together.  No, this is about watching Val Kilmer and Robert Downey, Jr. breeze through witty gumshoe dialog written by somebody who's actually funny.

And in the end, that's what I take away from this:  a lot of amusing riffs on action movies, some funny dialog, some respectable character work.  It adds up to a solid three-star movie, and those are sadly thin on the ground these days.

The Brad Neely Animation Showcase
I had completely forgotten that Brad Neely did Wizard People, Dear Readers -- this was the commentary track he did that was designed to replace the audio for the first Harry Potter film.  It's easily the funniest film riff I've ever seen.

No, I just went to this because I knew he did a slew of Internet cartoons.  His most famous one is "George Washington", but I hadn't paid much attention to the rest of his work.  Still, I was intrigued.  He worked in a style that wasn't quite animation -- with a new frame maybe every three seconds.  I've toyed with that format before, but never actually made anything.  I was curious to see what somebody could do with the medium.

The show was pretty good.  I admit, I got equal measures of amusement from (1) what was happening onscreen and (2) the near-side-of-middle-age woman next to me gradually who went from enthusiastic to ashen from the constant barrage of offensive humor.  And yeah, Neely does get pretty filthy -- let's say, a little more so than South Park but a little less than your average Spike & Mike's cartoon.  There's a lot of sex.  There's a lot of blood.  There's a lot of feces.

But *shrug* it's all harmlessly-surreal and amusing.  Hell, I'm an insufferable prude, and even I wasn't bothered.  The lady next to me got squirmy, though.

The real surprise for me was "I Am Baby Cakes:  Diary #2", which combined the usual bizarre violence with just enough of a story tugging it along to be... well, kind of beautiful, in my opinion.  It surprises me how just a little bit of raw emotion can make a short with a lot of random zaniness still pack a punch.  The same goes for a scene towards the end of China, Illinois -- it looked like a pilot for some little 10-minute cartoon for Adult Swim, featuring lots of Neely's regular characters -- where Baby Cakes gives a speech about diaries that's actually really good.

Mr. Neely himself did a quick Q&A afterwards.  Apparently he's been a 'consultant' on South Park occasionally -- a role he describes as "standing around in the writers' room and sometimes saying, 'Ha!  That's funny!' or 'Nah, that's just okay.'"  He's working on several TV show projects.  Most of it sounds like punishing development hell, but I hope he navigates it successfully.  With most Internet videos, you see jokes but no real knack for storytelling; you imagine such zany jokesters trying to cough up a two-hour story, and you can only imagine A Night at the Roxbury or something similarly soul-melting.

But Mr. Neely can put together a good little plot when he wants to, and hell, he managed to organize Wizard People, Dear Readers so that it stayed funny for two-plus hours straight.

I'm keen to see what he does in the TV biz.

WALL●E [spoilers]
Okay, so it wasn't as good as Ratatouille or The Incredibles.  But then again, what is?

I mean, yes, it's still one of the best movies of the year.  (I can't think of any obvious competition, but I don't get out to the movies much.)  And the opening section of the movie -- the silent comedy of just WALL●E and his roach going about their trash-compacting day -- I would rank up there with any other ten minutes of CGI ever made.  I love that they were willing to try writing a movie that's essentially dialog-free for such a long stretch.  I love that Pixar is willing to stretch their storytelling in that direction, and I just love silent scenes.  They force your story to be simple, with clear and obvious objectives for your characters.[1]

And as nekomouser pointed out, they do a good job of giving WALL●E a simple objective and having him stick to it through the film.  It's interesting:  some movies have a hero who changes objectives -- say, from "I must investigate this odd little murder case" to "I must stop aliens from taking over the town" -- whereas others have a hero who keeps the same objective throughout ("I must get the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do").  In the second case, the plot avoids stasis not by expanding the scope of the objective, but by making the same objective harder to pursue.

This movie was a little weird.  The objective stayed the same, but they managed to affix another plot to it.  WALL●E was still going to pursue EVE, but now pursuing that objective managed to involve 'saving the Earth' along the way.  It was a little like hooking up a heavy railway car to a persistent little locomotive.  And this led to a couple of problems.

First, the 'hooking up' was a little bit convoluted.  "Wait, he needs to get the plant so that EVE can fulfill her directive, so that... wait, why can't the ship just *go*?"  It took exposition to explain why WALL●E helping EVE was chained to the Axiom returning to Earth -- and after an opening that was so elegantly *simple*, that felt like a bit of a letdown.

Second, it took our focus away from WALL●E.  I remember watching the big fight between the captain and the autopilot, and thinking, "Wow, I'm so glad the whole plot is hinging on a fight between two characters, neither of whom is the hero.</sarcasm>"[2]  Now it's not about WALL●E pursuing the girlbot of his dreams, it's about these other characters in this other plot that WALL●E happens to have kicked off.

And the other problem with that is that, with WALL●E doing less stuff, it's harder to have him grow or change over the course of the story.  I know, it's not easy to write a scene where The Hero Learns A Valuable Lesson without coming off as clunky -- but if you skip that scene completely, the movie becomes a bit lightweight.  I can deal with structural wonkiness.  I can deal with a preachy satirical 'message'.  Just give me that strong character arc to hold on to, and everything's cool.

Side note:  people keep pointing out how this film is leagues and leagues beyond anything Pixar has done before, animation-wise, and I... I guess I can see that.  Is it just that its shots are much more detailed than anything we've seen before, particularly with those panoramic "abandoned Earth" shots?  With earlier movies, the 'new thing' was obvious:  Monsters, Inc. addressed the CGI 'hair problem'; Finding Nemo managed to model underwater scenes convincingly; The Incredibles was the studio's first work with primarily human figures; Cars was all about radiosity effects and Ratatouille was all about food.  With this one... I dunno.  What's the technological leap here?

That said, the movie is just stunningly beautiful.  As far as I'm concerned, they should bring back Roger Deakins to consult on every Pixar film.  The animation is amazingly expressive, the details are perfectly chosen, and you can watch pretty much any frame and realize that they animated the *hell* out of this.

One last nitpick:  I didn't mind the numerous nods to Apple -- but the Mac startup noise bugged me.  Even on its first appearance, it was a big nudge-nudge joke in the foreground of the soundtrack, a glaring piece of product-placement[3] that yanked me out of the film.  It was tolerable on its first appearance, but then they brought it back for the heartfelt climax of the movie.  C'mon, people.  That's *tacky*.

The Taming of the Shrew [Arden, 2nd edition]
For the longest time, The Taming of the Shrew was my favorite Shakespeare play, because I just couldn't figure it out.  As far as I could tell, Shakespeare had set up a play with a message diametrically opposed to what I believed, but he'd done it using characters that felt real and self-consistent.  So it felt like it was full of puzzles:  "The wife has no power in this marriage at all -- well, but they both seem happy enough."; "She is kind of a jerk; but then, doesn't she have a right to be a jerk? and couldn't she go right on being a jerk, were she a man?"

My brain would pick at it, trying to figure out what it meant that a story could feel so categorically wrong, and yet feel perfectly right to all the (intelligent, thoughtful) characters involved.  I think I saw a production in college that made Katharina completely sarcastic with her V:ii speech about the proper role of women, but the text itself, devoid of contratextual inflections, doesn't let us off the hook.

I never found any answers, and I liked that.

Upon reading it again, I like it less.  But these days, I read plays with less of an interest in philosophy and more of an interest in structure.  There are those Christopher Sly scenes that pop in twice before the thread wanders into oblivion.  There are the parallel storylines with Bianca and Katharina; any English prof can make wonderful arguments about how they enrich and reinforce one another, but reading it just feels like flipping channels between two unrelated shows.  I suppose all of Shakespeare's works are messy, but this was one where the mess got on my nerves.

And the very quality I liked when I was young -- the way it forces you to ask lots of questions and then refuses to answer them -- felt like a liability now.  Instead of following the story, my attention was tied up in all these "what the hell should I think about *that*?!" questions.  And then there are the long stretches of dead puns and obsolete wordplay.  You can read all the explanations in the footnotes, but that doesn't make any of it funny.  There were all these factors getting in the way -- getting in between me and the story, distracting me, making it a slog.

It may be that, like Merchant, it's just nigh impossible to put on this play as a play since it's so completely contrary to modern mores.  You can stage the play as a statement, or as some coy bit of irony, but it can't just be a comedy.

The joke just ain't funny any more.

It probably didn't help that the Arden's second edition of this play has an introduction that's exactly as long as the play itself.  It goes into exhaustive detail down every rabbit hole of textual forensics -- ooh, exactly what is the relationship between The Taming of the Shrew and the earlier The Taming of a Shrew?  Let's explore these sole extant shreds of questionable evidence and string together a theory!  And if you lie awake at night wondering which sections of the First Folio edition were set by Compositor D, then this, my friend, is the introduction for *you*.

There's no history of performance.  No feminist takes on the play.  No philosophical takes on the play of *any* sort, really.  Just endless textual forensic work based on the thinnest smattering of evidence.  It's fun, I guess, but it's just so ivory-tower useless.  It, too, was a slog.

For next time:  probably not much at all, what with the Blues Party coming around.  I'll finish the regrettable second season of Friday Night Light.  I may make some headway on American Pastoral.

More Beethoven at work.  Piano sonatas, now.

[1] Put another way, it's hard for your story to turn into mush when you're writing silent scenes.

[2] ... or the love interest, for that matter.

[3] ... and thinking about the irony of putting big product placements in a movie that ostensibly satired rampant American consumerism... that kind of made my brain hurt.

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Date:Tuesday (7/1/08) 1:37pm
I think Wall-E is Pixar's greatest film, but I'm a sucker for "silent" comedy. I wasn't bothered by the fight scene between the Captain and the autopilot, as I liked both of those characters, and I thought it was effectively amusing that one teensy little robot with a heart was really the cause of such a huge turning point in humanity. Wall-E made people learn a lesson, so that portion of the storytelling process was, in my view, quite sufficiently fulfilled.

Also, about the product placement thing: I can see how that irony (hypocrisy?) could give someone pause in their decision to elect the film Wall-E to political office, but it sure doesn't bother me in terms of liking the movie or not. And I think that what most people will take away from Wall-E's political message is that crass commercialism eats our souls (or something like that), and the irony of product placement in the film won't even make a blip on the screen of the film's impact on social consciousness. Granted, that's just me talking about the wide scope of social consciousness, because all you said was that it made your brain hurt.
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Date:Tuesday (7/8/08) 2:06pm
I think Wall-E is Pixar's greatest film, but I'm a sucker for "silent" comedy.

I guess you're using the quotation marks because it would be more accurate to say "dialog-free comedy"?

Wall-E made people learn a lesson, so that portion of the storytelling process was, in my view, quite sufficiently fulfilled.

I liked the things you liked about the fight scene, but I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree about the storytelling-process concerns.

Granted, that's just me talking about the wide scope of social consciousness, because all you said was that it made your brain hurt.

... and really, it was mostly that the product placement took me out of the movie at the wrong time.  To put it in improv lingo, I felt like they were gagging.  I mean, ideally, I shouldn't have even been pondering thematic irony & whatnot, right?
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Date:Tuesday (7/1/08) 7:09pm
I watched the first 2 mins of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and it just didn't grab me. Is it worth giving it a try?
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Date:Tuesday (7/1/08) 9:23pm
Hmm.  The first couple of minutes are just the kid-magician scene, right?  I'd say watch a little past that -- the first few minutes with Robert Downey, Jr. onscreen are accurately representative of the rest of the film.
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Date:Thursday (7/3/08) 11:17pm


First, it should have bee 20 minutes shorter. Second, even my 5-year old grand-nephew was antsy after his popcorn ran out, although it was, admittedly, the first "big boy" movie he has ever made it through.

Last, no matter how beautiful the prelude and postlude were (the highlights for me, really), the film itself, held nothing new for me. (Think Planet of the Apes). Sure, it had effects and amazing graphics and computer generation, but without an original storyline and compelling plot, who cares? You can have the most amazing actors put on a Broadway show, but if the writing is only half-assed, you get a half-assed show.

Want to know what I really thought? Ha! That was pretty clear, wasn't it?

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Date:Tuesday (7/8/08) 1:58pm

Re: Wall-E

So... you're saying you liked it, right?

*dodges hurled, rancid tomato*

I agree that the plot had some problems, but these days I don't worry too much about whether a storyline is original.  If the plot works, great.  If it's a plot I haven't seen before... well, that's a nice bonus.

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