Sunday, June 23, 2013

Monsters University

I'm a big fan of Pixar films generally and Monsters, Inc. really left an impression with me. I loved the way the pastel hues and big googly eyes somehow found a way to make sly statements about the oil economy. Perhaps even more importantly, the movie respected its audience enough to go on wild, unpredictable tangents, trusting viewers to keep up.

It's hard not think back to how great Monsters, Inc was while watching its prequel Monsters University. For the most part this movie keeps the spirit of the original, kept afloat by superior voice acting, intermittent wit, and a superior art direction. As +Peter Maranci pointed out, even a mediocre Pixar movie is better than 90% of the movies out there.

The plot is basically what you'd expect if I told you this movie was the prequel for Monsters, Inc. You have the obligatory awkward first meeting of the main characters, a mismatched rivalry evolving into a grudging respect mixed with scattered 'oh-so-that's-why-he's-a-jerk' moments.

Michael "Mike" Wazowski has wanted to go to Monsters University since his first childhood trip to the Monsters, Inc. power plant "Scaring Floor." He's an earnest, eager student certain that hard work will win him his dream. During his first night at the college he runs into James P. "Sully" Sullivan, a big blue monster from a famous name. The basic conflict between the characters is nicely introduced, Mike has the brains but no actual talent to scare while Sully leans heavily on his storied pedigree and one-note (although terrifying) roar. Their rivalry lands them in hot-water with the University's Dean Hardscrabble. With both are ejected from the Scaring School, the unlikely partners have to work together to win an unlikely victory to get back into the Dean's good graces. It's plot-by-numbers and the whole enterprise starts to sag from about the second reel onward.

 I think part of the problem is that this movie forgot the two things that made the original so watchable: anarchy and heart. Anarchy because Monsters, Inc keeps playing mischief with its own world's rules. The affable company president turns out to be in league with the despicable immoral chameleon. The assumption that contact with the children is fatal to monsters is proven false. The brilliant final chase scene constructs a high-energy tesseract where pursued and pursuers bound in and out of various bedrooms. The movie found just the right balance between bend and break.

Heart because at the center of it all is the friendship between Mike and Sully and the simply decency of Sully's protectiveness towards "Boo," the little girl at the center of Waternoose and Randy's schemes. No matter how goofy the movie got, the action developed out of the characters themselves. And the final scene of Sully reunited with Boo is one of the most heart-breakingly poignant moments in a studio famous for them.

In Monsters University everyone follows the rules, even as they arbitrarily break them. When we learn that Mike is not really that scary that basic dynamic follows him through the rest of the movie. Both Mike and Sully are competing to win some measure of recognition from the existing power structures in the movie, their classmates and the authority figure of Dean Hardscrabble. And when Sully does break the rules to get what he wants (rigging a scare simulator so Mike can win) he must confess his transgressions. Now, this makes sense on the character level because Sully is a fairly upstanding monster (once you get past the entitlement) but on another level its one more example of Monster University content to fit snuggly into expectations. This movie doesn't encourage dissent or free-thought, merely suggests that everyone has a role to play in the status quo.

Which wouldn't be so bad if this familiar story had dug deeper into the emotion of the story. Mike's story of the earnest loser was similar to one of my favorite movies of all time: Rushmore. But in Rushmore, all of Max's Fishcer striving is grounded in his pursuit of Rosemary Cross, his desire to be loved parallel to his need to be accepted by Rushmore Academy itself. Simply saying Mike has got to get into the "Scaring Department" is very sterile, and doesn't really raise the stakes. What happens if Mike doesn't get into the Scaring school? It appears he'll just have to sit through a lot of boring classes on his way to a comfortable middle class life. I'm sorry, but that doesn't seem like he stands to lose that much.

What if we had seen Mike's parents and they had attempted to join the college but had to drop out because they couldn't afford it? Or what if there was a love triangle between Mike and Sully and being in the Scaring Deparment was the perceived key to her heart? I'm not saying these tropes would have done the trick, but they would've put more stakes on the table. I'm sorry, I just couldn't be that invested in whether or not a character gets into one college school or the other without knowing more about why that was so important.

One last detail. The domed and tentacled School of Scaring building has a very strong resemblance to the Dread Lord of R'lyeh, a witty shout-out.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Fallout Boston?

I've been hearing rumors that during the E3 convention last week, during a press-only preview, Fallout 4 was announced. The game, which is 55% done, would center around Boston and the surrounding communities.

If this is true it would be a mixed blessing. On one hand, it would obviously be completely awesome but on the other hand, at least for me, I could envision the part of my brain deriving enjoyment from video games being utterly burnt out forever. This game would prevent me from ever needing to buy another video game again.

It's a risk I'm willing to take.

Considering just how great both Fallout three and New Vegas were at translating locales and atmosphere to a post-apocalyptic universe, I could imagine some amazing places in Fallout Boston: MIT, the T, Boston Harbor, Fenway, the Big Dig, the list goes on.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Retirement Party

Of all of the various rituals and ceremonies the end of the year brings to someone involved with public education, perhaps none is more bitter sweet than the retirement party. In schools, retirement parties always happen in June and represent one of the few occasions when the old and the young stand elbow to elbow, obliged to consider the same ancient fact: people grow old, change, and leave behind legacies in the memories of their friends.

This year was an unusually big retirement party, four veteran teachers leaving us, and so the party was larger, longer, and more diverse.

As I was standing in the company of teachers that I could barely recognize hailing from decades before I came to my school, I struck by two conversations.

The first, quickly paraphrased, erupted when four teachers roughly my age realized that we all enjoy Game of Thrones, having read the books, and actively followed the HBO series. So for the next twenty minutes everyone shared their favorite characters, our favorite characters to hate and where the overarching plot of the story was heading. I think the only surprising thing about this encounter was that none of these people really struck me as potential George R.R. Martin fans until this conversation. There wasn't a single neck-bearded engineer in the group, and eventually they moved on to talking about sports. In other words, a fairly geeky book, and the fairly geeky conversation surrounding it, has become part of 'normal' retirement party conversation. 

Later in the party I ran into a former vice-principal of my school who was busy talking about the whos and the wheres of former teachers at my school. When he noticed me, the first question he had was how work on my house was going. I was touched by this somehow. Frankly, my house is an ongoing project and I love talking about it but I never realize how much until someone asks. There's always some movie, or book, or political controversy to bring up first. I brought him up to speed and wished him well and then he was swept up in another conversation about life, wives, and children.

When each of the retirees stood up, people clapped and I realized, looking at them, that each of their faces held for me pages upon pages of memories. That a portion of the past six years was bound up in their names and their faces. The school, my organization, would continue without them, but a chunk of what made those six years meaningful and memorable was leaving. People came to give speeches, some corny, some hilarious, some inaudible over the applause and laughter, but it didn't matter, we were there to mark a point of transition. People we knew would no longer be there with us. 

Is that the difference then? Do the (comparatively) young talk about fictional stuff while the old talks about real people? And is that simply style or something more significant? Margaret Atwood said, "When you're young, you think everything you do is disposable...You think you can get rid of things, and people too--leave them behind. You don't yet know about the habit they have, of coming back." Atwood makes this difference seem age-old and expected. And maybe this isn't so weird afterall, to be young necessarily means you've had less time being with the people around you. So the touchstones of television shows, sports, politics or whatever, are easier to discuss than the still vague relationships with other people. It's only as the years slowly settle over you do you find yourself laughing at a corny joke about someone suddenly more real to you than the best chapter in the best book.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Arrested Development Season 4

I've been on a bit of a television watching binge lately and after burning my way across 14 seasons of Star Trek, the 15 episodes of Arrested Development's newest season (available through Netflix) offered the grand luxury of a succinct story fully told.

For those with exposure to this show, the adjective 'succinct' might seem a bit of stretch. Afterall, the interweaving, interposed, constantly self-referential hyper-linked narrative following 10 main characters is, in a word, exhausting. But it also carries with it the sense of a the shortest possible route between two points. Each of the episodes follows one of the main characters as they trace the bleak wreckage of their lives from the moments immediately after the Bluth matriarch Lucille (hilariously venomous Jessica Walters) hijacked a cruise ship in order to escape arrest. What makes the season interesting (and hard to review without spoilers) is that each of these narratives flows in and out of the others. You might see one scene through the Michael's eyes (the basically sympathetic protagonist of the series played by Jason Bateman) and then later see it in a completely new light depicted in Lindsay's (Michael's step-sister) episodes.

I think this aspect of the show is somewhat off-putting, at least in first few episodes. Weird things happen or go unexplained that only make sense much later in the overall arc of the story. I've seen a lot of partial reviews of the overall season that pick apart quality concerns of the first three or so episodes. I would suggest if you are at all serious about the show, give it until at least episode six before you line-up the firing squad. The best jokes do not pay out in the first episode they are introduced but rather gather weight with each reappearance. Every random band-aid, bare pair of legs, ostrich head and bizarre hallucination has some larger story to tell.

It helps that the story is familiar even while it heads off into new directions. Michael is still trying to win himself a measure of self-respect from a family whose primary area of leverage over him is denying just that. Each of the children of George and Lucille Bluth is attempting, like always, to define themselves as separate from the same dysfunction they secretly thrive on. Lindsay and Tobias divorce again, Maeby is ignored again, Gob flounders as a magician again. The biggest character development comes from George-Michael, who briefly (?) becomes an internet start-up magnate, dating movie stars and doing a decent impression of Mark Zuckerberg acting as himself in the version of "Social Network," he'll bank roll in 2014.

It's the details though that makes this show great, the running gags and easter eggs. Here an entire subterranean universe opens up with each episode, each casual reference its own ridiculous world slotted neatly into the rest of AD's alternate reality. Arrested Development is a wiki site in television form, each page is connected to the other, each word and image a holographic version of the whole.

All of this comes to a head in the Cinco de Cuatro (a holiday created by the xenophobic elder Bluths in a fit of pique). All of the various plots and schemes from Tobias' musical version of Fantastic Four, a drive to build a wall on the Mexican border, Michael's continued determination to save the family, a terrorist plot and Buster's freakish prosthetic limb all click together. Lives are shattered, dreams dashed, illusions flubbed.

Season four is a little like watching a tornado obliterate some house, only to have those same splinters reassemble into the exact same house a moment later.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine review

At some point you just have to write what you feel.

After finishing The Next Generation, I felt that the logical first step was moving on to the TNG movies. I just couldn't. I've already seen First Contact, which my friends inform me is the pick of a very motley litter, and I was tempted by more quality television.

Firstly, I was surprised to discover how much of DS9 I had actually watched when it first aired. I remembered the season finale in the second season mostly because who wouldn't remember a Galaxy-class starship blow up by a kamikaze space wasp (these things tend to stick in the mind) but figured I had moved on when I got to college. I had completely forgotten had also seen the third and most of the fourth season. Not a big deal, but like I said, it was a surprise.

Much of the seven seasons really clicked for me. I loved almost all of the characters, thought that the villains were uniformly excellent, and really appreciated DS9's luxury of carefully developing a single setting over time. I appreciated the risks this series took, embracing the rewards and pitfalls of semi-serialized stories, exploring the darker side of certain Trek assumptions, and experimenting (successfully) with unique storytelling. The best episodes of DS9 right on par with the best TNG had to offer (Liked "Inner Light?" try "Beyond the Farthest Star" more into timey-wimey sci-fi like Cause and Effect? DS9 had "TheVisitor").

Let's go even farther out on a branch and say the average DS9 episode was a bit better than the average TNG episode. Better how? In just about everything. Character development, consistent characterisation, exciting conflicts, humor, you name it. The average mediocre DS9 story almost always had a bit more going for it simply by virtue of tying into a a running story than the random holodeck malfunction, diplomat with a secret, or spacial anomaly of the week on TNG.

But before you start sending me hate mail, let me just add: I still like TNG better.

Why? How can I say that one series is objectively better and yet still like the other? I guess it boils down to emotional connection. I like Star Trek, I write about Star Trek, but I still consider myself more of an admirer than a full-fledged fan. I appreciate Star Trek because in a particular time and place the characters and weekly adventures of my USS Enterprise spoke to what I was experiencing at age 10 through 17. I grew up with TNG. It's hard to walk away from that.

But back to DS9. There's a way of looking at this show that puts it squarely in between what came before and what was about to happen. As mentioned, DS9 flirted (pretty aggressively by the end) with serialized, big scale stories. But the will to take the show to the next level, with unified, overlapping plots like Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica, wasn't there. I can forgive the occasional one-off reset episode in TNG because the vibe of the show was constantly on the move, pushing farther into the unknown. It's tougher to ignore the reset button on a show where characters refer to certain episodes again and again while conveniently forgetting others.

Favorite aspects of DS9:

  • Taking the utopian aspects of Star Trek seriously enough to challenge them. It seems like many die-hard Trekkies dislike this series on the basis of one episode alone: In the Pale Moonlight. The morally disturbing actions Sisko takes during that episode just rub people the wrong way. And I get that. But I look at things differently. It would be one thing if DS9 had simply chucked the whole 'paradise on Earth' idea and became Star Wars with phasers. It's quite another to pose the question of how would a utopian organization devoted to peaceful exploration deal with an existential threat? It's easy to hold onto ideals when times are good, quite another to do the right thing when you're struggling for your life.
  • Benjamin Sisko and Jake Sisko. I'm not entering new territory here in saying the relationship between a loving but strong father and a son trying to find his own path was one of the best-handled aspects of the show. Particularly relevant to "The Visitors," but this relationship is at the heart of everything else in the show.
  • The Dominion. I appreciated how cleverly this nefarious empire was constructed as the perfect foil. I like how they represent a mirror-image of the Federation; both governments embracing diplomacy and bringing in new members from many diverse worlds. The Founders of the Dominion were once explorers just like the humanoids of the founding members of the Federation. But where Earth, Vulcan, and others gave equal status to all member worlds, the Dominion is fueled by distrust and paranoia. I also enjoyed how thoroughly diabolical control the Founders had over Jem'Hadar and the Vorta. In the case of the powerful warriors, an addiction to drugs and a genetic predisposition for obedience towards the Founders presents an appalling dilemma: how does a free society deal with an opposing civilization full of rational, super-competent and utterly loyal slaves?
Things I wasn't so fond of:
  • Just about every Ferengi episode. Not too surprising, seeing how most of these episodes just weren't very good. I was looking forward to seeing how the Ferengi episodes played a decade later, but other than Armin Shimerman's Quark, these episodes were full of wooden jokes and offensive, obvious plots. It's too bad. Every once in awhile: "Little Green Men,""The House of Quark," and "The Dogs of War" spring to mind, the series would suggest what sort of mixture of broad humor and thin social commentary it was aiming for. These moments were fleeting though. And God I learned to hate the sound of Grand Nagus Zek's voice.
  • Missed opportunities. One of my favorite episodes was "Hard Time," one in a long series of episodes that heaped misery upon Miles O'Brien. Here, Miles is inflicted with the memory of years of incarceration in an alien prison. Once awakened he discovers he had been asleep only a few hours but most somehow deal with the memories of a lifetime of captivity. Great stuff except when it ends, that's it. They never mention O'Brien's entire virtual life again and he seems completely recovered in time for the next episode. As I've said before, it's a lot harder to swallow "now everything's back to normal," when that's not always the case. This is the example that comes most readily to my mind, but there are many, many others.
I'm going to write a few posts picking my favorite episodes but after I catch up on a few other things I've been watching.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Good summary

Check out this article for a good summary of all of the pressures on employment coming from technology and automation. I particularly appreciated Jon Evans' efforts here to connect the dots between the loss of employment with the first wave of efforts to deal with the problem: Basic Income or Negative Income Tax. Some writers have taken a dystopian view of this trend, others a utopian, but Evans suggests that the future has already happened. Only instead of happening in America and other developed countries, he suggests post-work societies exist in Brazil, Russia, and India. Also great is the list of links which is a veritable who's who on this topic. Enjoy!