Saturday, August 29, 2015

Carl Ellison: Erected Narrative or Long-Held Secret?

Ask a layperson to name one black Canadian artist, and possibly he or she won't be able to do it.  This may be in part because many laypeople don't realize that there are, in fact, black people in Canada, and the viral infamy of Chuggo probably hasn't helped to clear that up.  Yet ironically, at least the name of one black artist in Canada resonates within the same culture of viral videos, and that's Carl Ellison.  In late 2006, Black Art TV profiled Mr. Ellison's painting profession, and the next year, when Chuck Jones TV shared the video, it went viral--but for all of the wrong reasons.

Chuck Jones knowingly misnamed the video "MAN WITH THE WORLDS LARGEST PENIS" (You should never expect trolls to use punctuation), and just to nail it home, printed the same phrase fifteen more times in the description.  The result is that now over seven million people now associate the name Carl Ellison with a soft but very long running penis joke, which has even been lengthened now and again by video editors who liked their jokes a little bit more on the...nose.  Even so, most of the people gawking at the charade have assumed they were just being trolled.  The video they got conned into seeing, after all, had nothing whatsoever to do with penises (world's largest or otherwise); the juxtaposition between completely wholesome content and provocative title was the whole joke, right?

Sadly, if you're actually Carl Ellison, you'd understand that the joke is much, much crueler.  Recently, Ellison has risen again to public display and started coming into the conversation as to the unseen backstory.  Spilling it all as hard and fast as he could, he explained, "I don't know if I have the world's largest penis; I probably don't, but yeah; it's big, I don't particularly like it leaking out, and it's really hard to go through life still not knowing who did it."

If you've watched the infamous video (and who hasn't?) you know something of Ellison's backstory.  Born in Buff Bay, Jamaica, Carl's family raised him and moved around that country until he was twelve, when they got themselves up to Canada and settled in Aurora, a suburb of Toronto.  It was there that Carl came of age, and his peers wouldn't let him forget it.  "I was developing a sizable penis even by Jamaican standards," he explains, "and as I was the only black student in Aurora High School, this meant that by Canadian standards, my penis was truly remarkable."

Carl's school in Aurora.
It's not something he's proud of. "Picture this", he recounts with a teary frown, "a pretty white girl is talking to you, and all of a sudden, you're bulging out and she's visibly spooked like she thinks you forgot to wear underwear."  That's not too far off the mark, because as Carl reveals on a lighter note, "Canadian clothes stores turned out to be really bad at estimating the sizes of immigrants' penises.  Thankfully they've improved by now!"  For many long, hard years, though, Carl Ellison remained the target of teasing.  "'Big Nig' became the running nickname for me, and it got to the point even my friends called me that, once I actually made some.  It was one of those things you just went with after a while."  By this time, the school had reigned in a lot of the worst offenders who were making things hard for him, but Ellison still graduated with the strongest desire to move on, and out of his penis's long, dark shadow.

"Chuck Jones basically ruined that," sighs Ellison. "I don't know exactly who found my video and gave it that name, but it basically ensured that even the artistic niche I wanted to carve out for myself would always be occupied by that."  Frustrated by the wave of infamy he was sure he'd receive, Carl withdrew once again. "I kept on painting and stuff; kept selling prints to a clientele who cared about them, I even do commissions, but that was it for me promoting myself on videos."

Until now.  A new day has come, and Carl Ellison is rising to it, though he admits he was unsure at first.  "My representative got a call from somebody--they've made me promise not to tell who--related to the porno biz, who was looking around for films and pics about, you can pro'ly guess," he says with a whiff of embarrassment. "They found the old demo video I did, and thought, you know; I actually really like that guy's painting!"  The porno person was also willing to pay a pretty penny for a print, and after some reservations, Carl agreed to sell it.  "The fallout from that was truly magical", he giggles. "I got more clients. Turns out, somebody knew somebody knew somebody there, and demand for my work shot up!"

It all happened so suddenly, that Ellison still isn't quite sure what to think, but he offers a possible explanation. "I think more and more, we're in the Age of the Meme.  It used to be that there were famous things, that people felt good when they recalled, and then there were the infamous things, they wish they'd forget.  But the Internet has blurred that.  I don't know why, but it seems like head-shaking embarrassment is the new admiration.  I'm a guy who paints on canvas and I'm suddenly making money off of being known on new media you think might make that extinct, it's like I was in the wrong place at the right time.  It's weird, but I'll take it."

So Carl Ellison has lightened up and is closer to letting it all hang out.  He's not yet into talking too much to the press, but he's got plans to capitalize on his new success with an exhibition "whose name I'll tell you once I can think of something clever to name it."  His carpe diem attitude shows through in his speech, and he assures fans it will show through in his art show. "God works in mysterious ways.  Sometimes, maybe he works by playing pranks, but once you learn to laugh at them yourself, it's all good again, and you'll be learn that too!"  When asked what this meant in terms of his upcoming art, Ellison put his finger to his mouth but promised, "I've got big plans, big plans that were getting bigger all along.  For some of that time I beat myself up over things, but now I'm embracing myself, I'm pumping myself up, and soon I'll thrust myself right into the mainstream!"

As if to symbolize further that life was moving forward for Carl from that time he gained viral fame, he then received a text from Colette, and excused himself.  Described in his most famous video appearance as his girlfriend, she has since become his wife and is expecting.  "Those jokers got one thing right," Carl winks on his way out the door.  "She does take my penis seriously."

Source: The Bluffton Bugle.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Some Anti-Nostalgia Towards One Unmemorable Chick

Think she knows her shirt is referencing a story that bunches the panties of political correctness worse than Huckleberry Finn?

You know, being in GamerGate isn't always easy.  I used to enjoy my time on sites like Kotaku and Cracked, and I loved Joss Wheddon's work in The Avengers.  Every once in a while, I feel put-upon in the "Disrespectful Nod" boycotts against those I still had some love for, yet unjustly smeared my group and my kind, and by extension me.

How lucky, then, that at least there is one person I can disown without any love lost!  Lindsay Ellis, once of Channel Awesome, has quit not a moment too soon, and gone into business with her own SJW nest (I hesitate to see either "think-tank" or "cultural commentary site"), and now rubs against vile beings the likes of which may destroy our proud western civilization. (I'm not talking about Cthulhu, either.)

For a while, many of us were understandably shocked that Ms. Ellis, who always seemed perfectly fine with her own sexuality and fine being eye-candy for Channel Awesome viewers, ended up aligned with such a prudish sex-negative harpy as Anita Sarkeesian, but maybe we shouldn't have been.  After all, if Gawker is any indication, it's perfectly possible for an organization to deal in sleazy sexually-oriented bait for bucks, while at the same time promoting arguments against dealing in sleazy sexually-oriented bait for bucks, so why couldn't that hypocrisy be vested in one person?  Yet I think the real reason Lindsay Ellis has gone full SJW is that their business of continually looking for reasons to find art problematic is the perfect place for the sort of pretentious, pseudo-intellectual schtick that The Dudette has honed her ability to spew for years.  The verdict is still out on whether SJWs are less irritated by arbitrarily breaking into song than nerds are, but I suspect she'll find out soon enough.

You may (or if you're reading this, probably do) remember Lindsay as that girl who won Channel Awesome's contest to find a female counterpart to the Nostalgia Critic; only to quit the job, use her position to advance loads of questionable sociopolitical musings on people who got increasingly annoyed with her, and then bragged about her accomplishments in doing so.  People of her ilk seem to operate on the belief that if you're a single, upstart commentator "punching up" at the much louder broadcasts of mainstream, multi-person pop-culture (the astute will recognize this as often being in essence a paternalistic demagogue punching against socioeconomic democracy), you can aim all the direct digs you want at them but nobody should be aiming direct digs at you.  I was among many people who got fed up with her modus operandi, and now I take you back to 2011, when I aimed a pointed rebuttal at her ill-conceived Disney Vs Dreamworks: Rise of the Eyebrow:

If you look at my icon and signature, [Editor's Note: They were, respectively, a picture of Disney's Chicken Little and a message saying it was there just to annoy an obnoxious forumgoer who never shut up about how much he hated the movie] they allude to the fact that I have some unique tastes in cinema. (Among other things.)  So I don't know why I expect anybody to read a post about my views and take anything seriously.  Notwithstanding, I saw Lindsay's "Disney Vs. DreamWorks" video and it just rubs me a lot of wrong ways.  There's the bit about her possible misassessment of the old rivalry with Warner Bros, but it's the direction she took with the modern rivalry with DreamWorks that really got to me, and that is what I want to discuss today.  First, though; some history.

A few years ago I saw a series of rather amusing trailers on TV.  They featured various romantic scenes of various past Disney animated movies, playing roughly as normal at first, and then suddenly getting crashed and subverted by a rude, crude hellraiser introduced as Stich, to the tune of AC/DC's "Back in Black."  Each time these came on, I felt mesmerized.  My jaw was dropping hard at the thought that Disney, a straight-laced, conservative company, was lampooning themselves and making a new animated movie starring badass, rebellious antihero.  I was stoked; I saw this brash, fresh take on the Disney animated feature, I read publicity about how parents were complaining about the trailers and I got even more stoked, and I couldn't wait to see it.  Then I actually did see it, and it had Elvis as its musical motif instead of AC/DC, a subplot about a dysfunctional family, Stitch turned into a Mary-Sue that basically alters physics in his favor, and a tired-out message about how family is good.  Though I'll grant it still wasn't exactly like a classic Disney animated film, it had me feeling sucker-punched for going to see it based on the fun bit of irreverence the trailers promised.  I have never been so enraged at a trailer misleading me; that even includes Snow Dogs.  Yeah; Snow Dogs was a piece of shit that wrote that whimsical dream sequence in so they had something to throw in the trailer and convince us was the whole movie, but watching the trailers for Snow Dogs only convinced me that it might be a charmingly goofy film.  The trailers for Lilo and Stitch made it look like an outright revolutionary one.  I got served, and I don't appreciate getting served.

So now, I'm naturally a little distressed to hear that Disney's ad campaign for Tangled has tried the same sort of ploy: Put on a show in trailers to make it seem like a subversive, irreverent take on old tales, only for it to actually be a very traditional movie.  I haven't seen Tangled [Editor's Note: Since writing this, I have, and actually quite liked it.], and I saw a trailer for it maybe a total of one time, but I'm going by what everyone else is saying about the movie.  Still, what's more distressing to me than just hearing about how Disney is trying that trick again, is hearing that people are apparently lauding the end result--people who now include Lindsay.

Did I miss something here?  Maybe it is just fringe films like Chicken Little that are getting a lot of hate as post-modernist, alternative retellings of old stories, but I doubt it, because now there seems to be a boggling large presence of people who don't like revisionist animation, with the Shrek films having gotten the largest share of ire.  It feels like there's a huge movement of backlash against these sorts of movies, in favor of old-fashioned ones, a movement now epitomized by Disney's fallacious new marketing techniques, and the appraisal they're getting from people like Lindsay and Nella in their video.  To all the people who are part of this backlash, I have one question.  WHY?

I get tired of these sorts of people nitpicking DreamWorks' movies for being loud, goofy, hip bundles of pop culture references.  By what authority do you claim that being such a movie is a bad thing?  Because I'll tell you this; from where I stand, your presumed frame of reference, classic Disney movies, doesn't look very good the way I see it.  How, exactly, is a film full of hipster comedy worse than a needlessly serious, over-romanticized and cliched portrayal of everything? [Editor's Note: I think I probably should've used a different term than "hipster" there; maybe "populist".]  Because that's my honest perception of the traditional animated films Disney makes.  At least pop-culture references change, based on what's currently popular; Disney's movies are the same narrow handful of tropes being slammed at viewers every time.  Always with the heroes and Princesses and their "I Want" songs, always with the Princesses being wistful dreamers who muse about their problems when magic's about to disrupt their existence, always with the deliberately, hyperbolically-dark villains whose design leaves no question as to the fact that they're villains.  If this is your standard par excellance, reexamine yourself.

It's not just me saying that.  It's a common complaint lots of critics have had of Disney throughout the ages.  That critique has died down, and a lot of nostalgic pinings have started back up as Disney animated films were looking like they might be on the verge of extinction for a while, at the hands of DreamWorks' more hip approach.  That doesn't mean, though, that these critiques are less valid now than they used to be.  If anything, given we're in a new century filled with people that have moved on, they should be more valid.  Lindsay and Nella did a lot of bitching about how John Lasseter committed some evil act by making the Shrek films to spite Disney.  Did anyone ever consider that maybe Disney had it coming?  Because I did.  That was how Shrek appealed to me.  I don't know what's kept you from noticing, but a princess who's so pure that cute, but very-wild animals come up and let her pet them and sing with them is fucking stupid.  It was fucking stupid the first time they did it in Snow White, and it's been fucking stupid every time they've done it since.  I'm glad the Shrek films thumbed their nose at that in a rather brutal way--and I don't usually say that about a scene where a cute animal explodes.  I found The Brothers Grimm to be a hideous abomination of deliberate offense, but with Shrek, I liked it because it was tearing down a hated fairy tale trope that Disney helped to perpetuate.

It's like that all across the board, in ways that should be obvious to anyone who's seen it (and who hasn't); the hero is a monster, the princess is a tough fighter, the villains are the traditional heroes of fairy tales reenvisioned as a bunch of superstitious racists--and why not?  Medieval folks were a bunch of superstitious racists, and most of the monsters they tried killing were probably innocent people.  In one sense, Shrek is a hip modernist reenvisioning of the Middle Ages.  On another level, though (and this is reminiscent of what my father, a history teacher, explained to me about why he appreciated Blazing Saddles), it's the first animated movie that gets them right.

Lindsay complains about how DreamWorks has pushed Disney into a corner and reduced them to the dishonest tactic of pretending to emulate DreamWorks to draw crowds to traditional animated films.  What she's neglecting to tell is why.  It's because DreamWorks deserved to win the ground that they did.  Disney's contribution to the animation world was holding people's conceptions down; reducing the national consciousness as to what fairy tales and animated films were supposed to be.  It's been engrained in society for so long that it was just begging for innovation and parody to stir things up, and DreamWorks charged in and filled that niche.  When Disney now tries to sell traditional animated Disney movies with trailers that attempt to deceive viewers into thinking they've moved on to DreamWorks' revolution as well, they no-doubt think they're ahead of the game.  They're not.  They're tragically behind the game, as people tend to get when they insist on making the same movie over and over again despite the fact that times, and the stories they're trying to do, change.  That they see a need to keep doing this proves that, despite them having a few left over aficionados, the majority of Americans have moved on, and I commend them for it.

Now, I am not a vacuum DreamWorks fan.  I grant that many of their CGI Family films are mediocre and forgettable, and that their aggressive approach can grate at times.  Still, this is me comparing them to Pixar, another great innovator in the world of animated films.  Compared to Disney, all I see is a load of movies that are even more formulaic and banal.  The issue I have is not that people are being too cruel to DreamWorks, but that in doing so, they seem to be putting the old set of tired-out cliches on a pedestal; a pedestal they frankly do not deserve--and that's another thing.  One thing that enraged me about that video of Lindsay's enough to the point that I actually wrote about it in that video's thread, is how they seem to be ripping on DreamWorks for no other reason than "They're capitalists."  Oh no!  DreamWorks is making movies that aim right for the short attention span of Americans to make a quick buck!  Whatever; you know who else are capitalists, and have been sniffing around for your money far longer than DreamWorks has even existed?  Your hero, Disney.  Their whole life-story is the story of an engineered, regimented media empire that repossesses old stories and spins them into stuff they can charge money for, and now they're also making forays into the music business with shit like Brittany Spears and Miley Cyrus.  That's the way Disney's chosen to evolve; is Dreamworks' business strategy really that bad?  Seriously; don't make me laugh; if you want a fast way to mark yourself down as a massive, biased hypocrite in my book, then make a video complaining about capitalist filmmakers, and end it with you going to Disneyland, where they ban you from bringing in food so you have to buy their overpriced shit.

So there's my rant.  I wholeheartedly support revisionist animation, I don't like that Disney is dragging their heals against it, and I especially don't like that they're getting praised for it.  Now that I'm done ranting; I'll come clean, there are plenty of Disney films that I enjoy and plenty of DreamWorks films that I don't.  I liked The Princess and the Frog, and I didn't like Kung Fu Panda.  My principles stand, though; The Princess and the Frog has a black cast, something no old Disney movie would have done, as well as other innovations like an American setting and a heroine who takes more active charge of things than the man in the movie.  Likewise, I didn't like Kung Fu Panda because it's story is just way too cliched for a film called that; I was sick of martial arts films about reverence to elders and believing in selves ten years ago; I wanted something new here.  The point is, I like innovative cinema; I'll watch it no matter who does it, but go against it and I'm the first to call you out on it.  We also aren't as innovative as I would like; I want there to be at least one CGI comedy film starring anthropomorphic animals that's rated R; I think that would be a big splash.  I'll leave readers to ponder everything above, now.
 Final Note:  My views on good cinema have changed a bit since then.  I'm not a progressive snob, though I sure know enough of that territory that I can call out progressive snobs for hypocrisy.  Still, I'm not overly fond of cliches, as in the case of Jurassic World, which I enjoyed for what it was, but I do think it made so sure to tick every traditional box of Jurassic Park tropes that it eschewed the suspense that truly great horror films thrive on.  I was meaning to review it when it was new, but other things came up.  Think I still should?

Friday, July 24, 2015

An Ode to the 1990s' Playful Vegas--and a Call for Its Revival

Earlier today, I was reminiscing about my childhood, and decided to Google search for the Oz Casino.  This was a reference to the MGM Grand, as it existed for a brief window of time.  It's a search I might well have not have made, as when I had tried such nostalgia trips online years earlier, I discovered to my dismay that not only had a piece of my childhood died, but many were dancing derisively on its grave.  Yet this time, I happened on a unique article by David G. Schwartz, which for once in Vegas-watching history, put a more positive spin on this receding memory of a bold time when Las Vegas was more playful and imaginative than ever.

If people don't know what I'm talking about, then chances are they weren't born in the Mojave Desert like I was.  That colored how I saw the world for at least half a decade, and I frequently get nostalgic for it.  My hometown of Barstow, California, might not even be recognized by laypersons if not for its getting mentioned in the classic song, "Get Your Kicks On Route 66"--which is about places off the beaten path, anyway--but it's important enough to me that even my current Twitter handle mentions it.  I like Barstow, I like the Southwestern US in general, and hence, I like Las Vegas; have since I was a baby.  Sadly, Las Vegas obeys different rules than much of the Southwest, which makes liking the place a bit more bittersweet--While a lot of settlements in that quadrant of the country have become intriguing Radiator Springs-style time capsules perfect for nostalgic people, holding onto old buildings, old businesses, and old infrastructure; the rat-race of more space-competitive terrains like the coast having passed them by, Las Vegas is relatively desirable oasis (in fact, its name means "The Meadows", and refers to the fact that natural springs drove settlers to it by default) very much caught up in the search of the all-mighty dollar.  Granted; that's a huge part of the city's identity, but it also makes it revamp that identity so frequently that it's not a good idea to get too attached to what it is at any given period of time.

I first visited Las Vegas as a baby, when my parents drove out there specifically to use McCarran International Airport.  We were flying out to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, so my father could visit his mother, and thus, though it wasn't the last major city I saw that trip, it really was the first major city I had seen in my whole life.  Not too long prior, I hadn't seen anything but the dark interior of a womb; to be bathed in the rainbow glow of so many lights so soon after was a treat most children don't get; almost like learning to run and leap shortly after learning to walk.

The next time I remember going to Las Vegas also involved my father's mother--who, sadly, passed away earlier this year--but that time, she came there.  The 1990s had begun, and that meant Las Vegas was in the midst of its notable (but usually deemed failed) experiment to branch out into being a family-friendly destination.  The ironies of doing this with such an aggressively libertine city may have been a joke that wrote itself to people looking in with more age, travel, and historical knowledge under their belt, but I didn't care; as a little kid growing up in the otherwise backwater Mojave, Las Vegas wasn't "Sin City"; it was "The City".  It was where we all went to do things you couldn't do in the surrounding towns and countryside, and it totally delivered in that regard.
 I don't believe that we stayed at the MGM Grand, but we went there, and I loved what they'd done with the place.  We entered either through the mouth of a lion statue or glass doors marked "Oz", to discover what was essentially a self-contained city modeled after just that fantasy realm, with poppy carpets, a yellow brick road, the Emerald City, and animatronic replicas of all the famed Oz characters.

In case the above text didn't convey the feeling, for many intents and purposes I was Dorothy; coming from a monochrome wasteland and entering a flamboyant land where anything seemed possible.  The resort continued to deliver on that feeling as we made our way to its enclosed adventure theme park, themed after a combination of the Southwestern US states and MGM movies.  Here again, maybe all seems pointless to people with more options available; people who lived in more desirable, naturally verdant coastal areas and could drive over to a Disney park, but for me, it was the theme park.  It was a treat.
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While my family visited Las Vegas many more times since then, we never quite managed to go to the MGM Grand again.  It was something I always wanted to do, so one day, at a time when I was still young enough to live with my parents, but old enough that they could enlist my aid to help plan trips, I decided to consider revisiting that illustrious icon of my childhood, and found when I searched online, to my horror, that my city was gone.  The big lion head through which people once entered had been removed so as not to offend the superstitious sensibilities of Chinese tourists, the Oz casino had been converted into a less unique casino, the theme park demolished to enable the construction of luxury condos; the bold plan to make Las Vegas family-friendly had apparently failed, and a newly cynical drive to focus on the bottom-line of hedonistic, but not necessarily playful, adults had chipped away at the cultural artifacts of that era ever since.  We still went, and I still like Las Vegas, but it's the old (once new) Las Vegas that I fell in love with.

That sentiment probably applies to more people from more eras than just myself and my own.  The most recent time we went to Las Vegas, we took my aunt, and she was disappointed that the look of the Strip had changed.  It's still a bright, colorful place, of course, but as technology had marched on since her era, that meant the sources of the glow had changed.  At one time, the Strip was characterized by the attempts of bold modern artists to push neon tubing and creatively arranged bulbs to aesthetic heights unequaled anywhere else, but these days, LED TV screens stand in bold defiance to any competing lighting still present.  From a crassly technological standard, this all makes sense; LED lights are more energy-efficient, and screens with thousands of pixels can easily portray a wider range of images than more cumbersome large lights with set colors.  However, nobody needs to go to Las Vegas to see TV screens, and I doubt anyone's mind immediately jumps to "Las Vegas" when they hear "TV screens"; the way they might easily jump when hearing "neon lights"--and for how much longer will even that be so?  Indeed, when at the tail end of that trip, we all visited the aptly named "Neon Boneyard" museum, I was shocked by the amount of discarded signs there from casinos I didn't even realize had been demolished, and had seen as iconic to the look of the city.  Las Vegas contains replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Great Pyramid (and unlike the original, it retains the glimmering tip that was there initially, but had long since eroded or torn off), the Dogal Palace in Venice, and more, but I now fear that it has nothing that functions the way the originals do; as monumental, quintessential icons of their cities that will never be deliberately demolished and, should they unintentionally be destroyed, would likely be rebuilt.  Whatever your own personal Vegas is, it's probably not safe from the sands of time.

That metaphor is apt, because alas, while Las Vegas may mean the meadows, the construction of Hoover dam may have brought in human capital, water and electricity, and post-modern consumer economics may have completed the equation, the meadows only extend so far.  It's in a mostly arid desert, the amount of usable land is in short supply, the quintessential boom town can only boom so much.  This means that new business ventures can't simply grab a new plot of land and add another patch to the colorful quilt; they are competing with each other for limited real estate and resources, profits must be maximized in order to maintain a city whose natural capital couldn't do the job alone, and that means those once quintessential landmarks that fall behind get sacrificed to facilitate hopefully more lucrative ones.  As it pertains to my experiences, that meant the elimination of more diversified entertainment as casino moguls concluded that slots were king.

Yet are they really?  It may be obvious to many people why family entertainment never really took off in Las Vegas; why should people have gone there for that when they could find better versions well-established in more conventional vacation destinations, down more climatically-pleasant coastal highways?  However, even though Las Vegas has been known as a gambling mecca for over half a century now, its ability to be so has always depended upon the lack of gambling anywhere else nearby--a lack that no longer exists.  By my new home in San Diego county, Indian casinos on our local reservations are advertised all over, a few casinos have even opened in non-reservation places like Compton, and nobody here on the coast needs to take a grueling drive through the desert to get to them.  That may be why, as the economy got bad late last decade, with, among other things, terribly high gas prices, Las Vegas fell extra hard.  It is recovering, but it's not clear if it can keep doing so.  Las Vegas showed the rest of the world just how lucrative gambling could be, but that might be its undoing.

So if the Las Vegas built on gambling is ultimately as finite as that built on family fun, then what can be done to save the city?  My idea is to focus back in on tropes that can be considered more quintessential and eternal, and I will return to clarify at a later time.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Throwback Thursday: I, Frankenstein Review

[Note: This was originally published circa October 2, 2014]

I'll say this for I, Frankenstein: It delivers what it promises.  This is DEFINITELY a movie about Frankenstein's monster (now known as Adam) battling demons alongside tepid gargoyle allies.  It even does that job reasonably well, with fluid fight choreography, artsy camera work, and a motif brimming with gothic...everything, basically.  It also makes the commendably bold choice of basing its anti-hero and plot specifically on Mary Shelly's original novel, rather than the more recognized and therefor marketable Universal Studios incarnation.  Unfortunately, by simple virtue (or is it sin?) of being a movie, it also makes IMPLIED promises of such things as plot, dialogue, characterization, and most-notably, PACING; that iconic bell-curve of story progression we learned in elementary school. (Setup, Conflict, Climax, Conclusion; if I remember correctly.)

Such subtleties are scarce here, and you miss them immediately.  Before the opening narration is even all the way done, Adam is attacked by demons and rescued by gargoyles [NOTE: They're also angels, basically; I forgot to mention that in the original review]; both out of the blue.  They offer him (not to mention us) the brief pleasure of a supporting cast, and then he leaves, narrates some more, fights some more demons, flashes forward, narrates some more, fights some more demons, revisits the angels, who do some demon fighting on their own, and once in a while there's a conversation, to remind you this isn't a video the snark I would've made two decades ago (and other reviewers have already expressed such an opinion), but these days there are plenty of video games that have more dialogue than this film and are less linear to boot.

Once again, the problem isn’t even that anything that’s actually in this movie is necessarily bad.  It looks nice (read; it’s ugly as sin, but that’s appropriate in this case, and it’s detailed), almost all performances are competent (if none even remotely impressive), and as mentioned, the action scenes work fine of themselves.  The problem is that a lot of good things aren’t actually in this movie.  Without the elements that anchor the trailer-filling fight scenes together, it’s a disorganized mess that makes you wonder why you aren’t watching another action/horror movie; you never get a good feel for exactly what part the barely-existent story you’re seeing.  In fact, it’s arguable that the climax of this film feels less climatic than other scenes. (I won’t spoil it, but there wouldn’t be much love lost if I did.)

All of the above content would be sufficiently damning on its own, but I have a few more nitpicks to impart.  The first is that, due to the film’s constant kinetic pace, any ability to take seriously its backstory of a secret Heaven-Hell war raging under our noses for centuries, quickly flies out the window with a rain of shattered stain glass.  Somehow, despite both being able to transform into human form, neither the demons nor the gargoyles care a whiff for subtlety when they get down to their jobs, smashing things and vaulting through the sky in full-view throughout a European city (the film never specifies which one) that is somehow still intact and populous in spite.  All that might be a bit more forgivable had the film been even remotely self-aware and whimsical, but its humor is limited to a few dry situational snarks.

Which brings us to the second additional nitpick: Tragically, despite its unique concept, and despite applying a technically appropriate style to that concept, an action film has never felt so cliché.  The ugly characters, dark alleys, and halls are perfect for a franchise gothic from the start, and the Latin choir score and existential ramblings gel perfectly with the biblical theme.  Had it come out in some other time (and, it should go without saying, evaded at least some of the flaws I stated above), I, Frankenstein could have worn such distinctions well.  In the present era, though, thanks to the success of such films as The Matrix and Batman Begins, we’ve spent a decade full of action films abusing such morose tropes.  Onward through the 2010s, just when you think Marvel’s films have won their final heroic battle against that conformity, another black sheep comes along to add to the sludge of a long mostly-black flock.

All that being said, I can say one thing emphatically positive about this movie: It’s a blast to make fun of; like no other B movie in recent memory.  I’ve had some great laughs today, all the way from hearing my friends weigh in their thoughts, through reading critics’ reviews of this movie, to writing my own.  Describe it at any length, and jokes write themselves that I didn’t even know I had before I started it.  This dubious honor may well grant the film a twisted sort of immortality—much like a lightning bolt frying a corpse.

Throwback Thursday: Rango Review

[NOTE: This was originally published circa January 19, 2012]

To hear Rango described on paper, you'd wonder how it managed to glean such an enjoyable experience from the sum of its parts.  I say this because, as far as much of the basic scenario goes, we’ve seen this before.  A stranger wanders into a troubled old western town, performs feats to make himself popular, and finally saves the town from a greedy villain’s conspiracy.  That’s right; Rango is a deep-dyed Western; sure, it’s the only Western about a chameleon played by Johnny Depp, but the vast majority of tropes are all things we’ve already seen in other movies, and much of it remains predictable for that reason.  So how is it that this movie, which should logically feel stale, comes out feeling fresher than most other animated family films released in recent memory?  Perhaps it’s because it applies so much elbow-grease to a clichéd formula that it makes it enjoyable again, perhaps it’s because we’ve had such a break from the genre that it feels new again compared to what have come to be the mainstays of animated films these days, perhaps the little things, like the film’s animal cast, really do count for a lot, and it may be a combination of these—but whatever the case, it’s like no other animated film, and an absolute blast to watch.

Compared to most animated films, Rango does not spend much time setting up its storyline before it happens on the screen; before we even know the antihero of the film well, he is being hurled out of a car, dodging traffic and predators, and strolling into a saloon within minutes of his first appearance.  At first it feels like a weak narrative, but given time and attention, it reveals that it’s just an energetic one.  This film doesn’t tell us much because it would rather show us, and it shows things rather expertly.  Through a stable blend of harrowing, high-velocity action scenes and jokes that are often side-splittingly hilarious, Rango actively makes the audience feel like they’re along for the ride.  In addition, it helps that the film looks and sounds great.

Visually-speaking, the best single word to describe Rango is “unique.”  This is not a film that feels compelled by the mainstays of modern animation; while other animated movies tend to produce a world filled with exaggerated, glossy pastel colors and exaggerated, proportionally-stylized characters, both of which call constant attention back to the notion that they’re just long cartoons, Rango seeks an alternative in a worn, sober world that is essentially beautiful in an ugly way.  With the possible exception of a quartet of cute mariachi owls who provide the film’s soundtrack (and occasionally some snide commentary), there isn’t a single pretty face anywhere in this movie; many characters look like actual desert animals, and all have a hardened and/or battered look to them.  This is a motley-looking crew, with faded clothes, unkempt facial hair, wrinkles and scrapes, bloodshot eyes, and a myriad of other features that indicate a life in the badlands full of sorrow—one character even has an arrow lodged in his skull via one of his eyes!  The presentation of the harsh environment that forged them is equally well-realized, with its bone-dry deserts, decaying remains of the unfortunate, and its red, silhouette-casting sunsets.  The point is that this film doesn’t whitewash its grit; it displays it proudly and thus immerses viewers.  The town of Dirt deserves special attention, as in addition to having the same worn-out look that the rest of the movie features, much of it is constructed of repurposed human objects, providing lots of fun details to look for in its appearance, in the vein of such classics as The Rescuers.  One more thing about the visuals: Roger Ebert has observed that this movie, despite not being optimized for 3-D graphics, looks better than many that are.  For my part, I’m somewhat disappointed this film wasn’t in 3-D, as there are plenty of scenes that could have made great use of it, but Ebert is still basically right; it already does look much better than many other CGI films.

Sound is another strong point.  The aforementioned owl chorus provides a well-produced, appropriate-sounding score of country and mariachi music to set the mood, and I advise everyone to stay for the end credits, where they really let loose with a spectacular fanfare.  However, what will draw many to this movie is the voice-acting.  Johnny Depp does a great job as Rango, hitting all the subtle-yet-important details of his character’s mood, and providing a distinction between the early scenes where he’s just a self-important humbug and the final scenes where he comes to take the role of hero seriously.  However, though Depp’s performance is excellent and often compelling, he sometimes sounds like a typical, likeable-yet-naïve CGI protagonist, a bit of a letdown for an actor as distinctive as Johnny Depp.  However, the rest of the cast sound straight out of a classic Western, with all the accents and dialects you’d expect, and even a lot of mild expletives.  Here too, this film wears its grit on its shoulder, with spectacular results.

In closing, let me reiterate that Rango is a unique movie.  Opinions are going to vary as to how much a cast of animals makes the old feel new again, but I certainly can’t say I have seen a lot of animated Westerns, and this film does capitalize on its unique cast to put an occasional twist on the old mechanics; such as in the case of a chase scene where, in lieu of a train being attacked and boarded from horseback, a javelina-drawn wagon is boarded by raiders riding on bats. (Also admit it; did you have to look up what a javelina was?)  Taking its inspiration from the American epics of yesteryear also means this film hardly ever draws on contemporary pop culture for its humor, which is another way it sets itself apart from the crowd.  In the end, Rango feels less like a mess of clichés and more like an affectionate tribute to Westerns, and it’s a roaring-good time, to boot.