Monday, January 24, 2011

Alternate Models of Families in Pixar movies: The Toy Story Trilogy

Chances are you will be surprised at what I am going to write now: I wanted to write an entry about how Andy's dad is absent from the family in the Toy Story movies. Are you surprised? Or have you always consciously noticed that Andy's father is never mentioned in the films and that he is completely absent from the family?

It did take me a while to notice that there was no father present and from what I have seen in online discussions it is a thing that most people don't notice at first until someone else points it out to them. Granted, the movies are, as the title already suggest, first and foremost about toys! The toys are the most important characters in the movie and it is their struggle that makes up most of the plot of the films. Also, from a technical point of view the animation team concentrated on the toys, the human characters mostly just making up a framework for the story. Many people explain the lack of Andy's father simply with: "They didn't animate that much."

But that's not really the Pixar we know. If one listens to the audio commentary of Toy Story 3 they mention how they at first didn't plan to even have a model for young Andy for this movie and that they at first had planned to leave it a bit botchy and chalk it up to the inferior camcorder quality so it would fit right in with the video that shows us young Andy playing with his toys. However, as they developed a model for young Andy, they just couldn't make it halfhearted, if they do something, they do it perfectly. Thus I do think that technical constraints don't mean a whole lot at Pixar and the decision to leave Andy's father out of the movie was at least in part a conscious one.

If you google further it appears that, despite the absence of Andy's father being not a plot point in the movies at all, many people are upset by this. They claim that it is just not "right" that any movie propagates such a "new normal" which "isn't normal at all", scoffing at how Andy is "too well-adjusted to not have a father around" and that "America needs examples of how a real family (a man and a woman [obviously they felt the need to specify that]) are formed".

I can say that I am really happy we have movies like Toy Story, which portray alternate models of families in a good or at least neutral light, without making the whole movie about it. Pixar tends to do these little nods to really progressive themes without making a spectacle out of it and that's what I find great about their movies. It's just one of the reasons why people of all ages can find something in the movies that touches their life or their views in some small way. I find this to be much more delicate than to target more mature audiences exclusively with adult humour.

Anyway, I think the very non-chalant portrayal of a single-mother family (for whichever reasons it may have ended up like this) in Toy Story is a great thing and it shows that alternate models for families have come a long way on their path to acceptance. It is great to see an alternate model of a family portrayed as if it's the most normal thing in the world, as I mentioned, many people don't even notice anything is missing from the picture to begin with. Besides, since Finding Nemo is a movie about a fish growing up without a mother (and I don't hear anybody complaining about that), shouldn't it be alright for Pixar to make a movie that only just slightly and softly touches on the subject of a boy growing up without his father and turning out alright after all?

Then of course the Toy Story movies aren't even devoid of positive father figures! Of course you can count Woody as one of the nurturing and loving father figures in the movie. His first priority has always been to be there for Andy whenever he needs him and Andy stresses that Woody has been his best friend for as long as he can remember. Buzz Lightyear, when he first comes into the picture does appear a bit like the shiny new toy that maybe some stepfather might have gifted Andy and indeed, the squabble of Woody and Buzz in the first film could be seen as an allegory for the actual father and the step-father fighting over the affection of their son. Lastly, the odd group of toys can also be seen as a family of course. Especially in the end, where Woody realises that the other toys have over the years become equally important to him and he can not face being without them, as they too have become his family.

I think Pixar promotes healthy families, just not necessarily families that always adhere to the most rigid standards that conservative people might think up. There is love and nurturance to be found in the oddest assortments of people and being of the same sex, being of different kin or any of these things have never stopped people from being a family to each other. I don't find that there is anything to criticise in this healthy message of the movies.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Silent Hill Movie that never was - Shutter Island

Personally I think Shutter Island was DiCaprio's best movie last year. Better than Inception. (And it should go without saying but there are spoilers to the ending of both Shutter Island and Silent Hill 2 in here!)

Shutter Island is a classical psychological horror movie that is simply a pleasure to watch. Starting out in line with a tradition from the crime and mystery genre - an investigation taking place in an isolated sphere, thus limiting the possibilites and culprits - it quickly becomes clear that this will be no ordinary criminal investigation.

DiCaprio's character, U.S. marshal Teddy Daniels, is asked to investigate the disappearance of a female patient from a mental hospital located on an island. As the investigation continues he is faced with unhelpful hospital staff and a resurgence of his own war trauma. We, as viewers, first start to be suspicious of everyone on the island, then of the marshal himself.

The thing that pleased me the most in the movie were parallels that I could see between the plot and also the visual design of Shutter Island and Silent Hill 2. Some passages are very similar in overall style and development.

We start by entering a foggy and cold world. A mysterious and vaguely dangerous place. But Shutter Island continues to have its world inhabitated by people. Even if they are unhelpful or downright hostile there is no direct sense of isolation. In Silent Hill 2 you spend most of your time alone, only sometimes coming across a handful of people that are wandering the town as well, but never meeting more than one person at a time.

Then the imagery of movie and videogame crisscrosses again when we enter the prison world. Both Shutter Island and Silent Hill 2 contain a prison sphere, which signifies physically by the descent into the hidden and deep and visually with the darkness and ugliness, the travel of the protagonists into the abyss of their own souls and coming face to face with their own monstrosity down there. But yet, they are unable to believe and it is only during the final moments of the movie or videogame that they are able to face their past.

Two different interpreations of the end of Shutter Island - Daniels choosing to revert back into his delusions because he can not cope with his past and Daniels pretending to revert back into his delusions because he hopes to find oblivion in the impending lobotomy - correspond to two different endings to the videogame: James leaving the town together with the manifestation of his own delusion, Maria, her cough at the end signifying that there can be no happy ending; and James deciding to commit suicide because he can not live with what he has done.

I don't think there ever will be a good movie adaption of Silent Hill 2. But I don't belong to the people who claim videogames like this are unfilmable. Shutter Island shows us what could have been a perfect movie quite like Silent Hill 2. It is not impossible to do it. People just need to realise the essence of it. Silent Hill 2 draws on a number of works by David Lynch, among them Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks and these came from the medium film to begin with. So creating a movie that is true to the essence of Silent Hill 2 should not be impossible at all.

On the other hand, when people think of (survival horror) videogame movies, they think of Resident Evil and Uwe Boll and Silent Hill 2 couldn't be further from those sorts. So for the time being I am completely content with pretending that Shutter Island was in fact Silent Hill 2 The Movie.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Recommendation: A Year in the Life of J. K. Rowling

If you are about the same age as me (I was born in 1987) chances are that you are part of the Harry Potter generation! Clearly, most young people who enjoy the Harry Potter books could be called "the Harry Potter generation" but maybe there is something special about starting to read the book series when you are 11 years old, just as the main protagonist.

So for people like me around the world it is undeniable: the Harry Potter saga is coming to an end. It already did end in a way when the last book was released. No more midnight release parties! No more avoiding the internet for a few days before the book launch to not be spoiled by ominous carpet books. No more finding five different fan-written versions of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix online. Oh well, back when the last book came out I told myself: There will still be the movies.

Now that the last movie is due out this summer (THIS SUMMER!) there won't be much of anything out afterwards. Yes, I am hoping for J. K. Rowling to write that encyclopedia or maybe some cute book like "Hogwarts, a History" much in the same way in which she wrote Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quidditch through the Ages, but there won't be any new books about Harry Potter at Hogwarts. Ah well! So as the summer release of the final Harry Potter film draws near, we are all a little bit sad. Right now I am doing some things that bring back memories, like rereading the books or watching DVD bonus material.

But one thing that I dug up again is the 2007 documentary "A Year in the Life of J. K. Rowling". I thought it's a really beautifully done documentary which follows the author through a critical phase of her career - namely the year in which she finished writing the final book of the Harry Potter series. It's almost surreal to see her sitting in a hotel room now, after the book has been released, actually finishing the very last bit of the novel. Then you get a brief look at how the manuscript was transported to the publisher and finally being printed as well.

Other than centering around the production of the Harry Potter saga the documentary also features J. K. Rowling's sister and husband and they're talking a bit about their family life. James Runcie also asks Jo a few very interesting questions and touches on the hard times in her life, after her divorce and the birth of her first child, when she faced depression and how she managed to keep going after all. Some insights on how Rowling's personal hardships in life and probably most of all the death of her mother influenced the book series are also given.

Overall, it is probably the perfect documentary to watch for a Harry Potter enthusiast who wants to know more about the author. If you are a fan like me and familiar with Rowling's basic biography you will probably already know a lot of the things that are talked about in this documentary. However, it is still an interesting watch. Especially scenes like the one where Rowling has the opportunity to visit one of her old flats again and is overwhelmed by emotion when she sees the Harry Potter books standing on a shelf there, shouldn't be missed by fans.

But even if you aren't a fan of Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling is an interesting woman. She has very interesting views on life and if you ever wanted to check out what the fuss is all about this documentary might be a good place to start as well.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Rammbock - A German Zombie Movie?!

I don't like German movies at all. I don't know what it is about them. First of all, I think they are using different equipment. I actually tried to look this up. Are they using a different kind of camera, a different format, a different medium? Whichever way it may be, you can often tell a German movie from an American or British one just by looking at a still frame. Then the actors. Are German actors inherently bad? I've enjoyed watching Inglourious Basterds immensely so I think German actors just need someone who directs them the right way. Except for Til Schweiger, he just made his Til Schweiger-face and it coincidentally fit his specific character in that movie perfectly. So over time I just stopped exposing myself to German movies because every time I gave them a chance I was very disappointed. Maybe I should give them a chance again.

I sort of DID give it a try because one evening the second public German TV channel showed... a zombie movie! Unknown director, unknown actors, just a shortish little movie created out of the desire to make a zombie movie. Its name is Rammbock (yes, as in Rammstein) and it takes place in Germany's capital city Berlin. Actually one of the nice parts about Rammbock is that it mainly takes place in one building. Michael, the main protagonist of the movie visits his ex-girlfriend Gabi in an pathetic attempt to use the handing-over of the old house-key as an excuse to see her one last time and maybe convince her not to dump him. As he enters her flat he only finds a plumber working on the heating in the apartment. It's this handyman that becomes the first zombie of the film and attacks Michael as well as his own apprentice. They manage to lock the zombies out and from then on are able to communicate with the neighbours by shouting out of the windows into the joint courtyard.

The whole movie being set in one construction, one house is very reminiscent of the Spanish zombie movie [REC], which I enjoyed a lot as well by the way. It's a very close-up look at how a zombie apocalypse would affect the lives of people in the very first moments, especially if they find themselves unarmed. Rammbock is not to be understood as a classical low-budget splatter zombie movie. There are actually not many scenes of on-screen violence, most of the time it's the neighbours watching people getting mobbed by zombies in the courtyard. I thought that especially the open courtyard as a tool of communication, the ability to see into the other person's flat but not be able to really reach the people was a very clever and interesting device. What also makes Rammbock stand out are its characters. Even though you don't get to know a lot about Michael and the young apprentice Harper their dialogue is authentic and at times funny.

Michael is a terribly annoying guy, constantly worrying about his ex-girlfriend. This may sound reasonable for a zombie apocalypse movie but instead of fearing for her life, he worries about whether she might be upset when she comes back and finds that he and Harper wrecked some of her flat and he also scolds Harper for trying to build some weapons out of forks. By the time that he insists they have to leave the safety of the barricaded flat to go get his cellphone that he lost on the staircase the viewer is fully convinced that Michael is an idiot. Of course this is a textbook example of social commentary on the real world wrapped up in a zombie movie. Lines like "don't scribble on that, I wanted to sell it on ebay!" also come up.

Aside from unusual characters Rammbock also offers some bits of unique zombie features. Now, sensitivity to light is not unheard of in the zombie genre and it does come in handy for our group but the most interesting new twist about the zombie virus in this movie is that it's only triggered by adrenaline. If a person is infected the infection will only spread and turn the person if they're becoming upset or are triggering a release of adrenaline in a similar fashion. If no release of adrenaline is triggered the infection might be defeated by the immune system within a day or so. But since this is the zombie apocalypse remaining calm is not an option and thus sedative pills become very important for the containment of the disease.

Rammbock is just a good zombie movie. With its 63 minutes of runtime it is quite short but manages to tell a round story nonetheless. I always find it interesting to watch zombie movies from other countries than the US because the great majority seems to come from over there. But movies like [REC] or 28 Days Later just feel like they hit much more close to home, maybe solely for the fact that gun laws over here are stricter. I don't know one shop or even a place where I could find a gun in this city, which makes planning ahead for the zombie apocalypse quite hard. Thus, watching zombie movies in which the general public is completely unarmed feel more realistic to my personal life situation.

If you liked [REC] you should definitely check this one out, even though [REC] of course has more action and more scary scenes. Even if you liked 28 Days Later you might want to check this one out, though 28 Days Later of course has a different overall feel, a much bigger budget and much more action. If German movies more often went into this direction maybe checking them out wouldn't be such a bad idea.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Legend of the Guardians Review

Now the last thing that I expected Zack Snyder to do after his Dawn of the Dead (2004), 300 (2006) and the amazing Watchmen (2009) was a cute little children's movie about owls. I didn't have the urge to see it right away but finally I did find time to squeeze it in so I thought a little review was in order.

I'm really not a person who goes to watch movies just because they look pretty. I admit that my great enjoyment of the Hellboy movies was very much enhanced by their marvellous design (especially the second one) but I usually never watch a movie just because the visuals interest me and nothing else. But for Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole this might be true. Which is not a bad thing at all! The movie is utterly beautiful. I am used to the kind of cartoonish animation movies that Pixar and Dreamworks produce so watching something like this is a bit unusual and shows you a whole different side of the animation genre. When you watch a movie like this you realise: They have come really far now with the technical capacity. Beautiful backdrops, amazing weather effects and the owls themselves just look very real, down to their individual feathers. Knowing that feathers and fur have long been a problem in animation, a movie like that really reveals the technical advancement that has been achieved over the years. I have watched this movie in 2D but I think it might be nice to watch it in 3D as well. At the very least there have been a few scenes that were very obviously made to make use of the 3D technique.

This is a movie about owls set in a fantasy world. It starts out looking quite realistic and not necessarily fantasy, but be prepared for owls not only fighting with swords and wearing armor but also smithing the metal themselves, writing books, playing musical instruments and doing all kinds of stuff. Honestly, I thought it was pretty ridiculous at first but it doesn't throw you off too much since those elements are built up slowly over time and mainly dominate the latter half or so of the movie. Well, if you are prepared for swordfighting owls and have accepted their ability to do this then I guess you're free to enjoy the movie.

The characters themselves are likable enough. Since this is obviously a children's movie they are a bit on the black and white side but this is to be expected. Actually, I did wait for a plot-twist or something to come near the end of the movie but it just didn't come. It's a very straight forward movie about a fight between good and evil. I don't know how I came to expect a plot twist, I think it was some comment I have read before and must have misunderstood. So if you are fine with watching a not all too complex children's movie you won't be disappointed.

In some regards this movie feels a bit incomplete. Since it is based on a book I will just assume that there wasn't enough time to work on certain things enough and explain some issues. I still don't have any clue at all what that "fleck" substance in the movie is and why the evil owls gather it and what a gizzard is. I mean, I know what a gizzard is because I looked it up but the sort of mystical part it seemed to play in that movie remains completely mysterious to me. Now, not all things have to be explained and I really do enjoy watching movies that leave things open for the viewer to think about themselves but in instances like this it just seems a bit unfinished. There is also the role of the little elf owl, Gylfie which becomes a friend to Soren in captivity. This makes you think she will become an important character but then she just doesn't do a whole lot in the movie at all. It's sort of sad because she was one of the only female protagonists and being quite small but determined she suggested great potential from the start. I can't help but think that her role must have been bigger in the book because in the movie you're just left wondering why she is even there at all if she doesn't do a lot.

One thing that makes the movie quite lively and funny to watch are all the different accents the voice actors are lending to their characters. I couldn't identify them all but I certainly have some favourites among them. If you like owls and enjoy watching a really good looking movie set in a fantasy world, then you should check it out.