Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pixar's Up - A bit too conceptual?

For some reason I wasn't exactly sold on the critically acclaimed Pixar movie Up. Yes, you can hardly find more emotionally engaging first 10 or so minutes of movies that function completely without dialogue. And I think the first ten minutes of Up in which we get to know Mr. Fredericksen's whole life story are maybe on their own worth all the praise that this movie is getting.

However, when the movie progressed I couldn't help but feel like everything was just a little bit random. Colourful rare birds? Okay. But talking dogs? Cooking dogs? Dogs flying airplanes? That really felt a bit much. I've waited quite a while to get Up on DVD but when the Limited Edition was released over here just a month ago I thought I'd finally get it and listen to the audio commentary and watch all the bonus features.

I really have to commend Pixar on their efforts to create the wonderful wilderness of South America. They actually went there, went onto these huge stone monoliths to experience it all themselves. And their attention to detail and their inspiration really translates well onto the screen. But we are used to getting that from Pixar, so where did Up go slightly off?

When I watched the audio commentary I heard a lot of "We always wanted to put [this] or [that] into a movie...". I realised above all Up seemed a little bit too conceptual maybe to engage me as much as some of Pixar's other productions. It felt like it was a movie that is certainly based on a great and innovative idea but nevertheless a bit cluttered by things that Pixar had wanted to do for ages and ended up putting it into this movie.

Nevertheless, of course there are great things about Pixar. I find that Russel's character is extremely intriguing. The way his dialogue flows just feels natural and authentic for a kid his age. His family situation, which is only touched upon briefly also seems interesting. While Andy's father was away for all of Toy Story we at least hear about Russel's father existing and Russel missing him. All this gets resolved in Mr. Fredericksen being the one who is there for Russel in the end. And finally, Russel being an Asian-American main character for a kid's movie isn't the least part of why I think he's an awesome choice.

Also having Mr. Fredericksen as a main character for a quite action-laden movie is a nice step against the growing ageism that we have been facing for decades. The resolution of the feeling of loss that Russel and Mr. Fredericksen share when it comes to their family members is resolved beautifully by showing once more that unconventional models of families may be just as functional in providing nurturance for their family members.

Up remains a very innovative and thoughtful movie, even though it's execution might appear cluttered to some people. In the light of recent announcements, being Cars 2 as well as a Monster's Inc prequel I hope that Pixar continues trying to bring forth original scripts. Even though I did enjoy the Toy Story trilogy immensely I feel like the whole film industry has had too many sequels in recent years.

Thus, I also have really high hopes for Brave, Pixar's new movie featuring - finally - a female main character. Don't mess this up, guys.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Anticipation for Sucker Punch as a Popcultural Database Movie

Being swamped with a bit of university work at the end of the semester I (noticably) didn't have much time and muse for writing about movies and videogames on here.

Coincidentally I came across trailers for the new Zack Snyder movie Sucker Punch. Previously I had just seen teaser posters, snippets and stuff like that and couldn't help but scoff a little bit at the character designs. Babydoll? That isn't a person, she is a synthetic comic book character.

But finally watching the trailer it became apparent to me that this was no overworked design, this was not "too much", it was simply an artful expression and reflection of popular culture and the way we consume it today.

Every still frame of the trailer is a panel in a comic book. Every scenario in the movie is a videogame. Instead of products of popular culture being created in the image of real life, it is real life that we translate into scenarios and entries in the popcultural database.

My first action after watching the trailer was doing an amazon search for the comic book that Sucker Punch is based on. But my impression was confirmed in the fact that there is no single source material.

Sucker Punch is synthetically created out of our common database of popcultural elements. The first few moments we watch the trailer we begin to wonder "Is this the film adaption of one of the games that I played but forgot about?" It could very well be. But Sucker Punch is probably even more than that. It consciously references and plays with the age of database consumption that we are in now.

The title "Otaku: Japan's Database Animals" suggests that Azuma Hiroki was dealing with a distinctly Japanese phenomenon when he wrote about the shift in the way of consumption of popular culture that happened in the Otaku world roughly from the early 1990s until today and the underlying theoretical and philosophical reasons for it. But reading his text I found myself coming up with all kinds of details from the western world of popular culture as well that were conform with this theory.

Since the grand narrative of organised religion was declared dysfunctional, cults like Aum Shinrikyo could thrive and gain power. But in that context shouldn't it also be mentioned that it was no coincidence that the founder of Scientology was a science fiction writer? The decline of the grand narrative is of course also apparent in the western world and thus I think that the model of database consumption can be evidenced in western geek culture and Japanese otaku culture alike.

Hence we have movies like Sucker Punch coming out. Sucker Punch is not the first product that is consciously constructed this way. Tarantino has always been a filmmaker that made a lot of references and drew on a catalogue of settings, characters and plots that had in some way been established before and gave them his own twist. But Sucker Punch goes one step further. Sucker Punch does not explicitly reference works like Lady Snowblood, instead it uses the archetype of the girl wearing a Japanese school uniform. A girl wearing a Japanese school uniform and wielding a Katana.

So essentially archetypes, settings, plot structures and all these things have become entries in the popcultural database. While some creators tell stories in the supposedly traditional way, more and more creators become conscious of the popcultural database and start using the elements consciously and without shame. When copy and original have the same value there is no shame in being a "copycat".

I am very much looking forward to the movie and while I think it might be a little bit silly in itself its construction is extremely interesting and might even change the way people look at movies just a tiny bit.