Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Happening

M. Night Shyamalan isn’t preoccupied with ‘twist endings’, though he has been type-cast as such; he’s preoccupied with stories without explanation. This sense of magical realism can sometimes ruin the believability of the narrative or can sometimes be, ah, magical. The Happening manages to be a little bit ruined and little bit dark magic, like a magician who pulls a dead rabbit out of a hat.

In The Happening, there is no machete-wielding halfhuman around the corner waiting to chop up an unimportant character. Shyamalan finds the narrative in what is not known. I suppose that’s where the tension in most thrillers comes from – when the lurching slasher MIGHT be around the corner, when the music quiets and the hero slows, and you THINK something horrific is going to happen, but you don’t know. You never know in this movie, because no one knows what IT is. It, the event, the happening, the occurrening, is a sort of dementia spreading in a viral fashion, causing people to casually kill themselves. It may or may not be caused by rebellious house plants and their airborne neurotoxins.

The characters flee from nothing, from wind and rustling brush, and from oak trees burdened with the shackles of rope swings, bubbling with years of resentment. Really. There are implications of angry trees in the movie. It all sounds very silly and ridiculous, yes? It is. And yet, the constant suicides are immensely unnerving, and by association, so is the invisible menace from which the characters are fleeing. What is more disturbing than watching someone calmly kill themselves? Watching a few dozen, and then a few more, and not knowing if the protagonists are about to off themselves.

On that level the film works, for me. I didn’t buy Mark Wahlberg’s role as a high school science teacher – you get the sense that he’s only half a chapter ahead of his students in the textbook. I never knew much about Zooey Deschanel’s character – but I like Zooey Deschanel – and never bought the forced tension between their characters.

The Happening is what it needs to be and not quite what it could have been. Shyamalan likes the idea of being an auteur, I think, but he needs a writing partner, someone with older, wiser eyes, to look over his shoulder. So just give me a call, M. I only charge twice minimum wage.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Quest for the Self in Mystery Doritos

They say to do what you love. Find what you love to do, and find a way to make it your livelihood. I like smores and sleeping in on the weekends. Though what I do with the most gusto, I think, is trying not to get hit by buses when crossing the street. Can you make a profession of that?

My year in the real world has been as kind of as unkind as can be expected of someone in the pudgy middle class without any distinct talents and yet still unable to acquiesce to mundane work. There is no differentiation between the real and the college world, I learned; it's just an old joke for people who think the height of life is in the oblivion of college-magnitude drinking, or for people who don't know how to save money.

My earliest longterm plan had been to become a paleontologist -- a real dinosaur hunter, with a small pick-axe hanging from my warn leather belt and a pistol in my back pocket, just in case. Not that I ever had in interest in studying dinosaurs. They seem magic and majestic and ethereal and I was going to travel the world to find them; the discovery was the thing. Of course, I was probably five years old and also wanted to be a Ninja Turtle with equal devotion. They were both good plans.

I think there are people to whom work and living are two separate entities, and then there are people who hold work to be identity, one and the same. Unfortunately my parents raised me, unknowingly, with a 1950's puritan worker-bee mindset, and I invariably feel I am of the latter group -- work and life are together; there is no refuge at the end of the day if the work was not worth doing.

Which is why I recently quit a job, like the unappreciative almost-Ivy-League snot I occasionally am. But it has given me free time to soul-search in mysterious black-bagged Doritos.

The front of the bag says Doritos: THE QUEST: Guessing the Flavor is Just the Beginning. It is an attempt to appeal to the tantrum-prone ten year old boys with mothers who are willing to quiet them with dumb chips... demographic, in addition to young bachelors, who, with unbridled freedom, are also drawn towards mysterious Doritos.

Every chip is a journey, in my mouth! Amazing discoveries! Crunchy nirvana!

It's a marketing scheme that pops up every few years, infrequently enough so that you might have forgotten that the experience of not knowing what kind of flavordust is ensconcing your corn chips is moderately disappointing, because it doesn't taste that great. It's usually supposed to taste like pizza or hamburger or something that has no earthly business being an isolated flavor.

'The Quest' continues the tradition. They taste like yellow. Spoiler alert! It's been reported in the snackosphere that the super secret flavor is Mountain Dew. Chips of Dew! Sure, whatever. Are you impressed that I follow such obscure news so to be knowledgeable of contemporary Doritos flavorology? Are you saddened?

Having spent a substantial amount of time perusing job listings, I feel or felt that most jobs I could possibly be hired at are marketing-oriented. That's an over-simplification of many suppositions but it is the gist of my perspective. Do I really want to be perfectly tooling a Google Ad to ferry referrals to an internet startup? Etcetera, Etcetera? Do I really want to be pitching my idea for the next Doritos campaign of mystery chips?

Hey everyone, what about filet mignon flavor? Classy! What about corn flavoring? No one will ever guess!

Naw, I don't really want to be doing that. But I will buy the mystery chips.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Kung Fu Panda

Kung Fu Panda is refreshingly entertaining. Pixar has more or less owned feature-length animation for the past decade or so, critically speaking, with the animated films from Dreamworks catering more to children who will enjoy 80 minutes of silly gags and songs, as opposed to actual plot, and then move on. Such films can do well financially but have short shelf-lives; the characters are rarely developed enough to be memorable. And the pop-culture parodying and upturned fairytale of Shrek was novel at the time, but still, the story was never that touching and the characters of such films are ultimately forgetten.

I love animation as a medium but I haven't bothered seeing many non-Pixar CG movies lately. I thought Happy Feet was an abomination of plot-points presumably derived in corporate meetings (and a misguided use of motion-capture), and I've been in recovery. There's some great art, great character design, great animation, and amazing technical progressions in many films -- I like the square-edged illustrative whimsy of the Madagascar animals, for example -- but none of it can make up for limp storylines and the easy, cliched, pop culture jokes.

And now there is Kung Fu Panda. I was reticent before the positive reviews surfaced, because it's usually not a good sign when big-name voice actors are used to promote a movie -- as if anyone goes to a film to hear their favorite people -- but heck, I ditched work and went. Jack Black makes a pretty good panda after all, and I especially appreciate the moments when he is off script, inserting ongoing Blackisms ("bring the THUNDAH!").

Anyway, the story is nothing new. An unlikely hero is foretold in the scrolls and the forces of evil are inevitably encroaching, etc, etc. Luckily it's humorous enough, written well-enough, and actiony... enough, not to matter. It's also full of stunningly good animation. For me, that old wobbly turtle steals every scene. The way he shakes with age, and licks his lips and smiles just enough, is wonderful; it's a focused and subtle piece of animation, and I'd like to shake the hands of the guys and gals who handled that character. And the blobby, weighty panda, all flesh rather than skin, is far-removed from the old days when everything in computer animation looked like rigid plastic; both the animators and the R&D team behind them deserve large praise.

I really hope this marks an upward trend for Dreamworks-produced animation. There will inevitably be sequels, and I think they will inevitably be less impressive. But I do hope to be wrong.


the end of something.