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(Reviews) DisneyFest: WALL-E, Bolt, Up

Entertainment 150In 2008 and 2009, both Walt Disney and Pixar Animation were entering a new era. Disney Animation was under the control of Pixar executives Edwin Catmull and John Lassater, who set about trying to turn around the studio. They rehired a lot of the “new guard” who had left the studio years earlier, changed the development model to put more power and control in the hands of filmmakers instead of executives, and story meetings were more a gathering of equals rather than a series of notes handed down from on high. Meet The Robinsons was the first movie to benefit from this new development process, and the follow-up film Bolt was nearly completely retooled by it.

Meanwhile, Pixar stalwarts Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter were guiding Pixar into its future; WALL-E was billed as the last of the ideas the original brain trust had come up with at the beginning of the studio, and Up seamlessly carried the tradition of emotional story-telling, iconic visuals and engaging characters forward. Revisiting these films less than a decade after their release is a bit of a trip; even though computer animation has come a long way since then, they both hold up as excellent examples of their craft.

WALL-E (2008)
WALL-E is about one tiny trash compacting robot faced with the Sisyphusean task of cleaning up an Earth that has been completely covered in garbage. We’re not quite sure how long it’s been doing this job, but we can assume it’s been an awfully long while; entire buildings have been coated with cubes of condensed junk, but there is still so much refuse all over the place. Other robots of its model have broken down in service, and WALL-E scavenges their corpses for replacement parts. The humans who would have serviced it disappeared a long time ago, leaving behind their refuse as the only clues it has about who its masters are and what they were like. This little robot has been at the job for so long it has developed a fascination with the things it finds, a love of old musicals, and a friendly relationship with a cockroach.

The first act is a bleak setting made bright by the sheer personality of its protagonist. While I was watching it, I don’t think I quite appreciated how awful and desolate an existence that would be. Like WALL-E, I was too fascinated with all the things it loved and why. Even though it was carrying out its basic programming, its experience had built a distinct personality over years, perhaps decades, perhaps centuries. We spent over 20 minutes learning about its character, how it behaved when there was no one around to interact with. It was a strangely intimate view of the apocalypse, beautiful and lonely.

EVE, an advanced robot, breaks the monotony of this existence and kickstarts the story into motion. The two robots learn about each other as WALL-E guides EVE through the dangers and wonders of this desolate Earth, and just when it shows the newcomer its most cherished secret, EVE takes the tiny, fragile plant WALL-E found and goes into some kind of sleep mode. Confused and sad, WALL-E nonetheless continues to interact and protect EVE in the hope that it will wake up one day. Its diligence is rewarded by an unexpected trip to the Axiom, the luxury spaceship that the remnants of humanity live on, completely oblivious to anything but short-term pleasure. It’s here that WALL-E reawakens humanity to its better qualities, simply by being itself.

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Love is patient.

There’s so much going on with this movie it feels wrong to give it such an encapsulated review, but WALL-E is truly an incredible film — one of Pixar’s absolute best in fact. It tells a beautiful story in service to a theme that pushes us towards being better human beings. It’s mass entertainment that takes the responsibility of its power seriously, by asking us to take a look at our societal values and consider if that’s really what we want to champion. Rampant, unchecked consumerism, a lack of consideration for our environment or the consequences of our actions, and a misplaced optimism in the idea of easy answers could lead us to a point where we’ve effectively junked the planet, and by that time even the destruction of our home might not be a big enough wake-up call.

Even though WALL-E has some serious and heavy things to say, it says them elegantly, gently, and with utmost care. It’s just a movie about a robot who finds love, whose affection catalyzes a sea change in a future civilization that’s lost its way. But it’s also a cautionary tale about what we’re doing to ourselves and our world, a caring reminder of the things that make us great and makes life worth living. The fact that it can be both things without sacrificing the integrity of its other layers is a testament to the storytelling of director Andrew Stanton and co-writers Jim Reardon and Pete Docter. It feels something like the holy grail of responsible fiction, of socially-minded pop-art. We don’t have many movies like WALL-E in this day and age, and that’s a shame. It’s even more of a shame that we don’t have many movies that even TRY to be WALL-E.

Bolt (2008)
It was a long time in the wilderness for Walt Disney Animation. It had been six long years since their last financially successful and critically-acclaimed movie (Lilo & Stitch), and in that time they had come up with some truly terrible films. After John Lassater took over the studio and made some much-needed changes in its development culture, we began to see some improvement. Bolt, despite its rocky road to release, is the film where everything starts to turn around and the new guard of animators start to realize their potential.

Originally, Bolt was American Dog — the second film to be directed by Lilo & Stitch director Chris Sanders. The story was roughly the same; a dog traveled across the country in search of his home with two strange animal companions, all the while believing he’s still living out a TV show he stars in. However, Sanders was removed from the project after resisting changes requested by Lassater and other colleagues. He bolted for DreamWorks and How To Train Your Dragon, so…at least he landed well. Chris Williams (who went on to co-direct Big Hero 6 and Moana) and Byron Howard (co-director of Tangled and Zootopia) stepped in to take over, and made a genuinely good movie in a much shortened development cycle.

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RIDICULOUSLY cute.

Bolt is the star of the eponymous action TV show; he’s an adorable white German Shepherd who has been trained to believe he actually has super-powers and needs to protect Penny, the daughter of a world-famous scientist who’s been kidnapped by the evil Dr. Calico. A misadventure finds Bolt knocked unconscious and shipped across the country to New York City, where he quickly conscripts an alley cat to help him make his way back to his owner. Along the way, he discovers that he doesn’t actually have superpowers but he doesn’t really need them; determination and resourcefulness are amazing enough.

I was really excited for Chris Sanders’ version of this story, because I loved his work on Lilo & Stitch and heard that one of the animal companions would be a giant mutant rabbit whose family lived near nuclear test sites. It was disappointing to hear he was taken off the project, and I was pretty skeptical about the details that were coming out of its development. Seeing the final product won me over, though — the character work is excellent, and the action set pieces are incredibly well-realized. Each one provides the characters with an opportunity to advance their arc, so the lessons they absorb in their downtime frequently translate into action that illustrates how far they’ve come. Bolt, the poor dog, has to realize that the world is nothing like the way he thought it was — but that it’s also just as amazing, and he can be the hero he’s always believed himself to be. Mittens, the toughened alley cat, has to learn that her previous experiences aren’t a predictor of what other people will be like, and that’s it OK to be vulnerable enough to trust people.

Together with Rhino, the extremely excitable hamster-in-a-ball, they make the perilous journey across the country to get Bolt back to Penny. The movie moves briskly but organically, with the story doing a wonderful job introducing secondary and colorful tertiary characters, building tension, releasing it with crazy action, and settling the characters into a new equilibrium they must struggle to reconcile with. Bolt, Rhino, and even Mittens in her own way, are all amazingly cute; it’s really interesting that Disney settled on a more rounded and softer house style for their computer animated movies, but I think Bolt is the movie where that really solidified.

It did really well when it came out, making $310 million worldwide against a $150 million budget and scoring 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. Yet, as Disney moved on to more ambitious and more successful projects, it got a bit lost in the crowd when we talk about the studio’s Revival era. Bolt may not have the passionate fan-base of Tangled and Frozen, but it deserves a second look — it’s a solid movie that marked Disney’s welcome return to form.

Up (2009)
Everyone remembers the prologue to this film — and rightfully so, because it’s amazing. What a pleasant surprise it was, then, to rediscover how great the rest of the film is as well! One of the great things about this project is remembering movies you had forgotten about for various reasons, or making new connections that you hadn’t noticed before. For example, now I realize that my favorite Pixar director isn’t Brad Bird; it’s Pete Docter. He has a keen eye for wonderful characterization and emotional detail that is practically unrivaled at the studio. While he’s had his hands in most Pixar productions to date, it’s the ones that he has guided as director — Monsters Inc, Up, and Inside Out — that prove his mettle.

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You know you want this for a wallpaper. YOU KNOW.

Carl Fredricksen, a nine-year-old boy who idolizes renowned explorer Charles Muntz, meets Ellie, a loud and confusing girl who all but forces him into a friendship. That friendship blossoms into romance, is preserved with marriage, and the two have a happy life together. However, Ellie falls ill before the couple is able to live out their dream of traveling the world. When she dies, Carl retreats into the museum of the home they renovated, surrounded by her memory while his neighborhood changes all around him.

Fed up with the pressure to adapt to the changing times, Carl decides to simply “steal” his house by tying thousands of balloons to the roof and sailing for the spectacular jungle waterfall he and Ellie had always wanted to go to. His impromptu trip is complicated by a stowaway — Russell, an eager Wilderness Explorer who just wants to help Carl so he can get his final merit badge for assisting the elderly. A dog outfitted with a device that allows him to speak English and an extremely rare jungle bird round out the motley crew as they discover that adventure always carries with it a number of surprises.

At its heart, Up is about the importance of moving through the entirety of the grieving process so that you can move on with fulfilling the rest of your life. But it’s also about how the connections we make help us to do that. Carl lost his whole world with Ellie; even though his desire to finally fulfill the dream they had together causes him to take action, he was also using it as an escape to further retreat from the world. It was only after meeting Russell, and Dug (the dog), and Kevin (the bird), that he rediscovered his spirit of adventure. It feels weird to keep plot details hidden, especially after all these years, but the conflict that arises when the group arrives in the jungle serves as a cautionary tale. This is what happens if you disengage from people; this is what happens when you decide that it’s just too hard to work in tandem with others who are different.

Beyond the prologue, Up is filled with amazing visual moments. The Fredrickson house is simultaneously setting, metaphor and additional character, a refuge and a fragile thing that needs to be defended. Almost every scene it features prominently in is amazing, and what’s best is that Carl’s balloon-assisted flight isn’t even the most unlikely or wondrous thing in the movie. Docter does an excellent job of taking these high concepts and grounding them with real emotional weight. Even when things get silly or unlikely, we’re completely taken in because we understand what’s at stake for all of these characters.

When Up was released, it received near-unanimous praise; it won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score, while being nominated for three more awards including Best Picture. It is a crown jewel in Pixar’s animated canon, and rightfully so — it continues their dedication to telling wonderful stories that simultaneously teach us how to be better people. Docter’s touch with showing the value of being in touch with our emotions and each other is invaluable, and Up is one of the best examples of the magic he can weave if given the chance.

 

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(Personal) The Importance of Love

Buddhism 150We’re less than 24 hours away from Valentine’s Day, a holiday that a lot of people out there have a problem with. Traditionally we’ve thought of it as something only people linked in romantic relationships care about — single people need not apply. I’ve always thought that this was kind of a limited view of love, and it would be awesome if we could expand the focus of the holiday towards something a bit more egalitarian. Love comes in so many forms, and instead of taking the day to focus on the one kind of love we don’t have it would be much more in the spirit of the holiday to sit back and focus on the kinds of love we do. What do we love? Who do we love? Even if we’re not in a committed romantic relationship, what are our closest and most enduring bonds? When do we take the time to celebrate those?

Full disclosure: I’m a happily married rabbit, so my perspective on single people might not be the most accurate. But I would like to talk about the importance of love and how necessary it is to take the time to be grateful for its presence in our lives. One of the ways in which society (and our biology) conditions us is to make us acutely aware of the things we lack. We look at the successes of our friends and neighbors and wonder why we don’t have the same things. Meanwhile, it’s quite likely that our friends and neighbors are regarding something about us with an equally jealous eye. When we spend most of our energy focused on the things that need to be improved, we tend to miss all of the things that could bring us enormous contentment.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in assorted corners of the Internet. In our fandoms, we gripe about the direction our favorite shows are taking, the theories or pairings that become most popular in our cultures, or wage war on other, more inferior or stranger communities. With our politics, we’re ready to whip out the pitchforks at a moment’s notice, our outrage on ready standby for the controversy of the day. I don’t mean to belittle the value of anger about injustice. It’s important, and even necessary, to speak loudly against the things that we will not stand for. However, I think it’s equally necessary to speak up in support and defense of the things we love. By being open and passionate about the ideas that make us feel like better human beings, we remind ourselves of the kind of world we want to build, and aren’t solely focused on the things we need to tear down.

This is going to be a rough few years for us progressives. Conservatives control the Executive and Legislative Branches of the Federal government, an overwhelming majority of governor’s mansions and state legislatures, and they’re launching an all-out blitz to increase and preserve their power, push through an agenda built on fear instead of facts, exhaust and alienate those that oppose them. We’ll have to absorb that and fight against it every step of the way. In 2018, we have our first chance to oppose them through the electoral system — but any candidates that rise up in the mid-terms will need to have a message more inspiring than “We aren’t those guys who will try to take away healthcare, reproductive and minority rights, or put more power in the hands of businesses and bankers!” The people who hope to shift the country towards the left will need to outline a vision of what they believe America can be, what their values will lead them to focus on if elected, and remind us of the love we have for our country and each other.

As activists and informed citizens, we need to do the same. Yes, President 45 is a terrible embarrassment for our country, but why is that? What values do we, as Americans, see him and his administration stripping down for political gain? What ideals do we want to see restored, and where else can we find them in times like these? What WOULD a more just and progressive society look like for us?

It’s important to think about these things. We need something to work towards as well as something to work against. We need to imagine the society that we want to live in, the community that fulfills America’s promise. What do the people in that vision look like? What kinds of things do they do to help their fellow Americans? What role does government, business, and economics play in all of this? How does our country interact with foreign governments, allies and rivals alike? How does America influence other countries to be better in their own ways? What does a successful progressive vision for the world look like?

For me, it’s a world that embraces the collective responsibility that we share for one another. It’s a world that respects individual and cultural differences while also balancing that against the need to take better care of our planet and each other. It’s a world that gives everyone — no matter who they are or where they come from — the means to achieve their dreams with hard work, patience and a sense of fair play. It’s a world built on mutual respect and consideration, one that acknowledges freedom must be tempered by wisdom — that just because we’re free to do what we like we’re free from considering the consequences of our actions. My dream is that the world recognizes itself as one community with a common goal, the survival and advancement of the human species and the recovery of our home, the great planet Earth.

I want to spend more time speaking up for the things I love — compassion, creativity, and connection. I know that there are a whole heap of fires out there that need fighting right now, and I’m rolling up my sleeves to put them out. But I also want to remember that we’re fighting these fires because we’re trying to save our house; the place that we were born, or moved to, that shelters and protects us, that forms the basis of our best memories. I want to remember that my house is worth fighting for, and that there are so many reasons why.

Fear and anger can make us cruel when it gets out of balance with our love and our courage. We’re all afraid right now, and we’re all angry. It’s more important than ever to spread love and encourage each other to be brave. So, tomorrow, in addition to romantic love, let’s spread any kind of love we have in our lives. It could be the love between friends; the love of family; the love of our country, culture, background; the love of cherished ideals. Spend some time thinking of what you love, and if possible, encourage that love, spread it wherever you can. Loving what is good is just as effective a form of protest as hating what is bad.

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2017 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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(Political) Social Justice Cleric

Politics 150This is the fifth Presidential election of my politically active life, and each one has taught me something about the American public and the nature of being a responsible citizen. This one taught me perhaps the most painful but also the most important lesson: a community is only as good as the people who belong to it, only as strong as the will of the people who keep it together. Over time, we’ve become less community-focused and much more self-oriented. Over on the right, groups like the TEA Party have demanded “personal freedom” to do whatever they want in their lives and businesses while also supporting legislation that dictates other people live by their beliefs. And for us on the left, we’ve come to demand respect and recognition for the groups we belong to while also having blind spots about how our actions make it difficult for those groups to organize and be effective. I understand that this is not an equivalent problem; the right is attempting to monopolize our political system to fit their political beliefs while the left is fighting to attain something resembling equality for all Americans, no matter what their race, religion, ethnic background, sexual orientation or gender identity. I also understand that not EVERYONE on the right believes in this social and religious monopoly, but the power structure in place certainly does.

As I’ve become more and more determined to resist the attempts by the GOP in its current form to subvert American democracy by claiming to uphold it, I’ve tried to find a group that I would feel comfortable fighting with. It hasn’t been easy; the Democratic Party doesn’t seem to have any idea what’s at stake for its base or what to do to stop Trump and the Republicans from rolling back rights and services for women, people of color, the poor, the disabled, and so many other minorities; the NAACP hasn’t been organized enough to galvanize black people into a strong, united community on the issues that matter most to it; several other political action groups are too small, scattered or fringe to really get behind. One of the reasons we’re in the state we’re in is our inability to set principles we can agree on as progressives and organize behind those values consistently and en masse. Who is leading the resistance against Trump and his agenda right now? Protests and congressional feedback campaigns have been largely grassroots, while none of our progressive institutions have been able to even agree on the degree or nature of its resistance.

The more I look around me, the more I see the need to build community. More than just providing a way to amplify our voices and make our actions more effective, having a community of people who strive for the same values allows us to remember that we’re not alone. There are others who believe in the fight we’re undertaking, who will have our back in times of need, who are working to build the better world we envision. That better world, for me, is a society of people who recognize the inherent responsibility we owe to our fellow men — without them, our society would be slightly poorer, less resilient, less capable of reaching our ultimate potential. We can’t be self-focused any more. None of us live in a vacuum; everything we do affects someone else, from the kind of car we drive to the things we choose to entertain us. The choices we make need to take that into consideration. How do our actions change the world around us, in small ways and big?

I understand the impulse to ditch that responsibility. None of us has asked for it, and none of us can properly understand the immensity of it. It can feel unfair to give up total freedom or unfettered individuality in order to make sure someone else can have a better life. We can feel like it shouldn’t be up to us to look out for someone less fortunate, or going through a rough spot, or who doesn’t have as much power as we do. When we work hard to make a lot of money or gain a lot of prestige, it sucks to realize that the system that allowed us to get where we are needs our help to continue so that those after us can do the same thing. All of us, from the broke and broken to the rich and powerful, want to reap the rewards of the struggles we’ve been through without having to think about anyone else.

But human beings are a social species. We’ve evolved to work together, and that evolution demands we put aside our worst impulses to continue to do so. We can’t be selfish or myopic any more. We can’t be disdainful of the different or distrustful of strangers. We can’t be gatekeepers. We have to stop reinforcing the divisions that keep us apart. We have to stop denying the basic humanity of the people we disagree with.

It’s taken me a very long time to get to this point, to know what I want to do for my community and feel as if I have some small measure of ability to make it happen, but I feel like I’m finally ready. I want to work to build and maintain the bonds that form a community, to help and heal the wounded and sick however I can, to provide for those in need and fight when necessary to protect the people who can’t fend for themselves. I want to uphold the values that make for strong connections with my fellow man, and I want to encourage others to do the same however I can. I have no idea how to actually do any of this, but it’s something I will learn in the doing. It’s not enough to believe this should be done; it’s time to do it.

I don’t have illusions that I’ll be perfect at this. I’m a fragile and struggling human being who is bound to give in to his bad impulses from time to time. But it feels like I’ve found my north star, and as long as I keep following it I know I’m going in the right direction.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2017 in Buddhism, Politics

 

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(Fiction Friday) X-Men: The Mutant Era, Part 1 – Control The Changes

Writing 150I’m a huge fan of Marvel’s X-Men, who have been having a rough time of it lately. The mutant corner of the Marvel comics universe has been consistently pared down as Xavier’s students, allies and enemies have been consistently brought to the brink of extinction. Supposedly, the new status-quo will be starting up in a few months, allowing the X-Men a bit of time to settle and get back into the hero game again. It’s about time, I say!

Anywho, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I would do if I were writing the X-Men, rebuilding them from scratch for a modern-day audience. I can’t guarantee that I’d do any better than, say, Brian Michael Bendis or Jeff Lemire, but the more I thought about it, the more excited I got about the possibilities of prospect of telling the story of Xavier’s first class from the ground floor.

So, I’m thinking that writing a snippet of comic every week would be a good exercise for a little while. I’ve been a little obsessed about tracing out arcs and pacing stories for a weekly, serialized distribution model — obviously, because of the Jackalope Serial Company. I dig the idea of treating each of these snippets as a “digital comic” that is then collected every month into a print issue. And comic stories can last anywhere from 1 issue to…well, 12 or so. Marvel’s been really big about treating each year or so of comics as a “season” for a title, but I digress.

This is just an experiment to feel my way around how to structure stories towards a steady release schedule. Hope you enjoy!
Charles Xavier hated to speak in public, but not for the usual reasons. It didn’t make him nervous to have a whole room of people staring at him, and he never had to imagine his audience naked. He hated public speaking not because he had no idea whether or not the people listening were hostile; he knew all too well what they were thinking. Trying to organize your own thoughts while reading the thoughts of everyone else around you was an enormous challenge, even with years of practice.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath while Dr. Kavita Rao introduced him, mentioning his qualifications. Instead of paying attention to the never-ending stream of consciousness that flowed through his mind, he imagined it as white noise. The distinct internal voices faded to a background chatter, words becoming unintelligible, images nothing but static. Beneath that, he listened for his own heartbeat and timed his breath to it. His pulse slowed. A sense of calm settled around his shoulders like a cloak. He could do this.

There was a lot riding on this speech. Mutants — ordinary humans with extraordinary abilities — were just starting to make the news often enough to enter the public consciousness, and nobody was quite sure what to make of them yet. This was a civilization that had only now become used to superheroes; the complication of regular folks having these powers wasn’t something it was prepared to face. But it had to. And Charles had to help make that happen. If they didn’t get out in front of this, who knows what could happen? People like himself could be hunted down, rounded up and thrown into a hole they would never escape from — or worse. Humanity had a long history of fearing what was different, and fear lead people to do terrible things.

His name was called, and applause drew him out onto the stage. He walked with confidence and shook Dr. Rao’s hand with the biggest smile.

The room went quiet, and he settled in at the podium. Charles resisted the urge to lightly scan the surface of the audience; he couldn’t be thrown now. Instead, he paused, and began speaking.

“We used to think that our ancient forebears, Homo erectus, fought a bitter war for survival with our ancestral uncles, the Neanderthals. The idea was that the species that eventually became us, Homo sapiens, wiped out all competition in a bid for dominance that we can all agree was a tremendous success. Humanity is now the most successful species in the history of the Earth. We have molded Nature to suit our needs; we have spread to every environment on the planet; we have learned much about our past and begun the important work of shaping our future.

“However, our understanding of history is being adjusted. Recent studies indicate the possibility that Homo erectus interbred with Neanderthals and other closely-related human species. Ancient humans may have even cooperated with other tribes to their mutual benefit. These findings introduce the possibility of a fundamental shift in our idea of what it means to be human. Instead of seeing ourselves as an aggressive and territorial race from our earliest days, we might learn to see ourselves as adaptable, cooperative, even naturally sociable people. This reconstruction of our earliest recognizable human traits could prove to be incredibly important as we face complicated, unprecedented questions about our future.

“Recently we have made peace with the fact that supermen walk among us. Captain Steve Rogers is able to do things beyond the capability of most of us through genetic enhancement and indomitable will. Tony Stark has built a billion-dollar suit of armor to join the ranks of the superhero; we have Thor, the Hulk, and Captain Marvel. The King of Wakanda is known to us not as T’Challa, but the Black Panther. We have come to think of these people as extraordinary figures in extraordinary times, far removed from our everyday lives. We’re going to have to reconstruct our assumptions about this.

“We have recently become aware of a new species of humanity. Mostly, they look like you and me. They ARE people like you and me, with one exception; the presence of a specific gene that endows them with superheroic abilities. This “x-gene”, as it has come to be called, is inert through the early stages of development of life but becomes ‘activated’ during the complex and difficult set of chemical changes during puberty. Most members of these new species have no idea they’re a part of it until then. Because this gene has only been discovered recently, through the study of those few people who have undergone these changes, we currently have no idea how many individuals make up this population of new humans. Our best theories state that the x-gene is present in as few as 1 in every 1,000 individuals, and as many as 1 in every 20. Globally, that would mean anywhere from 700,000 to 3.5 million people are carrying the x-gene.

“There are obvious concerns about this, but there is also reason for optimism and wonder. This is quite possibly the most important scientific discovery in the history of biology and genetics; by studying the x-gene and investigating the factors that may have had a hand in its development, we can learn valuable information about the evolutionary process and how our modern society may be guiding humanity towards its next stage. And by remembering our more nuanced understanding of evolutionary history, we can learn to collaborate with this new species for our mutual benefit. Men and x-men working together to cultivate our abilities to the betterment of all is not just a dream; it is a necessity if we hope to manage this transition and chart the course of our own future.

Charles stared out into the sea of faces staring back at him, pointedly not attempting to read their thoughts. “I would like to leave a lot of time for questions from the audience. If you have any you would like to ask, please form a line in the center aisle behind the microphone stand.”

He was surprised to see half the seats emptying, a murmuring roar rising up in the crowd. This…might be a longer engagement than he thought.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2017 in Comic Books

 

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(Personal) Accountability Report, January 2017

Self Improvement 150At the beginning of last month, I made three resolutions: I wanted to meditate and write every day, and I wanted to avoid added sugars if at all possible. Well, the first month of the year has come and gone, so I thought I’d take a look back on the last 31 days to see how I did. I realize that it’s really hard to be actually perfect with these things, especially just starting out — it takes a while to build a practice into a habit and obstacles are going to come up. Still, all things considered, I think I did pretty well for myself.

I didn’t meditate every day in January. I missed one day during Further Confusion 2017 because I got distracted with Twitter, and I missed another day near the end of the month for much the same reason — I go to open the meditation app on my phone and ended up getting sucked into something else. The smartphone is a life-changing invention that gives us the power to do so much in our lives whenever we need to, but it also offers an endless tide of distraction. When I’m just waking up, without coffee or medication, I’m especially susceptible to that.

This month, I’ll renew my intention to meditate every day this month. I think the best way to avoid potential distraction is perhaps to put my phone in airplane mode before I go to bed; that way, when I get up it’s easier for me to use my meditation app than it is to turn off airplane mode and dive into Twitter or games. I realize this likely won’t be a permanent solution, but hopefully it will buy me enough time to get into that perfect habit territory. Even still, missing two days out of 31 isn’t bad, and I’ve definitely been a lot more even emotionally through regular meditation.

I didn’t write every day in January. I mean, I sort of did — between my History of Rock and Roll class, The Writing Desk and other things there were plenty of things to work on. However, when I made that resolution I specifically meant a fiction project that I wanted to release through the Jackalope Serial Company, submit to a publication or post online, or play through with friends. Making sure I’m regular with my Patreon is my top priority here; people have had my back since the beginning of last year, and I want to make sure I’m holding up my end of the bargain. Once I’m on a more stable footing there, I can move on to other short stories, serials or role-playing game stuff.

I’m renewing my intention to write every day this month, with the specific stipulation that it will be writing for Jackalope Serial Company stories. That means finishing up “Gift Exchange” (my January serial) in the next day or two, editing/rewriting “Stable Love (the February serial) after that, and working on the serial for March and April. The goal is to be at least two weeks ahead on serial posts so I can have a nice buffer for those weeks when work or school gets to be too heavy. Since I’m prioritizing the JSC, I may not be able to keep up my three times a week schedule for The Writing Desk. I’ll try my hardest, though. Maybe writing posts on the weekend for the next week is the best move here.

I avoided added sugars this month, with a few exceptions. Alcoholic drinks are a bit of a gray area, there — mixed drinks tend to use simple syrup (which is basically just sugar dissolved in water) or really sweet fruit juices, and I had one or two of those. During the Australian Open final, I did have a mug of hot chocolate because how could you say no to that? Overall I’ve severely limited my sugar intake, and my palate has shifted because of that. While sugar definitely makes fireworks go off in my brain, it takes a lot less to reach satiety. Still, it’s not a habit I’m interested in falling back into.

This month, I resolve to count my calories every day and exercise at least three times a week. My routine of choice involves a lot of running, but I’ll need to supplement that with stretches and body-weight exercises. I’m WAY too stiff in general, and it would be nice to work more on my core and arms. The calorie counting app I use is MyFitnessPal, so if you use it too feel free to add me as a friend! My name is “JakebeRabbit”.

There are a few other things I’d like to do this month — read more regularly, be more disciplined with my budget and to-do list, finally get my act together with activism and volunteer work. But meditation, writing, and diet accountability will be my main focus. What about all of you lovely folks? How have you been doing with your New Year’s Resolutions so far? What changes will you make to stick to your goals?

 

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(Reviews) DisneyFest: Cars, Meet The Robinsons, Ratatouille

Entertainment 150It’s strange to think that we’re now in the recent history of Disney and Pixar. Cars was the last production on Pixar’s original contract; negotiations were tense, but ultimately resulted in Disney buying the studio and merging it with its own. In 2007, Disney was beginning to come out of its nadir with Meet The Robinsons, an overlooked film that feels like it was dismissed by association. Pixar released Ratatouille just three months later, dashing any hopes for recognition Disney’s cartoon might have made. The three films are a little strange, reflecting two animation studios struggling to reconcile their relationship with each other and pushing the borders of subject matter for kids’ movies in general.

Cars (2006)
This is one weird movie. Cars is set in a universe of anthropomorphic vehicles where busses, trains, ships and planes are living beings. This raises all kinds of questions that the movie nimbly dodges; it just asks you not to think about the rules too hard and have a good time. On the other hand, there are a lot of jokes and set pieces that practically beg further explanation, like how vehicles can fill the role of people AND animals at the same time. Trying to think through the ramifications of the tractor-tipping scene is really difficult.

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Seriously, is this some kind of post-apocalyptic world, or…?

So, superstar-racer Lightning McQueen is a young up-and-comer on the international racing circuit. His flashy driving (running?) and catch-phrase has captured the imagination of the race-car world and earned him a shot at the season’s championship with two other cars, the veteran Strip Weathers and eternal second-place finisher Chick Hicks. In order to get there in time, Lightning orders his friend (and big-rig pack mule) Mac to drive all night; this ends in disaster, separating the two and stranding McQueen in the dying Route 66 town of Radiator Springs. Lightning has to learn how to slow down long enough to make things right while also winning the big race. Can he do it?

Despite the fact that this movie is straight-up baffling, it has a charm that wears better than I remember it before. The plot is pretty thin but well-told, and Cars is populated with a garage-full of characters that you don’t mind spending 90 minutes with. The production team went out of their way to stock the movie with a wide variety of car models, from super-fast coupes to puttery, sagging Volkswagens. What’s really interesting is how the animators actually imbue each vehicle with a distinct personality that feels organic to their form; you can tell what kind of “people” these are on sight, and the way they move (drive?) reveals a lot about how they see the world and interact with it.

Cars somehow managed to get all kinds of people for their voice cast; Owen Wilson serves as the primadonna Lightning McQueen, with Larry the Cable Guy as his sidekick (and breakout star) Mater. Paul Newman (in his last dramatic role), Bonnie Hunt, Tony Shalhoub, Cheech Marin, George Carlin, Michael Keaton and Jeremy Piven all lend their talents to the movie as well. Race car drivers and car aficionados even make cameos! It’s strange, in hindsight, that so much talent threw in with this movie. By then, the Pixar brand was golden, so I guess everyone wanted to be part of it.

It was Pixar’s lowest-reviewed film at that point, but critics still liked it; it opened well, made a ton of money at the box office and absolutely slayed with merchandise. To this day, the reputation of Cars is something of a debate with Disney fans. Some people dismiss it as juvenile fluff, while others see it as an underappreciated, or at least misunderstood, film.

I’m somewhere in between the two. It’s not as shallow or empty as its detractors make it out to be, but next to other Pixar films it’s dwarfed by its simple story and straight-forward performances. The animation feats are largely hidden, but can we just talk about how hard it is to build an entire world around anthropomorphic cars? And also, how hard it is to take CARS — inanimate objects that are gigantic and heavy — and make them move, speak and have their own body language in a way we could recognize? It’s kind of mind-blowing to think about that alone; the character design is an even bigger feat than the undersea denizens of Finding Nemo.

All of that is in service to a movie that I’m not sure merits that much work. However, considering the scads of money Pixar has made off the movie and its related merchandise, I’m sure the animation studio would disagree.

Meet The Robinsons (2007)
For Disney, getting it right with computer animation was a bit of a process. With Dinosaur, the lush environments were blown up at the end of Act 1 and replaced with drab, beige backgrounds for the characters to trudge through. In Chicken Little, all of their creative energy went to designing the title character and everything else (including plot, dialogue and supporting character design) was an afterthought. With 2007’s Meet The Robinsons, though, they get it mostly right — the animation is sunny and appealing, the plot carries a great message with sure-footed ambition, and most of the characters are people you like spending the time with.

Lewis is a precocious and smart 90s child right out of central casting in a situation you almost never see in children’s movies. He has the messy blond hair, the oversized geek glasses, and the bright smile — but he also lives in an orphanage with a pale, strange kid who loves to play baseball even though he’s terrible at it. Lewis and “Goob” are old hands; between Lewis’ inventions and Goob’s general oddity, they’re having a hard time getting placed in a home. This causes something of a personal crisis for him, and so his latest invention is a memory scanner that he hopes will unlock the only clue to her identity — his infant memories. At the school science fair, a kid claiming to be a cop from the future and a long, lanky man in a bowler hat both try to steal Lewis’ invention and the chase takes them all the way through traveling in time.

It’s exceedingly rare to see a children’s movie tackle the idea of adoption as an important aspect of its plot — at least in the relatively grounded way it comes across here. As an adopted child myself, I really appreciated that aspect of it; the ultimate lesson taken from the film offers a reason for hope in difficult circumstances, and it’s a hell of a lot fun getting there.

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Bowler Hat Guy for President!

That’s because the plot is a bit twistier than most you’ll find in Disney movies of the era. Adding the time travel element will complicate any story, but it’s well-served in Meet The Robinsons; even if you guess a couple of the surprises along the way, chances are good that there are more you won’t see coming. Even though Lewis does a lot of unwise things that complicate the plot, it’s easy to give him a pass — he’s a 12-year-old boy who’s just learned time travel is a reality, and that’s not something one just plays safe. The villain, Bowler Hat Guy, is the real star of the movie; he is a straight-up vaudeville villain, all waxed moustache and overwrought theatricality. He is so deeply weird and revels in it so much that you almost root for him. Every scene with him somehow made me like him that much more, which is a feat in and of itself.

The titular Robinson family doesn’t come off quite as well. They’re a huge and eccentric clan, full of inventors and free spirits, but the whimsy of their lives comes off a little strained. We don’t spend as much time with them as we do with Lewis, his “future-cop” friend Wilbur, or Bowler Hat Guy, so they’re painted with broad strokes that still feel too flat to be engaging.

Once all the cards are on the table, though, the movie wraps up with a surprisingly effective resolution that’s incredibly sweet. Lewis learns how to look for validation within himself, and that self-confidence promises to propel him into a great life. He also learns how to benefit from his mistakes, improving on each attempt until he eventually succeeds in what he’s trying to do. In many ways, it’s a metaphor for Disney’s CG animation; they learned from Dinosaur and Chicken Little to get to a place that mostly works. The mistakes they made here are simply data points for them to build on with their next feature.

Ratatouille (2007)
Ratatouille was the third film written and directed by the amazing Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) and Pixar’s 8th studio film — its first after being bought by Walt Disney. Set in the romanticized and insular world of Parisian high-cuisine, it pulls together so many disparate elements to create something truly unique. Like every Pixar film that came before it, the animators set out to crack an enormous task just to make the film work; this time, it was figuring out how to animate food in a believable and appetizing way. The creation of Ratatouille, like many of the incredible dishes featured within it, required a small army of specialists at the top of their game to produce an experience that would be truly memorable despite being part of one of the most common activities we partake in, watching movies.

Remy is a rat who is a true artist when it comes to food. He has an incredible nose that allows him to detect subtle spices, whether food has rotted, or if something has been treated with rat poison. Unlike the other rodents in his clan, he chooses to walk on two feet instead of four so he can “taste the food, not everywhere he’s been”. And his mind creates connections that produce a symphony of flavors that most wouldn’t even think possible. His inspiration is celebrated Paris chef Auguste Gusteau, who believed that anyone can cook, no matter what. When the food critic Anton Ego eviscerated Gusteau’s restaurant in a review, it lost a star — and the death of its head chef knocked off another star after that. Since then, the establishment has been trying to stay afloat on the Gusteau name.

Coming in to this situation is a kid named Alfredo Linguini, hoping to get a job in Gusteau’s kitchen — he’s signed on as a trash boy. Remy and Linguini become unlikely friends and partners after the rat salvages a pot of soup and Linguini gets the credit for it. They discover an even more unlikely way to keep the charade going; Remy hides under Linguini’s chef’s hat and controls him like a giant marionette by pulling his hair. As the restaurant’s stock rises and Linguini is subjected to increasing pressure to perform, both rat and man must find a way to achieve success in a way that’s true to themselves.

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Oh my God, you guys, I forgot about that tiny rat omelette ❤

Brad’s specialty is creating characters who somehow remain underdogs while still being uncommonly excellent. Remy is no exception; he can be pretentious and demanding, but his passion and love of cooking is evident in everything he does. Linguini is a kid in over his head, but with a good heart and a strong moral compass. The kitchen of Gusteau’s restaurant is stocked with a wonderful set of supporting characters, from Colette Tatou (the rotisseur and love interest) to Horst, the German sous chef. The space itself feels like another character, full of life and danger, depending on whether you’re seeing it from Remy’s or Linguini’s point of view. Even mean old Anton Ego, the dour critic who relishes the destruction of restaurants, is charismatic in his own terrifying way.

There are so many things in this movie that impress me regarding its animation. The textures of the rats, the people, the clothes and the food are incredibly well-rendered, giving the world a reality and weight that really immerses you in it. The camera navigates the same scenes from the POV of both protagonists, drastically changing the feel of each; the contrast helps us to understand the wide gulf that exists between the lives of Remy and Linguini in a way that feels remarkably organic. The writing is incredibly smart and earnest, but also allows room for physical comedy; Linguini under the control of Remy is a wonderful thing to behold.

Of course, the thing that makes Pixar’s best movies so special is the story. Remy’s dream forces him to break down a barrier that no one on either side wants to be pulled down; he not only has to fight personal and physical limitations, but deeply-entrenched social ones as well. It’s this willingness to forsake everything he’s ever known to pursue his passion that makes us care about him. He’s not blind to the sacrifice and work it will take to do what he loves, and he’s not afraid of it. He plunges ahead.

The film ends with a wonderful epilogue that feels miraculous yet ordinary. On one small block within the middle of Paris, there is a restaurant that stands as a testament to what is possible with enough dedication and willpower. It is modest, perhaps, but everything it is has been earned through hard work and perseverance. Those who appreciate it know it’s much more than just a place to eat — it’s a small example of the way the world could be, the way it should be. It’s a wondrous note to end on, because it tells us that while following our passions may make our own lives better, it undoubtedly makes the entire world better as well.

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2017 in Movies

 

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(Politics) Self-Respect as a Form of Protest

Myth 150As a culture, I feel like we’re bathing in a pool of reminders to consider ourselves discontent, incomplete, and unworthy. Advertising is predicated on the idea of creating a need for whatever needs to be sold, and since it’s so ubiquitous we’re awash in a chorus of commercials, billboards and banners that scream to us “YOU ARE NOT HAPPY. YOU NEED THIS.” The current administration has told us that “real America” has been left behind by an establishment that cares more about itself than any of us, but that they do care and they will fix it. When we speak up and tell them their actions are making things worse, or that the claims they’re working from are fundamentally untrue, we’re told that they’re offering “alternative facts” or attack us for being unpatriotic enough to disagree with them. On the internet, any assertion made by women, people of color, LGBQTIA people, disabled people or anyone else on the margins is frequently met with a pack of dissenters eager to tell us our own experiences are wrong, our perspectives are skewed. We are constantly assaulted with messages designed to make us doubt ourselves, which is why we need to start putting in the work to believe in who we are and what we care about.

Respecting ourselves can be a form of protest against the society that wants to shape us into people who will passively accept what we’re told by our institutions, uncritically and gratefully. With so many of our cultural forces attempting to control how we think about ourselves, it is a revolutionary act to reject those attempts and determine who we are and who we want to be. Setting our own standards for happiness and personal fulfillment, then following through on those standards, makes us more resistant to the constant messaging that attempts to set our values for us. It allows us to know ourselves and our beliefs in a way that gives us a solid and stable center, that roots us to ideals larger than we are.

Our connection to this foundation is essential to our well-being. Instead of being buffeted by the shifting winds of our cultural attitudes, we sway with them while keeping true to who we are. Just as a tree bends with the wind, carries the burden of rain and heat, and still provides shelter to the animals and other plants who depend on it, knowing who we are allows us to be both flexible and grounded enough to remain upright against gale forces that threaten to bowl us over. We can come to see these storms as intense but transitory and gain a courage of conviction that checks our fear.

This work is not easy. So many of us have been told all of our lives that there’s something wrong with us, or that we have to change to fulfill the desires of the people around us. But there’s nothing wrong with you. You, as a human being, are worthy of happiness and respect. It’s one thing to be told that and wish it were true, another thing to believe it might be, quite a different thing to know it’s so. Getting to that point is a long and sometimes difficult process; it requires us to face ourselves and acknowledge our thoughts, our desires, our actions and beliefs. We may find things that are unpleasant and hard to deal with. But accepting all of ourselves, even the bad parts, shifts our perspective to one that makes the effort to change that much easier. It’s possible to recognize our flaws, work to correct them, and still treat ourselves with love, respect, and care.

When we do that, something extraordinary happens: we begin to have a clear perspective on the flaws of others and we learn to treat those with compassion. We learn to see how the behaviors of our fellow man are rooted in their own system of values, and how similar we are to each other. We find it easier to forgive people when they make mistakes, because we’re able to forgive ourselves for our imperfections. When we love ourselves, it becomes so much easier to love everyone around us — even the difficult people, the awkward ones, the people whose personality grates on our nerves.

We also find a security that allows our beliefs to be tested and changed according to new and more accurate information. We don’t cling to false ideals, or assume that our identities depend on dogmatic thinking. We know that our morality is an extension of our values, our ideals translated into action. Our understanding of those ideals and the actions they lead to can be examined and adjusted without the feeling that we’re killing ourselves or becoming unmoored. We gain a deep strength that underlies a flexibility allowing us to admit when we’re wrong and change our behavior with sincerity and purpose.

I don’t mean to say that learning to respect ourselves is going to solve all of our problems, because it won’t. We will still be frightened from time to time; we will get angry when our sense of morality is offended; we will still react poorly, make mistakes, backslide into bad habits, behave without compassion. We’re only human after all. However, learning self-respect will make us more resilient, more confident, more open and more compassionate. All of those traits are absolutely necessary if we are to face the rising tide of intolerance, ignorance and cruelty that threatens to destroy us. We cannot force others to respect us if we don’t respect ourselves first. We can’t teach others if we don’t learn about ourselves first. We can’t fix society if we don’t set the wounds we’ve taken on and ignored.

This year, learning to love and respect myself is one asset of my activism that I’ll be paying attention to. I will think about my values, and how that shapes the way I see the world. I will work to resist those people who diminish my values in an attempt to control me. And I will encourage all of us to do the same. We are as worthy of happiness and respect as anyone else; we have the right to demand our society treats us with the same respect we give ourselves. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

 
 

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