‘Up’ is a beautiful downer you should see

May 29, 2009

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FROM JASON’S $3 CINEMA — He is not cut like Brad Pitt. He is not slick like James Bond. He is not cunning like Jason Bourne. He is not overbrimming with bravado like Indiana Jones.

No, the hero of Pixar’s stunning Up is world-weary and melancholy, sore in his bones and relying on a cane for support.

And in the first 10 minutes of Up, the animators at Pixar managed to pump so much life and loss and love into him that my wife was already bawling, and I — the hardened macho man that I am — was swallowing every two and a half seconds to keep down the aching lump in my throat.

Carl Fredrickson is the eager-eyed boy who finds true love in a young neighborhood girl. They live happily ever after together, growing old while their dreams of adventure-seeking in South American are trumped by domestic reality. When his Ellie dies, Carl uses a flotilla of helium balloons to soar his entire home to an idyllic jungle vista and live out his wife’s fantasy.

That fervent tribute to a lost soulmate would have been a terrific movie. Being infatuated with my own wife of seven years, I was entirely emotionally vested in Carl. I would be a shell without my Lisa.

But instead of telling that simple story in an appropriate 30-minute short, Pixar needed to bow to the feature-length convention and pollute its heartfelt tale with a kid-friendly cast of zany secondary characters.

There is a Boy Scout who gets roped into Carl’s adventure, along with a talking dog, a monstrous tropical bird long thought to be extinct, a geriatric and insane villain, and an army of anthropomorphized canine killers. Every single one is superfluous to Carl’s emotional journey.

There’s also a load of cheap jokes imposed on an otherwise perfect tragedy.

Look, I understand that Pixar makes money by targeting the under-12 demographic. Without the cartoonish faux-suspense and bad guys, youngsters wouldn’t be hooked and they’d lose out on ticket sales. Children¬†certainly not going to care for a script about growing old. And in the United States, we for some reason still relegate animation to the realm of adolescents; it’s not considered a valid art form for an over-50 audience, like Up should have been tailored to.

That really annoys me.

So instead of a literary tale, we get a beautiful story watered down by sentient canines flying biplanes that shoot darts.¬†That really happens. It’s somewhat mitigated by a nifty Star Wars reference, but it was still gratuitous.

It will make hundreds of millions of dollars for Pixar. It will also serve as the perfect example of how pandering to multiple audience demographics can sully a piece of art.

Fortunately, the visual part of the art was in no way soiled. The lighting, shadowing, and color were astounding; we saw the 2D version of Up, and even without 3D glasses it still looked like ViewMaster slides put in motion and perfect focus. The character models looked at points like real-world puppetry.

That’s a big admission coming from me, because I am typically critical of computer-generated content. But CG has certainly advanced since the days of Toy Story. Here, some of the rocky South American landscapes look photorealistic (remember how bad the same textures were back in the days of The Last Starfighter?), and praise is certainly due.

Overall, I ardently recommend Up with just those few reservations. If it doesn’t get to you, then you are either too young or Vulcan. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a film many will pay to own on DVD, as most of the comments I heard on exiting the cinema were along the lines of, “It was terrific, but it was just too sad.”

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At the zoo, I’m a little kid again

May 25, 2009

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FROM JASON’S SAFARI — Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo. I do believe it’s true.

The monkeys stand for honesty,
Giraffes are insincere,
And the elephants are kindly but
They’re dumb.
Orangutans are skeptical
Of changes in their cages,
And the zookeeper is very fond of rum.

Zebras are reactionaries,
Antelopes are missionaries,
Pigeons plot in secrecy,
And hamsters turn on frequently.
What a gas! you gotta come and see
At the zoo.

A favorite song.

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I’m a sucker for the zoo, but I have a tendency to lecture.

“That’s not a monkey, Kim,” I corrected my sister-in-law today at the Cleveland MetroParks Zoo as she marveled at an orangutan. “Monkeys have prehensile tails, while apes are adapted to living on the ground rather than in trees and typically have legs and backs longer than their legs. Apes are universally more intelligent than monkeys, able to use very basic symbolic language and even devise tools.”

I got an icy look.

I can’t help it. I grew up on National Geographic World magazine, watching lots of the society’s television specials (narrated by B.J. Honneycut from M*A*S*H). My grandmother bought me ZooBooks — which I fawned over for years — and family trips to the zoo were common when I was young.

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My wife and I have made a hobby of zoo-hopping, too. We frequent the Cleveland zoo about twice a year, and also hit up the Columbus, Toledo, Fort Wayne, and Indianapolis zoos. I’m looking to add Cincinnati, Akron, and Pittsburgh to the regional ones we hit pretty soon.

When we get inside, I become a dweeb. One of my earliest memories is visiting the Philadelphia Zoo (all I can remember is one particular goat), and elementary school trips always seemed to land me at Ross Park Zoo in New York. When my family moved to Watertown, N.Y., there was a (small-ish) zoo in the city park about 10 blocks from my house.

I’ve paid attention during every visit. I know things. And I can’t shut up about the polar bears, the dwarf crocodiles, red pandas, wallabies, fennec foxes, agouti, eastern hellbenders, Australian lungfish, marmosets….

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It was packed as Memorial Day crowds surged in, and we were on a schedule because my brother-in-law-to-be had to pull a late-night shift. So we zipped by quite a few of the attractions, while other exhibits were closed (the entire pachyderm building!) for reconstruction. No elephants and hippos today, friends.

The wife wouldn’t even let me tour the animatronic dinosaur walk. I was upset.

Oh well. There will be a next time, as Cleveland is 25 minutes away. And if just the wife and I hoof it alone, there will be time for more zoo picture-taking — a hobby I’ve indulged in for about five years now.

There was still time today to learn a thing or two, though.

Things I learned today at the zoo:

  • The Masai giraffe is the world’s largest land mammal, and can run at speeds in excess of 35 mph.
  • The zoo’s Iranian leopard was a performer for Jack Hannah and appeared many times as a cub on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night with David Letterman.
  • Andean condors are the world’s longest-lived birds, sometimes surviving up to 50 years.
  • There are fewer than 3,000 black rhinoceroses in the wild.
  • Western lowland gorillas are afraid to cross even the shallowest streams, and so their territories are typically carved more by geography than anything.
  • Brazilian ocelots can be tamed, but have a sticky, extremely smelly urine that makes keeping them as pets extremely difficult.

Elton John and Billy Joel: It’s still rock and roll to me

May 24, 2009

FROM JASON’S TICKET STUB — We followed the tide of aging men and their clean-cut cougar wives Saturday night from the halls of Cleveland’s Tower City, through the Gateway tunnel, and into The Q.

Everywhere we looked, there were polo shirts.

I quipped at one point that the security guards might single me out as suspicious since I don’t have a bald spot — the one thing almost every other man in the horde had in common. I’m a walking Rogaine commercial; each of my hairs has its own head of hair.

We laughed at the expense of the nearby 50-somethings, but my joke led me to wonder silently whether as 29-year-olds we’d be relevant at this concert. After all, there were very few people under 40 in the mass of 20,000 who crowded into the arena to see Sir Elton John and Billy Joel.

We felt isolated.

That changed when the lights came up and two concert pianos rose through the floor to settle on the stage. Here were two rock gods sitting (about a football field’s length) before us, perhaps the greatest musical geniuses of their era. I had listened to their songs hundreds and hundreds of times. Nevermind that their tunes had been repackaged into greatest hits compilations by the time I was ready to understand their tales of love, loss, pain, and triumph. These two pianists were my bards.

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We were perched at the front of the second-floor balcony, a long (as the picture shows) way from the action. But it almost felt like I was stage-side as Sir Elton (at 62 years old) did a risky handstand on his piano. Meanwhile, Joel (50) mixed it up with bawdy jokes and some acrobatic mic stand-twirling drills.

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I got my money’s worth. It was all I could do not to mist over in nostalgic elation seeing these legends belt out Benny and the Jets, Rocket Man, We Didn’t Start the Fire, and Piano Man. But I’m a man, so I kept it all inside. I’m also stupidly puritan, so I refrained from the drunken dancing the guppies were engaged in all around the arena.

Besides, I have little to no rhythm.

I like to think that what I lack in body-movin’ I make up for in analysis. When not reveling in the light show — which was amazing — I starting comparing and contrasting John’s and Joel’s performances.

My conclusion: Billy Joel is the winner (if it were a competition).

Joel’s portfolio is more technically dynamic, building on horns and complex counter-timing and overall musicality. John instead presents very simple, heartfelt melodies built on the backs of blues riffs. Johns’ style might be more effective in reaching his audience and building their time-tested loyalty (he received far more applause), but Joels’ sounds were better.

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There was also a marked difference between the way the two giants metered out their energy during the concert. Joel compacted his into tight upgrades on the studio versions, while John elongated his standards into captivating, looping jams.

Regardless of who “won,” both men’s styles are remnants of a day when popular music engaged listeners by using something called “talent,” coupled with something called “innovation.” There is a dearth of such novelties in today’s clutch of cloned-sounding FM bar chords, howling vocals, distortion, and pop-princess bubblegum crap.

I just wish that the music of these two heroes wouldn’t be relegated to the murky realms of “adult contemporary” radio. John and Joel used to be revolutionaries. They were the rebellious young rockers. In their time, they were the ones bringing a crude new noise to challenge the old “good” music.

I don’t want them to be oldies.


Gurren Lagann believes in the me that believes its robots are awesome

May 23, 2009

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FROM JASON’S RANDOM POWER-UP — So there’s this kid, see. And he’s human. And he really, really believes in himself.

In the far-flung future, that kind of self-confidence has replaced fossil fuels and is used to run the giant robots that have replaced cars. Living underground has replaced mankind’s expansion into space. Meanwhile, evil alien beast-men have replaced the Internal Revenue Service as mankind’s greatest foe.

So, just to pre-cap here, so you’ll know what you’re getting into, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is about Ma-Ti from Captain Planet using the power of spirit to force his Transformers Headmaster to combine with Voltron and defeat BattleBeasts ruled by those aliens from V in a huge manifest destiny showdown for a Mad Max planet.

Or something.

lagann01Sounds pretty zany, huh? Well, at times it is, almost to the verge of spoofing every other giant-robo-shonen show out there. But Gurren Lagann takes care to mock its own genre and break some of the old conventions, including taking a wrenchingly brave turn by killing off a charismatic hero in early episodes.

It was that move that convinced me there was more to Lagann than its madcap earnestness — that there was a stoic story hiding under the fluff, V-wing sunglasses, fan service, and comically large drills.

Believe me, you’ll like the drills — especially when our protagonist pulls his GIGA DRILL BREAKER!!! finishing move by sprouting a borer as large as his robot’s entire body. There’s absolutely no phallic subtext there. Nope.

Yes, there are still the shonen stand-bys: last-second power-ups to unleash inner power and defeat a seemingly invincible enemy. Sudden new robot transformations. Shouting the names of attacks as they are performed. The linear appearance of progressively stronger enemies. Some scantily-clad warrior babes.

But these cliches are delivered with enough of a wink at the camera, are punctuated roundly enough by truly gut-sinking tragedy, and filled with enough fist-pumping rock-soundtrack victory moments that you hardly notice. It also helps that Lagann has ditched the tendency of shows such as, say, Bleach, to obsess over a single battle for six or seven episodes. Simon the Digger’s battles are concise but epic.

The result is that the Gainax ‘toon so far has managed to draw a comfortable median between buffoonery and profoundness without choking on its own gravity.

It’s also demonstrated the rare ability to get me rowdy and cheering for the characters, mainly by tapping into that corner of my mind still hooked on the cheese and machismo of 1980s action flicks where good guys exploded the bad guys in the name of justice.

It cribs equal parts from The A-Team and Robotech with that old message: You can do anything you put your mind to, as long as your guns are big enough and your soundtrack is rockin’ enough. Determination, the show says, is the most deadly weapon, and it’s what separates the humans from the aliens. More than anything, the Japanese seem to worship the virtue of an untempered resolve.

Untempered resolve and jiggling boobies. In Japan, there is always a Yoko. I mean, the number of butt-cheek and cleavage shots here are embarrassing, and are clearly intended to bring the horny 13-year-old audience into the fold. The resulting fan art has strained Rule 34 to a breaking point.

All that considered, I give Lagann a big score, as it’s the first anime in about two years that’s actually coerced me to watch more than four episodes. Given its flash and dazzle, which is more in the writing than the at-times shoddy animation (see the infamous episode four), it will probably lodge itself in my top 10 anime list somewhere just above Tenchi Muyo and right below Outlaw Star.


Wallpaper of the Week: Jacek Yerka

May 22, 2009

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FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — Ferocious, living alligator-mobiles. Villages carved from hulking strawberries, onions, and loaves of bread. A steam locomotive roaring from the maw of a cavernous dragon’s head.

This is the mind of Polish fantasy artist Jacek Yerka.

Yerka’s canvases are places where physics doesn’t give a damn about enforcing its own rules, where the mundane and the unlikely collide in a matter-of-fact way. Often, the paintings show two worlds living on top of each other — one recognizable and the other entirely alien.

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The result is that you start to doubt your grasp on the known; another land could be lurking a few yards under my feet, filled with goblins, unearthly cities, strange dreamscapes, and peril.

It’s a nice thought to foster in this work-a-day world.

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Yerka, now 57, bucked his college art instructors, who wanted his style to fall more in the camp of loose and unstructured modernism. Instead, he insisted on elevating his neo-Dali-ism with exacting detail in the classical northern European tradition.

The pieces are better for it. The composition gives incredible depth to each world he creates, while hinting that there’s even more lurking below the surface. He shows me so much that it causes me to imagine even more — which is what good art should do.


Oh, the pains I suffer for love

May 20, 2009

FROM JASON’S ETERNAL MAN-IRE — I will premise this by saying that my wife is the smartest, most beautiful woman I have ever met. And that I am deeply afraid of her wrath.

As much as I love her, she does crazy things. They range from batty to full-fledged insane:

She buys pasta sauce based on how pretty the label is.

She will frequently grab the remote, insist on watching a certain show, and then proceed to drift out of the room 10 minutes later. But don’t try changing the channel. She’s still watching that dreadful interior design show on HGTV.

She bellows Britney Spears songs in the shower at 6 a.m.

Rather than use the phone to hold a comprehensive two-minute conversation, she’ll drag me into an hour-long texting fest. It’s not efficient.

She likes to deliver orders to me by talking to our dogs: “Macy, does Daddy know it’s his turn to clean the toilet?”

Her idea of good money management: Constant trips to Dairy Queen to spend $7 on ice cream cones instead of buying a half-gallon at the grocery store for $3.50.

If it isn’t HGTV, it’s a horrendous Bravo reality show. Or worse — The Style Network.

She makes up “cute” names for neighborhood animals, along with elaborate backstories: “That cat running through the field back there is named Mr. WhiteyPinks III. He is going on a trip to see his friend Rufus over at the brown house down the street for a tea party.”

Have you heard the Nannerpuss song? Because I have. On a loop. Since it started airing. Three months ago.

Two words: Speed walking.

“Cleaning” apparently means moving my papers, games, pens, and books into new, arbitrary piles where I can’t find them.

My primary function: bodyguard. Because in any public or private place, she believes she is in danger of being raped, no matter how many potential witnesses are nearby. That makes for a lot of protective trips by her side to the mall.

Putting clothing on animals is not amusing. Except to her.

Neighbors are not meant to be watched, but she keeps a vigilant eye on their every move. The comings and goings of each neighborhood car are carefully documented, as are the dates and times of various lawn-mowings up and down the street. And should a police car arrive at any house within sight, her body goes into spasms of voyeuristic curiosity.

There are pink curtains in my kitchen. Pink. Curtains.


Wallpaper of the Week: Devastator

May 11, 2009

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FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — Maybe historians will call this The Summer of Nostalgia, or maybe I’m just getting to an age where I notice that everything old is new again.

I’m talking about movies, of course, and (as usual) about the resurgence of the 1980s pop culture I loved so much (to the point of wearing Optimus Prime Underoos as a five-year-old twerp).

This season sees a swell of iconic small-screen sensations at the cinema, with Star Trek, X-Men, Terminator, G.I. Joe, and Transformers getting franchise sequels and reboots. Fear not… The A-Team movie isn’t slated to launch until 2010.

I’ve already talked about the one that I think will be the biggest nerd-gasm of the bunch — Star Trek — but I’m getting more excited as Michael Bay and company leak an increasing number of teasers and stills from the set of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, due out June 24.

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Don’t get me wrong. I normally cringe at Bay’s name because he’s all about popcorn and explosions rather than characters and plot innovation. But giant robot movies aren’t about the later, and nobody should expect them to be. They are about enormous alien machines giving each other the smack-down and threatening the fate of Earth. Revenge of the Fallen will be about lasers and special effects. It’s not like the source material is a deep well of emotion that must be respected. So go Bay!

To rouse my enthusiasm, recent HD trailers for the film show the unmistakable form of Devastator, the giant combined robo-form of the evil Constructicons (see the very bottom image).

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I love seeing Devastator in the old Generation 1 cartoons. He was huge, lurching, animalistic and simple-minded as well as insanely powerful. He gave the Autobots a run for their money and shook up the internal Decepticon power structure. Plus, he boasted the same awesome baddy color scheme as the best of villains: Purple and green.

I never felt Devastator got enough love.

The Joker stylings are ditched in RotF in favor of a more naturalistic approach, and it’s impossible to tell from the trailers whether he’ll get even as much screen time as Scorponok did in the 2007 iteration.

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Either way, I’ve packaged up a few Devastator wallpapers here for you. I had to go a-hunting, because there really are very few large-scale Devy images on the web — and right now, they are all mostly pointed at the RotF concept art desktop (above). As always, they are in 1024 x 768 resolution.

Click the thumbnails in this post to enbiggen.