Monthly Archives: May 2009

Three cheers for tears: An “Incredibles” reflection

I admire Peter Sagal, host of “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” because he is both funny and eclectic, and I imagine him living the kind of reflective, cerebral life perfected in the salons of the Age of Voltaire.

A recent Chicago Tribune article prompted me to look up an old blog post of his about children’s movies that don’t play down to kids. Sagal’s post is a nice homage to Brad Bird, the director of two Sagal favorites, The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. Sagal also makes a pretty daring admission for us Men Among Men: he tears up at the end of both movies.

Which led to a moment of reflection for me. Yeah, I get an inexplicable moistness at the corners of the eye sockets when a story connects with my most genuine emotions — and for me, it usually involves family. Truths about the joys and pains and perseverance of family. So yep, The Incredibles got me, too.

But we differ, Sagal and I, on the moment for choking down that lump in the throat. He cites the scene toward the end when Mr. Incredible tells the missus: “I’m not strong enough to lose you again.” As he points out, this movie isn’t about defeating a villain, it’s about repairing a family, and this moment is the climax of that theme.

The moment that got me misty in theaters, and which even upon repeated viewings I still can’t take my eyes off of, comes much earlier in the movie. It’s a perfect two minutes of filmmaking, of character development, of jeopardy, of failure and consequence. In it, Mrs. Incredible is jetting off to save her husband, and discovers her children have stowed away aboard the plane. As the villain’s missiles close in upon them, Mrs. Incredible must ask for help from Violet, her daughter, who has been taught her whole life to repress her powers:

Raises my heart rate every time.

Sagal is right, this movie is about a fractured family, or at least an unhappy one getting dangerously close to unraveling. This exact moment in the film (aside from being a film-school case study for building tension) is the intersection of all the mistrust, unhappiness and ennui of the Parr family. And it all rests on the shoulders of an insecure teenage girl. Look at the expressions on her panic-striken face! It wrenches my heart every time — what child can handle that kind of failure? Even Dash has his innocence-shedding moment, when he realizes the depth of the trouble they’re in, and he calls for his mother.

The Incredibles builds on this scene with the precision of a Mies van der Rohe blueprint: Violet is sullen and shaken after she fails to save her family, Dash is feeling cocky and invulnerable. The children go on to renew faith in themselves, and ultimately, in their family. That shot in the jungle where the family finally strikes a classic superhero pose together remains one of the most emotionally satisfying moments in movie history for me — I could feel it when watching it in theaters with Oldest Boy, and it’s still there every time we watch it as a family on DVD. (It’s one of Youngest Daughters favorites. She’s so perfect.)

Also awesome? That moment when Dash looks down and realizes he's running on water. He just laughs and carries on. Cinema gold.

How does Pixar do it? How does it consistently deliver such interesting and captivating movies that seem to know Story better than some of the oldest storytellers in the Hollywood biz? Maybe this quote from an interview with Up director Peter Docter is really the secret:

There are always new ways that the story conspires to trick us, to fool us into thinking we have the right solution. It’s only with a lot of reworking—and reworking and reworking—that you get good stuff.

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Three-word review of a DVD screening of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

Case closes … eventually.

Captions don't count: There's no doubt this is a pretty movie, full of pretty people. As capital-F Filmmaking goes, it's a beaut. From a storytelling standpoint, it's a bit dull. About halfway through this lengthy evening's entertainment, I realized that if Benjamin didn't have his reverse-aging condition, this story might turn out just about the same: Boy is born with illness, learns to cope, survives tough lessons, leads a good life, loves, lives, dies. Really the only time when his condition makes an impact on the story itself is at the end, when he must choose between sticking around for his daughter (though he will soon decline "younger" than her), or to abandon her so her mother can find a more traditional man to raise the child. But for the seven or eight hours of film time until that choice, it's a finger-drumming slideshow of One' Man's Life.

Captions don't count: There's no doubt this is a pretty movie, full of pretty people. As capital-F Filmmaking goes, it's a beaut. From a storytelling standpoint, it's a bit dull. About halfway through this lengthy evening's entertainment, I realized that if Benjamin didn't have his reverse-aging condition, this story might turn out just about the same: Boy is born with illness, learns to cope, survives tough lessons, leads a good life, loves, lives, dies. Really the only time when his condition makes an impact on the story itself is at the end, when he must choose between sticking around for his daughter (though he will soon decline "younger" than her), or to abandon her so her mother can find a more traditional man to raise the child. But for the seven or eight hours of film time until that choice, it's a finger-drumming slideshow of One Man's Life.

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The best Obama poster spoofs

How great is Shepard Fairey’s famous red-and-blue Obama poster? So lasting an image it is, that the only natural response from the world at large is to spoof it mercilessly. The original image really has now left Fairey’s hands and has been wrapped in the warm swaddling cloth of Common Culture. History owns it now.

Here are the best variations on the theme I’ve seen to date:

Tim Doyle:

by artist Tim Doyle

The Audacity of Joke, by James Lillis:

The Audacity of Joke, by James Lillis

University of Illinois grad student Mike Rosalek:

By Mike Rosulek

21st Century Filth:

by 21st Century Filth

Joe D.:

by Joe D.; technically, this makes Obama Mr. Fantastic

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Frontline explains the 2008 financial meltdown

“They had to throw their principles out the window and save the economy.”

God bless Frontline. This PBS show consistently tackles the most pressing issues of the day, the critical stories we should know more about, the complex ones we feel guilty avoiding. And did we ever get an essential delivery from them last night.

If you are confused about what happened to the financial markets last year, or angry about the government’s response, last night’s rebroadcast of the Feb. 19, 2009, episode (“Inside the Meltdown”) is 50 minutes of essential viewing for the conscientious citizen. (View the episode online here).

Frontline, Feb. 19, 2009

Backed by the confident narration of Will Lyman (he could call a round of bingo and make it sound imperative), Frontline cuts snicker-snack through the confusing events and decision tree of our near-miss financial collapse. Frontline’s producers excel at interviewing smart, articulate people and tying together their statements into a narrative that is easy to follow, from the first signs of trouble, to the decision to bail out Bear Stearns, to the decision not to bail out Lehmann Brothers, to at last, the rickety mine cart of the economy racing out of control through the markets, over the public, and across the desks of Congress.

The Sept. 18 powwow where Bernanke dropped the "global financial epic fail" bomb on Congressional leaders.

The Sept. 18 powwow where Bernanke and Paulson dropped the "global financial epic fail" bomb on Congressional leaders.

What’s clear now is how close the global financial markets came to utter ruin. After Lehmann’s failure had begun to drag down markets at top speed, top Congressional leaders met in Nancy Pelosi’s office on Thursday, Sept. 18. According to Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd, they were told by Hank Paulson (Treasury secretary) and Ben Bernanke (Federal Reserve chair) that, “unless you act, the financial system of this country and the world will melt down in a matter of days.”

Global meltdown.

The fix, said Bernanke, was for the government to make a massive investment in our banks. “If we don’t do this tomorrow, we may not have an economy on Monday,” he said reportedly.

No economy on Monday.

“There was literally a pause in that room when the oxygen left,” said Dodd. Well, no wonder.

Frontline doesn’t begin to approach the issue of blame: Is it the financial institutions who were engaged in risky — but perfectly legal — investments and swap schemes? Is it the homeowners who borrowed as much as their lenders said they could? Is it the unregulated free market which has created so much much wealth for this counry and others?

But what Frontline does do well is chronicle the decisions that Paulson and Bernanke faced and how they fit into the context of the moment: Why save Bear Stearns but not Lehmann? Why save AIG and the banks? It’s clear the two felt they had run out of options for curing the “contagion” the markets had developed, and that most of Congress agreed. Though both men rose to power as staunchly conservative proponents of the free markets, as one commentator said, “they had to throw away their principles to save the economy.”

I admire them for facing the hard choices and making the calculated risks. Economist Paul Krugman hypothesized what Paulson must have been thinking after he refused to throw Lehmann a life preserver: “You may have just made the decision that destroyed the world.” Can you imagine going to bed with that on your mind?

Frontline’s coverage of the story is even more impressive when you visit its site at pbs.org. In addition to the online playback of the entire episode, they complement their content with an interactive timeline as well as supplementary material from many sources, paired up with specific moments of the video playback. It’s a thorough and astounding interface, and it ensures you can dive deeper where you wish, or look over their shoulders as a fact checker.

As I watch my beloved newspapers struggle to stay afloat, journalism like Frontline’s looks more and more like a national treasure akin to the Smithsonian or that Nic Cage movie about stealing the Declaration of Independence. Even if you don’t choose to watch the “Meltdown” episode, I hope you consider checking in on Frontline from time to time. As the future of news delivery looks to be come self-selected — as in, we’ll only click on headlines that appeal to us rather than reading a story because a newspaper editor placed it before us — it’s critical we turn our attention to places like Frontline that tell the stores we need to know. Especially if we didn’t know we needed to know it.

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Game on! The nerdy, brainy fun of Sporcle.com

I’ve wandered into an addictive site of timed quizzes that flex your recall of trivia and facts you should know. I’ll type up this post right after I finish one more game at Sporcle. Yeah, hang on just a minute …

Aw, whattya mean I can’t name all the lyrics for the Flintstones theme song? (22 of 25 correct)

Courtesy of his feet? The 50s were so weird.States with only one U.S. representative — that’ll be easy. 5 of 7? Aw, come on, Connecticut! I wasted all those valuable seconds typing your name correctly — where were you?

Booyah! 7 of 7 on the original Justice League members. Don’t come around here with that junk, Aquaman!

Oh, Sporcle you temptress. Your ever-ticking timer and eclectic, user-generated trivia contests pit me against my brain. (How could I forget Chico as one of the four Marx Brothers? Mickey Dolenz — d’oh! Bah, I never would have recalled that “Go ahead, make my day,” came from “Sudden Impact.” Seriously, when a line from your movie is more memorable than your movie, you’ve got a problem.)

Anyway, if you think you can bring the pain — and can top my fearsome 56 of 63 on the Simpsons Characters quiz — visit Sporcle and leave it all on the field.

It's a pretty cheap shot to slip Cletus's girlfriend in there; but Crazy Cat Lady, YOU CANNOT HIDE FROM ME.

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Wolfram: The data-lovin’ search tool for writers, lovers and nerds

I’ve been enjoying the new digital plaything, Wolfram|Alpha. It’s a data-thick “computational” search engine, trying to deliver relevant hard numbers for search terms. Wolfram provides a hodgepodge of data, not quite as robust as I hoped, but with potential to be a real boon for writers doing research, verifying facts, and correlating information. At the moment, Wolfram seems limited to some raw data basics, like city and census data, properties of elements and simple materials, weather conditions, calendar entries, mathematical equations and graphing. But I like where it could go.

As both a fiction writer and an advertising copywriter, I have found myself in situations where I needed a specific type of fact but couldn’t think of where or how to dig it up.

As just one example, in my catalog copywriting days, we were asked to highlight just how far we had to go to import a particular Turkish product. So how far was it from Turkey to Chicago? At the time, I couldn’t find any reliable resource on the Internet to give me an answer, and I didn’t have time to go beyond digital research. But if I could have asked Wolfram, “Chicago to Turkey,” it would have responded: “5,807 miles.”

Wolfram’s limits are a little frustrating and shallow yet. When asked about my the day of my birth, Wolfram can tell me that hockey player Terry Sawchuck died (apparently the only notable event going on at the time), and that as my parents drove to the hospital that night, they looked up and saw a waning crescent moon (assuming it wasn’t cloudy in Cincinnati). Ask Wolfram about Saskatoon and you’ll get the population, the elevation and a graph of the last two months’ worth of temperatures in that Saskatchewan city — but little else. Don’t bother asking about Sherlock Holmes; the extent of Wolfram’s understanding of the great detective is limited to the cast of 1939’s “The Adventures of …”.

Still, there are some rays of light for where this is headed. Maureen Clements writes at NPR about the possibility that “a tool like this could revolutionize investigative reporting for cash-strapped news organizations … Reporters and researchers [might] no longer have to spend countless hours compiling data to determine whether correlations exist between events.”

Until Wolfram gets that beefy, it at least can boast Doublas Adams’s sense of humor. Just ask it the most important question of all time:

So long, and thanks for fishing for all the data

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Free Comic Book Day: The joyous post-mortem

Two Saturdays ago was Free Comic Book Day, for me a holiday not unlike Christmas or my birthday.

The first Saturday in May is the day the comics industry promotes itself to the comics-curious, as well as to the comics faithful who need a nudge to step into a new title. Each participating publisher makes certain of its books available to stores for cents on the dollar — some of the offerings are upcoming titles, some are older but ideal for “jumping aboard” a story, some are excerpts or anthologies, and some are even published exclusively for the day. (My copy of “Umbrella Academy” from FCBD 2007 is a treasure beyond measure.) On the whole, it’s a smorgasbord of capes-and-tights, indie comics, serial storytelling and kiddie fare.

Not every shop shares and shares alike. When traveling in Cincinnati one FCBD, I visited a shop that limited me to three (3) comics, no more. But my everyday FLCS (that’s friendly local comics shop in nerdese) is way too cool for that. Comix Revolution loads up on the books, and doesn’t smack your wrist when you take ’em. They know that it’s good for business when people can sample it all.

This year’s selection included a lot of fun stuff, including a healthy selection of kid stuff that my children glommed onto. After gorging on it all, there are two samplings  I want to mention:

Atomic Robo from Red 5 Comics

Atomic Robo

I follow comics news, and I usually know of obscure stuff even if I don’t know it. But I had never heard of “Atomic Robo” or its publisher, Red 5. Well, they’re on my radar now, thanks to the FCBD story, “Why Atomic Robo Hates Dr. Dinosaur.” That title alone is a good start, and it just gets more beautiful from there. Seriously, get a load of this:

I know, right? So good.

"Behold the pulpy fruit of my vastly superior reptillian intelligence!"

So yeah, there’s nothing more I can say here. It’s awesomeness speaks for itself. Volume One: Atomic Robo & the Fightin’ Scientists of Tesladyne features a Giza pyramid turned steampunk supertank. Booyah! Get thee to your own FLCS and buy a copy post haste, as I did. (Need help finding a shop? This tool is all you need.)

Skyscrapers of the Midwest, from Adhouse Books

Skyscrapers of the Midwest

This wasn’t a free selection, but Comix Revolution brought in author/artist Josh Cotter for a signing of this nicely bound volume from AdHouse Books. Purely on the strength of their recommendation (I trust my comics purveyors implicitly) I bought a copy and had Cotter autograph it for me. The first clue to what I would find within: Cotter took a good two or three minutes to draw a doodle and sign my book — a time commitment unheard of in the autograph game. Well, the art I found inside the book exhibited the same kind of meticulous pen work and crosshatching that can only come from a guy taking his own sweet time on something he loves.

What a wonder this book is. “Skyscrapers” follows (loosely) a boy and his younger brother coming of age in a rural nowhere town. But other characters hop in and out, including giant hobo-like robots who tramp over the landscape, unseen, like ambivalent gods. Cotter frames chunks of the book as, alternately: high-school yearbook, pulpy Silver Age comic, dream sequence and an Art Spiegelman-like autobiography starring anthropomorphic animals.

His style resembles the intensity of R. Crumb, partly for that autobiographical viewpoint, but also for the art style of sweetly cartoonish animal characters inhabiting precisely drawn environments. It also brings to mind (that’s how you know I’m a serious critic — I said “brings to mind”) Chris Ware, whose “Jimmy Corrigan” and “Acme Novelty Library” books feature some panels so languidly paced you can almost hear the clock ticking. (That nicely worded observation isn’t mine, but I can’t recall who said it first.) Cotter is really young, too, so how he’s developed such weathered chops is beyond me. Look at this sequence of a kid moping over his meal at a Booster Club Chili Supper:

"Skyscrapers of the Midwest" by Joshua W. Cotter

The kid has just been teased by his friend about his secret infatuation with a pretty girl. The friend abandons him there, threatening to tell her about it — just your run-of-the-mill pre-teen devastation.  The cafeteria slowly empties out around him as he stews in his misery. Plotwise, this sequence could have been conveyed in one panel. But Cotter makes sure you feel what it’s like to grow up in Barnard, and that includes those moments of heartbreak, loneliness and boredom.

And joy, too. One pillar of the book’s arc is of Cotter’s younger brother who loves, and loses, his favorite toy dinosaur. His brother uses the dino for all kinds of fantasy play, and even after this little stuffed plaything is wrenched away and tossed by bullies, this character never really loses his optimistic outlook and gleeful attitude. These are characters you can believe in and feel for.

On the back of the book, Cotter calls his story, “the winding tale of a young cat, his little brother, and the creeping shadow of imminent adolescence in the American heartland.” Cotter’s keen memory of childhood — not just what happened, but how it felt — gives that imminient adolescence more density than a mere creeping shadow. I’m not sure even J.D. Salinger had this keen a grip on what it’s like to grow up.

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