Sunday, June 13, 2010

Winner of the PWR "Webby": Trees Are People Too

I was going to write a review of Lady Gaga’s last album, but I couldn’t make it through the first song, so instead I chose the next best (worst) thing – James Cameron’s “Avatar”. Call me idealistic and snobbish (please don’t, that’s mean), but I have made a point to not see this movie until now. I’ll admit that yes, part of the reason for my abstemious refusal was that everyone loved this movie so much and I take stubborn pride in my individuality – since I believe myself to be sui generis – and will defend it at all costs. Another reason is that I really didn’t want to pay sixteen dollars to see a movie – any movie. Plus, if you ask me, that whole 3-D thing is a bit of a gimmick anyway.

But alas! I have given in. I figured that to truly get to the essence of the movie, I would filter out all of the excessively sensational visuals by watching it on my computer illegally in really bad quality. If you watch a movie in bad quality and don’t like it, then it’s not a good movie. Let me make it clear, however, that it is not Cameron’s views I am concerned with here (maybe a little), but his want of artistic tact, if you will.

To start off with, there is a general lack of depth in the movie’s characters. It seems like Cameron sacrifices adding dimension to his characters by adding it to his visuals instead. Let’s start with the bad guys. You have the antichrist himself in Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who cares about absolutely nothing except killing the Na’vi and “making it home by dinnertime”. Cameron makes his view quite obvious: the U.S. army is a war machine consisting of a bunch of violent thugs that have nothing better to do than pick on the little guy (figuratively, since the Na’vi are about eleven feet tall). Oh, but let’s not forget the corporate influence. In one of the brighter spots of the movie, Giovanni Ribisi plays Parker Selfridge (“Self rich?” Really James? Really?), a corporate administrator who oversees the mining operation on Pandora. Ribisi offers the viewer a few brief glimpses of Selfridge’s slight unease with the Colonel’s violence, but that’s all they are, just passing glimpses. Ultimately, Selfridge just wants to make a buck, no matter the cost to others.

On the good side, we have Dr. Grace Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver. In case you missed it the first time, let me remind you of that character’s name: Grace Augustine. Could there be a more peaceful and benevolent name? I guess maybe if she were named Jesus or Flower Kitten. And of course, her personality directly reflects her name. She is the peace-loving scientist who only wants to understand the Na’vi and collect a few samples for her research. No ulterior motives there. The Na’vi themselves are goodness personified as giant blue catlike hippies who are “at one with nature”. One tawdry scene that really stuck in my craw is when Neytiri (Zoe Zaldana) is about to shoot Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), but decides against it because a seed from the Tree of Souls falls on her arrow. I literally rolled my eyes at how cliché this symbol of peace was (think back to Bernie Boston’s “Flower Power” photograph).

What Cameron fails to realize with his portrayal of indigenous peoples as pure and enlightened beings, is that they aren’t any better or worse than any other human being, because they are exactly that: human. Unfortunately (fortunately, if you are an Objectivist), being human means being selfish and greedy, which means that indigenous peoples, just like soldiers, scientists, and civilians, are not perfect and fall victim to these traits just as easily as any other human being (I’m speaking generally of course). To think that the Na’vi or other indigenous peoples don’t exploit their own natural resources or murder each other is absurd. Mind you, I am not defending the actions of imperialism, which are unjustified and reprehensible, but I am suggesting that Cameron is blinded to a crucial part of the human condition – namely, that no human is exempt.

But I digress. Like the characters, the plot isn’t very interesting either. In fact, it’s quite formulaic. It’s as if “Dances with Wolves” had sex with “Pocahantas” and then put their half-aborted offspring in a time machine and hurled it into the year 2154. That being said, I never thought alien lovemaking could be hot, but to his credit, Cameron manages to pull it off. I started to fall in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) myself and would gladly be “mated for life” with her. Also to his credit, the setting and visuals are well done, but not as mind-blowing as they were made out to be by all my friends. Then again, I did watch it on my computer in two dimensions, so I can’t really knock him on the visuals. But I will anyway. I read an article a few months back that said moviegoers were becoming depressed because they longed to live in a place as beautiful as Pandora. Obviously those people don’t get out much and haven’t watched “Planet Earth”, because our planet already is as beautiful as Pandora. All Cameron did was capture that beauty and add a few new touches, like glow in the dark plants. Good thing we have raves to make up for that.

In the end, “Avatar” turned out to be just what I expected it to be: trite and inane. It is obnoxious and in your face, which is probably why Cameron chose to shoot in 3 dimensions. He really wanted to hammer the point into those thick human skulls of ours (too bad they aren’t made of carbon fiber). Take away the third dimension, however, and this is just another forgettable fantasy film.

-Rutger Rosenborg


I am not a fan of Garfield. Allow me to explain why.

Humor aimed at young children is fine. I don't mind if a cartoonist's claim to fame is making 8-year-olds giggle at a fat cat's hilarious antics ("Oh Garfield! It gets me EVERY time when you eat those donuts!"), because comedy for children is different. The problem is, Garfield's creator Jim Davis gets credit for much, much more. Between 1982 and 1997, he won some kind of award related to his cartoon almost every year. In both 1982 and 1986, he was awarded "Best Humor Strip Cartoonist." This I consider to be a travesty.

Clearly, a lot of people think Garfield is funny. This is what perplexes me. Let's look at today's official comic on (an unresponsive piece of garbage because of excessive use of Flash):

Okay. So there's a joke. Rather, an attempt at one. Either Garfield dropped Jon's toothbrushes in the toilet, or he's in the midst of an acid trip and Jon is concerned for his health. Given Davis's target demographic, I'm inclined to assume the former. Hilarity ensues! Garfield does something comically undesirable, and Jon drives the point home by illustrating his discomfort! Boy, do I love poorly-enacted situations that are mildly amusing.

I bet you didn't see that one coming. GAAAARRRRRFIIIIEEEEEELLD!!!!

It's kind of like Larry the Cable Guy, except without all the farting and racism.

More realistically:

"Time to make a webcomic!"
"Make sure you explain the punch line in the last panel!"

Jim Davis is a very considerate guy. See, he's afraid you're not smart enough to understand his highly sophisticated humor. So he makes sure that for his particularly clever comics, someone in the third panel explicitly explains the joke. Personally, I love being patronized.

Granted, Garfield is not the worst strip out there. I've yet to be even slightly amused by a Family Circus or a Heathcliff comic. But Garfield's incredible success and widespread fame are insulting to cartoonists that actually produce good quality content. Davis thrives on making jokes that are either unfunny, unoriginal, or completely ruined by his inexplicable need to point out what's "funny" about them.

There's plenty of good stuff out there. Calvin & Hobbes is a personal favorite; give it a try. Don't support mediocrity.

-- Dawson Zhou

Runner-up: Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon

It was a classic bro’s night out. Six of us, with nothing better to do on a Thursday night, crammed into Elliot’s pick-up and headed into Redwood City. The Destination: Clash of the Titans. It was shaping up to be an epic night. We arrived at the theater time to spare, which we promptly spent stocking up on Chipotle burritos to sneak into the theater. The moods were high, the burritos were hot, and still with 15 minutes to grab the good seats. It’s Kraken time.

Or so we thought. Bros are many things, but masters of foresight they are not. As the bored teen working the ticket office explained to us, Clash had already sold out for the night. Big movies tend to do that on their opening week, bored teen snidely helpfully added. Prick. There would be no releasing of the Kraken for us that night. Nevertheless, we’d driven all the way from Stanford to see a movie and somehow squeezed 1000 calorie burritos into our pockets; leaving without a movie wasn’t an option.

As we weighed Tyler Perry’s Why Did I get Married Too? against She’s Out of My League and tried not to puke, another movie caught my eye: Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon. I’d heard good things about it, and I was a fan of some of their past work in Over the Hedge and Kung Fu Panda. Plus, as Ryan later reasoned, Dragons are not too far off from Krakens. The scarcity of alternatives combined with Ryan's logic made convincing the group an easy task. So we bought our tickets with the goofy 3D glasses, and entered the theater with mild feelings of disappointment, mourning the night that should have been. Much to our surprise, the Kraken-less night was far from ruined. In an ocean full of bong water, How to Train your Dragon was the yacht that rescued us from the sinking ship that would have been our evening. It is quite simply a brilliantly fun experience, one that any fan of movies must experience.

Not a Kraken. Not a problem.

How to Train Your Dragon tells the story of the scrawny Viking teen Hiccup, who’s utter failure at physical activities, a mainstay of the Viking lifestyle, makes him the laughingstock of his village and a disappointment to his father, village chief Gerard Butler. Hiccup’s clumsiness and combat ineptitude proves particularly troubling because dragons of all shapes and sizes constantly attack his village, causing mayhem and carrying off livestock. The most feared of the dragons is the illusive Night Fury, which no Viking has ever seen and lived to tell the tale. During a night raid, Hiccup miraculously uses a self-designed net launcher to shoot down the Night Fury, sending it falling into the forest behind his village.

Unfortunately for Hiccup, no one witnessed his exploit, and thus none believed that the lowlyHiccup could ever wound the infamous Night Fury. Hiccup sets off into the forest to prove himself, and eventually comes across the Night Fury, helplessly trapped in the net. Hiccup cannot bring himself to kill the Night Fury, and ends up setting it free. This sets up the plot of HTTYD, as Hiccup goes on to gain the trust of the dragon and learn that everything the Vikings had previously thought about the dragons was completely wrong.

You’re right; we should have come to you first.

While the story doesn’t break any new barriers or revolutionize the genre, the transformation of the bumbling underdog to a hero works well here. Most importantly, the story is just a set up to provide a fascinating world of breathtaking set pieces, intense action, and solid humor. This film best compares to Dreamworks’ previous work Kung Fu Panda, which magnificently blends action and humor to keep the audience engaged in the adventure. Still, there are some minor problems with the narrative. The film is not very long, only 98 minutes, and because of this there isn’t much development or exposition of the supporting characters, relegating them to the stereotypical young adventurer templates commonly found in these types of movies. There’s the nerd, the jock, the wise-cracking twins, and the love interest. They perform their expected roles without venturing into further complexity or depth. This isn’t necessarily a negative, but it’s just unfortunate that the movie wastes this potential because it could have fleshed out these characters without making the overall experience feel bloated or tedious.

The outstanding 3D visuals, especially during the flight sequences, are the real centerpiece of this experience. For better or for worse, all 3D movies these days are compared against Avatar as the benchmark for 3D animation. Avatar provided epic 3D aerial battles and breathtaking eye candy whenever the hero took to the skies of Pandora. In my opinion, HTTYD may actually be more visually stunning than Avatar in this aspect. Since such a large part of the movie focuses on flying beasts, excellent camera placement is a necessity. HTTYD delivers, delivering gorgeous flight sequences that really capture the joy and thrill that one would expect while flying. The flight scenes perfectly satisfy the cliché analogy to an epic roller coaster ride. When a bunch of college students and varsity athletes stare in slack-jawed awe as the camera whips through thrilling twists and turns, you know that this is something special. Samir made the asinine decision to eat during these sequences, and was rewarded with burrito stains on his pants as well as an ensuing car ride home during which we did not hesitate to remind him of his sour-cream folly.

Warning: you may be too engrossed to notice that you dropped your burrito.

Ultimately, is How to Train Your Dragon worth the price of admission? Absolutely. I would even go so far as to say that this is an excellent template for how mainstream movies should be made. The story, while nothing we haven’t seen before, is interesting and fun. The script is well-written and clever, the humor works extremely well while avoiding immaturity, and the voice acting is spot on. The CG visuals are gorgeous, keeping the action enthralling and exhilarating. This film deserves to be seen in 3D, so pony up if you have the extra cash; you’d be doing yourself a disservice not to. Dismissing this excellent film on the basis that it’s animated is a grave mistake; people of all ages should enjoy this movie. It may not be a critical or artistic masterpiece, but it’s near impossible to leave the movie regretting your decision to see it. Six bros certainly enjoyed it, which is more than we can say for Clash of the Titans.

-Patrick Samper

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

"This changes everything. Again": Yes Apple, we know.

So the new iPhone 4 was announced this past Monday during Apple's WWDC and as you can imagine, it's been creating somewhat of a revolution across the web. The approximate 5200 attendees of the conference were at the edge of their seats as numerous representatives bragged about all the extraordinary (as usual) features that could be utilized with the device. People clapped, people wow-ed, and most importantly they smiled with joy. The crowd's smiles were so big they practically surpassed Mr. Jobbs' ego; OK maybe not, but they were still pretty huge. As the Apple CEO stood there in his black shirt and washed out jeans, the rest of the world glued their eyes to the computer as they watched live blog updates of what was going on (the conference doesn't allow live streaming due to the entrance fee).

The product itself is in fact truly amazing. You have the

usual small add-on features that nobody actually cares about but pretends they do, and then other cool aspects like HD filming capabilities (in 720p) as well as editing via iMovie. The retina display was as popular as the head cheerleader in high school, as was the new an improved Guitar Hero. The main feature however that really left everyone at the edge of their seats was what Apple calls FaceTime. This is essentially iChat for the iPhone where you can actually video chat with your friends while making a call. Of course everyone forgets the fact that Sony Ericsson released the same feature in the TI-86 model in the early 2000's because it's Apple and they just do everything better. This isn't entirely false actually as they've now surpassed Microsoft as the most valuable tech company in the world. We're sorry to hear that Bill, but it was time to go home anyway, you should be fine. Back to FaceTime, the commercial for it is quite entrapping with the typical old couple chatting, a mother tucking in her daughter in bed, and the romantic young couple communicating from opposite sides of the world. Very cute. Overall, the device does offer many amazing features that will once again help move technology forward. We gotta give it to you Jobbsie, you really aced it this time, or rather, "again".

Check out a video for the iPhone's new features here!

Review by: Andrea Fuentes