30 May 2010

Psst! Sensei, it's the kettle.... (The Sensei)

There are many factors to a film which help determine its genre: action sequences, romantic elements, humor, adult situations, suggestive dialogue, and innumerable others. Genres in general bother me because films (like any other sort of media) can be very difficult to classify and run the risk of being pigeonholed unfairly. Should a martial arts drama be classified (by Netflix, among others) under "Gay and Lesbian" because one of its central characters is homosexual? Granted, I'm not saying "Gay and Lesbian" is any sort of stigma for a film, or anyone the film might appeal to or be targeted at for that matter.

I love women too much to be gay, and I lack the necessary anatomy to be considered lesbian, but I'm not homophobic, either. On the whole, my only real "issue" with those films filed under "Gay & Lesbian" is that they tend to be a bit preachy, but preachiness is as much a common theme of those films as gunfights are for Westerns or spaceflight is for Science Fiction or farce is for Romantic Comedies. So, when I say that I'm not a fan of those films, it's only because I'm neither the choir nor the heretic; I'm more the Good Samaritan. Speaking of which...

The story of 2008's The Sensei (a film my roommate got from Netflix and recommended to me after viewing) centers around McClain, a homosexual teenager who recently lost his lover to a lynch mob in a small, rural town in Colorado. Afraid for his life, he frequently tries to enlist in martial arts classes at a local dojo, only to have his applications mysteriously (read: deliberately) vanish. To further matters, the local minister turns the sermon at an Easter mass from the passion and resurrection of Christ to matters of Sodom and Gomorrah at the very sight of McClain and his mother entering the church to join in the ceremony.
In the dojo's defense, they turn young McClain away not directly because of his sexual orientation, but because they fear losing their students over the matter. In fact, the family that runs the dojo has had some acceptance issues of their own to deal with, not just because of being Asian, but actually because of being multi-ethnic, with Irish, Asian, and even Filipino members and relatives. They're also of mixed faiths, with the grandparents devout Buddhists and one of their sons a Christian actively involved with the local church. The family has a very proud tradition of teaching the martial arts throughout the generations, a tradition that sadly is not open to the women of the family, as we learn when we are introduced to Karen O'Neil (played by the film's director D. Lee Inosanto), a black sheep of the family who returns to town to settle a small matter which is revealed later on in the film.
McClain is cornered in the locker room after gym class and savagely beaten by the school bully, recently suspended from the football team (a move that lost him his scholarship, and the respect of his ex-convict brother). Desperate, McClain's mother approaches Karen and asks him to teach her son some fighting moves, in the hope he might have a fighting chance at defending himself. Karen is reluctant at first, but agrees to private lessons (emphasis on private, as Karen was denied her black belt thanks to the family's proud traditions), wherein she forms a strong and lasting bond with McClain. The lessons are put to the test when a fight breaks out in the school cafeteria, instigated by the bully (out on bail and awaiting a court hearing). McClain is able to subdue the attack, only to earn the scorn of the bully's older brother, who blames McClain for his brother's now-repeated incarceration. Things go south for Karen when her family finds out she's been teaching McClain, with her older brother the most (and, it turns out, only) disapproving, and she considers leaving town. McClain is devastated by her decision, and his attempts to outrun the pain sets him in the sights of the bully's intoxicated brother and his motley crew of hicks and hillbillies. Karen manages to come to the rescue in time, and the two just barely manage to hold their own against the brutes. As a result, everyone is hospitalized, but a small misunderstanding about bleeding wounds drives a wedge between McClain and Karen, leading him to think she's just as homophobic as everyone else. Karen's family arrives (even her disapproving older brother, now mellowed a bit) and Karen reveals the reason she came back has to do with her husband's death. She tells McClain that her husband, a boxer she'd previously said died of cancer, in reality had AIDS and passed it on to her (hence her concern over getting too close to McClain after she's severely wounded in the fight).
What follows in the rest of the film is the reconciling of all these revelations and the effects they have on the community as a whole. It's preachy in places and doesn't leave all loose threads tied up, but still offers strong and powerful dramatics and lots of poignant moments to hit home the reality of the film's message.

On the whole, there's only one real point of contention with this film, but it's a rather large and noticeable one. Following McClain's release from the hospital, he and his mother are visited by Karen's grandmother at an unusual hour of the night. The grandmother explains that she's there to ask a favor of McClain's mom to help Karen. After assurance by the mother that nothing is unreasonable, the grandmother utters a single word:


There is, as one might expect, a moment of uncomfortable silence, followed by a hurried explanation that they are, in fact, referring to "the kind of pot that gets you high and not the kind you cook in."

Obvious question: What the Hell?
Obvious follow-up questions: Why would they think McClain's mother would have any or know where to get some? When did we ever have an indication that McClain's mother had access to marijuana? Why do they think this will help Karen's condition where years of medical treatment and a healthy, pro-active lifestyle have failed?
Obvious and appropriate summation of previous questions: What the Hell?

The scene that follows (and undertows the fielding of the aforementioned question, follow-ups, and summation) is two of Karen's brothers arguing how to prepare a joint, with the grandmother (the one who asked for it in the first place and even knew the gesture to indicate it) asking how they know to do this in the first place. The camera then cuts away to McClain sitting next to Karen in bed looking through some old books (with nary a doobie in sight), technically ending the joint-rolling sequence. For that matter, it ends any further mention or discussion of the sudden appearance of cannabis.

It truly is an enigma as to why a film that has so far tackled issues of homosexuality, racial diversity, misguided religious piety, AIDS awareness, and sexism would suddenly throw in a recreational drug reference without stating any kind of viewpoint on it. My roommate offered the explanation that, being an Asian family, they would try to find something equivalent to opium to ease the pain of the illness. Admittedly, she still thought the sequence was weak at best and out of place at worst, not to mention racist. In the end, the only real explanation that works is one of comedy. Put simply, the makers of the film thought it would be funny to have pot jokes because they needed to inject some comedic elements to lighten the mood following the film's dramatic climax. One can just imagine the conversation leading to its inclusion:

1: We need something to lighten the mood of the film a bit after all those deep revelations and intense characterization.
2: But what's funny? What kind of joke could we throw in?
1: I don't know, what's a good comedy out there?
2: Um, well, there's those Harold and Kumar movies, they're pretty funny.
1: Oh, what are they about?
2: They're about two pot smokers who go on a series of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby-inspired misadventures on their way to a fast food restaurant, among them an escaped zoo animal, a nymphomaniacal Christian couple, a pesky raccoon, a racist police officer, and a sexually ravenous Neil Patrick Harris.
1: ... what was that about pot?

Maybe I'm making too big a deal out of this, and I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say that scene is the reason why this film hasn't achieved a widespread release or much critical attention, but when questions like that come up, every facet of a film's content and character must be considered. For all the good this film does, and all the positive messages it teaches, it practically shoots itself in the foot because of a moment of sheer ineptitude regarding humor.

So, what do we have? We have a solid, well-made, and inspirational drama with a singular blemish that is tragically the size of the moon and twice as heavy.

23 May 2010

Space Marines in Japan? (Halo Legends)

Once upon a time, there was a little game called Marathon. It was a first-person shooter available for the Apple Macintosh, of all things. I absolutely adored it, mostly because Vectorman on the Genesis can only entertain for so long and I'd played through Myst about three times. By the time Marathon 2 came out, though, I was beginning to get a little weary of the FPS to the point that I stopped playing them until Maken X came out for Dreamcast. I was, however, intrigued when Bungie first started showing off stuff from Halo, but when they announced that Halo was going to be an XBox/PC exclusive, I was one of those arrogant little jerks who cried, "Traitor!" and swore off all things Bungie for the next several years. So, I never gave Halo a chance, even after I bought a PC in 2005. In fact, what drew me to Red vs. Blue was that it poked fun at the game (and I couldn't tell you for the life of me why I bought the Halo Graphic Novel). I didn't actually play Halo until about 2008, when a friend gave me his old XBox so I could show Fable to my roommate. As it turned out, I couldn't really get into the first game, but I loved Halo 2, albeit I've still never really gotten back my taste for first-person shooters. On the whole, though, I'm only a Halo fan in a vicarious manner. The "canon proper" as it might be called (what's in the games) is virtually inconsequential to me, but its ancillary items of lore (Red Vs. Blue, the comics, art books, marketing websites) I find myself hopelessly drawn to, almost to the point of compulsive hoarding. That's not to say all these items are good; if anything, I actually feel kind of bad for Halo fans that they have to settle for such mediocre merchandise. I've got drafts of a review for some of the Halo comics in the works, namely the original Graphic Novel anthology and Uprising by Bendis and Maleev, but for now I'm going to be focusing on the recent DVD release Halo Legends. I was initially reluctant to pick it up because I was first going to rent it from Red Box, but found out that Warner Bros. was boycotting Red Box because, according to them, overly-convenience rental options like Red Box are hurting their DVD sales.

Granted, I was going to probably buy it anyway, but if there's one thing I truly hate, it's being played. Of course, it's not fair to take out my frustrations on a movie because the studio backing it is run by howler monkeys with brain damage (seriously, that's like blaming Hertz for GM's current financial state), so I relented, but I'd still really love to see the proof Time Warner can offer proving that rentals hurt sales. Anyway...

Legends completes a kind of unofficial trilogy of Warner-produced anthologies of animated shorts based on major franchises. It began with The Animatrix back in 2003 and Batman: Gotham Knight in 2008. They're worth checking out, but ultimately suffer the same basic problem that all anthologies do, which is the simple fact that "you can't please everyone all the time."

In other words, there are some shorts you're going to love:
Beyond (Animatrix)
Working Through Pain (Batman: Gotham Knight)

others, you'll think are rather good:
Detective Story (Matrix)
World Record (Matrix)
Field Test (Batman)
Have I Got A Story for You (Batman)

and others, well, you'll hate:
Matriculated (Ani)

Origins I Batman: Gotham Knight never really had an "origin" piece (unless you count Working Through Pain) because that part of his story is not only well-known, but infinitely interpretable. That is, his origin has been told and re-told so many times that putting forth that kind of exposition would be pointless. For The Matrix, however, the backstory was only vaguely hinted at in the first film, so there were still quite a few gaps to fill in, hence Second Renaissance. For Halo, the backstory is fully fleshed-out, but not actually that well-known to people who haven't played through the games. Over 100 hours of gameplay, across 3 main titles and a handful of spin-offs get condensed into two pithy chapters. Helmed by the same crew that put together Second Renaissance for The Animatrix, fans of that little collection will feel a distinct sensation of deja vu, right down to the fact that the story is being told by an intelligent computer program. In this case, it's the ever-lovely Cortana who fills us in on the epic mystery of the Forerunners and the events that led them to the construction of the Halo ringworlds. The visual style is patterned after the story "Second Sunrise Over New Mombasa" from the Halo Graphic Novel, illustrated by the iconic sci-fi artist Moebius. In my draft of the review of the Halo Graphic Novel, I make the statement that the only people I feel more sorry for in terms of product quality than Halo fans are Moebius fans. I mean, everyone keeps going on and on about what a great artist Jean Giraud is, but when I look over his work, there's a lot to be disappointment to be found (the manga Icaro and the game Samurai 20XX, for starters). These two shorts I find almost beyond criticism; they're equally competent in their premise, direction, and execution. They ultimately serve more as primers than standalone pieces meant to be appreciated on the same level as the subsequent stories in the anthology. That said, this is ultimately the stronger of the two (by a small margin, both earn serious kudos with me for prominently featuring the wonderful aforementioned Cortana) with its striking art style.

Origins II Copy and Paste previous, minus all that stuff about Moebius. The art direction takes a turn for the less stylized and goes for a more realistic style and focuses on the progression of humanity in the Halo Universe instead of focusing on the Forerunners and their battle with the parasitic Flood. Did I mention I've got a major geek-crush on Cortana ?

Homecoming I'm not going to rank these shorts or anything like that, but while this one may not be my favorite, it's practically a close second. Sadly, this one doesn't seem to get the appreciation it deserves, mostly because a lot of the hardcore Halo fans have deemed it the metaphorical "Castration" of the Halo franchise, as evidenced by their summary of the piece as "the lame-ass one with the f***ing teddy bears." The reality is that the teddy bear is featured only once or twice and is hardly central to the plot, as you might be otherwise led to believe. Furthermore, the bear stands as a great counterpoint to the surprisingly dark and ominous tone that underpins the whole work. The story centers around the Spartan super-soldier program's more dubious protocols, chiefly the kidnapping of six year-old children from their homes who are then hastily replaced with "flash clones," duplicates in every way like their natural-born counterparts, save for a weaker constitution and ultimately shorter lifespan (hence answering the question, "why don't they just send the clones into battle?").

The Duel As much as I'm an odd one out (no pun intended) amongst Halo fans for not avidly following the games as much as the comics and various videos, I seem equally alienated by fans of Halo Legends because I seem to dislike all the shorts on this collection that others absolutely adore. Many reviews have cited this as being the strongest piece, mostly for its unusual art style and unique approach to the inner workings of an alien society. The art direction claims to be based on that of Japanese inkwash paintings, though I'd seriously contest that it looks more like gouache or wet-on-wet acrylic or at least watercolor more than sumi-e. At least, it doesn't look like any inkwash paintings I've ever seen. On the whole, there's not much to say about this one apart from that it's a Japanese animation studio reinterpreting an American science fiction franchise as a Japanese legend, and it works about as well as you might imagine.

Odd One Out just as Odd One Out goes off on a tangent from proper Halo continuity, I'm going to go on a tangent to talk about Dragonball for a bit, to help clear up any confusion regarding my stance on all things Toriyama. The fact is, he's got a solid design philosophy and I do like his work. Back in teh day, I even followed DBZ, but I'm not going to pretend every second was pure gold. DBZ had a lot of issues as a television series, namely in the pacing and length departments. Officially, Toriyama is not involved with Halo Legends, but Daisuke Nishio is, and between him and Katsuyoshi Nakatsuru, it's the next best thing. Nishio is a known pacifist and has very strong feelings against guns (yet strangely has no problem with people beating the tar out of each other), so space marines might not seem like a great subject for him to tackle, so he doesn't. Instead of focusing on the UNSC's war with the Covenant, his story centers on a small family of orphans descended from the survivors of a ship crash. For an off-canon story meant to explore the bounds of just what will and won't fly in the Halo universe, it's strangely respectful to the franchise. If there's ever a second volume of Halo Legends, I'd really like Frank O'Connor (project supervisor and the man with the final word on all that has to do with Halo) to go forth with his idea to expand on the daily life and history of this family that has managed to fight off everything from bird-headed space pirates to a genetically-enhanced Brute.

The Babysitter this story centers around the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, stars of the recent Halo 3: ODST game for the XBox 360 and the Helljumper comic by Peter David and Eric Nguyen. The ODST game has gotten quite a bit of buzz from both ends of the spectrum, though with most of the criticism centering on the game's release and marketing than the content itself. Along with Homecoming, this is the most visually straightforward with traditional, hand-drawn 2D animation only barely supplemented by CGI, mostly for the vehicles and a few of the backgrounds. The story revolves around a young Helljumper named O'Brien, who's just been demoted to "back-up" on a sniper mission. The task of pulling the trigger is given to a Spartan, who ends up saving his bacon at least twice on the mission, much to his chagrin. It's a bit predictable, but overall one of the strongest chapters in the collection.

The Prototype or, as I like to call it and to crib a phrase from The Simpsons, Battling Seizure Robots. There are two very important words to bear in mind before you go watching this: Muzzle Flash. There are honestly times when I had to look away because I thought I was going to be sick, and I'm not even epileptic. Strobe lights notwithstanding, this really is the weakest short of the bunch, not as much for what it is or even what it lacks as much as what it fails to do, which is let its own premise breathe. The dialogue is simple and straightforward (as is the premise), but repeated ad nauseum, pounding the premise into our heads, as though we'll lose sight of the theme amidst all the gunfire, explosions, and flickering computer displays. This could have been a brilliant one, maybe even my favorite, but it just fails on so many levels.

The Package I really cannot understand why they couldn't get Steve Downes in to voice Master Chief in this or Odd One Out. It doesn't help matters that the voice-over work in this piece is the weakest by leaps and bounds. It's as if no one in the cast (or the ADR director, for that matter) could make up their minds as to whether these characters should be portrayed as cold, calculating marines or as real, relatable people and then phoned the whole thing in at the last minute. As for the animation style (and the short, in general), I'm totally on the fence about it. I neither love it nor totally despise it. If I hate anything about it, I hate what it represents. It's got what I hate most about CGI in spades: the overdone fluidity and weightlessness of movements and objects. It's got what nearly everyone hates about modern action films in equal spades: shaky camera work and staccato editing. In short, imagine if George Lucas let Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay handle the opening sequence to Revenge of the Sith.

11 May 2010

Voices of a Virtual Career Fair

I just had what may quite possibly be the worst online experience of my entire life. It was a virtual job fair for USCellular. I heard about it from a friend and went to register that very day on the company's job site. I'd been to USCellular's site to look for jobs before, but I liked the idea of this virtual job fair, since it allowed the opportunity to talk with members of the staff and administration. The whole site was set up to look like a convention center, with sections like "Exhibitors' Booths," "Career Resources," and "Networking Lounge." All you have to do is fill out a profile (which includes a resume and cover letter), go to the right booth for your location, and then you'll initiate chats with members of staff.

In the exhibitor's booth for the MO/STL Metro area, I got invited to a chat with one of the staff members right off the bat.
V******* M***** has joined the chat.
V******* M*****: Hey Matthew --what position are you looking for?
Matthew Andrews: Well, my most recent experience was in customer service, but in total the bulk of my work life has been in retail, and I do kind of miss meeting customers
V******* M*****: We have Retail Wireles Consultant positions open in the St. Louis/Metro area and you can apply at USCellular.Jobs and a recruiter will review your resume and reach out. Thx!
Matthew Andrews: USCellular.Jobs here in the career fair? Or is that a different website?
Matthew Andrews: I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I don't understand where you're directing me to; USCellular.Jobs isn't a URL and I don't see a section here called that. Can you be more specific?

Total chat time, 13 minutes, with ten of it devoted to waiting for an answer to what I thought was an honest question.

Later, at the "Networking Lounge" a kind of general chat area for staff and guests, I posted this:

Matthew Andrews (05/11/2010 12:47:01 PM):After meeting with a representative V******* M***** regarding retail positions in the STL area, she told me to go to USCelluar.Jobs ... but I don't understand where she's referring to as it is not a proper URL and I can't find a section anywhere at this fair that looks like that. I asked her for more information, but she did not answer.

L****** S******* (05/11/2010 12:53:48 PM):Hi Matthew, the site is www.uscellular.jobs. If you follow this link it should guide you there.

Matthew Andrews (05/11/2010 12:55:18 PM):L******, my browser simply says BAD REQUEST (invalid hostname) when I click on that link.

Matthew Andrews (05/11/2010 1:06:09 PM):I still keep getting BAD REQUEST (Invalid Hostname) when I click on www.uscellular.jobs . Also, I didn't even get to ask anyone at the exhibit booth any other questions, they simply left the chat session after giving me the URL. She didn't even stick around to let me ask about the work environment or the clientele or anything else along those lines.
D***** W******* (05/11/2010 1:07:09 PM):Please join a private chat with me....

Promptly then, in a new chat window:
D***** W******* has joined the chat.
D***** W*******: Matt I am sorry this happened.I am not sure I can answer the questions that you had but I can try ... what were they..
Matthew Andrews: Well, I was just curious about the retail positions in the STL area, namely what sort of clientele or demographic that location tends to get.

Total chat time, 23 minutes, with less than three of those minutes devoted to the actual discussion. Suddenly, I get an invite from one of the other guests. A****** P***** has been unable to login to the career site that each of us keeps getting referred to. Eventually, she is able to login, and I realize why I'm getting the "Bad Request" error message. The link that L****** gave me was at the end of a sentence, so it counted the "." as part of the URL, throwing off the browser. So, I remove the offending punctuation mark, only to find it's just their default career search page. In other words, the company set up this huge website and real-time chat server all so they could refer us back to the site where we first registered found out about this fair in the first place.

Am I missing something here?