Thoughts on Juno

I recently saw the movie Juno; I’d heard nothing about it before it came out, but some friends saw it and highly recommended it. And then it suddenly seemed that everybody I knew had already seen it. Thankfully, I eventually managed to find a few friends who had not yet had the Juno experience, and finally managed to go see it.

See, the thing is, it doesn’t sound like it’d be my kind of movie. I tend to go for spectacle in movies, or over-the-top comedy — not movies about “issues”.  So when people explained to me that Juno was about a pregnant teenager, I kind of just rolled my eyes, because those kinds of movies tend to be on the serious side — not my kind of movie.  Nobody described it as a comedy about a pregnant teenager — but that’s exactly what it is.

Juno is an over-the-top comedy that manages to be sweet at the same time.  Juno is the aforementioned pregnant teenager, and she’s a total spaz, which makes her utterly charming.  Her friends are goofy and awkward, her family is surprisingly (and hilariously) supportive, and the perfect couple she finds to adopt her baby are alarmingly normal in comparison.  I don’t want to go into the plot in any greater detail, simply because that is the fun of the movie.  There is still a lot for me to talk about though.

I think Juno is one of the few movies I’ve seen that I consider perfectly crafted.  The story as it arises from the characters is interesting, the actors perfectly suit their roles, the pacing is tight, the soundtrack fits closely, and the arc of the characters matches the arc of the plot events.  It even manages to be really funny and offer over-the-top comedy without resorting to dick and fart jokes.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with that — I loves me some Kevin Smith, after all.)  It’s the sort of movie that’s so well put-together that it makes me wish other movies that I like were crafted just as well, even if I liked them more than I liked Juno.

So, to summarize my thoughts on Juno: fantastic movie.  Given that the movie has been out for more than a month and the theatre was still quite full when I saw it on a weeknight — and given the award nominations — it seems that the word has gotten out, and most everyone agrees with me.  If you haven’t seen it, you should.

Thoughts on Sweeney Todd

I saw Sweeney Todd last Tuesday, but forgot to write about it then. While writing up my thoughts on Cloverfield, I remembered that talking about movies was one of the reasons I started this site, so here I am again.  Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the Tim Burton-directed adaptation of the stage musical, and stars (surprise surprise) Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. It is a bleak, bleak musical with a very dark ending. (Again with the surprise….) It is also surprisingly good.

I don’t see all that many musicals — especially not on film — but my most general complaint about them is that they start to get tedious after a while. Too often, the music simply delays the advancement of the story, and is rarely good enough to be of primary interest itself. I did not find that to be the case with Sweeney Todd at all, though — the pacing was good, and the story advanced quickly enough to maintain my interest.

It is essentially the story of a serial killer. We feel some sympathy for Todd (originally Benjamin Barker) at first, as we learn of his wrongful imprisonment and how his family was destroyed, and can empathize with his desire for revenge. But that desire for revenge against a specific man is eventually warped into a desire for revenge against everyone, and encouraged by his partner Mrs. Lovett. It progresses down a bloody and bleak path full of dismal characters, with only a few having any good qualities whatsoever. You might be able to argue, however, that it has a happy ending.

The music — and performances by Depp and Bonham Carter — was also surprisingly good: unobtrusive, understandable, on-key, and funny. Burton carefully crafted the flow of the movie so it all came together effortlessly, with no jarring transitions to knock you out of the story. Of course, much of it is classic Burton — the sets, the setting, even the staging of some of the musical numbers — but it is not even remotely out of place in this show.

I went to see this movie with some friends — I’d had no plans to see it of my own accord. I was delighted to find that I liked the movie. Even though I really enjoyed it, it was a really dark movie, so I’m not sure how quickly I’d jump at the chance to see it again. But I’m awfully glad I saw it that first time.

Cloverfield Broke My Brain

You might be forgiven if you can’t parse the precise meaning of my title; is is a trifle ambiguous.  I could be suggesting that the movie was so awesome that my brain just couldn’t comprehend or contain it — or I could be suggesting that it actually physically broke my brain.  Given how I teetered and stumbled while leaving the theatre, and the dizziness and headache that persisted after I got home and forced me to bed early (well, early for me, anyway), I believe the second interpretation is more accurate.

That is not to say that Cloverfield was bad — just that the overriding element that stayed with me was that the shaky, hand-held camera work that I found so nauseating that I spent the second half of the movie with my eyes half closed, or looking at the ceiling, or the walls, or anything but the screen.  I can’t even blame proximity to the screen — I was in the very back row of the theatre.  I know that I’m more sensitive to motion sickness than most people (I find first-person video games nauseating as well), but I’m also not the only one to complain about this, either.

So, my basic thought here is whoever first decided to film a professional movie like this should be drug out into the street and shot.  (Disclaimer: I don’t actually think this, and I have no liability or responsibility should that persona actually but drug out into the street at shot.  It’s a joke, people.)  I couldn’t watch most of this movie, just like I couldn’t watch most of The Bourne Ultimatum, or any other movie filmed with this shaky camera syndrome.

Directors apparently like this because it adds to the “gritty realism” of the film.  I am rather inclined to disagree — there is no adding of realism to a third person viewing experience, and all it adds is motion sickness.  That said, it can be used effectively in limited quantities, adding a lot more mobility and fluidity, and to provide contrast with different parts of the film.  But using hand-held camera work for a whole movie is too much of a bad thing.

Anyway, that’s enough of the ranting about how it was filmed.  I should probably talk about the actual movie.

The basic idea behind the movie can be summed up as “street-level view of a giant monster attack on Manhattan”.  Where most giant monster movies focus on the monsters and the people fighting them, this movie is about the regular people who get caught in the middle.  As a premise, it’s pretty neat.  Unfortunately, there is a conceit behind the movie, too: the movie is supposedly what one of these people filmed on a camcorder during the attack.  Thus, we are treated to old material on the tape comes through as flashbacks, as well as a disjointed and disoriented storyline, and really, really bad camera work.  It starts with a going-away party being recorded, and during the party, the monster attacks, and the guy keeps the camera rolling as they try to get away, and then turn around and stupidly go back to save another friend.

I was not terribly enamoured of this conceit, as you may have gathered, but the story it was putting across wasn’t all that bad — except for the irritating romance element.  However, even though the movie was short, I still felt it was a little slow in places, and on its own, the movie provides no answers.  The extensive online promotional efforts apparently revealed quite a bit more back story, though there are no concrete answers.  The acting was passable — if a little forced, in places — and the special effects seemed pretty good, but my overall reaction (intellectual reaction, anyway — I’ve already detailed the physiological) to the movie is…. meh.  It was okay.

This was very much a “concept” movie, and it clung to that concept for dear life, even though it doesn’t quite work everywhere.  It’s the sort of movie that I would normally never bother to see, except they made it a monster movie and so that grabbed me.  For me, the “concept” — monster attack as filmed by a person caught up in it — doesn’t work.  The content, however, largely does.  And so I’m left with really mixed feelings, and that’s all that I can really say.

How Not To Produce New SF Media

While reading Lou Anders’ blog, I came across this two-page article by Mark Harris lamenting the lack of originality in science fiction TV and movies. It is an anecdotal argument that is presented, but a compelling one nonetheless, as it cites many recent releases (I Am Legend, Transformers, Battlestar Galactica, Aliens vs. Predator, Star Trek, Philip K. Dick adaptations, etc.) and their origins in properties more than twenty years old.

I don’t think that old properties necessarily mean current iterations are unoriginal (the modern Battlestar Galactica is different from its predecessor in every meaningful way but one — the initial premise), and the trend of remakes is hardly limited to science fiction, but the observation is still valid. However, Harris goes on to suggest that science fiction needs to be saved from its fans, and expresses the following desire: “I wish a great writer or director with no particular affection for the genre would let his imagination loose and see what it yields.” He then cites Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as an example of this working, but conveniently ignores Arthur C. Clarke’s role in that movie and book.

My bigger concern with this wish is the rather myopic view of science fiction as a whole. The suggestion is that science fiction fans producing these media are more interested is worshiping what has gone before than creating something new; I would argue that those people aren’t science fiction fans. For this retreading of old ideas is similar to the reinvention of the wheel that tends to happen when a writer that is not a science fiction writer produces a science fiction novel — however good the novel may be, and however well-written, it tends to be based around ideas and concepts well known to fans of science fiction. (Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake comes to mind here, as mentioned in this review by Robert J. Sawyer; the same is true of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.) Even the submission guidelines of science fiction magazines reiterate this point — you have to know what’s out there before you can create something new.

Thus, suggesting that people who have no affection for science fiction are going to be the ones to produce “original” content seems rather counterintuitive. I would suggest that the people best acquainted with science fiction would be the best chance for producing original content. This is certainly true of written SF — while there is a lot of unoriginal and derivative fiction out there, there’s some mind-bending original stuff, too. But that’s only possible when the writer knows the genre well. Leaving the future of the genre in the media to people who have no affection for it, no understanding of it — that is the surest way to reset the genre back to square one and lead us back to the beginning of everything we’ve already seen before. To save science fiction media, more control needs to be given to the creators at the forefront.

That is, in essence, the argument Anders was making in his blog entry, voicing support for the notion put forward by this open letter to the Sci-Fi Channel. And it seems eminently sensible to me, too.

Of course, this is the era of the Internet, so it might not be too much longer before creators can take the forefront themselves. But that’s a topic for another time….

A Tale of Two Concerts: The Police and Vanessa Carlton

In recent months I’ve had the good fortune to take in a number of concerts by bands that I love. I want to talk about two in particular, both of which were excellent but vastly different experiences: The Police and Vanessa Carlton.

I saw The Police at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on November 8th, 2007. As you might gather, this was part of their reunion tour. Sting and The Police have long been among my favourite bands — I had seen Sting on tour with Annie Lennox back in the Fall of 2004 (a fantastic show), and figured that was the best I’d be able to do. I was glad to be wrong.

I had gotten the best (and thus most expensive) seats available, in one of the pre-sales. I figured I might as well go for the gusto, since I might not have any other chances to see them. Luckily, my girlfriend graciously considered her ticket an early birthday present, in return for the Billy Joel tickets she had gotten me for his Toronto show in April 2007. Anyway, the seats were good ones — but in a venue the size of the Air Canada Centre, there are good seats and great seats, all in the same price range, and these were only good. To see any real detail of the performers, I still had to rely on the projection screens. I’m sure I’ll figure out how to get the great seats one of these days.

Fiction Plane — a band fronted by Sting’s son Joe Sumner — opened for The Police. They seemed all right, although everyone was clearly waiting for the main event. The anticipation was palpable in the arena.

When Sting (Gordon Sumner), Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland took the state, that anticipation paid off. As the band started with “Message in a Bottle”, the crowd was electrified, the energy erupting from the stage and spreading through the audience in an expanding wave, pulling everyone to their feet. (I have long wondered if you could quantify the awesomeness of a band by calculating the range and distance of its ability to get an audience on its feet, but, alas, I do not have the resources to mount a study.)

Naturally, The Police played all of their expected hits, but not necessarily in their expected form. More than 20 years had passed since the band had toured together; each of them had pursued solo careers in that time, and — as was noted in the concert program — they should be better musicians now. Rather than tossing out straight live versions of their studio recordings, many of the songs were now musically richer, with complex solos and percussion sections, altered tempos, and lengthy instrumental fills. This completely transformed some songs — to the point where they were unrecognizable until the lyrics came in — but they still retained the core of the original embedded within them.

The songs largely blended together into an ongoing musical landscape, which is a testament to the quality of the experience they provide. I did have the presence of mind to take some notes, and thus can provide the full set list.

  1. Message in a Bottle
  2. Synchronicity II
  3. Walking on the Moon
  4. Voices Inside My Head
  5. Don’t Stand So Close To Me
  6. Driven to Tears
  7. Hole in My Life
  8. Truth Hits Everybody
  9. Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic
  10. Wrapped Around Your Finger
  11. De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da
  12. Invisible Sun
  13. Walking In Your Footsteps
  14. Can’t Stand Losing You
  15. Roxanne
  16. King of Pain
  17. So Lonely
  18. Every Breath You Take
  19. Next To You

As I said before, they performed all of the big hits, though they left a few for the encore. It was, in essence, everything that could be hoped for in a concert by The Police — energetic audience, fantastic performance, and excellent music. The only drawback was that it was an arena show — despite the good crowd, there were still more than 20,000 people there, most of whom were nowhere close to the stage and could only see anything worthwhile on the screens. Even with my good seats, there was a certain element of impersonality to it, that is endemic of all arena shows. Perhaps this impersonality isn’t there if you manage to get seats up really close, but I haven’t had a chance to figure that out just yet.

And thus we come to the second concert I want to talk about: Vanessa Carlton at Toronto’s Mod Club Theatre on November 23rd, 2007.

I have a strange relationship with Vanessa Carlton. I really enjoy her music, and have all three of her albums, but I’m sort of ashamed to admit that and I don’t know why. She has a unique sound, and though sometimes she’s a trifle saccharine, she has interesting lyrics and melodies — and she’s cute, to boot — so I don’t really know where this shame comes from, especially given some of the other music I enjoy *cough*Avril Lavigne*cough*.

Anyway, I had seen her at the same venue in the Fall of 2004 when she was touring with her second album, and quite enjoyed that show, despite the incredibly sucky opening act that pissed me off all the more because I had assignments due that I could have been working on instead of listening to them. Thus, even though I was really enjoying her new album, I was kind of iffy on seeing her again, given how busy I was at the time. I decided to go at the last minute, paid dramatically less for the ticket this show than the ones for The Police, and set out with some other people I knew to see her again. It was a decision I would not regret, as she put off a great — albeit short — show.

Admittedly, I was in a better mood right from the start at this latest concert, with no deadlines looming the next day, and the opening act was decently inoffensive. Still, when Vanessa finally took the stage, it was a welcome sight. She started with “Nolita Fairytale”, the first track and single from her latest album Heroes & Thieves, and once she got going, her fantastically smooth and strong voice wrapped the audience up and dragged us in. I had never seen anyone swoon before, but the other guy in the group I was with literally swooned for her.

She necessarily performed slightly altered versions of her songs — she only had a guitarist as back-up, whereas her album tracks are typically heavily orchestrated. In a lot of young performers, this lack of studio support would lead to a rather anemic stage presence, but Vanessa Carlton’s piano-focussed and lyrically melodic songs worked surprisingly well in the more minimalistic staging of the the Mod Club.

She played mostly from her new album, and in fact performed most of it, hitting nine of its eleven tracks, and then taking her biggest songs from previous albums to round it out. By my recollection, she only did fourteen songs (listed in no particular order below), and performed for a little more than an hour.

  • Nolita Fairytale
  • Hands On Me
  • Ordinary Day
  • A Thousand Miles
  • My Best
  • Who’s To Say
  • White Houses
  • The One
  • C’est La Vie
  • Half a Week Before the Winter
  • Heroes & Thieves
  • Fools Like Me
  • Home
  • More Than This

I really liked her first album, so I wished she had done a few more besides “A Thousand Miles” and “Ordinary Day”, but as is often the case, the songs I like best are probably the least popular and thus least likely to show up in concerts. Fortunately, I was more than satisfied with the songs she did perform, and my only complaint was that I was left wanting more.

Part of my absolute enjoyment of this show certainly came from the venue — the Mod Club is a much smaller (and thus more intimate) concert space. We were able to get up close and get a good view, without even having to push through crowds of young girls at the stage. Vanessa’s voice and stage presence filled the room, and wrapped around us and pulled us in to an intensely personal experience as she attacked the piano keys and poured her heart into her vocals. While I’m sure she’d love to be able to fill arenas with tens of thousands of screaming fans — and while I wish her all the success she desires — I’m kind of glad that she’s still at a point where she’s playing smaller venues.

A smaller venue is the only thing that can guarantee that intimacy that I so enjoyed about the show. Even if my mind were inclined to wander, the proximity and the intensity of the performance would command my attention, and in that respect, it makes me feel like I’m part of the performance myself. I get some of that feeling in larger arena shows — especially if it is one of my favourite bands — but a smaller show always feels warmer and more inclusive. Alas, I suppose it would be wrong of me to begrudge them their success and wish for my favourite bands to be washed up and reduced to touring tiny venues.

This contrast between venues and the affect it has on my impressions of a show really stood out after seeing The Police and Vanessa Carlton mere weeks apart. While both were excellent shows, the intimacy of the show in the smaller venue has me wondering whether I should explore more such performances with bands I’m less familiar with. Recommendations are most welcome.