The Mutant Menagerie: X2: X-Men United

X-Men 2 movie poster

 

In retrospect, the first X-Men movie did an incredible job of managing the introduction of a wide array of characters to mass audiences likely unfamiliar with the decades’ worth of continuity established in its comic book source material. But the sequel X2: X-Men United crowds the stage with too many new faces in addition to the returning original cast. In short order, audiences not only have to recollect the original characters but also learn how Stryker (Brian Cox), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Pyro (Aaron Stanford), and Lady Deathstryke (Kelly Hu) fit in to the mutant menagerie. X2 also expands the ranks of the Blue Man Mutant Group, with Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) joining Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) in head-to-toe body paint, later to be accompanied by Beast (Kelsey Grammar) in Brett Ratner’s risible X-Men 3: The Last Stand.

Alan Cumming in X2: X-Men UnitedNightcrawler auditions for a spot in the Blue Men Mutant Group

Holocaust survivor Magneto (Ian McKellen) is still just as genocidal as his former Nazi oppressors, an irony he fails to perceive despite it being pointed out to him repeatedly. His aims and obsessions make for a very good villain, but also for a virtual repeat of the previous movie’s plot. In the original (read The Dork Report review), Magneto built a device to forcibly mutate homo sapiens into homo superior, the arising species known as “mutants” to which both The X-Men and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants belong. The weapon turned out to be faulty and instead simply killed every human within range. To a man like Magneto, said glitch was not a bug but a feature. Nothing if not persistent, he employs basically the same scheme in X2. New baddie Stryker has reverse-engineered Professor X’s mutant-detection device Cerebro into a weapon capable of killing all mutants en masse. Magneto plots to repurpose it to kill all humans instead.

Also recycled from the previous movie is the fact that Magneto is again not the movie’s true villain, despite long holding the rank of the X-Men’s official nemesis. The real antagonist last time around was intolerant politician Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison). Now the foe is another powerless human, Colonel Stryker, a warmonger with a private army. Like Kelly, he’s a fervent speciesist, so enflamed with passionate hatred of mutants that he transforms his own mutant son Jason (Michael Reid McKay) into a component in his genocidal weapon.

Hugh Jackman in X2: X-Men UnitedWolverine babysits The New Mutants

One notable tweak to the original recipe is a healthier dose of violence and killing perpetrated by the fan-favorite Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). As a character, Wolverine is capable of both berserker rage and human empathy, but his movie incarnation seems to be able to turn it on and off at will. Coupled with a PG-13 rating dictating that his slaughter remain bloodless, this negates one of the tragic flaws of the character I recall from reading the comics as a kid. The Wolverine I remember constantly struggled to keep his animalistic side in check in order to live among his friends, lovers, and allies. The movie Wolverine is a little bit of a softy, actually, spending much of film babysitting mopey teen trio Iceman, Pyro, and Rogue, the latter still harboring an unrequited crush on a dude way too old, hairy, and Canadian for her.

X2’s biggest problem is that it has no sense of humor, allowing the grimness of the scenario to drain most of the fun out of the experience. The original had only a single credited screenwriter, David Hayter, but the sequel teams him with Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris — hinting that the crowded stage of actors was paralleled by a few too many cooks in the kitchen backstage. One good scene, at least, provides a reminder of what the first film got right: when the teen Iceman reveals his superpowers to his parents for the first time, his mother asks “Have you ever tried to… (awkward pause) not be a mutant?” It’s an excellent scene that uses humor to employ the sci-fi conceit of the mutant experience as a metaphor for a minority’s troubled coming of age.


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Lost in The Matrix

Now that the Lost fiasco finale has come and gone, and my blood pressure has dipped back down into safe levels, I am going to attempt to speak calmly about how the show let me down. Yes, I am aware that it is just a TV program, and there are a great many other things in the world worth being upset over (I’m looking at you, BP). But following a weekly TV show from the very beginning, for six years, earns you a little more than the often derogatory sobriquet Fan. We aficionados are not owed anything by anybody, but nevertheless, our investment of time and enthusiasm created an imbalance that was not satisfied in the end.

Henry Ian Cusick in LostNeo Desmond enters Deus Ex MachinaThe Source

As my frustration at being cheated subsides, another problematic pop cultural touchstone came to mind. Certain parallels between Lost and The Matrix trilogy now seem obvious, and it’s not just that both hinge on a mysterious, glowing, ill-defined “Source.”

  1. Start out strong with a very science fiction-y, mostly plot-driven narrative. The characters are marginally interesting, but the focus is on scenario and story. Viewers’ imaginations are teased, speculation abounds, and sequels are demanded.
  2. Follow up with a sequel that reveals a loose framework of philosophy supporting the science fiction conceit. Whether it genuinely inspired the original work or was bolted on after the fact is open to debate. Simultaneously amp up the soap-opera cheesiness concerning flat characters that fans aren’t really invested in. (For what it’s worth, I contend that The Matrix Reloaded – the second in the trilogy – is not only underrated, but in fact the best of the series, despite the nearly universal opinion that both sequels were failures)
  3. Contrive a violent, action-packed ending that A. strains to fit around the philosophical core (kinda sorta maybe) and B. focuses on character melodrama (tragic deaths, romantic pining, etc.). Myriad story issues are neglected and treated as merely peripheral to the creators’ primary concerns.

In short, the creative duos behind Lost and The Matrix mistakenly assumed fans were more interested in the philosophical angle and thin characters than in the narrative. And maybe, just maybe, some of us wondered why we couldn’t have it both ways: a cracking good story with a strong subtext of mysticism and philosophy. As every high school creative writing teacher must explain to students that keep turning in thinly veiled retellings of Bible stories: just because an allegory fits (kinda sorta maybe), it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s any additional meaning to be construed. For The Wachowski Brothers, it was Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. For Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, it was John Locke, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, etc. (to be fair, they also leaned heavily on writers outside the realm of philosophy, including everyone from George Lucas to Stephen Hawking).

Keanu Reeves in The MatrixDesmond Neo enters The Source Deus Ex Machina

If, in the end, Cuse and Damon Lindelof neglected their storytelling responsibilities, they had already neatly set up two excuses for them to fall back upon:

  1. That Lost’s appeal was really the characters, and fans ought to be pleased that they all lived happily ever after, after a fashion.
  2. That Lost is really an allegory for a melange of works of philosophy, and that if you don’t get it, you’re a right-brainer too hung up on Star Trek-esque hard sci-fi to have your mind expanded, dude.

I don’t think I would be so upset if Cuse and Linedlof weren’t so outrageously full of themselves and self-congratulatory in interviews (The Wachowskis are probably right to refrain from publicity). At least Lindelof seemed conscious of how their work might be received. He told Wired Magazine:

Locke is now the voice of a very large subset of the audience who believes that when Lost is all said and done, we will have wasted six years of our lives, that we were making it up as we went along, and that there’s really no purpose. And Jack is now saying, “the only thing I have left to cling to is that there’s got to be something really cool that’s going to happen, because I have really, really fucking suffered.”

Maybe Jack and Locke were both right; the show now appears to have been a headlong hurdle into a faux-mystical conundrum, leaving behind countless abandoned plot threads as so much narrative shrapnel. There is no shortage of blog posts clogging the internet with lists of unresolved mysteries (including my own). Cuse dug himself in deeper, in conversation with the New York Times:

our goal is when we’re breaking stories, how are we going to really make each one of these commercial breaks really exciting. Those questions led to a lot of really intense scenes and cool reversals and surprises, and I guess it must have been how Dickens would cliffhanger the end of his serials in the newspaper when he was writing them to try to get people to show up the next day.

Cool like Dickens, eh? Wait, it gets better. In the recap special “The Final Journey” that preceded the final episode “The End,” they actually had the balls to call their series “Shakespearean,” which I think automatically disqualifies them from being taken seriously.

As for The Matrix, I think it’s telling that there’s literally a character in the third film named “Deus Ex Machina.”


Must read: Philosophy in Lost

Must read: The Matrix Explained

Official Lost site: abc.go.com/shows/lost

Buy the Lost Season 6 DVD or Blu-ray from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Lost: The End

Lost Season 6 poster

 

I’ve always been a Lost apologist, at least liking the show even during its weak points. Six years of goodwill very nearly went out the window along with my television, thanks to its extremely frustrating final run of episodes. Close to the end, I attempted to resolve myself to the likely event that the finale would not answer every little niggling mystery. I hoped to shield myself from disappointment, and let the creators finish the story how they wished. Yet “The End” still failed to tell a simple story. A story is not a string of dei ex machina, and every character arc need not end with a sudden, brutal, arbitrary death.

Carlton Cuse told Wired Magazine:

The great mysteries of life fundamentally can’t be addressed. We just have to tell a good story and let the chips fall where they may. We don’t know whether the resolution between the two timelines is going to make people say, “Oh, that’s cool” or “Oh, fuck those guys, they belly-flopped at the end.”

The latter, pretty much. What follows is just a taste of my catalogue of complaints, with no concern for spoilers.

Matthew Fox in Lost

SPINNING (DONKEY) WHEELS

For a show built atop a perpetually compounding series of mysteries and conundrums, it failed to legitimately advance or resolve much of anything in the run-up to the polarizing finale. With so little time left, the penultimate episodes wasted time spinning wheels in classic Lost fashion. People getting locked in cages, escaping, getting locked up again. Groups splitting up, hiking to opposite ends of the island(s), splitting up into different groups and hiking back. Boarding watercraft and disembarking again. Meanwhile, the sheer number of abandoned mysteries filled its own wiki, and as usual, CollegeHumor said it best:

BOOM!

From the very beginning, one of Lost’s favorite conceits was the sudden death of characters. To be generous, death is rarely “meaningful” in real life, but these plot twists also laid bare the practicalities of serial television (actors quit, get fired, or age unconvincingly). After the tenth or twentieth fatality, I became sick of characters getting suddenly and arbitrarily killed off for cheap shock. Past victims included Eko, Libby, and Danielle, all violently exiting the show before their storylines reached any kind of resolution. In the final episodes, it happened to Ilyana, Widmore, Zoe, and (it seemed at first) Frank and Richard. We saw just enough of Zoe that I assumed she must be significant as something more than just cannon fodder, but apparently not. Sayid’s season-long arc (was he mystically reincarnated as a soulless killing machine, or was he merely convinced that he was essentially evil?) is short-circuited by his abrupt choice of self-sacrifice. How did he defeat his mystical brainwashing? Just killing off a character isn’t any kind of a resolution to a storyline.

A positive example from the show’s past would be Charlie, a character whose death figured into the mythology in a big way. It had ramifications, as opposed to: BOOM! Look, somebody just suddenly blew themselves up with dynamite, isn’t that HILARIOUS? Aren’t you SHOCKED? No? Well, let’s kill another character the same way!

I was never so sentimental for Lost that I felt the need for every character to live happily ever after. But didn’t these creations deserve a little better?

John Terry in Lost

ACROSS THE SEA

Little of the mythology Jacob finally revealed in the episode “Across the Sea” made any sense, and often directly contradicted my memories of what went before. He tells Kate he scratched her off the list because she became a mother, but the job could still be hers if she wanted it. Does that mean his list is arbitrary? It doesn’t matter which of these last few surviving candidates will do it? And, for whatever reason Jacob disqualifies moms, is it related to why all women on the island die? Were all the other mothers also candidates, for whom disqualification means death? If so, why didn’t he kill Kate? Because she assumed custody of Claire’s baby rather than having her own biological child, I suppose. But if the audience is asked to make too many strained suppositions like this, based on little evidence in the text of the show, we’ll begin to wonder if the writers have any idea themselves.

In the earlier episode “Ab Aeterno”, Jacob told the Man in Black that he brings people to the island to prove a point to him about humanity. But now he tells Jack & co. that he simply wants to find a replacement. Which is it? Both?

Jacob’s list of several hundred names eventually narrowed to a mere handful of survivors. Did he know he had to rule them all out until he got to the last name? And that the Man in Black would happen to be very near escape at that point in time? If so, why didn’t he just scratch all but one name off the list? And now that Jack has volunteered, does that mean that the other few have to die?

Allison Janney in Lost

NARRATIVE CHEATING

It’s cheap to resolve a plot thread by introducing a totally new element, like the adoptive mother of Jacob & The Man in Black (an unnamed character played by Allison Janney). Imagine a murder mystery, in which the murderer turns out to be… oh this guy right here, whom you’ve never seen before now. The answer to the mystery of Jacob and The Man in Black needed to already be there, in the form of shuffled puzzle pieces the audience hasn’t seen the solution to yet. Not in a single-episode guest star.

Which brings me to the glowing cave. If it’s really the key motivating force for Jacob and The Man in Black, it’s the ultimate MacGuffin of the entire series. To not even so much as mention it until near the very end of a six-year long series is cheating to say the least.

Let me go back even further: I’m irritated altogether by the injection of Jacob and the Man in Black into the story. I know that the Man in Black technically appeared in the very first episode (as the sound effect we would later associate with the Smoke Monster), and we’ve been hearing the name Jacob for a few years now. But it does not feel organic at all that the core mystery of the show came down to a mystical struggle between two characters that have barely featured on the show at all. It should be about the characters already on the stage from the very beginning, not two cyphers introduced so late in the game.

And the final, capping atrocity that would get any kid kicked out of high school creative writing class is, of course, the revelation that the final season’s mysterious “sideways timeline” was actually a kind of Limbo or Purgatory. That this is wildly unsatisfactory (the only thing worse could have been an ending in which it is revealed to be someone’s dream, a la St. Elsewhere or Newhart) is overshadowed by the true crime: it’s explained via exposition by a minor character we hadn’t seen for months (Jack’s father Christian). Exposition! “Show don’t tell” is a clichéd rule, and rules ought to be broken, but this case of telling not showing is evidence of contempt for the audience.

Compare and contrast with the truly mind-blowing conclusion to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its wordlessness is a sublime virtue, and its mysteries linger to provoke discussion and fascination decades later.

Michael Emmerson in Lost

BEN: A COMPLICATED GUY, OR LAZY WRITING?

I’m puzzled by Ben’s apparent boomerang switcher from defeated and sort-of redeemed, to pure evil, and then back again. We’re left to suppose he realized something in the penultimate episode that the audience just didn’t know yet. We naturally expect to share his realization in the final episode, but there doesn’t seem to be anything there to find. After the Man in Black is defeated, he’s not only forgiven for his crimes (remember, he is a mass murderer), but given a leadership role on the island. And, he gets to stay behind in Limbo and shag Rousseau (Mira Furlan, who, incidentally, cleans up good, am I right?).

It bugs me that I had to repeatedly ask this question at each plot turn: was it lazy writing, or part of the mystery?

Henry Ian Cusick in Lost

THE DESMOND ZAP

I’m very confused about how much the sideways characters remember about their alternate timelines on the island after Desmond zaps them. Locke and Ben only seem to get a vague sense of deja vu, but Hurley seems to have complete recall (for instance, he seems to know exactly who Ana Lucia is). By the finale, characters need only touch each other for complete memories to come flooding back. So why didn’t Jack & Juliet spark each other’s memories during all the years were married, and not to put to fine a point on it, had sex and conceived a son? Again, part of the mystery, or sloppy writing?

CITING SOURCES

Some of the above is derived from a morning-after rant I shared with guest Dork Reporter Snarkbait.


Must read: Jason Kottke’s Lost finale roundup

Official Lost site: abc.go.com/shows/lost

Buy the Lost Season 6 DVD or Blu-ray from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Surrogates

Surrogates movie poster

 

Surrogates is an elegantly literal twist on the classic sci-fi theme of living through avatars. Cyberpunk writers William Gibson and Neal Stephenson pioneered virtual reality as a setting for the dramatic exaggeration of issues first sparked by the very beginnings of internet chat rooms. Their predictions have already come true, in part, in the form of social networking and immersive games like Second Life and World of Warcraft. Surrogates takes this conceit one step further, but fails to address moss of the questions it raises. To look deeper than I think the film supports, you might start to think about the personas we craft for ourselves in different contexts, how we dress and behave in the privacy of our homes versus how we do at work or play.

Rosamund Pike in Surrogates

Directed by Jonathan Mostow (of the excellent nail-biter Breakdown, but also the dud Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), the film is based on the comic book The Surrogates by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele. The premise requires a long, involved prologue necessary just to explain it. This very near future is defined by the technology for remote-controlled androids, which are not unlike cars: affordable enough for the majority of the population to own one, available in tiered models that reflect your income and taste, and a way of life ingrained into society just as much as cars have shaped cities and the highways that network them together.

Taken to its logical extreme, a world populated by remote controlled robots affects everything from the workplace to warfare. Beauty parlors have morphed into something like hi-tech auto repair shops, where people trick their surrogates out with new rubber faces and super-strong limbs. Patriot Act-like mass surveillance is conducted through the robots’ very eyes, without their owners’ permission, in an impossible-to-miss metaphor for Bush-era warrantless wiretaps. War is now a deathless abstract resembling a computer game: faceless drones teem distant battlegrounds in a sick parody of today’s airborne Predator drones and precision-guided missiles. Notice also the spotless art direction: everything is clean because robots don’t eat or litter.

When so much of the fictional ramifications are thought out, it’s disappointing when so many other obvious implications are left unclear. We’re told the crime rate has fallen dramatically since most people started living through robot surrogates, but why, necessarily? Perhaps because there’s no such thing as raping or murdering a robot. But why do FBI agents have such luxurious homes, if their jobs are less necessary in this utopia?

Radha Mitchell and Bruce Willis in Surrogates

One interesting wrinkle barely touched upon is that some characters, including Greer (Bruce Willis) and his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike), have selected surrogates modeled on their own natural physical appearances. Younger, stronger, and more virile, perhaps, but recognizably their idealized likenesses. There are only a few examples of users that opt to mix race and/or genders, let alone go to further extremes. The most outwardly unusual looking surrogates we see merely have impossible complexions. Perhaps the Greers are not fully committed to living this way. Why not explore this point more? A failure of the imagination.

But by far the biggest absurdity is the claim that 98% of the population lives through surrogates. The film would have been better off by sidestepping the question of whether or not much of the population could afford state-of-the-art consumer electronics. If only a portion of the population in 2010 has access to things like health care and broadband, it’s certainly absurd to pretend for even a silly sci-fi movie that we all might some day be able to afford personal robots. But then again, there are hundreds of millions of cars in use worldwide today, so perhaps it is not that outrageous to hypothesize that someday we all might be remotely piloting some kind of robot around all day every day.

While many other people, including his wife, choose to live life through their surrogates, FBI agents are given turbocharged loaner models in some kind of perk akin to today’s company cars. Greer behaves differently as himself or when working through his surrogate. He spouts tough, sarcastic, noir-ish detective dialogue when working, but turns meek and emotional when living as a “meatball.”

Ving Rhames and James Cromwell appear in disappointing fleeting roles. Rosamund Pike is obviously very beautiful, but her wide circular glassy eyes frankly look slightly odd from certain angles, making her an excellent casting choice.

There are fewer android-related special effects than you might imagine, especially when compared to Westworld (read The Dork Report review), The Stepford Wives, Alien, and A.I., all of which revel in revealing robotic guts beneath rubber skin (images one might even fetishize as a literal “cyberporn”). Rather, the film’s best special effect is when a surrogate deactivates and comes to a complete halt. I can’t guess how it was done, but it’s clearly more complicated than simply freezing the frame. It’s very eerie to see a person, however artificial-seeming, simply and silently freeze as the light of life goes out of their eyes.

A ostentatious dangling plot thread about Greer’s dead son goes nowhere. Even the revelation of what caused his death is a misfire, and has no impact upon the story. Why would a painful loss in the family compel the Greers to live virtual lives? Everyone else is only doing it because they want to appear attractive.

The final moments are lame and non-dramatic, relying on unseen newscasters to explicitly outline the themes of the movie, for the slower members of the audience, perhaps.


Official movie site: www.chooseyoursurrogate.com

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Westworld

Westworld movie poster

 

The late Michael Crichton is primarily known as a bestselling novelist, but somewhat less so as a screenwriter, feature film director, and television producer (he was one of the co-creators of the blockbuster series E.R.). Characteristic novels Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain are built upon fascinating speculative science with thrilling story potential, spoiled by wafer-thin characters and simplistic plots. His 1973 thriller Westworld suffers from the same syndrome. Despite its high-minded origins in speculative science, the movie is simple in structure and theme. It’s not unusual for science fiction films to be overtly based on Western tropes (the best example that comes to mind is Outland), but Westworld is a hybrid with equal parts of each. The second half is basically an extended chase sequence, punctuated by a few classic horror movie tropes.

Yul Brynner in WestworldThere’s a face off in the corner

Westworld posits a future in which robotics and artificial intelligence have advanced enough to enable a new market for entertainment and leisure. The futuristic vacation resort Delos is a forerunner to Jurassic Park: an experience adventure for the affluent, powered by untested advanced technology. Imagine Disney World-like animatronics taken to the next level: semiautonomous robots roam an immersive environment to serve as interactive servants, sex toys, and target practice.

Crichton skips over the entire issue of how these machines achieve consciousness, making the common movie fallacy that robots = artificial intelligence. If they are basically animatronic machines, how did they evolve an instinct for self-preservation? If these droids are not feeling actual rebellion and murderous vindictiveness, is it a virus or malfunction? On a more practical level, there appears to be a plot hole in how all robots but The Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) appear to completely vanish after murdering the Delos’ staff and visitors.

Richard Benjamin and James Brolin in WestworldJames Brolin & Richard Benjamin take the vacation of the future, today

Brynner’s may wear the same costume as in The Magnificent Seven (read The Dork Report review), but The Gunslinger’s true analog is closer to Jaws and Moby Dick. He pops up again and again, seemingly unkillable, possessed of an unexpressed, inexplicable motivation to hunt one single man. He fixates on tourist John Blane (James Brolin) and remorselessly pursues him to the death, not unlike the implacable demons that haunt Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, and Blood Meridian. Brynner isn’t given much in the way of dialog or character, but you can see he worked very hard on his physical performance. His bearing, posture, gait, and gaze are all unsettling. Far from a cartoonish robot figure, The Gunslinger is really inhuman, weird, and creepy.

Westworld, like Jurassic Park, seems to be a vague cautionary tale against toying with advanced science. The famously science-minded Crichton (an M.D.) is not simply demonizing science itself, but rather its arrogant misuse. If the first mistake is to build machines more complex than the human mind can understand, the second is to bet our lives upon them.

Delos is a fantasy world where people can kill or fuck anything they want. In other words, a recipe for disaster. Later science fiction stories like Tron, The Matrix, and Caprica (read The Dork Report review) would typically stage similar morality plays in virtual reality. But I don’t get the sense that Westworld is criticizing the indulgence of humanity’s worst tendencies. Is it instead focusing on the mistreatment of semi-sentient beings as slaves? When the park is in working condition, the robots are prostituted and murdered over and over for humans’ entertainment. After they become conscious, we see one “female” robot reject a human’s sexual advances, while another is cruelly chained up in a dungeon. Neither seems to be expressing much in the way of grief or resentment. Instead, we are perhaps meant to see them as innocents that are simply seeking a little dignity.

Stray observations:

  • The sequel movie Futureworld (1976) and TV series Beyond Westworld (1980) are not available on DVD or online at this time of writing.
  • Young James Brolin looks so much at times like Christian Bale does today that it’s almost creepy.
  • Even Delos’ animals are robotic, perhaps alluding to the moral tests regarding the treatment of animals (robotic or real) in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Even more on the nose, Blane finds a robot snake in the desert, foreshadowing the ones we see for sale in Blade Runner.

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Design is how it works: Gary Hustwit’s Objectified

Objectified movie poster

 

Objectified finds its thesis in a quotation from one of history’s prime industrialists, Henry Ford: “Every object, whether intentional or not, speaks to whoever put it there.” In other words, everything we select, purchase, and interact with, was first designed and manufactured by a skilled artisan. That person’s job is to obsess about you, your body, needs and habits, and how their product might become a part of your life. Director Gary Hustwit’s previous documentary feature Helvetica (read The Dork Report review) was a celebration of typographers and graphic designers, and inspired laypeople to recognize the long history and great labor that went into the typefaces they use every day on their computer screens. Similarly, Objectified profiles the often unknown industrial designers behind the stuff we buy.

Jonathan Ives in ObjectifiedJonathan Ives’ inner sanctum. After conducting this interview, Apple had the filmmakers shot.

Apple’s resident guru Jonathan Ive is perhaps the most famous design auteur featured. Ive is probably the second most famous person at Apple, justly acclaimed for his singular design aesthetic that first caught the public imagination with the bondi Blue iMac and then the stark, white, deceptively “simple” iPod. Ive’s boss Steve Jobs famously said that design is “not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works,” a principle born out in Ive’s work. Knowing inside and out the particulars of different materials and manufacturing is just part of designing a product’s externals. Ive brandishes precision-tooled parts from a disassembled MacBook Pro to illustrate that Apple spends an enormous amount of time and resources not just designing their products, but also the custom machines and processes necessary to mass produce them.

Naoto Fukasawa in ObjectifiedNaoto Fukasawa rethinks the CD player.

Objectified spends some considerable time on the topic of sustainability, a responsibility that regrettably only recently entered the industrial designer’s job description. Valerie Casey of IDEO relates the incredible anecdote of the difficult process of developing a new toothbrush. When the product is finally ready and in stores, she embarks on a much-needed vacation to Fiji. If you didn’t already guess where this story was going, she finds a discarded IDEO toothbrush washed up on a beach halfway around the world. In less than a week, her product had become pollution.

Objectified necessarily makes a brief detour into interaction design (this brief digression would be worthy of a film unto itself, but in the meantime, the curious can refer to Steven Johnson‘s 1997 book Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate). When we interact with most analog products, their form follows their function. As a thought experiment, would an alien from outer space (or a Tarzan raised in the wild) be able to infer an object’s function simply by looking at it? That is likely the case with a spoon or chair, but not so much with an iPhone. For many products of the digital age, the outward form factor gives no clues as to the function. Thus, interaction design was born with the Xerox PARC graphical user interface. Many of our daily tasks are now abstracted onto a two-dimensional screen. The Apple iPhone and iPad have popularized the touchscreen, which likely signals the beginning of another sea change when peripherals like keyboards and mice will be revealed to have been a temporary evolutionary bump, now marked for extinction.

still from ObjectifiedAwww yeah, designers know what time it is.

The last images we see are of the devices used to make the movie itself: a computer, hard drive, and camera. Tellingly, the Objectified Blu-ray edition has no menu structure at all. You put it in, it plays, and the supplementary features follow immediately after the closing credits. It’s a completely guided, linear experience that speaks to the film’s elevation of the creator over the consumer.


Official movie site: www.objectifiedfilm.com

Must read: A Hurricane of Consumer Values by Alissa Walker

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Scratching in the Dirt: Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back

 

As a Peter Gabriel fan for over two decades, it’s difficult to admit that I find myself struggling to appreciate his first new album in years.

There have always been three core things to love about Gabriel’s work: his literate songwriting, meticulous soundscapes, and emotionally expressive voice. Behind the creepily organic album art, Scratch My Back is an experiment in subtraction. It finds Gabriel covering other artists’ songs, accompanied only by solo piano or orchestra (the oddly defensive marketing pitch “No drums, no guitars” says it all). That leaves only the voice. Soulful and gravelly even as a teenage cofounder of Genesis in 1967, Gabriel’s voice should be more than enough to justify anything, so my pat reduction here is not totally fair. Gabriel and John Metcalfe clearly labored over these orchestral arrangements, but I miss the complex sonics of the rock and world music instrumentation that has characterized most of his music for over 40 years.

Gabriel did very nearly the opposite a decade ago, when his high-concept millennium project Ovo made a point of casting Paul Buchanan and The Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser to sing his songs. The most recent collection of his own songs was 2002’s Up, followed in 2009 by the collaborative project Big Blue Ball. Casual fans of his music might not be aware that Gabriel is an active humanitarian, particularly as cofounder of Witness and The Elders, so the temporal gap between his musical ventures is not entirely explained by chronic procrastination (although he would probably be the first to admit he’s easily distracted). Gabriel has stated that he hopes to work on more song-swap projects in the future, but first plans to work on some of his own songs. How long until he prepares a new album over which he can claim sole authorship?

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back

Gabriel told the New York Times:

“I was trying to make a grown-up record […] This is treating people as if they can handle difficult music and words. Not that I’ve courted the lowest common denominator before, but there’s a playfulness and childishness in some of my older work that isn’t present on this record.”

He is presumably referring to the media satire of “Games Without Frontiers” and “The Barry Williams Show”, the randy sex romps “Sledgehammer” and “Kiss That Frog”, and the vaudeville silliness of “Excuse Me” and “Big Time”. Gabriel is one of the few musicians that I first listened to as a teenager, but whose music has aged with me. So I would have expected myself to appreciate an album of him covering many songs that I know and love well (particularly David Bowie, Lou Reed, Elbow, and Talking Heads), but I find that I don’t know what to make of Scratch my Back even after repeated listening.

Many songwriters lose their dark edge as they age (case in point: Pink Floyd’s once tortured, prickly Roger Waters is now a big smiley softie), and by all accounts Gabriel should have been following that track too. After leaving Genesis in 1975 to deal with family issues, his first four solo albums were increasingly dark and sinister. But 1986’s So marked a noticeable turnaround in tone and an apparent psychic healing. Now reportedly still pals with his old Genesis cohorts, aging gracefully into a potbelly and gnomish goatee, remarrying, fathering two new sons, and reconciling with his two daughters from a previous marriage, he seemed to be transforming into a cuddly grandfather figure. A trickle of releases over the past decade showed him favoring directly-worded songs for children, including the Oscar-nominated “That’ll Do” (from the movie Babe), the unsubtle “Animal Nation” (from The The Wild Thornberrys Movie), and “Down to Earth” (from Wall-E).

Suddenly, he appears to have reversed back into depressive territory. Nearly every song chosen for Scratch My Back has been transformed into a mournful dirge. Especially when listened to in one sitting, I find many of the interpretations to be too depressing, and I actually like depressing music. My favorite examples along these lines are Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ cry-your-guts-out cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” (from the movie Donnie Darko), and Elbow’s agonizingly heartrending version of U2’s “Running to Stand Still” (from the War Child benefit album Heroes).

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back

Gabriel’s version of The Magnetic Fields’ “Book of Love” has apparently become something of a sensation on YouTube, licensed in television shows, and played at celebrity weddings. Perhaps I’m coldhearted, but it does absolutely nothing for me. Songwriter Stephin Merritt says his version was sarcastic, while Gabriel’s is deadly serious:

At first I thought, How hilarious, he’s got a completely different take on the song. But after a few listens I find it quite sweet. My version of the song focuses on the humor, and his focuses on the pathos. Of course, if I could sing like him I wouldn’t have to be a humorist.

Did Gabriel just plain miss Merritt’s point, or did he intentionally transform it into something sentimental, singing the same words but altering the instrumentation and delivery? All that said, something to cherish in Gabriel’s cover is the presence of his daughter Melanie on backing vocals.

Elbow’s “Mirrorball” is one of the most ravishing love songs I’ve heard. Elbow remixed Gabriel’s “More Than This” in 2002, providing a more organic rock structure to Gabriel’s perhaps over-processed studio original. But Gabriel does not return the favor here, turning their gorgeous love song into a depressive bummer.

The once case where Gabriel’s bummer-o-vision may have actually been appropriate is with Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble”, which actually does have very dark lyrics.

The original recording of David Bowie’s “Heroes” boasts an unforgettable lead guitar line from Robert Fripp, which by his own rules Gabriel must subtract. He sings Bowie’s Berlin-inspired lyrics in cracked, anguished tones, not an emotion I associate with the song.

The one song I liked immediately was “Listening Wind”. The original is one of the odder tracks on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, and Gabriel rather amazingly draws out a catchy melody embedded in the experimental song.

The Special Edition includes a second cd with four bonus tracks: a cover of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” and alternate versions of “The Book of Love”, “My Body is a Cage”, and “Heroes”. It might have been interesting to also include some of Gabriel’s past covers, including The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields”, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, and Joseph Arthur’s “In the Sun”. I would have also very much liked to hear instrumental mixes of some of Metcalfe’s orchestral arrangements.


Official Peter Gabriel site: www.petergabriel.com

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Dennis Hopper’s Colors

Colors movie poster

 

Dennis Hopper’s Colors may be a buddy cop flick on the surface, but it’s hardly typical high-concept Hollywood material. It does have a token overarching plot (involving a mismatched pair of cops tracing the perpetrators of a drive-by shooting), but it’s merely a loose thread to hold the movie together. If neither a character study nor a plot-driven thriller, Colors is a portrait of an issue, a setting, a problem.

A prototype for the HBO series The Wire, Colors is actually a portrait of the deteriorated, hopeless situation in a failed American city lost to gangs and the drug trade. But unlike The Wire, which deeply explores the economics of how and why gangs function as organizations, Colors doesn’t offer much detail on how they operate and what they do. However sensitive and balanced Colors may be, it still takes the point of view of predominantly white law enforcement. As such, it’s easy to see why filmmakers shortly turned to films like Menace II Society (read The Dork Report review) and Boyz N the Hood (read The Dork Report review), which would look at some of the same issues from the other side of the milieu.

Sean Penn in ColorsSean Penn in Colors: “You don’t wanna get laid, man. It leads to kissing and pretty soon you gotta talk to ’em.”

The interesting title most obviously refers to the term for a nation’s flag(tying in with the themes of war and the institution that wage it) or the signature colors of three major warring L.A. gangs: the Bloods (red), Crips (blue), and a Latino gang (white). The real colors that divide these groups are, of course, race. The one sign of equality in late 80s L.A. is that nearly everyone calls each other Holmes.

The narrative is loosely hung on several cliches, most notably the trope of veteran cop saddled with rookie partner. Officer Hodges (Duvall) is bitter at being drafted into the L.A.P.D. C.R.A.S.H. anti-gang program, after a lifetime of service that ought to have qualified him for sensible hours, a safe desk job, and more time with his family. Officer McGavin (Penn) is an aggressive, preening dandy, eager to attack the gang problem with the blunt tool of incarceration.

Robert Duvall in ColorsRobert Duvall in Colors: “you got a problem with the whole fuckin’ world, and I’m in it.”

But it’s not long after the movie sets up these cliches that it begins to knock them down. The ostensibly wizened Hodges makes a critical mistake, setting free a young gangbanger on the assumption that a brush with the law would scare him straight, while simultaneously intending it to be a lesson to the headstrong book ’em-type McGavin. The punk turns out to have been a major player in the shooting. Another cliche short-circuited: McGavin romances a local girl from the barrio (Maria Conchita Alonso), but she turns out to be far from the madonna he imagined. Not only that, she rejects him anyway.

Colors ends on a very down beat, not just the death of a significant character, but what comes after. McGavin is forced into the position of imparting wisdom before he’s earned much himself. The film ends with a long shot held on his face (echoed much later in the final shot of mind Michael Clayton – read The Dork Report review) as he most likely ponders his ineffectiveness.

Of note are early appearances by Don Cheadle and Damon Wayans, the latter featuring in a stand-out surreal sequence in which his character T-Bone is out of his mind on drugs. Herbie Hancock’s score has not dated well, nor has the vintage rap soundtrack, including the angry theme song by Ice-T. The opening credits are set to “One Time One Night” by the local L.A. band Los Lobos.


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Where not to go for coffee in Manhattan: M. Rohrs’ House of Fine Teas & Coffees

M. Rohrs' House of Fine Teas & Coffees

 

M. Rohrs’ House of Fine Teas & Coffees has a complete and utter contempt of their paying customers, and has lost my business, forever. Yesterday afternoon, they kicked out myself and every other single customer, citing a new policy that accused us all of “loitering.” I am not making this up.

M. Rohrs is one of the last remaining coffee houses on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. As others have noted on Yelp, they routinely invent new policies, such as changing the terms of customer loyalty cards (in fact, I think they simply rescinded them altogether at one point). Until the very recent past, any customers that wished to sit down after 7PM must have ordered at least $10 from the menu. That policy was not entirely unreasonable, but it was unfeasible. M. Rohrs is not a restaurant, and it is actually difficult to spend more than $10 at a coffee house. But as of yesterday at least, that requirement has now expanded to all hours, every day. It’s also worth noting that the new policy did not seem to specify a dollar amount, so I suppose they can arbitrarily eject anybody they deem to have spent too little.

Here’s what happened yesterday afternoon at about 4-5PM: I bought a coffee and muffin, tipped, and sat down. About 10 minutes later, the volume of the music suddenly got VERY LOUD (painfully, distractingly so) for no apparent reason. Then one of their employees visited every customer in turn and presented us with a long-worded sign explaining their new seating policy, which used the word “loiter” several times. I don’t think this employee speaks English as a first language, so there was no opportunity to discuss it with him, even if the music had not been deafening. He was not apologetic. Every single customer in the store at that time had only purchased coffee and pastries, so we all had to leave. There were only about a half-dozen customers at the time, so the management can’t claim that we were hogging seats from hypothetical meal-eating customers (of which there were none). If the new policy had been posted up front when I placed my order, I did not see it.

I used to like to go to M. Rohrs occasionally, sometimes for a sandwich or sometimes just coffee. I would usually sit and work or just read for about an hour or two, which I don’t think is unreasonable at any coffee shop, Starbucks not excluded. All the other negative comments on Yelp are true; the service is often rude and neglectful (I once had them completely forget to make my sandwich – but at least they apologized), and they charge for wireless access and for electricity. Worse is their attitude; it would be one thing to simply charge people to plug in their laptops, but the signs plastered about the place couch it in terms of “theft of utilities,” essentially accusing customers of criminal behavior. After the closing of the vastly superior coffee shop DTUT a few years ago, M. Rohrs is pretty much the only place of its type in the neighborhood, so I used to patronize it anyway. No more.

The word “loitering,” as any literate person should know, has criminal connotations, and I suspect the management of M. Rohrs knows this. I deeply, deeply resent being called a “loiterer” despite having paid (and tipped!) for coffee and a pastry. Upon leaving for the last time, I only regretted not demanding my tip back.

Perhaps they intend to transition away from being a coffee house into a restaurant with a take-out coffee bar. If so, they will have to hire more staff, improve the speed and accuracy of their service, toss out the couches, and stop accusing their paying customers of criminal behavior. Good luck with that. If anyone associated with the establishment happens to read this, I invite you to please comment below. I would love to hear your justifications. I signed up for Yelp for the sole purpose of posting a copy of this review, and I sincerely hope lots of potential customers read it.

So that you know where not to go get your coffee, M. Rohrs’ House of Fine Teas & Coffees is located in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, at 310 East 86th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues.

Battlestar Galactica: The Plan

Battlestar Galactica The Plan poster

 

Put simply, Battlestar Galactica: The Plan is a clip show done right, in disguise as an original movie for television. Whatever else its intended purpose, it must also do double-duty as a kind of coda, appendix, or postscript to the celebrated television series (2004-2009). But is it one final cash-in, before the sets are struck and the cast scatters to the winds, or a noble attempt to address neglected aspects of the complex mythos that many fans felt weren’t justly served by the controversial final episode? Which, for the record, I loved for its audacity, while still sympathizing with the contingent of fans that felt it strained plausibility and raised more questions than it answered.

The Plan incorporates footage from across all four seasons, seamlessly melded with new material written by Jane Espenson, who wrote for the show during its fourth season, and directed by Edward James Olmos, who starred in the series as Commander Bill Adama and helmed several individual episodes. The DVD bonus features, while typically hagiographic, rightly point out that Olmos obviously had an intimate knowledge of the full story arc as well as a strong relationship with the entire cast, so he was probably the best choice to helm The Plan. Curiously, Executive Producer Ronald D. Moore is missing-in-action from the credits and DVD bonus features.

Dean Stockwell in Battlestar Galactica: The PlanBrother Cavil (in hat) and Brother Cavil (not in hat) face their ends

In a narrative conceit shared with the previous Battlestar Galactica special movie Razor (2007), key portions of the show’s continuity are retold from a different perspective, in this case that of the Cylons, a fractious race of synthetic lifeforms with a (shall we say) complicated relationship with their human creators. All but one of the actors portraying the twelve Cylon models appear in new sequences here (Lucy Lawless being the sole holdout), joining some of the original human characters (missing James Callis, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff, Tahmoh Penikett, and Jamie Bamber). Oddly, President Roslin (McDonnell) is the only major character to not even appear in archival clips, being very conspicuous in her absence. Perhaps the actress objected to the script, or demanded too much money?

I personally don’t believe the series proper necessarily needed to tell more of the story than the writers chose to before its final episode (which is off-limits anyway, taking place chronologically after the events seen in The Plan). But if the goal of The Plan was to fill in some of the perceived gaps, it’s ultimately unsatisfying for not addressing some of the truly puzzling mysteries, particularly the still-unseen thirteenth Cylon called Daniel and the true nature of Starbuck’s (Sackhoff) death, resurrection, and subsequent visions. What new plot information and character insights we do get are nice, but inessential. We see more of the Cylon surprise attack, with the human colonies destroyed one by one, but how does this expand the story beyond indulging in some CGI apocalypse porn? But to The Plan’s credit, some of the most tantalizing mysteries are probably best left up to our imaginations. Not without reason, fans spent the final season wondering how Starbuck could be anything but a Cylon, only to find she was something else entirely. I would argue the writers chose to not drag the mystery down into mundanity, like the fatal mistake George Lucas made by providing a pseudo-scientific definition of The Force in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Grace Park in Battlestar Galactica: The PlanBoomer, true to her name, is a ticking time bomb

So what is the eponymous Plan? As we saw in the first moments of the original series, the religiously-motivated Cylon race attempts to totally annihilate humanity in one fell swoop. A small fleet of human stragglers escapes, with a small number of Cylons unwillingly trapped among them (surely a frustrating situation for creatures who expected to perish in the cataclysm and be reborn in a heaven free of humans). The major revelation of The Plan is that much of the violent conflict we saw in the original series was actually a desperately improvised plan by this ragtag cell of partly-unwilling soldiers. Meet the new plan, same as the old plan: genocide. So we now understand these few Cylons to be a struggling terrorist cell.

The central characters that drive the action are a pair of Ones/Cavils (Dean Stockwell), whose pending execution provides a framing device to the entire movie. Also significantly expanded are Anders (Michael Trucco) and two very different versions of Four/Simon (Rick Worthy). We learn a little more about the hapless Five/Aaron (Matthew Bennett), the explanation for his relative insignificance in the show being that he is simply a little dim, often serving as an inept pawn of Cavil. We learn how the Eight that lived as Boomer actually functioned (she was a sleeper agent who genuinely believed she was human, but was brought in and out of this illusion by Cavil – with her human side eventually winning over). We meet an additional Six (Tricia Helfer) who worked undercover as a prostitute, contributing little to the story beyond more T&A. Speaking of, The Plan features a great deal of gratuitous full-frontal male and female nudity, not motivated by plot or character, and seemingly only there for titillation and a faux sense of realism.

Tricia Helfer in Battlestar Galactica: The PlanEven the most diehard Battlestar Galactica fan may have trouble remembering which Six this is

Most of left-behind Cylons become contaminated, or at least influenced, by proximity with humans. Another Cavil is trapped on the post-apocalyptic Caprica with Anders, simultaneously revering him as a father of the Cylon race while challenging his empathetic leadership skills. How they all survive radiation poisoning isn’t explained. The Caprica-bound Cavil’s mind rapidly evolves to the point where he becomes worlds apart from his bitter, cruel twin in the fleet, who remains the sole Cylon purely dedicated to the original plan.

Was the project misconceived? It is certainly in keeping with the classically bleak Battlestar Galactica style and tone; a new character is a helpless little orphan kid, very out of keeping for a show that continually rejects cute & cuddly stereotypes, and I should have known that his fate would not be a good one. By design, The Plan is resolutely intended for diehard Battlestar Galactica fans with encyclopedic knowledge of the show’s mythos. I consider myself a big fan, and have seen every episode, but there was much I hadn’t memorized, and about which I remain confused. For instance, I can’t recall if it was ever explained exactly why the so-called Final Five Cylons were implanted among human society to live as humans for several decades, and why only one incarnation of Cavil knew of their existence. It seems a mistake to produce a big-budget TV movie for a very narrow audience of superfans that can remember all this stuff, months after their favorite show stops airing. The Plan certainly won’t attract virgin viewers, as anyone interested in the series would certainly start with a DVD of the original 2004 miniseries. I don’t even want to think about how The Plan must have seemed to any unfortunate viewers who had never seen Battlestar Galactica at all, let alone internalized its mythos.

It’s hard to see how The Plan can be anything other than the true end of the series. Getting this much of the cast back together for one TV movie must have been a real feat, so doing it again in the future seems unlikely. The prequel series Caprica (read The Dork Report review of the pilot episode) is set far enough in Battlestar Galactica’s past that much of the cast cannot logically guest star (although, upon reflection, it might be possible to see some of the Final Five, who might be living among humans at this point). So The Plan is most likely the end.


Official movie site: www.syfy.com/battlestar

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