Saturday, November 3, 2012

I'm Gonna Wreck This Review

We T-Rexes are familiar with this problem.

Wreck-It Ralph is not really a video game movie, or even a movie about video games.  It is instead a movie about finding your place in life, and how the simple connections we build with others can really make the difference between feeling like you're a meaningless cog in a wheel and feeling like the hero of your own story.

So what is the story with Ralph? Well, Wreck-It Ralph is the bad guy in an 80's style arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr. His job is to smash up an apartment building, which the titular hero Felix uses his magic hammer to repair until Ralph is defeated and summarily tossed off the building by its tenants. It's basically Donkey Kong meets Rampage. Since he's the villain, Ralph is completely ostracized by the denizens of his game, and after 30 years, he's tired of being the bad guy.

The last straw for Ralph is finding out he wasn't even invited to the 30th anniversary party for the game, and he sets out to earn himself a Hero Medal so that for once, he can be the guy everyone likes.  Fortunately, all the games in the arcade are connected via the power strip such that when the arcade closes at night, all the characters can go hang out in each other's games, giving Ralph the option to sneak into another game and try being the hero.

Now this part of the movie is basically a love letter to gaming.  The Game Central Station, as it were, is just chock full of famous characters and references.  (I'll save my noted ones for the end to prevent spoilers.) As a gamer I was absolutely giddy between this and the BadAnon Meeting hosted in Pac-Man's game, which is sort of an anger management/self-help group for some of gaming's most famous villains that Ralph attends as he tries to sort out his feelings of inadequacy and loneliness.

Unfortunately, Wreck-It Ralph kind of leaves that behind about 1/3 of the way in to focus on the actual story, which takes place almost exclusively in the game Sugar Rush, and when it begins to dawn on you that they're not going back to the other games or that transit hub, it can be a letdown if that's what you're there to see.  It kind of dampened my enthusiasm for the rest of the movie, truth be told, and it's one of the reasons I've still got mixed feelings about it.

Really though, that's probably an unfair criticism, because like the best of the Pixar films, Wreck-It Ralph is about the story and the characters first, and the video game call-outs second.  Thus, instead of a movie about Ralph helping Sonic the Hedgehog rescue Mario from a cadre of gaming villains, it's about Ralph's chance meeting with another ostracized character, that of Sugar Rush's Vanellope von Schweetz.  She's a glitch in her game, and is thus detested by the other characters because her very presence could get their game unplugged.  An unplugged game's characters end up stuck as homeless charity cases in the Game Central Station, and since a glitch cannot leave its game, neither does the movie.

Meanwhile, Felix is searching for Ralph because without him, Felix It Felix Jr. won't operate and will definitely get unplugged, and to top it off, Ralph's intrusion into the first person shooter Hero's Duty has released one of its bad guys into Sugar Rush, something which Hero's Duty femme fatale Sergeant Calhoun sets out to rectify.  They serve as a little extra comic relief B-plot.

The rest of it is fairly predictable, of course, because it's not that this story has never been told, it's just that this is a unique little spin on it. Ralph and Vanellope make an interesting pair, and seeing them come together is actually quite satisfying, no doubt because it's easy to identify with one or both of them.  After all, most of us have worked at least one job where we felt our contribution was totally overlooked or have been disparaged by some clique just for being a little different.

The interesting thing about setting this in a gamer's world is that video games have often been the remedy to those feelings of inadequacy and loneliness, particularly now that so many are online multi-player games that give us the ability to connect with someone half-way across the world in a totally different environment from our own.  Even if you don't meet a friend online, for a few hours you still get to be the hero in a grand adventure instead of that guy doing the same job that nobody seems to like or care about.  I have often argued against those who claim violent video games cause school shootings and other such violent incidents that in actuality, they've probably prevented scores of such killings as well as suicides for these very reasons.

Giving that world its authenticity was no simple task, but they pulled it off in spades.  The animation team does a fabulous job, adding lots of little touches that really emphasize the difference between the games, to say nothing of the background gags.  My favorite thing is that all the characters (save Ralph) in Fix-It Felix Jr. move in the abrupt, two frame way you'd expect from an 8-bit character, even though at that point they are all fully rendered 3D sprites.  Felix is a little bit more fluid, but even when he's outside his game, he still retains a some of that tick.

It's rare that voice acting in a Disney movie is terrible, and this is not one of those rare times. I was surprised I didn't find Vanellope nearly as irritating as one might think from the promos, so kudos to Sarah Silverman for walking the line. John C. Reilly handles Ralph, and he's just spot on.  Jane Lynch and Jack McBrayer round out the heroes in the cast, and you'll find Alan Tudyk doing his best "Mad Hatter" impression for King Candy.

I don't have much to say about Henry Jackman's score because it did not particularly stand out to me. The music does fit right in with each game world such that it's not hard to imagine that what you're hearing is actually the game's soundtrack, but it's a little unfortunate it's not more memorable considering video games have provided us with some of the most memorable pieces of music ever. (And no, I don't count the insidious Jpop theme of Sugar Rush as a stand out for burrowing its way into my brain. S-U-G-A-R Jump into your racing car, it's Sugar Rush! Argh!)

In the end, Wreck-It Ralph may not have had as much video game stuff as I would've liked, but frankly, I got a little choked up a couple of times and that's really out of the ordinary for a cynical cold-hearted T-Rex like me. Wreck-It Ralph is just through and through a good movie that doesn't beat you over the head with its themes but isn't light on them either. I have a feeling that as I watch it again and again on DVD/Blu-ray to try and catch all the video game call-outs, I'll actually find myself noticing even more things to like about the story, the world, and the characters. I highly recommend checking this one out in theaters, especially if you're looking for a family-friendly flick.

So without further ado, I'll talk a little bit about the references I saw in the movie and if you're not interested in spoiling it for yourself, look no further. Or if you're on the main page, do not click the link to the full post. 

...

SPOILERS:
Naturally as a Sonic the Hedgehog fan, his were my favorite. Fortunately he is not just in that little billboard thing you see in the previews, which is him giving a PSA about dying outside your game.  He is also present briefly in the background of the 30th anniversary party, and his most amusing entry is getting clipped by Ralph's escape pod as it flies into Sugar Rush, which causes him to drop a bunch of rings.  The credits also feature Vanellope and Ralph game jumping into Chemical Plant Zone in Sonic 2.

I can confirm Mario is not in the movie. It was not a smoke screen for a surprise cameo, and he is only briefly mentioned in a jab at being late to the anniversary party. Way to suck Nintendo.

There is only one full Bad Anon meeting, and it contains all the people from the preview, so no surprises there.  The Bad Anon meeting had one of my best laugh out loud moments when Kano rips out the zombie's heart. Neither Bowser nor Robotnik get any lines, sadly.

Q-bert is featured in the previews and they show just about everything he does.

Pacman's game is, as I mentioned, where the BadAnon meeting is, and Pacman himself shows up at the party.  The other three ghosts are shown in Game Central Station.

As we enter that hub the first time, you can see Chun Li and Cammy from Street Fighter walking around among scores of others, but my favorite was one of the guys from Joust flying overhead.

In Tapper's bar, itself a game reference, you can see Ryu drinking (he and Ken talk about heading there at closing time) and one of the guys from Burger Time in the background.

You can also see some graffiti featuring Leroy Jenkins and Shen Long in the hub entrances.

The ultimate video game meme shows up in Sugar Rush when King Candy opens a secret door using the Konami code.

There's probably a ton of other stuff I have forgotten, mostly stuff like the actual arcade games like DDR, so go see the movie and add yours!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

You Didn't Build It So They Won't Come

If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
--President Barack Obama

He didn't build that, apparently.

Just a little over seven years ago a small local company came to me and asked me to write them a program. I knew the owners and so they knew that part of my college education had included software development, and since I was in my last year of college with no practical experience and they didn't have a lot of money to spend, it was a good arrangement. We discussed their requirements and then I spent several days banging out my first real software gig. I got paid, they got the software, and everyone was happy.

When I finished my degree, I came out into a job market that wasn't terribly interested in my skill set anymore, at least not unless I chose to move to California, which was not something I was prepared to do. While I was figuring out what I was going to do with my life, the company came back to me to update the software I had written. It was a massive upgrade and took me a number of months compared to the first few days.  I had to spend innumerable hours researching how to do things they didn't teach me in college on the Internet.  I even had to outsource some things to people when I knew it was totally beyond my abilities in the time frame.

The new piece of software ended up a big hit with the company, and more importantly, their customers and their competitors. They began to get requests as to where it could be obtained so the original company suggested I take the software to an industry trade show in Las Vegas to sell. They would even give me a loan to go because they were grateful for the work I’d done and thought I would succeed.

I took the offer. I flew to Las Vegas for the first time in my life with some of my family to help me out in the booth (and so they could have a vacation), and I stood for three days at a convention booth demonstrating my software to people I had never met.

Next thing I knew, I was cashing in some of my bonds to start a small business to do this for a living.

So it's true, the planes I flew on, the roads I drove on, the hotels I stayed in, the debt I incurred from people who wanted to help me out to get me started, the Internet I used to find software examples and coders for hire, and the college I began my education at are all things that contributed to the existence of my business.

But they didn't build my business. My education doesn't spend hours staring at a computer screen, desperately trying to locate a bug that is ruining a customer's day. The Internet doesn't have to make the tough decisions on what tasks get what priority and what features are the best to add. The planes and roads and hotels don't have to figure out what to say or what to showcase to make my product appealing. The investment I got doesn't pick my flights or choose which convention to attend. The bonds don't decide who I should hire or where I should put my office. The government's credit rating isn't affected if the whole thing goes south and I can't pay my bills.

Instead, these things are merely the tools I used to build my business. And I paid for those tools. Every month a bill comes for my education, another for my Internet connection, another for the credit cards that take care of the advertising and the gas and the hotel rooms. Every year the IRS and the State and the Town come to me and say “pay up” so that I can use the roads and the firefighters and the police. In fact, in almost every transaction I make they’re asking me to pay up because it’s tangentially related to a service they ostensibly offer me.

The government didn’t just get together and create the Internet in anticipation I would need it. They didn’t benevolently declare “Cranky T. Rex will need this for his business, let us create it and bestow it upon him.” And the government didn’t magic it into existence with “government research.” Private businesses just like mine were paid by tax dollars from other hardworking people just like me to create the technologies necessary, and then other private businesses built upon those technologies to create what we have today.

I, through my effort, through my sacrifice of my time and money, through my stubborn refusal to take the easy path no matter how difficult things get, built my business. I am the one that works the extra hours when something isn't finished. I am the one who has his financial future on the line. I am the one who makes the difficult decisions as to what work gets focused on and which bill I can afford to pay or who I have to fire because Obamacare drove up the health insurance costs. I am the one who endures the ever present stress of having that business on my mind wherever I go and no matter what I am doing.

Because that is how you make a business happen, and the government doesn’t do any of that for me. I made my business happen with my hard earned money, with my time, with my drive, with my ambition, with my talents, with my sweat, blood, and tears.

So yeah, maybe my business might not exist without the tools I had and the country I grew up in or the government that runs it, but there is only one thing that it definitely would not exist without: me.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

No, Virginia, It Wasn't The Commerce Clause

So in a move that surprised almost everyone, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld Obamacare, not because of the swing Justice Kennedy voting to uphold the power of the Commerce Clause, but because Chief Justice Roberts decided Congress actually meant the individual mandate was a tax, and that the Congress has the power to levy such a tax, that is to say a tax on inactivity.

Were that not mind boggling enough, in a stunning display of Fridge Logic, conservatives took to their various media outlets to theorize that this incredible defeat was actually a secret win, created by the genius of a Chief Justice looking beyond the immediacy of the current political climate.

What is this theory?  Well, to put it simply, they believe Chief Justice Roberts has managed to simultaneously gut the Commerce Clause powers, hand Mitt Romney an election booster shot, and insulate his Court against the backlash that its decisions are merely partisan in nature.  The Chief Justice, looking ahead to the future, thus escapes the partisan fight over Obamacare and forces that back upon the people, who are expected to turn out in droves to get rid of it come November.  Meanwhile, he gets to take an axe to the idea that the Commerce Clause allows Congress to do whatever it wants.

Seems like a reasonable, well thought out analysis.  It certainly would provide considerable comfort to those shell shocked by the decision.  Unfortunately, it's entirely bunk.  It is a delusional fantasy written by people desperately seeking to explain and deny the horror they have just witnessed, in the same way that conspiracies form to rationalize the magnitude of events such as 9/11 and Presidential assassinations.

Had Chief Justice Roberts ruled with the dissenting Justices, the Commerce Clause would've gone down anyway, so that point is entirely moot.  The only way in which his opinion (which may or may not even be considered in the future) suceeds in that vein is if upholding the Commerce Clause had won the day and the Chief Justice sought to mitigate the damage.  But that was not the case.

More importantly, even if he had a victory on the Commerce Clause, the Chief Justice wiped it out by handing the Congress an entirely new set of powers.  As of his ruling, the Congress can now tax inactivity and not even call it a tax, thereby eliminating the stigma of having to pass a giant new tax in order to use the power, which is precisely what happened with Obamacare in the first place.  The Democrats insisted over and over again this was not a tax. They specifically crafted it to work like a mandate and a penalty, not a tax, to avoid that very stigma as well as the appearance that they were instituting "government run" health care. 

Further, this actually gives Congress a whole new way to tax actual activity, as they can simply tax the thing you didn't choose to do.  Say Congress jumps on board with Bloomberg's war on soda. Why bother risking the ire of the public by passing a bill that taxes soda when you can quietly pass one that penalizes not drinking water? Now they'll ask you, "Did you choose the 16 oz soda or the 16 oz water?  You chose soda? Well, I'm sorry, but if you don't choose the 16 oz water you have to pay the penal-...tax."

Thus we are left with the short term political gain for Mitt Romney/The GOP, and the Court's current reputation, neither of which involve long-term thinking or three dimensional chess.  Whether or not Mitt Romney is elected and Obamacare is repealed, the Congress will still have the new tax power, and like all other Congresses before it, it will be tempted to use it.  It's only a matter of time (maybe even under Romney himself) before they do.

Further, the Court's reputation not only does not matter in the scheme of things, but if the Chief Justice thinks that ruling in a way that pleases liberals will insulate his Court against cries of partisanship in the future, he's dreaming.  Just look at the words like "betrayer" and "coward" being tossed at him by conservatives who, up until this ruling, were in his...court (sorry, pun intended.)  Does he think the next time he rules in favor of limiting Congressional power and against liberals they're going to just say "well that's ok, he's not a partisan"?

And who cares if the Court is perceived as "partisan" or involving itself in a "partisan" fight?  It will always be perceived that way, and it's not its job to care what stupid political games are being played.  Its job is to answer the fundamental questions put before it.  Is this legislation Constitutional?  Is the power it asserts within the scope of the body asserting it?

In this case, the fundamental question before the Court was "Can the Federal Government force me, as a private citizen, on pain of a financial penalty, to enter into a contract with a private company, to pay for a service I may not want or need, because of my continued existence as a citizen of the United States?"  The Chief Justice's ruling is "Yes, they can."  And he has to go the full Whoopi Goldberg to justify it, since he had to decide the mandate is a tax, but not a tax-tax.  If it were a tax-tax, he'd have had to punt the decision under the Anti-Injunction Act that requires someone actually be taxed before they complain.

There is no silver lining to that. That is phenomenal cosmic power in our itty bitty living space. Does it require the kind of "Liberty died! The Republic is over!" hyperbole going around? No, but the only way you can begin to call it a conservative victory is if you are only concerned about the next election, and are drinking the Kool-Aid that flipping the lever of power from D to R will fundamentally re-transform the Republic into something more like a Republic and less like a "Congress does whatever the hell it wants"-ic.

Meanwhile, unlike the conservatives who desperately wrap themselves in "Fire don't melt steel!" level delusions to protect their fragile psyches, liberals are thrilled because their side "won."  Except what they won was Congress having the authority to do something they'll really hate, like say, tax anyone who does not own a cell phone and subscribe to a GPS tracking service for said phone that reports their position and all their personal information to the authorities 24 hours a day.   Or perhaps as Ed Morrisey suggest at HotAir, taxing anyone who doesn't own a gun.  After all, it would be in the interests of national security to do so.

I'm sure there are tons of lawyers and legal scholars out there who will spend the ensuing weeks defending the decision against people like myself, claiming we just don't understand the intracasies of the bill's specific language, but frankly it doesn't take a Constitutional law professor to understand that once you start using linguistic pretzels to justify a massive increase in the power of Congress, your decision is almost certainly a bad one.

Whether due to cowardice in the face of accuastions of partisanship or a genuine belief that he should not overturn Congress at all costs, John Roberts just gave us a giant shove towards the Event Horizon and flipped us all the bird while doing it.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Assemble! The Avengers Review

The Avengers is quite frankly the most fun I have had in a theater in quite some time.  Not since Scott Pilgrim vs. The World can I recall myself grinning throughout an entire movie or legitimately bursting out in outright laughter.  Sure I've had some chuckles and some smirks, some "heh"s where one could tell laughter was more or less required, even the occasional "ohh that's awesome", but nothing approaching the genuine inner-child feelings invoked by The Avengers.

It is the epitome of the good summer blockbuster.  Unlike the heady Dark Knight franchise, The Avengers doesn't cover itself in layers of grit and darkness in an attempt to take place in the real world.  It starts in the realm of fantasy and stays there, allowing for a much more natural suspension of disbelief and lighter tone in general.  On the flip side, it doesn't suffer from the frenetic editing or rampant stupid contrivances that infects fluff like Star Trek (2009) and the Transformers movies, which don't pretend to be reality but also can't remember where they are long enough to follow the rules of their own fantasy world.

This is not to say it is a perfect movie, but it is a great one.  It is the kind of movie that absolutely understands its audience and its source material, and respects both.  In the same way that the original Superman movie took a comic book character to a new medium, The Avengers brings its characters to life and lets them play.

Now beyond here may lie spoilers since I'm going to get more specific so stop now if you don't want to know...

The main flaw of The Avengers, if one can really be assessed, is that, unlike director Joss Whedon's other film Serenity, it does not spike the ball on the themes it introduces.  Some might claim instead that it is the mere simplicity of the plot, but I'd argue that all "hero" stories have a simple plot out of necessity.  Some jerk wants to take over and somebody else has to stop said jerk.  To try and make it a convoluted escapade would both have created an incomprehensible film and forced Whedon to chop out all of the amazing character work that happens.

So what The Avengers is missing instead is that transcendent "I aim to misbehave" moment, where the thematic and character elements come together.

It's why I still think Spider-Man 2 is the best comic book adaptation of all time, because although The Avengers is bigger, better, and more complex, Spider-Man 2 has that moment.  In that movie, our main character Peter Parker spends his time trying to figure out why he puts up with all this, why he should continue being a hero, and Aunt May poignantly reminds Peter that his heroism inspires others to be heroic, if only to just hang on for a little while longer in the face of their own troubles.  It's at that point we really get the theme brought home.

With The Avengers each character gets a chance to take their shot (in some cases quite literally) at the overarching idea of freedom vs. subjugation and selfishness vs. duty that plays out, but you never really have a moment that gives it that closure that elevates it above everything else in the genre.  Nor do you truly get a sense that everybody has realized they do, in fact, need each other.  While the circle scene from the previews is awesome to watch, it still only seems like they said "well we all happen to be in the same place, let's coordinate some."

Despite that, The Avengers does something truly remarkable in managing to perfectly balance the various characters and their mini-subplots without shortchanging anyone or getting bogged down.  Most movies, particularly in this genre, just totally fail in this area.  The X-Men movies became the Wolverine show for one end of the spectrum, and Spider-Man 3 turned into a complete mess at the other.

In The Avengers, every character gets his or her due, both in terms of their character moments and in the action sequences.  The action sequences really shine as well because Joss Whedon apparently remembers the days before the hyper cutting shakey first person shooter cam that I've come to hate (and took to task in Act of Valor) became standard practice.  Instead, on the rare occasion we get that kind of camera work, it is used the way it should be used: putting the viewer down at the street level at the mercy of what is happening as though they were a civilian in the war zone.  Then just as quickly we come back to nice long steady shots of our characters doing stuff, cleverly and beautifully handing off the scenes between them.  There are several great sequences where we follow one hero to the next hero such as Hawkeye firing an arrow that explodes an alien craft which Iron Man flies by and we then follow him to Captain America in the street, etc.

This excellent camera work and editing really makes it feel like they are all in one place working together rather than actors never in front of the same green screen.  Moreover, each character is really kept unique, both in terms of how they fight and how they act.  They do not feel like carbon copies of each other nor do they feel like they could simply be replaced by any superhero.

And since The Avengers keeps itself firmly in the realm of fantasy from the very beginning, I didn't find myself crying "Bullshit!" whenever Hawkeye loosed an arrow at an alien fighter craft and blew it to pieces, even the time he did it without looking.  That's surprising because I never expected Hawkeye to work alongside this bunch.  A guy with arrows? Next to Iron Man?  But as I said earlier, the movie knows what it is and it doesn't play silly games with "realism", so that doesn't create the kind of cognitive dissonance that Two-Face speaking perfectly clearly despite missing half his face does in The Dark Knight, for example.

Instead, the heroes are cleverly set up to act as a range of strength, with Hawkeye and Black Widow on one end and the Hulk on the other, and the two ends are kept away from comparisons with each other.  They're also kept at relative strength to the enemy.  Captain America isn't seen trying to single-handedly take down one of the giant flying machines attacking, but he is on the ground beating the average alien infantry down.  Meanwhile Hulk and Thor handle the heavy lifting of destroying the big stuff.  So in that way, each character has their own little consistent fantasy rule set and is designed to work harmoniously with the rest.

Speaking of harmonies, Alan Silvestri's score is just as solid as the characters.  Silvestri knows when to be quiet and let the moment sink in, and when to swell up along with the grins in the audience.  He's constructed a great theme for the team that hearkens to some of the previous movies, particularly Iron Man and Captain America (the latter of which he also scored), even if it isn't something as completely memorable as say Superman's.

None of this could work without actors who nail their characters, of course, and in this case, pretty much everyone be they super hero or supporting cast member is pitch perfect, including Mark Ruffalo who delivers a Bruce Banner that works so much better than in either of the solo Hulk installments. 

I also have to give Tom Hiddleston a major thumbs up for making Loki so dynamic despite being such a simple villain in a simple plot.  His ability to shift almost instantly from jocular prankster to menacing psychopath is fantastic, and the facial expression he adopts after his encounter with the Hulk is priceless.  In his final scenes, he's able to project this aura that maybe the entire plot was just one giant prank by the God of Mischief, and not the temper tantrum the heroes suspect or an attempt at creating a benevolent dictatorship he espouses.

Ultimately, The Avengers is just a good time, and I wanted to turn around and get right back in line for another ride.  I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good action flick, likes a good hero story, or just plain goes to the movies to escape from reality for a while.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Life of Julianne


The President's campaign has created The Life of Julia to tell the tale of a woman's life as it is affected by his policies.  Here is the story of Julianne, the conservative alternative to Julia.

The Life of Julianne

3 Years Old
Julianne's parents read to her every night.  They take time to play games with her that teach her how to count and how to solve problems. When they enroll her in kindergarten she's ready to learn and succeed.

17 Years Old
Julianne excels in school thanks to her parents' active involvement in her life. Her mother is a stay at home mom that carefully monitors Julianne's homework and grades throughout her scholastic tenure. Her father takes practice SAT tests with her and encourages her to work hard.

18 Years Old
Julianne's parents have put part of their yearly salary towards a college fund for her ever since she was born. They also encouraged her to get a part-time job in high school and required her to contribute part of her paycheck to the fund. As a result, Julianne can afford the college of her choice.

22 Years Old
During college, Julianne requires emergency surgery.  She is covered by her insurance, which she can afford because it is a low-premium package designed specifically for this kind of unexpected expense.  She pays for it with the part-time job she got the first week she arrived on campus.

23 Years Old
Julianne's parents instilled in her a strong work ethic, so Julianne graduates college at the top of her class. Now that she has graduated, the web development firm she has worked at part-time throughout college hires her on as a full-time employee, paying her a higher wage thanks to her degree and tenure.

25 Years Old
After graduation, Julianne only has one loan. It paid for the car she drives to work.  She pays a little extra on it every month so that it will be paid off faster.

27 Years Old
For the past four years, Julianne has worked at the web development firm.  She has been promoted thanks to her tenure and excellent work ethic, which earns her full health and dental benefits.  She takes care of herself, so that she does not need preventative care, and she can easily afford her birth control pills.

31 Years Old
Juilianne meets a nice young man at work. They fall in love and he proposes to her.  After they are married, they decide together to have a child.  Their combined salaries and health plans easily cover her care throughout her pregnancy.  They also begin saving for the expenses to come.

37 Years Old
Julianne and her husband had a child named Zack.  They learned from their parents' example and are very involved with Zack's life.  They have purchased a home in a very safe neighborhood with excellent public and private schools, which they researched prior to moving in.

42 Years Old
Now that her son is going to school full time, Julianne decides to start her own web design business.  She easily qualifies for a low-interest small business loan from her local bank, and is able to contribute half the start-up money from her savings.  She is able to hire employees and grow the local economy.

65 Years Old
Julianne's web business is very successful thanks to all the qualities that made her a great student and mother.  She is able to pay for her health care with the profit she makes from her business.

67 Years Old
Julianne finally retires, selling her web design business to her protege.  Her and her husband's combined savings allow them to enjoy a comfortable retirement.  Her work with the PTA made her very popular, so she is elected to the Town Council and works to improve her community. 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Reviewing Act of Valor

On Friday I went to the movie theater for the first time in several months to take in Act of Valor, a movie about and starring active duty Navy SEALs. I wasn't really planning on reviewing it formally like this, but I find the reactions I have seen to the movie quite interesting and wanted to weigh in from a different perspective. This review may or may not contain spoilers so consider that the requisite warning.

See, on the Left, people hate the movie for not having whining crybaby SEALs who aren't sure of their orders because they're coming from corrupt commanders who are using the SEALs to do all manner of horrible things in the name of making money and increasing their personal power. They want their morally ambiguous, maybe-the-bad-guy-isn't-really-bad-and-we're-not-really-good, convoluted plot with conflicted characters and all of that nonsense. They're also incredibly offended by the "jingoism" and overly pro-military nature of this kind of movie, referring to it as basically a two hour advertisement for the SEALs.

On the Right, people call the movie tremendous and powerful, a great film you should all run out to see because it's about Navy SEALs who do their jobs well, who protect Americans from threats about which they will never know, and who will lay down their lives for their brothers in arms and all of us back at home without hesitation or doubt. You should see the movie to support the troops and more importantly, send Hollywood a message that we like these kinds of films.

Well, they're both wrong. Act of Valor is not a good movie, not because of its tone or how it portrays the SEALs, but because the basic mechanics of filmmaking such as directing and editing are not good at all.

Now let me preface the rest of my review by noting that I love action movies. My all time favorite movie is Armageddon, which is a much loathed film by Michael Bay wherein Bruce Willis saves the world from an asteroid. That movie changes shots on average every 1.5 seconds. So clearly I am no stranger to things like hyper fast editing and shakey cam. It does not bother me physically, and even though I have become jaded to the use of shakey cam, I am usually ok with it.

This movie, however, gave me a headache inside of five minutes, so if you get motion sickness or any adverse affects from the above kind of camera work, I suggest you not see this in a theater. I attribute my headache primarily to the camera tending to change focus often and randomly, sometimes being just enough out of focus to be noticeable, which is likely due to the director's preference for handheld and helmet cameras combined with extreme closeups and tight shots. Often a character's chin would be cut off while leaving several inches of space above his head, and similar odd camera work, even for the steady-cams. By the middle of the movie, I just wanted the camera to zoom out a few inches so the thing on the screen was at least in frame.

Beyond that, the editing and the pacing is incredibly abrupt and awkward. For example, at the beginning of the movie a subtitle tells us the scene is a HALO training jump in California. The SEALs all dive out of the plane and fall through the air in formation for a minute or so, and then before they so much as pull their chutes, the movie abruptly and inexplicably cuts to a terrorist driving an ice cream truck on the other side of the world. The jump has no ties to the rest of the movie, nor does it indicate whether or not the characters in the movie were participating in it. There's even a much better nighttime HALO jump later on that they do follow through with, so this standard "guys jump out of airplane" scene that we have seen a hundred times before is even less necessary.

This happens quite frequently throughout the movie, with the perspective suddenly switching from one set of characters to another or from one place to another with little rhyme or reason. This makes a fairly straightforward plot seem jumbled and messy, which is then exacerbated by the fact that the SEALs talk like well, SEALs, and they use lots of terms that are abbreviations and otherwise meaningless to a lay person. So it can take a minute to reason out what they meant, but the movie will cut somewhere else rather than give the audience the time to do so.

As for that plot, it is quite simple and direct. One of the SEALs is having a baby, but they're called on mission to find a CIA agent who was captured by a smuggler and is being tortured for information. During their rescue of the agent, the SEALs discover the smuggler is working with the aforementioned terrorist to get suicide bombers into the US, and they need to be stopped.

One might think with such a nice easy Point A to Point B plot, we'd have time to get to know the characters involved, but unfortunately not so much. Of the SEALs who are actually participating outside the action scenes, only two of them really have any screen time to speak of, and most of our time spent with them is rehashing their very first scene where one ribs the other about having a baby.

The rest of the group gets a very brief narration at the beginning of the film as to who they are, but otherwise have almost no dialog to speak of with the exception of the interrogator who gets some time near the end in arguably the best scene in the film.

Despite the emphasis on the SEALs being the stars, the supporting cast does feature quite a few recognizable faces from TV and other bit parts. Their characters are almost entirely glossed over though, including the CIA agent that ends up tortured. We spend a few minutes with her learning she is good at Scrabble and likes children, but that's it. Once she's rescued, she disappears from the film entirely.

The only characters the film does seem to develop are the main villains, creating a couple of guys who are not merely caricatures of evil as liberal critics would have you believe. The smuggler clearly loves his family and is not totally on board with the terrorist. The terrorist similarly feels the weight of sacrificing his lieutenants.

Naturally, the 300 lb. gorilla in the room is the acting. Suffice it to say, you can tell who does what for a living. Although I will add the SEALs do much better when they're one on one with one of the pros or when doing the action stuff.

The action, by the way, is standard action movie fare. Nothing terribly special, and the camera doesn't really hold still long enough to get the full effect of the live ammo that was used. The First Person Shooter cam shows up too, which thoroughly ruins any feeling of authenticity that was built up by making it look like somebody stopped the movie and hooked up an X-Box.

Once the video game cutscene is over, Act of Valor closes on a strong and touching note, but not because it's the natural end result of the film building up to it. In fact that part could be cut out and run standalone as a commercial, and it would likely still pluck at the heart strings of anyone who saw it so long as they were informed these guys were real Navy SEALs and not actors.

That, I feel, is the crux of the difference between myself and those who liked this movie. The presence of the SEALs as actual participants creates an artificial connection to the film that helps people to overlook things that normally would be lambasted. Anyone who has a healthy respect and admiration for our military and the SEALs in particular will want to bend over backwards to ignore the things that Michael Bay certainly doesn't get a pass on.

Even in this review, which most would note as highly critical, I can't bring myself to use words like "terrible" to describe the movie, or to speak frankly about the quality of the acting in some scenes, because they're real people portraying things that they likely experienced first-hand. Were the SEALs' parts played by normal actors, I imagine the descriptions of it being "tremendous" and "great" would come back down to "not bad" and "watchable", and certainly would have me pulling no punches.

Ultimately, the only reason I could give to people to go see this movie is to support the SEALs themselves. Chances are if you're not a jaded sort like me, that aforementioned artificial connection will have you leaving the theater satisfied despite the flaws. However, if you really want a good movie about Navy SEALs, I would suggest finding a copy of Tears of the Sun instead which is far superior in every way.