My Faves: The Iron Giant

Long before Groot, Vin Diesel played another heroic giant of few words. One word, in particular, has melted thousands of hearts and caused the shedding of many tears.

“Superman!”

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The Iron Giant
Director: Brad Bird
Writers: Brad Bird and Tim McCanlies
Starring: Vin Diesel, Eli Marienthal, Harry Connick, Jr.
Based (veeerrrry loosely) on the book “The Iron Man” by Ted Hughes
Released: 1999
Rated PG

This is a special movie. It didn’t do well in theatres when it first came out, but nowadays you’d be hard pressed to find anyone willing to say they dislike it. It’s my favourite 2-D cartoon and possibly my favourite animated movie, period. And like most animated movies I love, it’s all about superheroes.

But just in case you have not had the pleasure of seeing this movie, here’s the plot: Hogarth Hughes is a 9-year-old boy who lives with his single mother in the town of Rockwell, Maine, circa 1957. One night, he goes outside to investigate a malfunctioning TV antenna and discovers a 50-foot robot munching on a nearby power plant. The robot gets a nasty shock from the electricity, and even though Hogarth is scared out of his mind, he manages to shut off the power in time to save the Giant. Next thing you know, he has a new friend. The robot has crash-landed on Earth and doesn’t remember anything about himself, where he came from, or why he’s here. Hogarth starts teaching him things like how to talk, how to avoid squishing people, and most importantly, how to use his powers for good just like his favourite hero, Superman. He enlists the help of a junkyard owner named Dean to take care of the Giant, who only eats metal.  But it’s difficult to hide a gigantic robot with the mind of a toddler, especially in the panicky climate of the ’50s, and things only get worse when government agent Kent Mansley arrives to investigate some strange occurrences around Rockwell.

Man, where do I start with this movie? I guess the animation is a good place. It’s beautiful. I’ve only come to appreciate it more as I’ve watched more cartoons, even recent ones, which often don’t measure up despite all the technology available to animators now. The landscapes are so detailed, and the characters’ expressions and movements are so full of life–even when said characters are made of metal. Some scenes look like an animated Norman Rockwell painting, which was probably intentional, given the name of the town.

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But, like, seriously, look at it. Look how gorgeous those trees are.

The movie also does an excellent job of recreating the 1950s American setting. From the classic ’50s diner where Hogarth’s mom works to the hilariously awful instructional video his class watches on how to survive a nuclear attack, it’s obvious the filmmakers did their research on the time period. Most importantly, the movie perfectly evokes the atmosphere of paranoia and xenophobia that existed during the Cold War. Characters talk about the recently-launched Sputnik with dread, worried that the Soviets might be watching them. Hogarth owns propaganda comics with villains like “The Red Menace” and “Atomo.” But it’s Kent who really embodies the Cold War attitude, being ready to assume the worst about the Giant even before he has proof  he exists. “All I know is, we didn’t build it, and that’s reason enough to blow it to kingdom come!” he yells at one point. And that paranoia makes him the perfect kind of villain for a story like this: a cowardly bully.

Of course, Hogarth and the audience don’t know where the Giant came from either, or why he was built, and the movie remains pretty vague on that point. But Hogarth doesn’t really care. This is a kid who thinks of wild animals as friends, much to his mom’s chagrin, and idolises Superman, one of the most idealistic superheroes around. The only reason he needs to help out the Giant is that, in his present state, the robot is kind, innocent, and in need of a friend.

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“He’s…like a little kid.”

The first half of The Iron Giant is pretty light-hearted and funny. After the Giant makes his slightly menacing entrance, and Hogarth finds out he’s really not so menacing, the story becomes about him having comical adventures with his new friend and trying to keep him hidden, while Kent bumbles around searching for a mysterious meteor and generally being ineffectual. There’s a hilarious scene, in which the Giant’s hand gets separated from the rest of him and starts wandering around Hogarth’s house during dinner, that still makes me laugh every time I see it. And of course we’re introduced to Dean McCoppin, who is just awesome.

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“What you currently have IN YOUR MOUTH is ART!!”

But when I first watched the movie, there was a distinct point at which I realised I was watching something a little deeper than your typical funny children’s cartoon. It’s a scene about halfway through, in which Hogarth finds himself having to teach the Giant about death. After that, the movie takes on a much darker tone, but it’s also the beginning of the Giant’s struggle to make sense of his own existence. After all, as that very scene foreshadows, somebody made the Giant for a reason, and it likely wasn’t a peaceful one. He has to figure out how to balance his questionable nature with his desire to do good and protect his friends.

And this is what I love most about The Iron Giant. Lots of kid’s movies have morals they want to teach their young audience, which is a good thing. But so many of those morals boil down to something trite and easy, like “follow your heart.” Not so with this movie (or any Brad Bird-directed flick, as Pixar fans can attest). Here, there are two primary messages, the most obvious being summed up in the quote, “You are who you choose to be.” The Giant’s character development is all about choosing to be a hero, even if that goes against his “programming.” And while the quote is an oversimplification, I think it’s great to show kids that people are defined by their actions rather than by their backgrounds, and that doing the right thing sometimes means going against one’s natural inclinations.

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“You’re made of metal. But you have feelings, and you think about things, and that means you have a soul.”

By contrasting Hogarth and Kent’s reactions to the Giant, and showing the consequences of each, the movie also promotes another message: xenophobia is bad, and fear leads to destruction, while compassion and kindness can prevent it. While the Giant’s own choices determine his character in the end, it’s Hogarth’s friendship that sets him on the path to becoming a hero, and his love for Hogarth that helps him remain one. If Kent Mansley or a paranoid Rockwell resident had met the Giant first…let’s just say the movie would have had a grimmer ending. But because Hogarth reacts to a strange alien monster with compassion and curiosity rather than fear, said alien ends up following his example. Again, I think this is a fantastic lesson to teach kids…and these days, it seems a lot of adults need to learn it as well. With fear of the unknown and the foreigner seemingly on the rise in many places, we could use more stories about showing kindness to strangers.

But of course, neither of those messages would come across very well if this movie wasn’t expertly written, acted, and animated. Fortunately, it is. The script is funny when it tries to be, emotional when it needs to be, and profound without being preachy. All the voice actors do a fantastic job, especially Vin Diesel, who only says a few dozen words as the Giant, but makes every one of them count. The music is also gorgeous, even when it’s not incorporating catchy pop songs from the ’50s.

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Art.

I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could find things to complain about in this movie. There are probably some historical inaccuracies (though I think it would take a professional historian to discover them), and the plot does closely resemble E.T. (except that it’s based on a book that was written before E.T., and it’s also better than E.T.). Personally, though, I think The Iron Giant is about as close to perfect as any movie can get. Why? Well, in addition to all the reasons listed above, I’ve seen it at least a dozen times now, and I still find myself getting misty-eyed at the end. This is the kind of movie that makes you feel better about life, and people, and the world in general after you’ve watched it. And not because it sugarcoats real-life problems or provides an escapist fantasy, but because it shows good triumphing over real evil in a spectacular way.

I also love it as a superhero fan, because it offers a perfect example of what I think the ideal superhero should be: unfailingly kind, hopeful, and brave. And honestly, has any actual Superman movie had a “saving-the-world” scene as awesome as the climax of this one?

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He’s the real Man of Steel.

If you haven’t seen The Iron Giant, do yourself a favour and go watch it. If you have kids, make them watch it. But if you’re a single adult, like me, there is no shame in watching this particular cartoon on your own.

Primer

To quote Keanu Reeves: “Whoa.”

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Primer is an odd little sci-fi film that came out in 2004. (And when I say “little,” I mean it was written, directed, produced, cast and scored by one guy–who also stars in it.) It’s about a couple of young entrepreneurs, Abe and Aaron, who are tinkering with electronics in a garage when they realise that their latest invention has an unexpected quirk. Simply put, it allows time travel. The two guys start using their machine to rewind each day and use their knowledge of the future to get rich off the stock market–always being very careful to avoid their past selves. But eventually they realise someone else has discovered their secret…and that’s when things get complicated.

I have always thought of myself as a pretty huge nerd. I wear it as a badge of pride, in fact. I read books about black holes for fun; I can recite the names of all the Valar in The Silmarillion; I care about stuff like the Oxford comma and British vs. American spelling (I hope you can tell which side I’m on there); and I have always loved brainy, hard science fiction that takes some effort to puzzle out. The Martian, Interstellar, Moon, Inception…all of those would be in my Top 10 list of movies if I could actually narrow down my favourites to just 10.

But it’s finally happened. I have found the movie that is too nerdy for me.

FOR SCIENCE!!!

Time travel has always been one of the staple concepts of science fiction. It shows up in all kinds of movies, both good and bad. But as most writers have realised, time travel is also one of the most deep, complicated premises ever devised. Can one actually change the past, or is everything pre-ordained? Does changing the past create an alternate universe? Does knowing the future take away one’s free will? If you run into your past or future self, does it create a paradox that destroys the world, or can the two of you just hang out?  Most movies that deal with time travel focus on one or two of these questions, and just conveniently ignore anything else that’s not important to the story. And of course, most movies throw anything resembling real-world science out the window as soon as they bring up time travel.

But this one doesn’t. This movie is the closest thing I’ve seen to a realistic portrayal of time travel. There are no alternate universes, no signs of “wormhole magic” as one character puts it, and no flashing lights or Deloreans. It even manages to make the time machine sound plausible–largely because the characters speak only in physics jargon and always sound like they know what they’re talking about, even if I don’t. And honestly, it’s…kind of terrifying. Without bringing up any of the usual time travel problems, like preventing one’s own birth or accidentally letting the Nazis win, it still manages to make interfering with the past seem like a very bad idea.

For one thing, you’ve gotta lug these big oxygen tanks around.

Technically, this movie falls under my “if it’s 10 years old, I can spoil it” rule, but I’m not going to spoil the ending. Mainly because I’m still not entirely sure I understand it. I don’t think it’s possible to understand this movie’s ending the first time through unless you’re unusually smart, and possibly have a background in physics and/or computer science. The timeline is incredibly intricate, a lot of important things happen off-screen, and, like I said, the dialogue is almost entirely made up of rapid-fire engineer talk. There are some helpful charts and graphs that can be found online explaining the whole thing, but just the fact that you need a graph to understand this movie speaks volumes. This movie is rated PG-13, but since there’s nary a hint of sexual content or violence, and only the mildest of language, I’m forced to conclude it received that rating just because the MPAA couldn’t figure out what the heck they were watching.

Personally, I think Primer could have tried a little harder to explain what was going on to viewers like me. But on the other hand, it’s kind of nice to see a movie that over-estimates its audience’s intelligence for once. Most movies these days are so committed to dumbing everything down and spelling everything out, that it makes me wonder: if more movies assumed their audiences were smart, would we actually become smarter?

There are some things about Primer that you don’t need a graph to understand. Underneath the confusing timeline and the crazy science, this is fundamentally the story of a friendship that goes bad because of a lack of trust. All of Abe and Aaron’s problems (and they do end up with a pile of them) can be traced back to their inability to trust each other with the technology they invented, even as they exploit it together. Greed is also a problem. Because their first instinct is to use the machine to get rich, they ignore its potential for more beneficial purposes until it’s too late. And in their pursuit of wealth and fame, they end up alienating everyone in their lives, including each other. It’s really a rather straightforward cautionary tale–if you ignore the timeline. Which you can’t. It’s still bugging me.

See? They’re standing so far apart in all the shots by the end of the movie.

In a meta sense, the most amazing thing about this movie is how much it accomplishes with so little. It was made on a $7,000 budget. $7,000! You can barely get a decent used car for that money, let alone a decent set. The cast and crew is basically one guy with no film experience, and a few of his friends and family. It’s shot in about three locations, on a noticeably cheap camera. And it’s one of the most mind-blowing sci-fi movies I’ve ever seen.  So let that be a lesson: if you’re an aspiring filmmaker, but you don’t have that much money or any big studio connections, you can still make art! You just have to be really, really smart about it.

All that to say: I don’t think I’m quite smart enough to fully understand Primer, at least not without watching it a few more times, but I sorta like being outsmarted once in a while. If you like your movies more straightforward, you probably won’t be a fan of this one. But if you’re a big enough nerd to be in its target audience, you won’t be content with just one viewing.

Grade: A

Stranger Things

I spent my summer vacation watching all of the latest Netflix show, because why not?

Stranger Things is a sci-fi/horror Netflix original that currently sits at a breezy total of eight episodes. Set in 1983, it opens with something nasty escaping from a secret government research facility near the Midwestern town of Hawkins. Soon after, a young boy named Will Byers disappears from the town. When his three best friends go out looking for him, they find someone else instead: a frightened, nearly bald girl of few words and many mysterious abilities, who only answers to the name Eleven. Meanwhile, Will’s mom is certain he’s alive, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, and starts searching for him in her own unconventional way, with support from the town’s troubled police chief. Will’s older brother Jonathan starts investigating, too. None of them have any idea what they’re getting into.

Lots more money spent on flashlight batteries, for one thing.

The show leans heavily on nostalgia for the “kid adventure” movies that were popular in the ’80s, which means most of those cliches and stock characters make an appearance. We’ve got a gang of bicycle-riding, D&D-playing middle-schoolers, a bunch of bullies, a gaggle of ghastly teens, a convention of clueless parents, a duo of dumb deputies (okay, I’ll stop) and, of course, the ominous Men in Black. The whole thing is so Spielbergian in tone that it’s actually a bit jarring at first to hear a spooky electronic soundtrack instead of something by John Williams (not that I’m complaining–the music is excellent).

But under the surface Stranger Things is entirely its own story, and it’s a good one. It’s suspenseful and, at times, genuinely scary. The mystery unfolds at just the right pace, tying up enough loose ends to bring some closure to the finale, and leaving enough dangling to make sure Season 2 has plenty to work with. While some of the main characters start out looking like cliches, they all undergo lots of development that pays off over the course of the season. It helps that they’re all played by excellent actors, even (especially?) the kids. Will’s mom spends a lot of this season crying or otherwise being hysterical, but she’s got her own kind of toughness that never fails to come out when it counts. His friends (Mike, Dustin and Lucas) sometimes seem a little too unfazed by what’s happening around them, but their loyalty and friendship feels genuine, and it’s the emotional heart of the show. The teenagers are, as aforementioned, ghastly, but even they step up their game when disaster strikes.

She’s sweet when she’s looking at music boxes, but if her nose starts bleeding, RUN.

 

The most memorable character, by far, is Eleven. She utters maybe a few dozen words in all eight episodes, but still manages to be equal parts creepy and vulnerable, innocent and  monstrous. One minute she’s shyly learning about waffles and television with Mike, and the next she’s snapping people’s necks with her mind. I loved her. The police chief, Hopper, is also a wonderful, complex character who gets in a lot of cool action over the course of the show.

The show does have its problems, one of the biggest being its reliance on the “clueless parents” trope that is so common in stories that focus on kids. I can buy a couple of bad parents, even downright stupid parents, but a “perfect suburban housewife” who fails to notice a strange child living in her basement for a week has gone beyond mere stupidity. All the kids, except the missing Will, seem to have parents who don’t care about them at all (I realise this set in the ’80s, when people were less paranoid, but I think even an ’80s mother would be a little worried if her kids were constantly roaming outside town by themselves, at night, right after another child’s disappearance). And none of them ever think to talk to any adult about their investigation, even when it turns life-threatening.

Not even this adult. I mean, come on!

It’s probably worth mentioning that, while 12- to 13-year-olds drive much of the show’s plot, it’s clearly not meant for young children. The monster from the research facility is truly terrifying, people die in pretty gruesome ways both on- and off-screen, and there’s a fair amount of language and sexually suggestive content. E.T. this ain’t, despite the homages.

That being said, it does promote some good values. Friendship and loyalty are major themes. The heroes are people who fight to protect and care for their loved ones, never giving up on them no matter what. The villains, and even just the more unpleasant characters, are those who use other people as tools rather than human beings and are willing to betray them in order to save themselves. Some of the “good guys” don’t treat their friends very well early in the season, but this always comes back to bite them, and the best characters learn their lesson by the end.

Friends have each other’s backs, whether it’s in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign or an actual monster fight.

Overall, I enjoyed Stranger Things. So far I think it would make Spielberg proud–it’s got the same mix of suspense, mystery and fun that I enjoy in his earlier movies. And while the season finale was satisfying in a lot of ways, it left me hungry for more. I’ll definitely be tuning in for Season 2.

Grade: A

Dollhouse

This is mostly going to be  a movie blog, never fear. But I happen to like television quite a lot, too, so once in a while I’m gonna have to review a TV show.

“Dollhouse” is a cyberpunk show by Joss Whedon that aired on Fox six or seven years ago. As you might guess from the combination of “Joss Whedon” and “Fox” in that sentence, it was cancelled after two seasons. But before it got cancelled, it was about a version of the present day in which a technology has been invented that can wipe out a person’s personality and memories and replace them with new ones. A very shady company called the Rossum Corporation uses this technology to run “dollhouses,” where the very wealthy can rent out mind-wiped people who will (temporarily) become whoever they want them to be–from secret agents to bodyguards to…well, more traditional roles. Each “doll” is re-set to a child-like state after every assignment, but one, named Echo, is starting to remember her previous selves. Meanwhile, an FBI agent is getting close to the truth in his investigation of Rossum, a rogue doll named Alpha is trying to take down Echo’s dollhouse in a more violent manner, and the shadowy heads of the corporation may have more sinister long-term plans than anyone suspects.

Unlike some of his other swiftly-cancelled projects, Joss actually got to wrap this one up pretty neatly before it ended, so it doesn’t suffer from the lack of closure that caused so many Browncoat tears. But while it has some good characters and great storytelling moments, this show has two big, loud problems, which, surprisingly, have nothing to do with Fox.

*sigh* A tiny supermodel in skimpy clothes who beats people up a lot. Some of Joss’s tricks get old.

First of all, the central character was not cast very well. For a show whose premise requires the main character to be a completely different person every episode (and sometimes several people in one episode), you need a stellar actress. Eliza Dushku, who plays Echo, is just a decent one. All her personalities seem more or less the same, and since this is one of those shows where minor characters spend a lot of time calling the main character “special,” that gets annoying.

What makes it even more annoying is that she’s surrounded by AMAZING actors. There’s the great Alan Tudyk, in one of his most impressive performances ever; there’s Summer Glau, who manages to put a completely different spin on “cute psycho” than she did in “Firefly;” there’s Dichen Lachman, who plays a doll 10 times more interesting than Echo despite getting less screen time; and there’s Enver Gjokaj, an actor I had never heard of before watching this show, which is a crime against talent and art. How is this guy not landing major roles in big movies and getting showered with awards? To say he has range is like saying the Empire State Building has floors.

Just a few of the characters he plays on this show.

The second problem is that “Dollhouse” is every bit as dark and unsettling as it sounds. The parallels to real-life prostitution and slavery are all too obvious. There aren’t many truly good characters to root for, and when they do pop up, awful things happen to them. An atmosphere of apocalyptic gloom hangs over the whole series starting near the end of season 1. Don’t get me wrong–there are plenty of funny and heartwarming moments, but the context often made me feel a little icky for laughing at them. The show’s premise allows for some interesting discussions on the nature of free will and what makes a person human, but it’s not a fun show. If it was any longer, I probably wouldn’t have finished it.

That said, I must take a moment to highlight one of the bright patches. His name is Topher Brink, the surprisingly adorable mad scientist who programs the dolls. His character arc, which takes him from an arrogant, childish brat to a broken-hearted hero, is the kind of beautifully tragic storytelling I’ve come to expect from Joss. Even when the rest of the show was just making me angry, I could always relate to Topher (I’ll admit that worries me a bit). Topher gave me many feelings, but none of them were angry.

Topher feels may include laughter, nervous laughter, sudden urges to hug, and soul-crushing misery.

If  you’re a die-hard Joss Whedon fan, you will probably like “Dollhouse.” If you’re just a mild Joss Whedon fan, like me, it may or may not be worth your time. Either way, fair warning: there are quite a few sexually suggestive scenes, most of which do not take place between mutually consenting partners (unless brainwashing counts as consent), and there’s a fair amount of violence. Proceed with caution.

Or just re-watch “Firefly.” I find that’s usually a good idea in any situation.

Grade: C+