November 21, 2012
Great films are relentlessly imitated; what began as innovation quickly turns into formula.
Thus the powerful animated Iron Giant led in a straight line to the emotionally compelling animated Toy Story 3, one of the best movies ever made.
Now we have the animated Wreck-It Ralph, which ends with an emotionalism that has the perfunctoriness of formula. As tears came to my eyes, I felt it as a reflex, as if a doctor had struck my knee with a rubber hammer. That is, I was moved, but I resented it a little.
Perhaps that was because the "save" at the end of the movie came out of nowhere. It was clever but empty. Where Toy Story 3 had drawn on the deepest roots of human relationships, Wreck-It Ralph relied on cheerful cliches.
Never mind. Apart from the formulaic emotionalism, this was an entertaining and cleverly conceived movie. In other words, while it failed to reach its loftiest aim, it nevertheless achieved all the rest.
A movie built around a videogame villain who wearies of his perpetual isolation and discomfort and seeks to become a hero could easily have descended into the same stupidities as, say, Tron.
Instead, the character of Ralph (John C. Reilly) achieves his superficial goal very quickly – he subverts another game and is given a medal that says "Hero." Game over.
Only it isn't over, because by sheer accident he is carried into a sappy little game where hypercute anime girls race each other on candy-and-cookie cars through a sugary landscape.
The real story then begins – which is the tale of Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a "glitch" in the game. Everyone who has played videogames knows about glitches – programming errors or corruptions in the software that cause a character to suddenly shift to a different position, or that cause other anomalous and unpredictable changes.
Glitches can make games unplayable, especially when they affect the player's avatar character. So it makes sense that the whole Sugarland world unites to block Vanellope from competing in the qualifying race. For if she crosses the finish line, dire things will happen and the game will certainly be unplugged. They will all die.
Except ... what if Vanellope is more than a glitch? That becomes the real plot of the movie, with Ralph's tale more of a subplot, though he is vital to Vanellope's victory.
Sorry if you think that's a spoiler. Like there was any chance the hero wouldn't prevail.
Those who know videogames, especially the early arcade games, will be delighted with the nostalgia of this movie, and even more pleased with the imaginative way it exploits the real inner workings of videogame programs. Seeing a handwritten out-of-order sign from the other side of the screen is one of many delights.
And even though they were clearly following the Toy Story 3 formula (in ways that I don't detail here, because I really don't want to spoil the plot twists), the movie remains highly entertaining. The dialogue, which is better than good-enough, is made delightful by the vocal performances of Reilly, Silverman, and the show-stealing military-game officer Calhoun (Jane Lynch of Glee) and Felix (Jack McBrayer of 30 Rock).
Toss in a fine performance by Alan Tudyk (Firefly) as King Candy and a host of other fine character actors, and we have one of the best-acted animated movies in recent memory.
There is actual banter, a lost art in film-making today, where "Go! Go! Go!" is reaching its thirtieth year as an obligatory line of dialogue in action movies.
We enjoyed Wreck-It Ralph very much for its own sake, and if the filmmakers aspired to greatness and missed it by a mile, at least they knew that greatness in animated filmmaking is possible! It's quite possible that animation is the last place where filmmakers regularly try to do more than either make money, win Oscars or impress their "elite" friends.
I've had longer to work with the internet customized radio community Pandora, and things aren't quite as rosy as they seemed at first. Even though you can create your own radio stations, you are still severely limited by the existing genre definitions programmed into the software.
For instance, in my "Writer's Trance" station, which is meant to emphasize quiet keyboard and low-key classical music, with occasional tracks of new age and film score work, every now and then Pandora pushes in some truly crappy older blues and honky-tonk vocals. Where do those come from? I give them a thumbs-down, but the strain appears every fifty tracks or so.
More annoying are the genre definitions on my "Women of Depth and Grace" station. For one thing, there is apparently no way for Pandora to understand that I want only female vocals. Up pop Mick Jagger, Cat Stevens or Harry Connick Jr.
Now, I love Harry Connick Jr., and have great nostalgia for Cat Stevens; there are even some Mick Jagger pieces that I like. But I don't want them on this station. Apparently the fact that only female vocalists are selected in my seed tracks is not noticed by Pandora.
Then there's the fact that I selected Brazilian vocalists to add to the mix. To Pandora, Brazilian is "Latin." But it is most definitely not – this is a serious defect in the genre definitions.
Anybody who knows the music of Maria Bethania, Simone and other Brazilian singers would not imagine that this branch of cool jazz has anything to do with salsa or ranchera or Roberto Carlos.
Then, because Pandora pays royalties for every song it plays, the program puts limitations on my ability to skip or reject songs that don't belong on my station. I'm allowed only four skips per hour, apparently. But when they put six male singers in a row on my "Women of Depth and Grace" station, what am I to do?
What I do is switch back to Foobar and play some of the ten thousand tracks I have purchased for my computer. Just because Pandora is not perfect does not mean it isn't good. It's still way less annoying than commercial radio.
And it still does the job of introducing me to singers, composers and other performers that I've never heard before. I've already bought a dozen new MP3 albums from Amazon (which does not force digital rights management on its customers) because Pandora played artists whose work I'd never heard before.
Are you a fan of the Downton Abbey series, written by Julian Fellowes and shown on Masterpiece Theatre in the US? I certainly am.
So when we saw a book called Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, by the Countess of Carnarvon, we had no choice but to buy it and read it.
Downton Abbey is entertainment – the story is about the relationships among the characters, and the rules of the society they live in. World War I plays an important part in the story, and the series is completely successful.
But – as is so often the case – the real history is far richer and more fascinating, though it could never be adequately included in a coherent entertainment series.
You see, the real Lord Carnarvon, whose life – and wife – serve as models for Downton Abbey was far more interesting, as was Lady Almina herself....continued on page 2