Tools of the Imagination — Metallica, Through The Never

Metallica, Through The Never
Directed by Nimrod Antal, Produced by Charlotte Huggins, Written by Nimrod Antal and Metallica, released 2013

All that is, was, and will be

*Spoiler Warning*

This is a hard movie to review for many reasons.  The first is that, well, I tend not to review live-action stuff.  Tools of the Imagination is meant to shed some light on animation and toys, stuff that while not specifically the purview of kids, is somewhat the result of a linger sense of child-like wonderment.  Secondly, because I’m struggling to remain unbiased.  I consider myself a huge Metallica fan – some fans’ opinions notwithstanding – and thus it becomes hard to appreciate the movie on its own merit without dipping into my fandom of the band that inspired the film.  And thirdly because this is NOT the movie I thought I was going to see.

If you haven’t seen the original trailer for Through the Never, the audience is treated to a narration of our protagonist (played subtly but excellently by Dane DeHaan) that paints the film as being some kind of coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of some sort of social unrest/upheaval/war.  In the current trend of musicals and movies set around bands’ discography (Mama Mia for ABBA, American Idiot for Greenday, Jersey Boys for the Four Seasons), I made the mistake of thinking the Boys in Black had decided to get in on the action and give us some sort of Metallica musical.

This was not to be.

What we’re instead treated to is, for all intents and purposes, concert footage with a really ambitious music video interspersed in sixty to ninety second spurts.  Both are very well done (more on that below), but that left the movie feeling very underwhelming because I was hoping such a high-concept band like Metallica was going to deliver a stirring narrative.  What remains, however, is still very worthwhile.

Story – 2 out of 5
The story is about as bare-bones as you can get and still be comprehensible.  Trip, our intrepid protagonist, is a roadie at a Metallica show (it isn’t entirely clear if he works for the stadium or the band, but we do get the impression his employment may not be entirely legal).  He delivers a package and as the concert is starting up, he gets sent off to find a wayward truck with a crucial MacGuffin.  Trip goes out, gets into an accident, and finds himself stranded in the middle of a city in the midst of widespread and very violent protests.  Trip becomes a target in this protests after he throws a brick at a murdering horseback rider in a gas mask.  Trip eludes capture for a bit, only to end up cornered.  He employs an escape that is as brilliant and hardcore as it is stupid, ends up dying and getting brought back, which sets up a final confrontation with the horseman that simultaneously blows up Metallica’s stage show.

Characters – 1 out of 5
While I really liked DeHaan’s performance of Trip, there really is no character or character development what so ever.  There’s a marionette that plays into the story’s third act which is clever but again doesn’t really gives us anything to work with.  Lastly, the figure of the masked horseman is completely enigmatic.  While all of this makes for evocative imagery, it leaves a lot to be desired as far as developed characters.

Acting – 3 out of 5
Almost all of the story is conveyed through the music, the imagery, and DeHaan’s acting.  With no spoken lines in the film (the trailer’s narration not only isn’t in the movie, but amounts to more dialogue than is in the movie), DeHaan still manages to create a very identifiable character in Trip.  It’s a testament to both the director and DeHaan that this very minimalist performance works so well.

Visuals – 4 out of 5
Much like the acting, the visuals are really superb, not just in the ‘story’ sequences but also during the concert.  The framing and cinematography of the Metallica concert that is the majority of the movie is expertly done.  The visuals are engaging and dynamic, with transitions from one shot or focal point to the next proving to be very innovative and clever.  Somewhat like visual puzzles, you will be looking at the screen, not entirely sure what you’re looking at when it will suddenly hit you.

Music – 2 out of 5
If you’re a Metallica fan, then the sound and music will blow you away.  Since the ‘story’ events tend to occur during the transition from one song to the next, it’s often the opening notes of a given song that will set the stage for what’s about to happen in the story, giving serious gravity to the events.  Sadly, if you aren’t ‘fluent’ in Metallica’s musical language, you may be left a little clueless why everybody else suddenly just gasped.

There’s also an issue with pacing in the film.  While normally this might be a story issue, since this is essentially a filmed concert, it seems appropriate to address here.  The songs are, by and large, played in their entirety.  As a concert, that’s great but as a film, it quickly gets to the point where a stanza or two is all that’s really needed to get the full emotional impact with regards to the story, and yet the song will keep going for way longer than seems necessary.

There are also a couple of points where two and even three songs are played back-to-back in the concert before we return to the ‘story’.  If you’re invested in the story, these periods can really drag, no matter how much you like the music.

And the inclusion of ‘Nothing Else Matters’ still baffles me.  I love the song, but it’s such a jarring change of pace given what’s happening in the movie and in the concert, it just comes off shoe-horned.

Overall – 2 out of 5
I really enjoyed this movie, but I am squarely in its target demographic.  I’m a Metallica fan and I enjoy vivid cinematography, so I loved every minute of it.  At the same time, I’m really disappointed in what the trailer suggested the film would be, versus what it delivered.  I was really hoping for more story, more characters, and less concert.  I dug the concert and enjoyed it tremendously, don’t get me wrong, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t expecting, and hoping for, Metallica’s Mama Mia.

I am not a Metallica fan (which is news to me)

I am a firm believer that fandom does not come with a uniform to wear, or even a uniform look.  While there may be trappings of a fandom, one’s enjoying/love of something is not defined by a narrow margin of attributes and attitudes.

I say this because this past weekend, I went to see Metallica, Through The Never.  And while there, I was treated to a variety of derisive sneers and scoffs of disapproval by fellow fans who went to the same showing.

I’ve loved Metallica since high school.  I can still remember the exact spot on Interstate 440 when I heard the opening sitar notes of Wherever I May Roam, pretty much kicking off my love of the Boys in Black.  From there, it was pretty much down hill.  I saw Metallica live in Louisville Kentucky in 2004.  Metallica’s inspired a great deal of my writing.  So I feel confident in saying I am a Metallica fan.

But from the moment I got in line for the movie, a pair of long-haired, denim & leather-clad metal heads disapproved of my presence.  I found this especially amusing since the movie was showing a predominantly…how shall I say, urban theater.  Through The Never was showing on a screen nestled between showings of Battle of the Year and Baggage Claim, so there were already more than enough ‘what are you doing here’ looks going around.

We go into the theater and it’s just the three of us.  The two of them are jazzed and whispering louder than most humans are capable of while I’m sitting alone.  At one point, they call back to me, asking if I’m ‘here to see Metallica’, as though I might be lost.  When I answered in the affirmative, I was asked what was my favorite album.  Citing ReLoad as my favorite, they both laughed derisively and whispered (once again far louder than speaking normally) ‘Poser’.
It’s always weird to be reminded that you aren’t a card-carrying stereotype.

Tools of the Imagination — Mo-Larr vs Skeletor

Mo-Larr vs Skeletor
by Mattel, released 2010, inspired by the Robot Chicken sketch of the same name

A Parody Becomes Canon…sort of

Convention exclusives such as this Comic-Con toy don’t usually get reviewed because, well, I don’t really consider them toys.  I am of the opinion that toys are meant to be played with and enjoyed and when toys are packaged specifically to be collectors’ items and are essentially meant not to be played with, and certainly aren’t meant to be played with by their target demographic (IE children), then I consider them something else entirely.  Still, I thought this set was worth discussing so here we go.
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe are one of the reigning champions of the 1980s toys.  A classic example of a television show being created to sell toys, Mattel stumbled into a masterpiece by hiring soon-to-be Hollywood power players in the form of writers and directors.  Coupled with memorable, if sometimes dorky, PSAs (much like GI Joe), He-Man would become an entertainment powerhouse whose legend would endure to this day.

And then came Robot Chicken.

The irreverent Robot Chicken, started in 2005, is a sketch comedy series done using claymation and often starring classic 1980s toys (and often even using their own figures) dealing with typically very mundane issues.  Characters from He-Man have been frequent subjects of these sketches, including one widely regarded sketch about Skeletor, He-Man’s nefarious skeletal nemesis, needing to visit a dentist.  You can probably see where this is going.
Appearance – 5 out of 5
The toys are beautifully made, plain and simple.  Skeletor not only looks like he did from the original toyline, but much as he does in the inspirational comedy sketch.  The same is true with Mo-Larr, looking flawlessly like he does in the sketch and appearing in-line with how the original figures in the toyline looked.  The weapons and equipment provided are not just perfect replicas of the accessories from the original toyline, but are improved with sturdier plastic and better paints.

Construction – 5 out of 5
Much like their appearance, these toys benefit from stronger plastics and better construction.  They are hefty and sturdy not just in their frame, but also in their clothing/armor which is mobile and flexible and yet still very rugged.

Movement – 4 out of 5
The figures have numerous joints that are very sturdy and solid.  A limb moved into a position, however outlandish, stays there.  There are some slight issues with the hips and shoulders not immediately wanting to move certain ways, but these are in keeping with human anatomy.

Extras – 4 out of 5
While the chair in the diagram doesn’t come as a toy (it’s just part of the diorama), the figures have plenty to do.  Mo-Larr comes with an assortment of vague dental-looking equipment, including mirror, pick, rinsing nozzle, and even giant floss.  Skeletor, on the other hand, comes with two versions of the Sword of Destruction; one that is complete and one that is designed to combine with He-Man’s Sword of Power.  Skeletor’s Ram’s Head Staff round out the collection.

Packaging – 3 out of 5
The package doubles as a makeshift (if unambitious) diorama of the Eternian Dentist Office where Mo-Larr works.  The packaging is very evocative of the original He-Man figures and playsets, but there’s little mention of Robot Chicken anywhere on the packaging.  A few other figures are shown on the back, but it isn’t clear if or when they might be available, nor is there any real explanation as to who the characters of Skeletor and Mo-Larr are in case the recipient of the toy isn’t a He-Man fan.  Which, admittedly, isn’t likely.

Overall – 4 out of 5
This is a great little set.  Mo-Larr’s a funny character and it’s nice to see toys that are geared more at fun than being too serious.  Mo-Larr is sturdy enough to be played with as a conventional He-Man character and a Skeletor figure this mobile and this well-made is a welcome addition to any collection.

Learning Good Things From Bad Guys

Note: Links are not offered in the following blog because is currently experiencing technically difficulties involving malware issues.

I’m a big fan of  Love it.  Read it daily.  I especially like the After Hours video segments and most of the work by John Cheese and Daniel O’Brien.  David Wong is also a wonderful contributor, but I’ve recently had some issue with his article ‘6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person’.

Now, I take a lot of issue with the mistaken belief that brutal honesty is somehow a good thing.  It isn’t.  Being blunt isn’t an admirable trait.  I won’t deny that there’s a time and a place for it, but it’s far more rare than most people think, especially those who extol the virtues of being blunt.  Being blunt or harsh is like punching someone in the mouth; if you find you absolutely must do it more than five times in your life, you really need to reconsider some of your life choices.

I’ll expound on that topic at another time.  I want to return to the issue of this article, ‘6 Harsh Truths’.  The article fixates primarily on a segment from a play-turned-movie called ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’, a famous segment in which Alec Baldwin plays a motivational speaker who essentially shames the cast of real estate salesmen into productivity.  If you even Google Gleangarry Glen Ross, this speech comes up at the top of the list.  If you want to watch it, feel free but I won’t link to it because I think it’s deplorable.

It’s a brilliant speech, make no mistake.  It is easily Alec Baldwin’s finest performance and – his Capital One commercials not withstanding – that’s saying something.  And it’s written by a masterful playwright, David Mamet.  And it is very motivating, in a negative you’re-worthless-unless-you-get-off-your-ass sort of way.  But what I take issue with is that few people seem to realize that Alec Baldwin’s character is, essentially, the bad guy.

Glengarry Glen Ross isn’t a happy play (or movie).  It isn’t uplifting and no one comes out of it unscathed.  In many ways, it’s a terribly ugly film in which even the characters who come out best are the ones who quit and leave the real estate business entirely.  The whole script is one big warning against being like these people.  And the chief among ‘these people’, the very essence of ‘these people’ distilled, is Alec Baldwin’s character.

People point to the character’s tirade as an amazing motivational speech, not seeming to realize that’s like idolizing Gordon Gekko from Wall Street, or Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket, or even Tony Montana from Scarface.  They may be compelling, they may be interesting and even entertaining, they may even have some good and admirable traits.  But none of that diminishes the fact that the primary point of these assorted films is to NOT be like them!  It blows my mind when people talk about Baldwin’s speech like it’s a good thing.  That’s akin to saying taking cocaine is a great way to be more productive.

I’m not suggesting people shouldn’t occasionally take an objective look at their lives and themselves.  I’m not saying we all don’t occasionally need a good kick in the pants to get us moving in the right direction.  And I’m definitely not saying this scene/speech isn’t one of the finest performances in cinema history.  What I am saying is that to look at this speech and say ‘He’s right’ is to severely miss the point the entire movie is trying to make.

Tools of the Imagination — AstroBoy

by Bandai, released 2004

The Icon of Anime gets a Toy

This week’s toy is a rare gem in that it is not part of a larger series.  The AstroBoy toyline was produced by Bandai shortly before the release of the CG adaptation of the classic anime and manga series, no doubt in an effort to drum up interest in the newest generation of fans of robot superheroes.  Why I consider this a rare gem is because this toyline disappeared about as quickly as it appeared, and with little fanfare going or coming.  But what we were left with is a fantastic toy that will hopefully stand the test of time.
If you don’t know who AstroBoy is, you probably aren’t an anime fan.  AstroBoy is to anime what classic M&Ms are to candy, Lost in Space is to science fiction, and Pong is to video games.  The series, created by Osamu ‘the Grandfather of Anime’ Tezuka, is of the same ilk as Gigantor and Speed Racer and was released in the United States alongside series like those as well as Johnny Quest and Space Ghost (the original, not the talk show).

AstroBoy is a Pinocchio-esque story about a young boy who is a robot with phenomenal superhuman powers (such as the ability to fly, super strength, etc).  Much of the series focuses on his efforts to understand humanity as it is his combating the forces of evil.  As one of the first manga series (and subsequently one of the first anime series), it established a lot of the characteristics and traits that anime would follow to this day.  The series ended in Japan with AstroBoy’s death in an effort to save the world.  It goes without saying that in the United States, the final episode was not aired.
Appearance – 4 out of 5
This is a beautiful toy that really stands out.  The action figure looks just like the character from the show, from the colors to the expression on his face to the style of his hair.  The proportions are well preserved and the anime look (notorious for not transitioning too well to ‘real’ depictions) is done very well with this toy.  The lack of textures is a small issue because, like in the manga and the series, a stylized simplicity takes precedent.

Construction – 3 out of 5
The toy is well constructed and sturdy, but there is little to stand out about the figure.  The plastic is above-average in its durability, but is far from remarkable.  There is some heft to the figure but nothing that’s really worth mentioning.  The inclusion of obvious joints and seams is what keeps this score from being a bit higher.

Movement – 5 out of 5
At first glance, it would appear that this toy is extremely mobile.  With hips, shoulders, and elbow joints, this figure looks like it can take on the world.  Upon closer inspection, though, it’s revealed that each limb has a fairly limited range of motion.  The arms can only swing up and down, from the sides to over the head (180 degrees range of motion).  But because the arms are angled, it feels much more natural.  The hips likewise have a limited range of motion that is saved by the unique angling.  The knees, though, can not only bend but can also rotate, granting the legs the appearance of a far greater range of motion than it first seems.  These little tricks to feel more ambulatory than the figure actually is makes it all the more intriguing to handle and play with.  This kind of cleverness in the design is almost more interesting than true move-any-which-way-yet-unnatural variety.

Extras – 2 out of 5
There isn’t really much extra to this toy, but that’s in keeping with the concept of the character (AstroBoy doesn’t have many gimmicks like ray guns or the like).  There is a small set of cards that are meant to activate AstroBoy’s different powers, but the cards are simple cardboard and the powers work regardless, so their inclusion is moot.

What extras there are happen to be built into the toy.  AstroBoy’s shins open up to reveal chrome mechanizations.  His chest opens to reveal his heart (which lights up with sound effects).  His left hand shoots off.  He has rockets built into his feet (yes, they fire), and when you turn his otherwise immobile head to the left, his eyes light up.  As cool as these little powers are, however, it would be nice to have some additional pieces.

Packaging – 4 out of 5
This toy has some beautiful, if simple packaging.  It’s distinctive, colorful, and it gives you all the information you need: the history of AstroBoy the franchise, the history of AstroBoy the character, a layout of his various powers and features, everything.  While there’s nothing groundbreaking, the packaging in general is just a fine example of doing everything right.

Overall – 4 out of 5
This is a fantastic toy.  It’s a little basic, what with the lack of extra parts and the unremarkably good construction, but it’s a blast to play with, has a lot of little features, and is sturdy enough to survive years of play.  Plus, it’s just fun to handle and pose, which often times makes for the best toys of all.  This is a great toy that enjoyed a limited run, but will hopefully be remembered by fans and collectors alike.