Tomorrowland Fanedit Project (feeding the right wolf)

It’s a long-held opinion of mine: I’d rather see a film that was an ambitious failure than a film that was middle-of-the-road and phoned-in. At least the one with ambition is indicative of some kind of vision. And, sometimes, if you’re lucky, there are flashes of the film that the costumers, actors, grips, producers, writers and director were trying to make that didn’t come out quite right.

So, there’s Tomorrowland in a nutshell. While Brad Bird is one of my favorite filmmakers of all time, his unique adventure story seemed like it didn’t know what it wanted to be. It was readily apperent to me when I rewatched the film in its Blu-ray incarnation.

All the time I took the film in, studying it, wanting to understand what went wrong for me. So, like any sane person, I took my disc upstairs, ripped a copy, and started cutting my own version. As it stands, even though I added a cut animated sequence (I’m not sure it was intended to be cut into the film at all), my Tomorrowland is roughly 15 minutes shorter, at 115 minutes including credits.

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Here are my initial notes and things that I set out to change as effectively as I can. I’m hindered by the lack of footage and the fact that I can’t isolate music from the audio. I’ve heard a longer cut of the film existed at some point (and, perhaps this is why the film’s original editor, Walter Murch, is one of two editors credited on the film) and I’d love to see how the longer version plays. As it stands, the film’s pretty great action scenes and unique ideas aside, it’s a muddled finished product. Anyway, here are my notes:

INTRODUCTION/WORLD’S FAIR SLUGGISHNESS

Most of the film’s troubles, remarkable, are in its first third. What should be a propulsive launch on a fun rocket ride (Rocket Rod?) is a meandering journey. While one could say that its slow start is trying to build mystery and suspense, there is no mystery. If the audience is supposed to want to see Tomorrowland, then the film gives up the goods WAY too early, when young Frank stumbles his way from the subway car-like transport vehicle hidden beneath the Mary Blair figurines and canals of It’s a Small World.

The Frank and Casey “recording” framing device is stilted and not as cute as the film wants it to be. It’s never really properly called back at the end (is it a new piece of marketing for attracting potential dreamers?). As it turns out at the end, they’re not even making a video recording–it turns out that they’re talking to a crowd of new Athena-class robot recruiters.

So, I cut both the framing device and Frank’s entrance into Tomorrowland. Instead, my version starts with part of the excellent Plus Ultra animation (which is on the Blu-ray as an option to watch before the movie). The final shot of the animation crossfades into the custom Disney castle title, then to the credits and we’re off at the World’s Fair. It’s abrupt but it’s the best I could do. So, we learn about the existence of this awesome future world. That way, when Frank gets the invite from Athena, we already have a hint of what’s in store.

I also tightened up everything at the World’s Fair. Do we really need to know about Frank’s daddy issues? Also, his hemming and hawing in front of Dr. Nix was a bit much, and I shortened down the sequence where he crashes his jetpack, so that there’s a jump cut when Frank hits the fence. We know that Frank’s okay–he’s standing right in front of us telling us about what happened earlier!

But, instead of the protracted sequence of Frank falling off platforms when he gets into Tomorrowland (and, doesn’t that take something away when a freakin’ robot fixes his jetback for him?), we don’t get to see him make it there. It’s more mysterious. I cut directly from Frank transporting over to Casey zipping by on her motorcycle.

WHO IS THIS FILM ABOUT?

This gets me to the film’s next big issue. It doesn’t have a clear focus. Casey Newton is our POV character for all intents and purposes, but the heart of the story is with Frank and Athena. We shouldn’t see Tomorrowland when Frank gets there, we should be in awe when Casey gets to see it. Moreover, we should completely agree when Casey goes to some crazy lengths to get back to the place that she saw when she touched the pin for the first time.

All the cuts I made to the first 15 minutes of the film are intended to get the audience to Casey sooner, while not diminishing the relationship between the Athena and Frank, as it pays off later on in the story rather sweetly. Brad Bird called this a “road movie” and those elements are undeniable. It’s just that it takes far too long to get on the “road to Tomorrowland.”

I also truncated a section in their road trip before they get to Frank’s house. We don’t need Athena being so blatent about how special Casey is. “The Chosen One” is a tired trope–let’s let Casey’s natural brightness win the day instead of something prophetic.

I also cut Athena entirely from this section of the film. We don’t see her place the pin inside Casey’s stuff, or watching Casey from afar, or even confronting Casey’s brother as to where she is (although I thought the fake Girl Scout bit was cute).

This way, Athena just shows up, ready to kick butt at Blast From the Past. It makes it all the weirder that she isn’t an adult–she looks the same as she was in 1964. In the car on the way to Frank’s house is her chance to explain that, of course, she’s a robot. I call moments like this, where a friend of the hero shows up out of nowhere to save his/her butt a “Millennium Falcon,” referencing when Han shoots up Vader and his cronies as Luke tries to blow up the Death Star. This way, Athena gets her “Falcon” moment to show up and save Casey.

Speaking of Blast from the Past, I cut out the scene where the Audioanimatronic agents return to the scene of the explosion and kill three police officers in cold blood. The weird, smiley leader of these silly villains is offputting to me, and I can only think of the evil Inspector Gadget from that terrible 1998 adaptation, false teeth and all. We know Athena and Casey are being persued, and this scene only slows the pacing down further. When the agents show up at Frank’s house, we know exactly who they are–they say so!

THE ENDING

There are still problems with the ending of the film. For instance, why did it take this long to tell the audience exactly what the plot of the film was? We don’t learn about the grim prediction of the Monitor until the very last act of the movie, at which point much of the audience is probably already not invested in the story. Nix is a bad guy, but not a villainous character. His death is rather shocking and abrupt, and I think given the upbeat message of the film, redemption was probably a better choice…but I digress.

If I had access to more deleted scenes (of which, it seems, there are plenty), I might have a shot at making better sense of the end fight. I like the ideas there, but, again, while they’re hinted at, the plight of the world with the Monitor is firmed up far too late to make a difference.

AND ANOTHER THING

There are three gratuitous shakey-noisey transportation sequences in the film and so I cut one down substantially. You still see Frank get tossed around as he departs the World’s Fair in the beginning, even if you don’t get to see him arrive there and triumphantly soar around Tomorrowland. The New York to France transportation I cut down quite a bit not only to save the audience yet another redundant, disorienting trip with the characters, but also to get us to Paris that much sooner. The problem is that there’s still so much of this kind of business, that I fear that the audience is fatigued with seeing our heroes shaken, distorted, and making funny noises, that by the time they board the rocket at the Eiffel Tower, I’m completely worn out!

CASEY LOSES OUT

Unfortunately, since I decided that this movie was really about Frank and Athena fixing the problems of Tomorrowland with the help of Casey, Casey is the character that gets the short end of the stick. I cut out more of her background/family life in order to speed things up.

I like Casey’s character, but since she’s just a special/chosen one character, her arc is much less interesting than the unique chemistry between Frank and Athena. Casey doesn’t sacrifice anything–she just exists to reunite the two who make up the emotional center of the story.

LINGERING QUESTIONS

The big problem at the end of the film is that we don’t know what’s coming next. Fresh blood might help restore the Tomorrowland dimension to its former glory, but we still don’t understand if/when the discoveries there will be introduced to the world at large. It just feels like the exclusivity has been entirely kept the same, which was part of Nix’s problem. It’s a place for dreamers, but it should also be a place that benefits everybody, which was part of the plan back in the 1960s.

An idea for a coda: remember when Frank says he wanted his jetpack to inspire others back in 1964? How about this: after the new Athena robots go through the portal back to earth, Frank suits up. Boots. Helmet. Goggles. With a few taps on the control panel, New York City pops up inside the portal. He smiles to himself, adjusting his 1964-era T-pin on his flightsuit. In his mind’s eye, he sees Athena smiling back at him through the years. He cracks a wide, beaming smile, taking off vertically. He takes a wide loop over the city, getting a running start into the portal and BOOM he’s in New York. He buzzes Brooklyn, looking out for the people below snapping photos of him with their phones. A little girl looks up from a tenement balcony, and waves at Frank. Frank smiles and waves back at her. She is awestruck. Fade to black.

Like many of the changes that I saw could be made in the film, the obviousness of this ending almost pains me! What a nice bow on top that could be.

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Back after a long time

Hello!

I just changed jobs from writing about photography and cameras with Reviewed.com, and my new gig is with the great people at The Sweethome covering all kinds of home goods. Look for more computer/gadget related stuff here soon so I can get my fix of nerding out about all kinds of neat tech goodness!

-brendan

My take on iOS 7

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I’ve had a chance to check out iOS 7 on an iPod Touch for a few days now and I thought I’d add my notes here. Since buying my first Windows Phone last year, I’ve loved how simple and unified the experience feels. Android continues to have a designed-by-committee style—even with the influence of Matias Duarte, it continues to be a bit of a mess. So, as far as I’m concerned, from a design perspective, there are only two relevant mobile phone OSes—iOS and Windows Phone 8.

Comparing the two might seem like it makes sense on the surface. Apple wholeheartedly bought into the so-called skeuomorphic design with prior iOS versions. The wood grain, stitched leather and green felt diminished the overall experience, undermining any decent UI work going on in the OS. Some apps, famously, went far off the deep end. The voice memos app displayed a big microphone instead of giving users more useful information, and the podcasting app looked like a 1970s reel-to-reel tape machine—something that most iOS users have probably never seen outside of the movies.

iOS 7 is supposed to clean up the mess left behind by Scott Forstall’s cronies. Steve Jobs might have been a fan of the style, but let’s remember that he also thought the iPod Hi-Fi was good enough to replace his primo home audio system. It’s the first effort from a team headed by Jony Ive.

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Six months of Surface

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Consider this a long-term review. I bought a Surface RT last year, not too long after they were originally introduced through Microsoft’s retail stores. As I was working at a Microsoft Store, I had a pretty good idea of when it was safe to buy, since there were some teething issues to be sure. I’m still experiencing one of them, but more on that later.

Six months in, it’s been mostly a good ride. Mostly. First things first, this is a first-gen product running brand-new software. It’s that second point that the iPad didn’t suffer from, since iOS was fairly mature once enlarged to tablet size. I’ve written before how refreshing the new Windows is, and how forward-thinking Microsoft’s strategy is. Even though their execution leaves a little to be desired, Windows 8 and RT are the future of this platform and they’re not standing still. Frequent updates have been issued to keep them in good form performance- and security-wise.

 

Design

Surface RT is a beautiful device. There’s no way around it. Its rigid magnesium casing and kickstand are unique. It’s the only device that balances tablet and laptop in an unobtrusive way, without necessitating the need for a clunky dock. Touch and Type Cover are there when you need them, and they get out of the way quickly and without drama. I’m still experiencing an issue with my Surface where the logo is dissolving away from the back of the tablet, and it’s the second unit I’ve had to do so. The kickstand deploys with great confidence and has never accidentally snagged on something or endangered the device.

I, for one, am hoping that Panos Panay and his team stick with this screen size in future tablet devices. It’s a perfect balance between screen and keyboard size, making neither one too small or too big. They clearly did their homework when striking this compromise.

A lot of people don’t like Touch Cover. I would know, I helped introduce many people to it during the Surface launch. Working one-on-one with customers to set up their new Surface devices was occasionally frustrating (due to the stupid amount of updates and the slow store wifi) but mostly rewarding as they learned the new touch interface and how to get around. Many people opted for the “real” keyboard that Type cover offers, simply out of fear. Touch Cover is a huge step up from an on-screen keyboard and it’s a testament to its usefulness that I typed this entire review on it. No fooling. It’s a solution that Apple could have dreamed up had they thought more about how the entire device was going to be used. Instead, Apple’s official solution involves a not-so-smart cover and an external keyboard which (from my own experience) isn’t bag-friendly and often loses key covers in transit. Not to mention the shortcomings of iOS, but more on that later.

Support

Surface started off with some irritating bugs. One involved wifi, where it would simply lose its connection and require some fiddling to get back on a network. Another rendered its stereo speakers too quiet, and a fix was only offered up a few weeks ago. OS updates are frequent and usually do improve the experience.

App Store

It’s getting better, really. The store has only been open since late October and the selection is surprisingly decent. The core apps have improved dramatically from their original, occasionally frustrating versions. RT would be really useless if it weren’t for the Office apps and I’ve been impressed by the functionality. After using Office on Mac for so many years, I can understand why the Windows versions are still relevant. Office on Mac sucks and it’s a great experience on Windows.

OS

I like the new Windows. Coming from almost 10 years of Mac usage, it finally offers a pretty polished experience. The whole enchilada still isn’t where it will be, with its bifurcated desktop/start screen worlds touching too infrequently, offering up redundant options in some places. I like the gesture-heavy nature of the touch stuff, I like the unified Charms bar and super fast app switching and multitasking. The drivers available are pretty comprehensive and printer setup is a snap. Windows RT is exactly what I hoped the iPad was when it was introduced– a tablet computer. There’s a file structure (GASP!), a USB port, an SD card slot and they all work like you expect them to. There’s no awkward siloing of files from app to app. There’s no bending over backwards to save stuff locally. It just works like we’re used to things working on computers. It has handwriting recognition built in, too, for chrissakes. Even though the digitizer is basically fingers-only on this device, it opens the door for future RT devices to feature something that Apple seems to think is stupid and not worth their time. That’s a mistake, seeing how they keep touting finger-only screens as the way to go. Capacitive stylus sales prove that “if you see a stylus, they blew it” mentality is bunk.

From what we’ve seen of Windows 8.1, the operating system is getting better at a rapid clip. Exactly what needed to happen.

 

I like RT

I said it. I think it’s pretty neat that I have the NT kernel running on ARM hardware. Hopefully 8.1 makes it even better and I’m looking forward to checking out the 8.1 beta. I feel like this is Windows in its purest form, without the risk of viruses or other stuff gumming up the works. Apps have to be approved by Microsoft and it comes with Office built-in. Sweet. As a Mac person, all this stuff makes the platform highly approachable and completes the experience. I like that the hardware and software are made by the same company, meaning they can optimize the experience.

What I want from the next-generation Surface RT: Active stylus, better performance and more storage for the same price. A higher-res screen would be nice, but only if properly implemented. If RT doesn’t offer this stuff, I’ll consider just getting an Intel-based Surface instead. With the next-generation of processors around the corner, the convergence of desktop, laptop and tablet is about to really get fired-up.

And, then there’s Apple. Apple still doesn’t have a strategy for their newly-created “post-PC” world. iOS hasn’t matured in the ways it needs to in order to replace Mac OS. I sincerely hoped a few years back that iOS devices could be good enough to replace a computer, but that hasn’t happened.

Fear of an iCloud planet

There’s something I’ve come to realize in the last few days.
That is the fact that I have become unhappy with the path Apple seems hellbent
on taking. They’re trying to hide the file system on the Mac to become more
like that of the iOS world. No place is this more apparent than with their
iCloud efforts. I’m afraid of saving files from Pages and other apps on my Mac
to iCloud because there’s no transparency whatsoever. I can’t see where the
file went, whether or not it went there successfully.

I don’t like it one bit. Before with .Mac and MobileMe, they
at least had accessible cloud storage. There’s no elegant way of obscuring all
this stuff from the user without completely reinventing the way the user
interacts with basically everything. At least not at present. 

Sidebar: I’d also like to posit that the way Apple has
forced apps on iOS to silo their files and limit interaction between programs
is ultimately the most limiting artificial constraint placed on iOS. The only
other major feature missing is, in my opinion, the fake multitasking. Switching
from modal app to modal app isn’t multitasking. True, side-by-side interaction
of content is impossible on the iPad for instance, making writing a reaction
blog post or school paper a most strange dance back and forth between apps
which then have to quickly wake themselves up in order to be operable.

I think the endgame isn’t the elimination of the file system
but, instead, the supplanting of worry about backup with the confidence of a
solid cloud solution. Users won’t have to care about their files or where they
are if they’re accessible from anywhere reliably. There’s no reason to drop a
working paradigm when conceptually, its replacement is vastly more complex.

Perhaps I’m being reluctant towards this new direction in
computing because it’s different. While I try to remain open to the constantly
changing technology landscape, I can’t accept the iCloud method because of that
lack of any transparency. Right now, I’m greatly appreciating the hybrid system
that Microsoft has developed in SkyDrive. Unlike iCloud, SkyDrive is a bit of a
hybrid between a passive iCloud-like system (“magical” file transfer done
without you thinking so your files are everywhere, tight integration with
applications) and an active Dropbox-type system (files and folders are
accessible through a number of different outlets and devices). In true
Microsoft manner, they’ve made a tool that’s useful to novice and power users
alike depending on the amount of control said user demands.

Photo from the inimitable John Siracusa’s Mac OS X Mountain Lion review for Ars Technica.

 

Note: Since my last blog post, I’ve been given employ at a Microsoft Store. Just a head’s up to anyone looking for any kind of journalistic integrity here on a personal blog about technology. Additionally, this was written entirely on a Microsoft Surface with a Touch Cover. It’s a really interesting device that I’ve come to love and I’m seriously reconsidering my computing platform of choice as the Windows world gets better and better. But, that’s a posting for another time… 

Why the Surface keyboard has me excited

While the liveblogging was going on for Microsoft’s Surface introduction, I was cautiously optimistic about what the devices would really accomplish. The most notable feature is, without a doubt, that keyboard cover. It’s important to people who actually touch type or to anyone who wants to type at any real speed. I keep hearing about people writing thousands of words on iOS devices and I just can’t help but think that that’s going to lead to some really bad RSI. I love Patrick Rhone’s minimalmac but he’s gonna hurt himself writing so much on his iPhone. Continue reading

Resurfacing history

Once upon a time, a company introduced a new product. It was a closely guarded secret and when it was revealed, it took the technology press and public by surprise. It was the result of years of research and development. When this product was announced, the parent company showed it off but gave away little details. The screen resolution and battery life were not announced at the event and neither were any of the exact specs. Details were glossed over even in hands-on sessions. Reporters were given limited time with company goons looking over their shoulder. No one was sent home with review units.

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