Monday, September 18, 2017

Sugar and Spicer

I don’t care for The Emmys. Not only do they not tickle my fancy, but I only have patience for one overly-long and portentous awards ceremony (The Oscars) a year. However, because I frequent Twitter, I absorb the snarky, cliff-notes version via everyone else. This year’s ceremony seemed pretty typical: surprises, disappointments and many political jabs at Trump. But there was one surprise that threw everyone off, and not for the right reasons: the inclusion of Sean Spicer.

To recap, Sean Spicer was Donald Trump’s second Director of Communications (he started as Press Secretary). He held the post from June 2nd to July 21st, when he resigned and was replaced by Anthony Scaramucci. Spicer’s legacy was racked with controversy, including a moment when he attacked The Anne Frank Centre. Spicer was so infamously hated that he was openly lampooned by Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live, no doubt a highlight in the latter’s career. In other words, Spicer was the Squealer to Trump’s Napoleon, a fitting comparison given Trump’s authoritarian practices.

I don’t need to say that Sean Spicer was bad news, as it’d be redundant. Yet Spicer appearing on The Emmys is insulting. It’s insulting given what he represents, especially since his legacy stands for everything that The Emmys aren’t. If The Emmys are a celebration of progress and diversity, even if only in theory, then Spicer spits directly on that. He’s the last person I’d want on my show, and I’m disappointed that he was there at all. That the audience thought it was funny that he roasted Trump doesn’t help.

Think about it this way: let’s say a well-known bully came into power running on a campaign of hate. Said bully’s surrounded by a group of like-minded individuals, only to then be picked off one-by-one because they’re no longer deemed fit for service. Now, say one of these individuals is then invited to roast the aforementioned bully. Wouldn’t you be the least bit concerned?

That’s the problem with Sean Spicer. On one hand, you could make the flimsy argument that Spicer wasn’t the mastermind here. He was following orders, and should, therefore, not be held accountable. This is the defence that some people could possibly make for Spicer appearing at The Emmys, citing that his inside knowledge about Trump that could help to “defeat him”.

This is flawed logic for two reasons. Firstly, it’ll take more than Spicer to stop Trump. Trump has slipped by many constitutional violations in his short time as president, including his Muslim ban (which was struck down twice) and his transgender military service ban (which is currently up in the air). He has the backing of the GOP, including GOP leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan. His ties to Russian influence have been confirmed on multiple occasions, despite going nowhere. And, lest we forget, he fired FBI director James Comey for openly starting an investigation into said ties to Russia.

In other words, Trump’s gonna be tough to really “take down”. But even outside of that, Spicer’s not innocent. I know this’ll ruffle some feathers, but this same argument of “not being responsible” was used during The Nuremberg Trials by former Nazi officials awaiting execution. The claim of “following orders” was a red herring because Nazi soldiers were considered capable of making their own decisions. Said officials were, therefore, judged on their own merits.

It may not be exactly the same, but Spicer’s still complicit in evil. This is a man who openly claimed that Trump’s inauguration crowd size was purposely doctored to look smaller than Obama’s, despite evidence to the contrary. This is a man who openly called Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad worse than Adolf Hitler for gassing his own people, despite Hitler having done the same in larger numbers. And this is a man who defended Trump’s decision to bar reporters from The White House during a press conference, which is a clear violation of the right to a free press.

Essentially, Sean Spicer has “blood on his hands”. So for The Emmys to ignore that and invite him anyway, well…that reeks. It’s one scenario when an individual with blood on their hands openly atones and spends years repairing open wounds. That’s not ideal, but if the sincerity’s genuine then I’m sure something can come from it. But Spicer has blood on his hands and has made no attempt at exonerating his guilt. He’s far from repentant, and he has yet to be held accountable. So why is he suddenly being treated like a celebrity?

It’s additionally worrying because Spicer’s part of a system that’s caused a lot of damage in the US. Not only has this system attacked Jews, it’s attacked Muslims, Latinos, blacks, queers, veterans, people with disabilities, the poor, the elderly, immigrants and women of all shades and colours. Trump’s administration has cut funding to programs like Meals on Wheels and Planned Parenthood, programs which have actively helped people in need, and he’s even caused the GDP to start shrinking. If Spicer was a part of this mess, then why’s he now off-the-hook?

I’m also miffed at celebrity culture for allowing this, even if only as comedy. It sure seems nice to have an insider make fun of his former-boss…until you realize that you’re poking fun at others’ suffering. I don’t care what you think of Trump, but others’ suffering is no laughing matter. If we’re really want to help make the US a better country, then this normalized nonsense can’t be tolerated. There has to be a line drawn somewhere.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Humanity of Studio Ghibli: Why I Enjoy Their Work

A blue, staticky screen envelopes the black television set. It’s then filled with a black, outlined image of a giant, koala-cat-like creature staring to the left. Underneath, Japanese text appears in block letters. The text and image then disappear, only to reveal more text and a date. The text then disappears again, followed by the blue screen fading to reveal black once more. And all of this to silence.

Welcome to a Studio Ghibli film.

I normally don’t discuss anime here. It’s not only too alienating for my target audience, but it usually fits better on Infinite Rainy Day. However, today I’m making an exception. This week marks the 7th anniversary of me first discovering Spirited Away, and I didn’t want to pass up this opportunity; after all, Studio Ghibli played a significant part in forming my post-adolescence, even helping me finish university, so it’s only fair that I share why Studio Ghibli, the Disney of Japan, has had such an impact.

Let’s begin with the most-obvious question: who, or what, is Studio Ghibli? The short answer is that they’re a Japanese animation house that makes films. First formed in 1985, the studio has spent the last 30+ years making films uniquely Japanese and distinctly populist. They’ve garnered awards after accolades, as well as praise from critics and moviegoers, for tackling themes and topics that’d feel as at home in the indie circuit as in mainstream theatres. Even if you haven’t heard of them, chances are you know someone who has, due in-part to, but not solely because of, their now-expired distribution contract with Disney.

There are many reasons why people love Studio Ghibli: anime purists love them for their commitment to portraying Japanese culture respectfully. Animation fans love them for their commitment to pushing the envelope of animation. Hardcore cinephiles love them because they’re relevant enough to be obscure, but not too irrelevant that they can’t be recommended to casual filmgoers. Critics love them because they’re qualitative goldmines. Even feminists love them because they touch on gender inequality in a conservative-minded society like Japan.

All of these above reasons are why I love Studio Ghibli too. However, they’re not the true reason. That’s something a little more personal. It’s one that I think no animation company in the West, save possibly Pixar at their best, truly gets and understands. But when you get down to it, it absolutely makes sense: Studio Ghibli understands the human element.

Take Kiki’s Delivery Service. The film isn’t all that elaborate, being about a 13 year-old witch taking part in a coming-of-age tradition of moving away from home for a year to hone her craft. The movie’s a standard slice-of-life story, but where as that might not sound interesting initially, we’re still hooked by the film’s heroine. This is because Kiki acts appropriately for a 13 year-old: on one hand, there’s pre-teen angst, a clambering to retain youth, a desire for independence and the constant fight with responsibility that leads to insecurity and self-doubt. On the other hand, there’s the gendered expectations that come from entering into adulthood, namely upkeep, an attraction to boys and the grace of femininity. This duality to Kiki means that even if you’re not female yourself, you can still understand and relate to the struggles of growing up.

And this is shown in how Kiki behaves throughout. When she first meets Tombo, she’s cold and dismissive, finding him weird and unsettling despite being sweet and charming. Even though she’s nice and warm to everyone else, Kiki shuts him out, ignores him and dreads having to talk to him. It’s only once she’s asked to deliver a package to Tombo that she opens up to him. Little details in this interaction mirror how an intersex friendship at this age would play out, a detail many Western films, even the greats, ignore for the sake of time.

On the opposite end, you have Castle in the Sky. The film is high-strung fantasy, akin to a conventional action movie. But even amidst its action tropes, there’s a profoundly-human component to its characters. Pazu and Sheeta act and behave like real pre-teens, being whimsical in imagination, yet stubborn and wanting to be reliable. Pazu’s sweet and caring, but also stubborn and reckless, insisting on acting tough despite that not being his nature. Sheeta, while mild-mannered and graceful, is also resourceful and willful, even standing up for what she believes in. The movie might be unrealistic in setting, but the characters aren’t, and it’s that believability that makes them so fascinating.

Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than with Spirited Away’s Chihiro. Chihiro’s strength comes from her vulnerability and insecurity. She’s remarkable because there’s nothing remarkable about her, acting no differently than your typical 10 year-old in a scary and foreign situation. Her growth, therefore, stems from learning to be the best of herself despite her flaws. Again, these sorts of quirks are ignored in the West because they’re “uninteresting”, when the reality’s far from that.

This attention to character gives Studio Ghibli their human edge, irrespective of genre or premise. No matter how grand or small, be it intervening in a conflict between man and nature, trying to survive the early days of Fascism, struggling to write a story or dealing with depression, Studio Ghibli films can be counted on to provide the nuanced intimacy of the human experience. As a result, they’ve consistently churned out classic after classic for over three decades. That’s something not even Pixar, for all of their praise, can manage.

True, Studio Ghibli movies, like all films, aren’t 100% realistic. I’ve long given up trying to emulate films, instead striving to learn from them, and these are no different. Even after having graduated from university, I still find myself coming back for different reasons. Kiki’s Delivery Service and Whisper of the Heart, movies that spoke to the emotional dry spells I had in school, now speak to me as an adult feeling the burden of producing quality writing consistently, while My Neighbor Totoro has taken on new meaning in the years following my dad’s heart attack. Even Spirited Away, arguably the movie that started it all, has quickly moved up the ranks due to its themes of self-growth resonating 7 years later. It’s hard to make me care that deeply about art, let-alone anime, but if Studio Ghibli can do that, surely they’re worth the praise, right?

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Inglourious Dilemma

I was originally gonna make my 69th blog entry about the newest Netflix-Marvel collaboration. However, in light of the situation in Charlottesville, the resurgence of neo-Nazism and the scary events that’ve come to pass in the last 8 months, I figured that wouldn’t cut it. I’ll still cover the show, but I’d rather get this off of my chest. So let’s discuss the only relevant topic I can: a controversial hot-take on one of the dumbest-titled movies from everyone’s favourite master of violence, Quentin Tarantino. Let’s talk about Inglourious Basterds, and why, several years after watching it on Netflix, I, as a Jew, find it insulting.

I’ll start with what I remember liking about the movie: for one, the acting is great. I especially appreciate how it, in true Tarantino fashion, took actors people stopped caring about, i.e. Mike Myers, paired them with relative newcomers, Michael Fassbender, and made them likeable. I also like how, in true Tarantino fashion, it took unknowns, like Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Laurent, and made them hot-button stars. This is one of Tarantino’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker next to his penchant for artistic violence. Besides, any movie with Christoph Waltz hamming it up, even if it’s bad, earns points in my eyes.

And two, I love the music. Ignoring obscure pop ballads that fit the mood, yet I’ll probably never care about again, Tarantino’s collaborations with Ennio Morricone are some of the best later compositions of the man’s multi-decade career. People associate Morricone with Spaghetti Westerns, particularly The Dollars Trilogy, without recognizing the composer’s legacy doesn’t end there. Much like John Williams, Morricone’s a varied orchestrator, and stopping with his most-famous work is unfair. Inglourious Basterds follows suit.

With that out of the way, let’s talk framing:

As you know by now, and for those who don’t, film’s a visual medium. Unlike books, which rely on text, movies have the challenge of juggling ideas and acting simultaneously. Part of that’s how the characters are directly, or indirectly, framed. A hero’s actions, for example, are usually framed positively, while a villain’s actions are framed negatively. There are ways of playing around with this, much to your audience’s reaction varying, but how your characters’ behaviours are framed, via lighting, mood, or music, is relevant to how your audience perceives them, even when it’s unintentional.

I feel bad for even bringing this up with Tarantino. His heart’s in the right place with Inglourious Basterds, and I have to respect the premise. Having a movie that’s basically a white man’s apology for The Holocaust isn’t a bad idea, and I appreciate that it was made. However, such a story requires a nuanced hand that Tarantino lacks, as it shows by how quickly the experience goes south after an opening scene which is, arguably, the best in the entire film. If anything, that scene alone is an effective apology for The Holocaust.

The problem with Inglourious Basterds is one that frequently permeates it, and it’s so subtle that most people probably won’t pick up on it unless they’re paying attention to the framing: the Nazis here are more sympathetic than the Jews.

There’s a certain expectation of how a Nazi’s supposed to act, based on a combination of past movies and how Nazis behaved in real-life. A typical Nazi has the proper attire, which includes the ever-famous Swastika. A typical Nazi is proper, almost presentable. And a typical Nazi is ruthless, uncomfortably menacing to anyone they deem inferior. I’d add that a typical Nazi is also intelligent, but history has shown that not all of them were.

On a surface level, Inglourious Basterds covers most of that checklist: attire? Check. Proper? Not entirely, but still check. Ruthlessness, however, is where it gets tricky. I say this because while the Nazis in this movie may appear ruthless, in truth all of them, save Waltz’s Hans Lada, aren’t any more ruthless than your typical soldier.

I’ll use an example: early on, there’s a scene involving a group of rebel Jews killing and scalping Nazi soldiers in an ambush. The scene appears to be fine, but when you stop and look at the Nazis, well…they don’t really act ruthless. One of them even shouts that he surrenders as he’s picked off. It might be played as humorous and cathartic, but the framing never comes off that way. Instead, you’re left with defenceless soldiers being murdered because they’re wearing uniforms they don’t even embody.

Basically, the Nazis in this movie don’t act like Nazis.

I think the best illustration of this is when we’re introduced to The Bear Jew, a merciless Nazi-killer who wields a baseball bat and loves narrating play-by-plays. The film sets up the victim, a high-ranking Nazi official that refuses to cave, and draws the suspense as The Bear Jew enters. And then, in a barbaric and “cathartic” display, The Bear Jews bludgeons the Nazi with his bat while narrating his favourite baseball play. This is meant to be funny and satisfying, otherwise the other Jews in the militia wouldn’t be enjoying this. Yet I felt nothing save pity.

How about the scene in the bar? Not only does it drag, but it’s probably the epitome of my issue with this movie’s portrayal of Nazis: the premise here is that there are Nazis co-mingling with British and French spies. One of the Nazis, a timid private, has recently become a father, even though his wife died in childbirth. The scene reaches its peak when one of the spies gives his identity away accidentally, leading to an intense shoot-out where the private is the only survivor. As the Basterds arrive and demand that the private surrender, promising to let him live, one the spies wakes up, revealing that she hadn’t died, and shoots him anyway. Like with The Bear Jew, this is supposed to be cathartic. Except because the private was sympathetic, it made me angry instead.

These moments make me wish the film had either made the Nazis entirely human, or made the Nazis entirely cartoons. Because I’d prefer either-or over the half-baked attempt at humanizing the Nazis, then giving us tonal whiplash by expecting us to cheer when they died anyway. Say what you will about Django Unchained, but at least that movie knew how to paint its antagonists. It understood that the black slaves were always sympathetic despite their actions, and that the slave owners were always unsympathetic despite their actions. And it never once cheapened out, making the carnage that much more satisfying.

Inglourious Basterds bungles this. It bungles this so badly that it made the climactic centrepiece, a mass-slaughter in a theatre, feel wasted. It was so badly bungled that it made killing high-ranking Nazi officers, which should’ve been satisfying, unsatisfying. It was so badly bungled that it even made blowing Hitler to shreds, or whatever this movie considers Hitler to be, a painful experience. Not even Shoshana, arguably the film’s most-sympathetic character, comes off scot-free, as her diabolical laugh is so out-of-character that it makes me wonder if Tarantino gave up.

The only redeeming character is, as I said earlier, Lada. Not only does he act like an actual Nazi, but his inevitable end is the best part of the film’s denouement. I’d have preferred if Shoshana had survived the theatre massacre and carved the Swastika on his forehead herself, which’d have been fitting given that he’d murdered her entire family, but I’ll settle with what we got. Besides, living with a visual reminder that you’re awful is more fitting than dying. Especially given how often awful people slip through the cracks without accountability in reality.

I get it: it’s a movie. Movies aren’t real. You don’t need a reason to hate Nazis. But while these are valid rebuttals to any and all complaints I have about Inglourious Basterds, at the same time I wish they wouldn’t be used to silence my frustrations, as a Jew, about this movie’s portrayal of Nazis. Because framing’s still important. And when a film makes me sympathize with the wrong people, then there’s a problem.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Fresh Tomatoes?

I’d hoped that I’d be done with this after Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. For as much as the topic’s as relevant to film discourse as anything else, it’s an intellectual sin to waste my time on this nonsense. But there’s no maneuvering around it, so let’s discuss Rotten Tomatoes. Again. *Sigh*

Chances are that you’ve heard of The Emoji Movie. Not only is it the Summer’s biggest critical disappointment, but it’s also so reviled by film fans and audiences that people are frustrated that it replaced Genndy Tartakovsky’s Popeye project. It currently sits at a 5% on Rotten Tomatoes, and its consensus is an emoji itself. That’s how big a failure the film is, despite nabbing a little under $25 million in its opening weekend. It’s not a good sign for Sony Pictures, who are already struggling as is.

Rotten Tomatoes has been a hot-button topic in film discourse for years now. The site’s function is to be a hub for reviews from newspapers, online blogs, magazines, TV shows and videos around the globe where they’re then weighed for an average score. The accuracy of the score is up for debate, I take issue with certain facets of it myself, but the general formula for how films are measured is pretty straight-forward: gather the reviews, count the positive ones, average them out and factor in a 1-100 scale. There’s also a category for Top Critics (i.e. critics that are known to be trustworthy) and a median score out of 10. The reviewers are also linked in below, and users of the site can also posts reviews of their own.

Of course, being that this is the internet, someone’s bound to mess everything up, and that’s exactly what this article from The Hollywood Reporter discusses. The focus is on Hollywood’s attempt to subvert the system by tightening reviewer embargoes and only highlighting reviews that work in their favour. This is nothing new, but it’s gotten worse now that: a. many movies are shovelled out these days without passion or care. b. audiences take Rotten Tomatoes (perhaps a little too) seriously. In fact, AMC’s now clamping down on this by filtering out negative press. To quote:
“Box-office analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations says including the Rotten Tomato score on Fandango's ticket site is counterintuitive. ‘Rotten Tomatoes is a great resource, but can be damaging to the bottom line for films that people are on the fence about. And Fandango, at its core, is about selling as many tickets as possible,’ he says.”

I get it: critics can be terrible. I’ve seen Chef. I’ve seen Ratatouille. I’m aware that a bad review can break people, I’m no idiot. For as much as reviewers are doing their job, many can be quite nasty.

That having been said, trying to screw them over to “protect your reputation” isn’t helpful. Because while reviewers are often unreliable, obnoxious and misleading, they’re an important part of the discourse of art. And film, a medium that functions on mass-collaboration, is no different. So while it might harm ticket sales to see bad reviews, at the same time shafting them isn’t the answer. Audiences are perceptive enough to listen to word-of-mouth, especially given how expensive ticket sales are.

Also, here’s a “Fresh” idea for you: why not make good movies? I understand that art has a 10:1 ratio when it comes to bad-to-good, it’s in its DNA, but with so many talents working in film you’d think that more of them would be put to good use, no? Going by The Emoji Movie, the film had three writers, one of whom was also the director. Are you telling me that none of them cared while writing this movie? Because if The LEGO Movie can succeed despite also being a marketing gimmick, then there’s really no excuse!

And why’s it such a big deal that people are turned off by bad movies? Movies are expensive these days. It cost me a little over $16 to watch Dunkirk in IMAX, and that’s hard-earned money that I received from a job that doesn’t guarantee work. Being conservative with spending isn’t “a turn-off”, it’s being smart. Because if I’m to spend my money on a film, I’m wanna sure it’s worth my time first. And Rotten Tomatoes is a reasonable way to gage that.

It’s like the article states:
“…[I]t is ‘a disservice to focus just on the score. There are many levels of information.’”
Honestly, this is where the argument about Rotten Tomatoes being the “be-all-end-all” falls flat. No one’s forcing you to take the aggregates literally. Nor is it the site’s fault if a movie’s badly-received. At best, the only say Rotten Tomatoes has is its Critical Census tag-lines, and even then it can’t make up anything that doesn’t match the reviews. It’s not unlike yelling at your dinner in a fancy restaurant for tasting bad: your tuna steak isn’t responsible for the chef undercooking it. Take it up with the manager, don’t take it out on the food.

But if you’re gonna yell at the critics for trashing a movie, remember something that The Nostalgia Critic once noted in an editorial: critics see more movies than the average person, and they see them on a regular basis. Because of this, they tend to pick up on recurring patterns. So if they come off as harsh, it’s because it’s harder to impress them. I’d add that the average critic is looking at a film differently than a general audience, picking up details that the latter doesn’t really care about. That might sound rich coming from me, given that I routinely chew out critics over the MCU, but I really do think they deserve some slack even amidst any and all complaints I might have.

Finally, people need to stop attacking Rotten Tomatoes. It’s only the messenger, it’s not responsible for bad press. And stop taking it so literally too! Because unless you’re an art objectivist, whether or not a movie has a 93% or a 96% shouldn’t matter. Nor should it really matter if it has a 5%.

That said, The Emoji Movie’s existence still makes me angry: seriously, we gave up Popeye for this?!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Edgy Player Won?

The big news recently was the reveal of the Ready Player One trailer. I know nothing about the book it’s based on, save that it revels in nerd nostalgia and is largely regarded as obnoxious. However, despite the trailer being okay, its tagline is pretty arrogant, it seems like the discourse surrounding the film is that it’s “the culmination of everything wrong with modern Hollywood” and that it’ll “kill film culture as we know it”. And both of those are hot takes that don’t realize that they’re on fire.

When I originally wrote the first draft of this, I was a lot angrier. And it showed. I’ve calmed down a fair bit, but I still feel that a rant is worth my time. So let’s rant.

What is Ready Player One? Having not read the book, the best I’ve gathered is that it’s a sci-fi novel that sci-fis to the extreme. I don’t mean in a “this is a premise that could only exist in science-fiction” way, although I assume that’s true too. No, I’m talking in a “this is a movie that masturbates to the existence of every science-fiction story of the last 30-something years” kind of way. Because based on snippets that I’ve read, the text is self-referential in every paragraph to another piece of well-known fiction.

So yeah, it’s a fan-fiction popular enough to make into a movie. And while that’s not necessarily a problem, that it name-drops frequently means that not only would the licensing rights for the movie be expensive, but it may also get in the way of the storytelling. Which, by the way, is nerd-heavy wish-fulfillment. That doesn’t sound promising, especially considering that the protagonist appears to be a misogynistic prick who doesn’t learn anything.

So yeah, not compelling. But is it worth getting worked up over as the “death of film at the hands of nerd-bro nostalgia”? No. No it’s not. And here’s why:

Firstly, let’s look at who’s directing this movie. Steven Spielberg is, undeniably, one of the best living directors, as well as a remnant of the 70’s generation who really pushed the envelope of film. He’s a prime innovator in the medium, a man with many decades of gold under his belt. He also, surprisingly, can transition between serious and fun with ease, making him versatile as well. But I’ve already covered my thoughts on the man in another blog entry.

Any movie by Spielberg is worthy of my interest. I’d argue that it should be worthy of your interest too! It doesn’t mean that it’s automatically guaranteed to be good, but he’s at least deserving of credit. The man’s in his 70’s, and I doubt that he’d be directing something these days if he didn’t see potential in the material. He’s gotten really selective, after all.

But even then, Spielberg has enough clout to muster the money to make this work. Considering that Ready Player One revels in licensed IPs from East and West to tell its story, it’s safe to assume that the royalties would be pretty high regardless. Spielberg, given that he pretty much pioneered modern-Hollywood, can afford that, so I’m not worried. If anything, I’d be more worried about potential losses in returns! But that’s for another topic.

It’s also important to note that this kind of movie plays to his legacy well. It’s hard to imagine now, given that he’s fallen back on dramas and biopics, but there was a time in the 80’s and 90’s where Spielberg was the king of fun. Movies like Jurassic Park and the Indiana Jones films are proof of this, as they’re groundbreakers that Hollywood emulates in some fashion to this day. Ready Player One is pretty much a fan-written love-letter to Spielberg, and this is Spielberg answering that.

I wonder if film enthusiasts are conveniently ignoring this because they have a bone to pick with the premise, not knowing that execution is more important than idea. Even the dumbest of ideas can work if the right talent is on-board. I was skeptical that The LEGO Movie was gonna work, especially given its first trailer, yet it did. And that’s because Phil Lord and Chris Miller are a talented duo capable of making absurdist ideas function. Conversely, I was skeptical of The Social Network, but hey! David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin pulled it off!

Zak Penn is also hemming the script. I know that people aren’t happy that Ernest Cline is a co-writer, especially since he’s such an awful human being, but Penn also being one of the writers for X2: X-Men United and The Avengers should give some semblance of hope. He isn’t an Alex Kurtzmann, Roberto Orci or Damon Lindelof, i.e. writers who are notorious for being hacks, he’s simply a guy with a mixed track-record. He may be more miss-than-hit, but if he helped make The Hulk interesting and funny for the first time in a Marvel film then I say give him a chance. I’d add that 7 years is enough time for a writer to strengthen their writing talent, see Reki Kawahara and Sword Art Online, but from what I’ve gathered Cline hasn’t changed much.

There’s also the premise, which appears to work better as a film. Why? Because not only does the name-drop aspect work better in a visual medium, but crossover premises seem to be doing these days. We’ve seen it with The LEGO Movie and the MCU, and I’m even looking forward to the fight between King Kong and Godzilla that’s been built up for 3 years. Large-scale stories like Ready Player One feel right at home in film, so long as the story itself warrants it.

This is the frustration I have with film-bros claiming that “nostalgia has ruined Hollywood”. True, a lot of films these days are based on pre-existing properties. But not only are they being done well, for the most part, but they’re racking in big bucks. From general audiences too! People are paying to see this, so why stop? Supply and demand, after all!

Far too often, people look at an idea, see its “lack of potential” and immediately thumb their noses. And that bothers me. There’s a certain level of nerd-wank that people can’t tolerate, I respect that, but that’s not to say a cross-over style premise like this one can’t work. Because if any film era has proven it can handle something like this, it’s the current one.

I also find it annoying that film aficionados will thumb their noses at Hollywood’s “nostalgia boner”, only to watch obnoxious high-brow movies that “push the boundaries of film”. As someone who enjoys a good drama as much as any comic book or nostalgic action movie, I can’t help but find this pretentious. Sure, franchises like MCU are self-congratulatory wank-fests, but guess what? So was Birdman; in fact, that movie so over-romanticized the lead actor’s Batman career that it irritated me, especially with its hypocritical, in-film speech about how much of a “hack” Robert Downey Jr. is. How is that acceptable, yet nostalgic remakes, reboots and adaptations, many of which are done well, aren’t?

So yes, I’m intrigued by Ready Player One. But if it’s any consolation, if the movie ends up being bad, I’ll happily admit I was wrong. I only wish the same could be said for the reverse…

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Star Wars: The Rogue Fan Re-Awakens

I feel conflicted.

With these three words, I began my 2015 review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Since then, my mindset on the direction of Star Wars as a franchise has changed. Yet in that moment, my expectations weren’t fully met, due in-part to a combination of Prequel bias (i.e., not hating the Prequels enough to disown them) and insisting that something be there that wasn’t. I lamented the lacking of Prequel easter eggs, as well as the rehashing of Original Trilogy plot-points without doing anything new or unique. In the years that’ve followed, I’ve marathoned Star Wars: The Clone Wars, kept up-to-date with Star Wars Rebels and rewatched the film and Star Wars: Rogue One through twice each.

I’ve wanted to write this piece for almost a year, a fact made difficult by Netflix Canada’s options being sorely lacking, but didn’t have the right opportunity. For a film so clearly relevant, especially in light of the rise of far-right populism and the backlash of the left-wing “resistance”, it seemed like there was too much to say and not enough time to say it. But I figured I might as well buck expectations and talk about it anyway.

Star Wars: Rogue One, like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, had a lot riding on its success. It was the first spin-off film in the Star Wars universe, and one that’d dictate the success of future spin-offs. It was an entire movie focused around a simple question since 1977, when the franchise’s first effort was released. It was a filmic re-write of said answer from the Star Wars Expanded Universe, all of which was rendered non-canon come Disney’s acquisition of the property in 2012. And its existence tied directly into said movie from 1977’s opening scene. Add in that the director, Gareth Edwards, had directed the mediocre Godzilla prior, and that the film had snagged serious production difficulties, and it seemed as though its chance of success was iffy.

So, does it succeed at what it’s trying to do, especially with added hindsight? Well…mostly. It does have issues, and certain parts could’ve been far superior under a better director, but for what we have, especially in-relation to what could’ve been, it’s not that bad a movie. It’s much akin to a real rebellion: messy, disjointed at times, and often way too ambitious for its own good, but when it comes together, it does so splendidly.

Let’s start with what doesn’t work: the film is plagued with issues in focus and editing, as well as dialogue and basic film language, and most of that’s rooted in the first-half. In the first-act alone, Star Wars: Rogue One is crammed with set-up, establishing important characters in rushed, exposition-heavy scenes while never breathing. Perhaps the biggest sin is the frequent location jumps without having time to take in the set-design. I know that the Star Wars universe is littered with infinite planets and moons, but there’s no reason why all of these events can’t be focused in one or two places. Especially not when the original films always kept to the rule of “two or three planets at once”.

The dialogue in-particular needs mentioning. In his video essay, YouTuber Chris Stuckmann mentioned that the characters motivations are told to the audience directly, as opposed to shown via character progression. This is true, yet it never hampers the experience. The film’s crammed-full of so much context that introducing everyone was bound to be tricky. I think it pulled it off decently, even if it could’ve been better-handled.

Also, I’d like to discuss the elephant in the room and mention the skin grafting CGI used to recreate Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher’s faces: it’s not good. It’s not bad either, however, especially given that recreating dead people is still a new venture for Hollywood. They did an admirable enough job, but when contrasted with clips of Tarkin and Princess Leia from Star Wars Ep. IV: A New Hope, the recreations are instantly noticeable. Then again, I assume they’ll improve as future movies use this technique.

The rest of the complaints, like Darth Vader’s minimal screen presence, are merely cosmetic. Darth Vader’s two scenes even enhance his film persona, making him a last-minute ace in the hole, and highlight how skilled a fighter he is despite being slow. His final confrontation aboard Princess Leia’s ship, where he shows off his prowess, is also the first time I’ve ever been scared of him. And he’s already a central figure in the Star Wars universe.

Fortunately, the movie itself is a lot of fun once it kicks into gear. The actors give it their all, and while the acting is never on-par with, say, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it’s miles above the cheesy camp of the original films and the flat melodrama of the prequels. The Battle of Scariff, where the entire second-half of the film takes place, is chock-full of awe and memorable moments, including one or two tearful deaths. The music, by relative-newcomer Michael Giacchino, is especially-noteworthy, proving his skill a composer to watch out for and even rivalling John Williams’s epic arrangements in previous movies. And this is with having a month to prepare.

The film also, aside from remedying a huge plot-hole in canon, gives validation to minority representation. I understand that the original films existed when social justice issues weren’t a huge deal, but it’s always bugged me how Star Wars was primarily about white men until the prequels. That’s a detail that the prequels films, for all of their flaws, got right, and I’m glad that this movie continues that tradition. All of the main players are either women or minorities, and given how Hollywood still has casting bias this is huge. It’s nice to see, complainers be damned.

As a final note, Star Wars: Rogue One also had one area of improvement over Star Wars: The Force Awakens on a personal level: it upped the Prequel easter eggs. It still bothers me that the only one prior was the mention of The Sith, and that was a throwaway line. This movie adds the return of Senator Bail Organa, the showing of Mustafar and the reference to The Senate on Coruscant. It also tied in the Star Wars shows via the inclusion of Saw Gerrera, Jedha City and the “blink and you miss it” inclusion of The Ghost. All of these made me giddy, a fact made better by hearing the ever-awesome Steve Blum as some of the Stormtroopers.

Would I say that this is a great movie? Part of me wishes to, but unlike Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which has gotten better with age, time hasn’t been as kind to Star Wars: Rogue One. Its flaws, while not deal-breakers, are definitely noticeable, and they drag down the experience slightly. I also feel that the comparisons to modern-day politics, while nice on paper, are misguided, as no fictional work has yet to show the disunity on both political extremes at the moment. Still, for what it’s worth, I definitely recommend it. I'm still conflicted, that much hasn't changed, but I’m now anxiously awaiting new Star Wars entries. I only hope that they continue to amaze me.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Aladdin and the Minority Report in Hollywood

Aladdin’s my favourite traditional Disney movie of all-time. Not only are its songs and characters great, but its rags-to-riches story resonates strongly for a guy who’s struggled with adversity for 27 years. On top of that, it remains my favourite movie with Robin Williams, a talent I either loved or hated as an actor depending on the role. Even now, as a full-grown adult, I find myself humming and/or singing some of the movie’s numbers aloud, much to the awkwardness of those around me.

I mention this because Aladdin’s receiving a live-action remake soon, courtesy of Disney themselves. On one hand, this is sensible given the road they’ve taken lately with remakes, and I’ve even enjoyed a few of them. On the other hand, I can’t help but be worried that this’ll end up being another Beauty and the Beast, an unnecessary remake that tries so hard to recreate the feel of a classic that its attempts at differentiation and updating will come off as forced. And given how Aladdin, for all of its strengths, is extremely racist in its depiction of Arab culture, well…that’s a whole can of worms I'd rather not open.

Anyway, the production of this remake has been one head-scratching decision after another. For one, the movie’s being directed by Guy Ritchie. (Y’know, that director that made it big with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, followed his success with Snatch and then struggled with staying relevant after that?) The movie’s also hit a series of “snags”, particularly with casting. Take most-recently, in which Disney stated that they were struggling to find minority actors and actress. To quote The Hollywood Reporter:
“But finding a male lead in his 20s who can act and sing has proven difficult — especially since the studio wants someone of Middle-Eastern or Indian descent (the animated film is set in the fictional Middle Eastern city of Agrabah). The original casting call specified that production was slated to begin by July, but the search has dragged on, with Disney and Ritchie having to go back to the drawing board multiple times.”
I’d like to tackle the nonsense that is this article’s headline. “'Aladdin': Disney Struggles to Find Stars for Its Live-Action Movie” is clickbait meant to shock people and give off the impression that this is a bad idea from the get-go (which it is, but that’s for another day.) Saying that you're “struggling to find stars” for your movie doesn’t exude confidence in your product, but in the context of Aladdin it also feels somewhat of a back-handed insult. Why? Because, as someone in my Twitter Feed put it, if Hollywood has no trouble finding Arabs to play terrorists, then why not heroes too?

This isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to Hollywood filmmaking, by the way. Storytelling in the West generally has a spotty track-record with minorities. I think the most-blatant offender is superhero comics, where minority characters were either written as afterthoughts, or racist stereotypes, for the longest time, and even now continue to get the shaft in some shape or form. If you want proof, The Mandarin, one of Iron Man’s biggest foes, is a Chinese warlock who conjures up voodoo and speaks in a funny voice. You don’t need to be Asian to explain why that’s racist.

So yeah, minorities don’t get the respect they deserve when it comes to storytelling. Which is a shame, as there are plenty of worthwhile stories to tell about cultures that aren’t Euro-centric. The best example off-hand is The Kite Runner. The book, written by Khaled Hosseini, documents the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan through the eyes of a member of the Afghan royal family. It’s not only an interesting work of storytelling, but it’s the kind of storytelling you don’t see often in the West.

Which leads me back to that quote. Notice the phrasing? “[F]inding a male lead in his 20s who can act and sing has proven difficult — especially since the studio wants someone of Middle-Eastern or Indian descent…”. Why is this so difficult? Why does Hollywood not do scouting in other parts of the world? Why not travel to Bollywood, home of the largest, non-Hollywood entertainment industry in Asia? Who’s to say you can’t find English-speakers there with great singing voices? What gives?!

I can’t help calling baloney on this idea that “finding minority talent is hard!” I work part-time as a courier during the week, and guess what? Many of my co-workers are of minority descent. I’m not even trying to look for non-white individuals, they happen to work there. If that’s the case, then why's it so hard for an industry with more connections than me to do the same?

See, Hollywood never seems to have this sort of trouble with white actors and actresses! And don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of talented actors and actresses who are white. They’d have to be to get where they are now. But for every white success story, there are at least a dozen talents that are black, Asian, Latino or Arab, to name a few, that are stuck waiting tables or playing in music clubs while they wait for their next gig as an extra. If that’s not discrimination, I don’t know what is!

And it’s a huge part of the Hollywood system, such that it’s created a vicious circle-jerk of “we can’t find minorities because X” or “no one wants a minority in our film because Y” cop-out answers. I call them cop-out answers because, as films like Get Out have clearly demonstrated, you can, in fact, make a movie starring a non-white lead and have it generate mass-revenue at the box office. We live in a globalized world where Asian audiences are huge money-makers, so not capitalizing on that with proper representation is lazy.

You know what I think the issue is? I think racism is so normalized in the West that it’s hard to fully-appreciate when something’s actually racist. We see it in how the US is currently being run, but most racism is invisible to those unaffected by it. And in the case of those who are affected by it, it's internalized to the point where it feels “deserved”. And Hollywood’s no different, as much as the internet may use “SJW propaganda” and “PC culture” as slurs.

I get it: diversity takes effort, and Hollywood’s lazy; after all, they’re clearly out of ideas, or else Disney wouldn’t be remaking Aladdin. But that doesn’t mean that this excuse of “finding good minority talent is hard” isn’t a bad one, or else I’d let it slide. It’s merely a shame that Hollywood continues to not use their money and resources to do proper scouting and talent searching instead of dipping into the pool of familiarity, or I’d be interested in what this remake of Aladdin had to offer.

Also, Guy Ritchie? Really, you’re using him?!