Sunday, May 13, 2018

Snokescreen

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a divisive movie. Some of that comes from ill-founded places (i.e. the diverse casting, the socio-political undertones), while some is more sympathetic (the movie flipping established canon on its head and starting from ground zero). Then there’s aesthetic divisiveness, like plot-holes and unanswered questions, which can go either way. Personally, I happen to love the movie even with its flaws, and have warmed up to it even more from when I first wrote about it for The Whitly-Verse. Yet even with my appreciation and respect, there’s one detail I can’t overlook. Let’s discuss why Snoke’s a wasted opportunity.


Forewarning, my complaints aren’t your typical “Snoke is a terrible character” or “Snoke is a shallow villain” retorts that so many have espoused. That’d be a waste of my time, even though the latter is true. I also think that tossing him into the pile of previous Star Wars baddies, while accurate, doesn’t do my concerns justice either. Rather, this is more based on what the Star Wars universe as a whole has done. So be prepared, like the film, for potential disappointment.

Let’s start at the obvious place of comparison with Snoke: Emperor Palpatine. Snoke, like Palpatine, is initially presented as the puppet master behind our antagonist. Snoke, like Palpatine, has corrupted a once-up-and-coming Jedi and turned him against his order, a fact made worse by said order failing him. Snoke, like Palpatine, also controls a military, is ruthless, is deformed, has Sith-like powers and openly tortures the protagonist by tormenting them in the face of all odds. And Snoke, like Palpatine, is defeated anticlimactically by both his hubris and the underestimation of his own apprentice’s loyalty.

If I stopped here, I’d be defeating my own argument. Because Snoke is basically another Palpatine. He’s another old, withered mastermind with immense power whose fate is the most-disappointing part. (Let’s not pretend Palpatine being hoisted over a rail like deadweight is brilliant writing. Especially given how powerful he is.)

But I’m not stopping there, because Palpatine’s story doesn’t end with the original films. Deride The Prequels all you want, but they upgraded Palpatine’s character immensely. Like Boba Fett and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, they took a boring character who dies anticlimactically and added layers. They gave him depth, a backstory, motivations, a rich connection to our baddie and, yes, even some cool lightsaber moments. Palpatine went from a boring deadweight to a cunning and menacing threat, a master manipulator who had The Separatists and The Republic around his fingers, and a charming old man who could fool everyone, the Jedi included, with his warmth and charisma.

This is important context for any and all complaints I have with Snoke. Because while The Prequels fleshed-out Palpatine, you had minimal screentime to flesh-out Snoke. Star Wars: The Force Awakens began with an established relationship between Snoke and Kylo Ren, one where it’s clear that the two had a history. The movie hinted at a backstory the led to Kylo Ren to his side, which was built on in the first-half of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Yet it never came to a satisfying head, getting tossed aside because “not important”.

Except…it is. If Snoke were an essay, he’d be a failing grade. Because why present an argument, expound on it, and then throw it away? You might be onto something, and it could be clever, but theory and practice aren’t one-in-the-same. And unlike how the ending of The Avengers: Infinity War throws you for a loop, the loop here feels cheap and manipulative. It’s unsatisfying.

It’s not even that I needed something grandiose with Snoke. I’d be fine with him as another baddie that props up our main villain, had he had a line or two about his origin: what’s his deal? Why did he pick Kylo Ren to be his right-hand man? Why should I care about him? We’re given nothing, and that frustrates me.

Which is why the claim that “he’s not relevant” still bothers me. I don’t mind that he was taken out so easily, as I liked the ensuing battle that followed. I don’t mind that he was never meant to be the main focus, as I like Kylo Ren. I wouldn’t even mind if we never saw him again, as his story’s now over. But I do mind that he was never given the same care and attention Palpatine had, especially considering the newer movies’ potential to rise above their predecessors’ mistakes.

Perhaps this’ll be rectified come Episode IX. Perhaps there’ll be a line or two that’ll make my frustrations moot. Perhaps. But in the meantime, as it stands currently, my arguments shouldn’t be invalidated. They should hold weight, irrespective of whether or not it’s “too late” to retroactively fix this gaping concern. And that they’re being brushed off because “who cares”? Well, I do. And it’s unfair to assume that I’m wrong.

That being said, I’m looking forward to the future of Star Wars and what it has to offer. I only wish that Snoke could’ve been handled the slightest bit better.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The JCCU

I never really asked to be "the guy who defends The MCU". I don't even love the franchise as much as some, as I've made clear before. Yet, despite any and all sentiments that I may have, I frequently find myself having to defend them from absurd claims. It's tedious and boring, but necessary.


Take a recent article from Indiewire about legendary director James Cameron, for example. Said article mentions that Cameron hopes people "suffer from Avengers fatigue". Despite mentioning that James Cameron's a fan of The MCU, something many of his critics missed, he feels that superhero films detract from other, more potentially-engaging forms of science-fiction:
"…[T]here are other stories to tell besides hyper-gonadal males without families doing death-defying things for two hours and wrecking cities in the process. It's like, oy!"
The rest of the article goes into detail about Cameron's four sequels to Avatar, but it's worth noting the insane backlash over this claim. Even the comments section of the article have people yelling at him for being "washed-up". Ignoring that I don't hate Avatar as much as most, even defending it in another blog entry, I still feel as though I should rescue Cameron's reputation while simultaneously rebutting him. Because I feel both are in order.

Let's get the elephant in the room out of the way: I don't think James Cameron's the "king of Hollywood". I never have, to be honest. Part of that could be that I only started watching his films six years ago, well-into my 20's, and, therefore, don't have nostalgia blinders on, but even outside of that I find his movies are…schlocky. Fun, but schlocky. They've never screamed "high art", but rather the best possible outcomes of B-movie premises. The only difference between his old films and his new films, in my mind, is their budgets.

I know some of you will be disappointed by that revelation, but it's true: despite Cameron's huge ego, or foul temper, the primary distinction between pre-Titanic and post-Titanic Cameron is the amount of money he has. Even ignoring that, his dedication to the craft, which is insane, hasn't diminished. Neither has his sense of scope, which, if anything, has actually increased. So to those people who call him a hack who now writes hackneyed dialogue, I wonder if you've been paying attention to his filmography.

So yes, James Cameron's not been the pariah people claimed. It's also worth noting that in-light of the additional, completely-unoriginal and incredibly-misleading claims that his last movie, Avatar, was a rehash of three other movies. I won't rebut that nonsense, I already have, but I'll like to remind everyone that, like Tim Burton, people need to set their criticism of the man himself, as well as his ill-founded claims, aside from his filmography. Because while his critique of The MCU, as well as his sexist attack of Wonder Woman last year, is absurd, that doesn't, and shouldn't, mean that he's not a talented director. You can be fond of an artist while recognizing their mistakes and wrongdoings, it's not impossible.

Now that I've made most of you angry, I should mention that Cameron's still in the wrong. Despite his appreciation of The MCU, something that's been ignored, I don't agree that there aren't good sci-fi movies coming out that aren't superhero-related. All you need to do is look at the pantheon of films released in a given year. I'll even list a few favourites:

In 2015, right as the hype for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was at its peak, there was an indie sci-fi film called Ex Machina. The movie, about a computer programmer who's invited to his boss's mansion to test artificial intelligence, was a masterwork. It was a cautionary tale about underestimating women, and it was a drama that bordered on suspense-thriller every-so-often. It also, being an Alex Garland work, was beautifully-shot. I won't spoil the plotting, since it deserves to be seen, but it's well-worth your time.

In 2016, there was Arrival. A passion-project from French-Canadian director Dennis Villeneuve, the movie dealt with themes of humanity, language and time. Alien invasion movies are often depicted as scary in film, but Arrival borrowed cues from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and made these aliens unthreatening. The point of the movie, in a nutshell, was about the importance of global communication. It helps that, being a thriller, it, like Ex Machina, was suspenseful. It also, like said movie, was beautifully-shot.

Finally, this year saw another Garland film with Annihilation. Playing as a hybrid of 2001: A Space Odyssey's trippy visuals and a female Alien set in a forest, the movie tackled themes of government secrets, the concept of humanity and the instability of the psyche. It's often terrifying, often mesmerizing, to say the least, even if it's not always coherent. And it, like the previous examples, is beautifully-shot. I know it didn't do well at the box-office, but I highly-recommend checking it out if you haven't.

There, three examples off the top of my head. I haven't even counted long-overdue sequels, like Blade Runner 2049, or films I consider overrated, like Mad Max: Fury Road, but Cameron's definitely off-the-mark. And even if he were on it…so what? The MCU knows what it's doing, and is doing it well, so does it really matter? Or is this another example of an old master shamelessly-rambling about "those crazy kids"?

I wouldn't even be inclined to defend superhero movies if they weren't so incredibly-divisive these days. It seems like you either love superheroes and hate indie dramas, or love indie dramas and hate superheroes, but not both. But why? Why can't I love both? I'm the oddball who'll watch anything, so long as it's good, but I shouldn't have to discard one over the other to be happy. Because you don't see this so much in the debate between free-form and realistic paintings, right? (Dennis Prager's video on the subject doesn't count.)

Maybe I'm being paranoid, but it's definitely worth thinking about.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Incrediblahs!

I've been meaning to discuss The Incredibles on this blog since November of 2015. I've been meaning to write about it since its sequel was announced in 2013, to be exact, as this particular movie, one of my favourite animated films, deserved a piece dedicated to it. I racked my brain for 5 years, even re-watching the movie several times, hoping something'd come out, yet nothing did. And now, as if by the will of God, it's happened. And it couldn't have been a worse set of circumstances.


Everyone remembers "Where's my super suit?", right? It's not only one of the funniest conversations in the entire film, or even Samuel L. Jackson's career, but it's been immortalized via memes. I'd explain why it's great, but I think watching the clip does more justice to it than I could:


See? See?! Comedic gold! (Courtesy of Disney.Pixar.)

It's hard not to love what's, arguably, one of the highlights of one of the best superhero movies ever, so it was a treat to find out that Honey was returning in The Incredibles 2. But that begs the question: if Honey's so well-loved, how come we never see her?

Recently, Brad Bird, the director of these films, was asked that exact question by Heroic Hollywood. Shadow and Act, a website that covers global black culture, linked to the article in one of their own. They also wrote a response, which you can find here. Yet Bird's answer to the question raises eyebrows:
" She's funnier as a voice…[w]e actually went through all the trouble of designing a character and the design appears in the movie but not as Frozone's wife. We have used her design and she is a hero but there's not a lot of screen time though."
I've covered Hollywood's long-standing issues with racism in the past, via Tim Burton and Wes Anderson, but this is the hardest one to deconstruct of them all. Uunlike Burton and Anderson, Bird's racism requires an explanation. You'd figure that a man of his stature, and one who's closest friend was outed as a predator, would know to be more sensitive to other groups, especially given his reputation in the Pixar and film communities. Because this is an insult to both!

See, Brad Bird's a fan of Randian objectivism. Ayn Rand's philosophy's, essentially, become the backbone of modern, American libertarianism. Bird's love of the Randian narrative, even if he's never outright said it, is so extreme that all of his movies feature it: The Iron Giant contains Randian objectivism in its attempt to make the giant into a Superman character. The Incredibles has it in the need for Bob Parr to prove to the world that he's the best at what he does. Ratatouille has it in both Remy's rare skill and Ego's stand-in as the snooty critic who doubts him because "reasons". And while Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol might've skipped this, because no one cares about the stories in that franchise, Tomorrowland was so soaked in Randian objectivism that, combined with Damon Lindelof's desire to ignore pressing questions and plot-holes, it actively hurt the film.

Basically, and I loathe this phrase, Brad Bird's the epitome of a "problematic fave". His writing and directing are amazing, as is his partnership with legendary composer Michael Giacchino, but his films smell of subtle condescension toward those that dare snub his mad genius. And while his writing's condescending, his treatment of women is more-so. The Incredibles had Helen as a side-character for most of its runtime, while Mirage was a prop for Syndrome until she realized that Bob was in the right. Meanwhile, Violet, who started as a uniquely-insecure teenager, went through a complete 180 by the end and turned into…an ordinary teenager.

Perhaps Bird's biggest folly is his treatment of minorities. Both The Iron Giant and Ratatouille had only white characters in them, which is weird given their time periods, while The Incredibles…had Lucius. To be fair, Lucius was awesome. But that his wife is never on-screen speaks volumes. That Bird attempted a design of her, only to scrap it at the last-second because "screen-time limitations", reconfirms that.

If it sounds like I'm being overly-critical of Brad Bird, keep in mind that I'm only doing so because film's an imperfect art-form. Like all imperfect art-forms, it's important to acknowledge its flaws or areas of improvement even when it churns out masterpieces. And The Incredibles/The Incredibles 2, for all their brilliance, are no different; after all, if artists are to improve their craft, they should be able to respond to respectful feedback with dignity.

I'm also being critical because black people/other minorities, despite making strides in recent years, are still largely shunted from animation. Whether it's through lack of including them in stories, ignoring their input in the production process, or having white actors and actresses voice their parts, it's one of the last places lacking true representation. Doubly-so for minority women, whom are already at a disadvantage to begin with. So for Brad Bird to think of Honey as nothing more than a cameo voiceover because "it's funnier that way"? It doesn't reflect well on him.

Nevertheless, I don't think that Brad Bird intends to be malicious. He most-likely believes what he says, and would probably apologize if called out. I also don't think boycotting the film over this is the right call, as plenty of talented filmmakers are guilty of far worse. But, like with Steven Spielberg's recent comment about "Indiana Joan", I think Bird messed up and missed an opportunity for self-reflection. Though I could be wrong, in which case I apologize in advance.

Regardless, The Incredibles 2 comes out in a few months, and I'm excited to see it!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Omer and Me: My Experience with This Unusual Custom

This week marks the third in a period of the Jewish calendar called "The Omer".


That was one of the hardest sentences that I've ever written for The Whitly-Verse. Not because it's a lie, but because it's true. Not because I lack an attachment to The Omer, but because I have too strong an attachment to it. And not because I don't know what to say, but because I want to say too much. However, since I don't wanna bore my readers, I'll try being as succinct as possible.

Get ready, this'll be a doozy.

What's The Omer?

One of the major Jewish holidays is Passover. Passover, which marks the exodus from Egypt, is celebrated for 8 days (or 7 days, assuming you live in Israel.) Passover marks a change in the Hebrew identity, going from 12 tribes of ragtag slaves to a people, and it contains rules and instructions, like every Jewish holiday, for how to be celebrated. In the times of the First and Second Temples, however, there was an additional rule involving offerings, a rule that's no longer practiced literally.

Said rule involved bringing a barley offering on Day 2 to mark the beginning of Spring.

Judaism is an agricultural religion at its core. While most of its modern practices and rituals seem distant from that, especially in a capitalist setting, it's important to note that the early days were tied to the land. This included marking the days by the Sun and Moon, marking specific criteria for plowing the harvest, and, of course, offering the first of your crops as thanks to God. The barley offering, usually the first, marked the beginning of Spring, and it was mandated for every farmer to bring.

I haven't mentioned The Omer yet, and that's because the barley offering was a catalyst that began the countdown to the Omer, or wheat, offering 49 days later. If the barley offering marked the beginning of Spring, then the Omer offering marked the beginning of the harvest. And since both are equally important, that's exactly why the Omer offering came 7 weeks later. This was the practice all throughout the ancient periods of Judaism, halting only once The Second Temple was destroyed in 70CE.

You still with me? Good, it gets more complicated.

Despite Jews no longer having a temple, The Omer, being a Biblical commandment, is still in effect. The Omer's also a period of self-discovery, rejuvenation and transformation. You know how people make New Year's vows? The ones that they break constantly because they lack discipline? That's what The Omer is for Jews. Except that, instead of being for 1-day, it's for 49-days. And instead of being immediate, it's gradual. Jewish tradition states that The Israelites, upon leaving Egypt, were at the bottom rung of the spiritual ladder, the 49th rung, and the journey to Mount Sinai enabled them to slowly climb up said ladder.

Jews make note of The Omer by counting the 49 days between the 2nd day of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot. The holiday of Shavuot's fascinating, and arguably less-known than Passover, but all you need to know now is that the days leading up to it are counted individually. But it's not a simple countdown, because we're not supposed to anticipate the end of it. Instead, we count upwards, because every day means something. Still with me? Because it gets even more complicated.

In addition to counting upwards, there are rules for counting. For one, the counting process requires a blessing, which includes a formula. Said formula has a preamble, a blessing, the mention of the day, the mention of the week/the week and the day (assuming it's not a complete week), the mention that it's part of The Omer and a closing statement. And two, The Omer can only be counted at night following Ma'ariv (or the evening prayer). Factor in that you only have until sunrise of the following day to count with a blessing, and your window of time is slim.

Here's where the nuances come in. Depending on which stream of thought you follow, The Omer has additional rules. If you consider The Omer communal, then you must count it with 10 or more men over the age of 13. If you consider The Omer personal, however, you can also count it by yourself. I go by the latter, due to a combination of OCD and wanting to appreciate the experience. This makes it more difficult, but I don't mind the challenge.

One more point: you can always count without the blessing if you miss an evening, provided you catch yourself in-time, with one exception: the first night. Why? Because why continue something if you never started? The first piece is always the catalyst for the rest, so it's only fair. It also makes it so that you have an obligation to start from the beginning, as opposed to waiting. It makes it so that you can prove that even if you got out at, say, Day 21, you still made it past Day 1.

Additional Details About The Omer.

I remember first learning about The Omer in high school, possibly when I started counting in Grade 11. Granted, I knew it existed as early as Senior Kindergarten, when we counted the days between Passover and Shavuot on a plastic board, but it always remained elusive: what was the deal with The Omer? Why was it a big deal? And how did it impact me?

When I learned about The Omer in class, I remember hearing additional customs about not shaving, not cutting your hair, or not doing basic tasks that you'd do during the year. And they didn't make sense intially: why can't I listen to music during The Omer? Why can't I watch movies during The Omer? Why can't I cut my hair during The Omer? Why, essentially, is The Omer so restricting?

As I went on, the reality became clearer. It turned out that, during the last days of The Second Temple, the Jews suffered a tragedy. The big rabbi was Rabbi Akiva, a man who, at his peak, had 24000 students. It sounds crazy, but that was how well-respected he was. The problem was that none of the students had respect for one another. As legend has it, a plague struck that wiped them all out. Some modern interpreters suggest that the "plague" was actually a rebellion against Rome, but given that Rome was unusually censoring to the Jews at the time…

We mark the first 33 days of The Omer as a semi-mourning period in commemoration. Since mourning in Judaism means not cutting your hair, or listening to music, or doing anything fun, many Jews will abstain from these basic activities. Personally, I only refrain partially: I won't go to live concerts, but because I need music to help with my anxiety I'll play stuff on the radio or listen to recordings. I won't go to movies in theatres, but I'll watch old films already out on streaming or video. And while I won't shave during the week, I'll shave for Shabbat.

There are also exceptions on certain days. Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the Jewish month, nullifies these rules, provided it falls on a weekend. Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's birthday, is also an exception (depending on who you ask), because you sing Hallel (or special praises to God) in services. I don't think it was accidental that Israeli Independence Day coincides with The Omer, although I can't prove why without going into mysticism.

Perhaps the most-important day of The Omer is the 33rd day, or Lag BaOmer. This is a day of celebration, even for those who count the 33 days of mourning in the second-half, because it's when Rabbi Akiva received 7 new students. On Lag BaOmer, people dress up in white and feast. In Biblical times, this was also a designated dating day. Once the 33rd day comes, the counting continues, but the mourning stops.

How Do I Internalize This Period?

I bet the question you're asking is: "Why does this matter?"

When I first started counting The Omer in 2007, this question was on the back of my mind: why should I do this? What do I have to gain? And why continue all the way through? To be fair, counting The Omer isn't easy. It requires intense discipline and commitment to memory. So while I do it, I had to struggle with these questions.

The last one was easy: I have OCD. That I can commit to tasks most people find arduous without much difficulty is because of that. After all, why leave something incomplete? My OCD wouldn't let me.

As for the first two questions? That was harder. I was 16-turning-17 when I first started counting, so I was at the age of experimentation anyway. Counting The Omer seemed neat, so I tried it. After all, what did I have to lose?

Unfortunately, The Omer proved a lot more difficult than I'd originally anticipated. I'd quickly adjust with advice and guidance from peers, religious leaders and mentors, but the idea of counting something every day before bed was foreign. I was afraid that, like my short-lived trauma surrounding Limewire, it'd become obsessive. It never ended up being that, but the anxiety was still there.

I credit three supports for helping me: the first was one of my favourite teachers in high school, a rabbi who taught Rabbinics. He was my go-to source before my brother became a rabbi, and any questions I had could be instantly vetted by him. If I wanted to know how to count The Omer, for example, I'd ask via email. And if email didn't work, I'd talk to him directly. Either way, I thank him for his help.

My second support was my older brother. Even before he became a rabbi, he was incredibly learned. He was the reason my family became more observant, so I figured he'd probably know the ins-and-outs of The Omer. It was harder to talk to him than the first source, since we lived in two different countries at the time, but whenever I had the chance to email or call him, I'd take it. Like my teacher, I thank him for his help.

My final support wasn't a person, but a website. Chabad's website, to be exact. Chabad has plenty of crash courses and "Judaism 101" pages for the uninitiated, and The Omer's one of their biggest hits. So for me to look up their rules and suggestions, well…it was great. I thank them for filling the gaps where the previous supports couldn't.

The Omer represents a yearly transition stage. It's the mid-point between Winter and Summer, one where my pollen allergies are at their worst, so it keeps me grounded amidst all the sneezing and itchy throats. It's also when I'm at my most-energetic, so it gives me an outlet to express myself. But it also helps me properly reorient myself after a long, cold Winter and a tough, sometimes gruelling Passover. It's the anchor in my Judaism, which is why I practice it.

And there you have it: The Omer. Assuming I haven't bored you to death, here's a little reward:


I love this track. (Courtesy of DisneyMusicVEVO.)

Sunday, April 8, 2018

RIP, Takahata-San (1935-2018)

On April 5th, 2018, after a year-long battle with lung cancer, legendary anime director Isao Takahata passed away at the age of 82. When I heard this, I was immediately saddened, yet had little-to-no-time to let his death sink in. For one, I'd recently arrived home from an exhausting shift at work, so I had no energy to really process this. And two, the second-half of the Passover holidays was 2 hours away, so even if it sunk in I'd be preoccupied for the next two days. Add the recent dossier from Channel Awesome producers alleging abuse, as well as the announcement that Infinite Rainy Day, a site I'd poured 4 years of my life into, was closing up shop, and Takahata's death became the third most-depressing event that week.


My decision to post this on The Whitly-Verse wasn't exclusively because of Infinite Rainy Day's closure. While it's true that this would've been better-suited to that site, I feel that Isao Takahata is someone more people need to know about. Hayao Miyazaki is one of my favourite directors, and justifiably-so, but while knowledge of his work is more well-known in the West, Takahata's the outlier constantly overshadowed by his colleague. A crime of that nature's inexcusable.

Isao Takahata was born on October 29th, 1935. I've already written about his biography on Infinite Rainy Day, so I won't here, but his work in the field of animation predates Miyazaki by several years; in fact, the two actually became friends during the production of Takahata's directorial debut, Hols: Prince of the Sun, in 1968, and that friendship would long-outlive their time spent at Toei. Takahata would even serve as a producer on some of Miyazaki's early works at Studio Ghibli, namely NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky, before they managed to nab Toshio Suzuki in the early-90's, and the infamous decision to double-bill Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies with Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro would nearly bankrupt the company due to the emotional whiplash between films. Even when the two were at odds creatively, which happened often, there was still an irreverence they shared for one-another.

This difference in attitude could also be seen in their approach to filmmaking. Whereas Hayao Miyazaki would watch over his films like an authoritarian parent, constantly reanimating cels he wasn't happy with, Isao Takahata was more laid-back and had a great deal of trust in his artists. Whereas Miyazaki was always efficient and on-time, Takahata was notorious for being disorganized and behind schedule. Whereas Miyazaki made sure not to exceed his resources, Takahata was famous for going over budget, such that his last film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, still holds the record as the most-expensive project the studio has worked on. Even their understanding of the animation process was different, as Takahata never animated his works directly.

Despite the constant, long-stretches of time between works, Takahata also took on the role of promoting the studio's library and acquiring foreign films to add to The Studio Ghibli Museum. His love of animation extended well-beyond anime, and he considered one of his biggest inspirations to be a French film called The King and the Mockingbird. A great collector of art, Takahata made it his mission to showcase a wide variety of Western animation to the Japanese public. To say that he succeeded is an understatement.

Speaking of films, Takahata's five contributions to Studio Ghibli, Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, My Neighbors the Yamadas and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, were all shining examples of how flexible animation truly was. For all his visionary talent, Hayao Miyazaki mostly confined himself to fantasy and whimsy. Isao Takahata, however, constantly switched-up styles and genres, and his films became progressively more artsy and fantastical as his career progressed. This can be seen with the sharp contrast between Grave of the Fireflies's grounded realism and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya's stylistic abstractness. Regardless, all five of his Studio Ghibli efforts were highlights in his long-standing career, exemplifying some of the best anime had to offer.

This even allowed me to see past his filmmaking flaws. I have a hit-or-miss relationship with Takahata's body of work, frequently finding it slow and arduous, which I've made known numerous times on Infinite Rainy Day and Twitter. One of his works, My Neighbors the Yamadas, I don't even like, considering it to be Studio Ghibli's worst sans Tales From Earthsea. But even at the worst of times, I respected what Takahata was going for, appreciating his style regardless of outcome. That alone is worthy of adoration.

Takahata's body of work is also one that more people should've paid attention to while he was alive. Whereas Miyazaki amassed several trophies and awards, including two Oscars at The Academy Awards, Takahata was less appreciated, with only his final film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, receiving a Best Animated Feature nod in 2015 (and subsequently losing to Big Hero 6). It's a real travesty, as Takahata deserved better than he got. But if you want further venting on that matter, ask someone who's a bigger fan of anime than I am.

In the end, what matters is that, like I said, Isao Takahata's work deserves far more recognition. So I suggest searching for one of his films, tracking it down and watching it in his memory. I've seen his Studio Ghibli works several times, but going back further will reveal even more gems. Either way, rest in peace, Takahata-san. May your work serve as inspiration for many future animators…

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Ready Player Won?

Confession: I have a really bad sugar addiction. I'm not making that up for effect either, it's been confirmed by the addiction support group I went to. I know it's unhealthy and will hurt my body, but I can't get enough of it. What's worse, I enjoy consuming it, to an insane degree. Candy, soda, fruit, chocolate, pastries, you name it, I've had it in extreme quantities on multiple occasions.


I was gonna use this as a segue into Ready Player One, a movie I've discussed before, and how I'd still go see it anyway, but early reviews shattered anything I could say. Despite everyone's initial reactions being of violent rejection, Ready Player One's been receiving solid-to-good praise from those who've seen it. And this includes critics, who tend to be more critical of what they watch. Not all reactions have been positive, one reviewer called it Steven Spielberg's worst movie, but enough have that it's been giving closure to my claims that people were too quick to render judgement.

A part of me wants to rub it in. A part of me wants to boast about how wrong everyone was, and how ashamed they should be for demanding I think like them. A part of me wants them to apologize for the agony they've caused me, the endless and stressful arguments I've had, the fact that I had to block the movie's title in my Twitter search engine because of the backlash. A part of me wants to rub it in like a sore winner.

But I won't. Because not only is it rude, but it won't change anything about how people have been acting over Ready Player One's existence. On some level, I get it: the book it's based on is misogynistic, self-obsessed trash that panders to the lowest common-denominator. Instead, I'd like to address a fundamental frustration I've had in the world of internet discourse, as well as how that's made any attempts at conversation nigh-impossible.

Keep in mind that the internet was never a great place to talk sensibly. Its format is open and anonymous, so even the most well-intended people have auras of confidentiality that make what they say weightless and unrestrained. It also allows for the rhetoric of extremes. Yet with the rise of instant communication, as well as the factional nature of politics and nerd culture, it seems as though that's gotten worse. No one can have an intelligent conversation anymore in large groups, that's simply impossible. What's worse, people frequently make assumptions, as opposed to waiting for the full picture to form.

I mention this because it's especially bad with entertainment. In a medium once known for restraint, we now have the worry of instant gratification. If something isn't known now, it's a problem. If something we know now isn't validated, it's also a problem. And when someone disagrees…let's not go there.

A few months ago, Star Wars: The Last Jedi was released to extreme backlash. Some of it was rooted in quantifiable claims, but most was a cesspool of negativity and extreme rhetoric that still hasn't dissipated. People were talking about how "Disney raped their childhoods", and how it'd "never be the same now that SJWs have ruined everything". It's the epitome of the child at the candy store throwing a tantrum, with the sensible adults, unsuccessfully, pulling them aside to calm them down.

Ironically, it now feels like those adults are being the irrational children. Call it ridiculous nonsense, but ask yourselves: who was more excited and level-headed (relatively-speaking) about Ready Player One, the fans, or the detractors?

I get it: the media hasn't been helping. If anything, they've been exacerbating the problem, constantly promoting the worst in what Ready Player One has to offer. The trailers, while not god-awful, were only adding fuel to that, showing the worst of the film. Even the ridiculous comparison to Black Panther that one outlet used warranted ire, such that even I was annoyed! If all else, the promotional material has been awful.

But that doesn't mean the film was gonna be the disaster everyone feared. For one, it's directed by Steven Spielberg. Ignoring that he's not perfect, he's had his share of duds, Spielberg isn't a slouch. He's a master craftsman for a reason, having influenced Hollywood for over 40 years, and Ready Player One, which was basically a love-letter to his work, was always gonna be a perfect fit for his subtly-bombastic sensibilities. At worst, it was never gonna be flat-out awful.

Two, and this can't be stressed enough, books aren't movies. So what if Ready Player One was a bad fan-fic? So what if it seemed like a terrible idea at first-glance? Movies are a different medium than books, containing an entirely-different set of rules. If a book is basically a glorified reference-fest, then wouldn't film be able to bring that to life without the arduous text?

Thus is the complication that gets in the way of talking about this property: so what if the book was awful? So is practically everything Mark Millar has done. That hasn't stopped several of his ideas from working as films, has it? If Logan and Captain America: Civil War were regarded as improvements over the graphic novels that inspired them, then why can't other works of fiction be the same?

I'm sure Ready Player One will have its share of issues; after all, it's an over-glorified action movie from the king of sentimentality. If Spielberg's oeuvre has taught me anything, it's that he's not impervious to emotional overreach and goofiness. It's his modus operandi.

But to assume there's nothing there? From Spielberg, the man who made a movie about hunting a shark a masterpiece? From Spielberg, the man who made a movie about dinosaurs coming back to life into a tension-filled thriller? From Spielberg, the man who directed, arguably, the definitive film about The Holocaust? From that Spielberg?!

I know there's plausible-deniability, but this is pushing it! Even if the film was a disappointment, that doesn't automatically mean it'd be the worst experience ever. Spielberg, even at his worst, is too high-class for that. (His work as a producer's a different story, but that's more complicated.) Had it've been another talent behind the camera, maybe I'd be more on-board with the hate. But not Spielberg!

But that's what the internet discourse was like. And it was toxic. And it was grating. And it made me scared to mention that. And it-you get the point. It simply wasn't a healthy conversation-starter, and that upsets me.

However, like I said, there's no use crying over it. Rubbing it in won't reverse the pain I endured. Because it happened, it's over, the movie defied expectations. Should you still end up not liking it…fine, have your cake and eat it too. But we collectively spoke too soon with this.

Either way, I'm looking forward to this sugar rush of a spectacle. It's too bad that I have to wait a few weeks before seeing it, but what can I do?

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Isle of Racial Unease

A while back, I tackled the unfortunate controversy surrounding Tim Burton not having more diverse actors and actresses in his films. During that, I mentioned the following:
"…[T]here are plenty of talented actors and actresses of colour who are looking for work, and they're always welcome additions. By constantly turning a blind eye in favour of white actors and actresses, you're actually being racist."
This couldn't be more relevant in light of a recent issue with yet another director: Wes Anderson. Anderson's newest movie, Isle of Dogs, is scheduled for release shortly as of me writing this. I'm sure it'll be delightfully quirky and charming, but I can't help but feel like there's something off about it from as early as the trailers. Whether it's that most of the cast is his white regulars, as opposed to being Japanese, his few Japanese characters smell of stereotypes, or that the Japanese characters are window-dressing, it's hard to get around the racism of this film even if you ignore that it's about, well, dogs.


Then there's the issue of the film's narrative. I won't get into the nitty-gritty, since: a. I haven't seen it yet. b. I don't want to ruin it. c. I think this review does a better job than I could. But outside of that, Isle of Dogs invokes, yet again, the bothersome p-word that I'm not too fond of in general. Still, it's definitely a blight on a winner from a director whose career's defined by them.

It also shouldn't surprise you that I opened my mouth and got myself into trouble yet again on Twitter over this. I won't relay the full conversation, you can read it here, but yeah…not a great impression. Like, at all. As in, I need to heed my own advice and learn when to stop talking.

To clarify, I'm not saying that Wes Anderson isn't to blame. He is. Art is the by-product conscious decisions on every level, such that even its more questionable material isn't accidental. A film conceived and directed by Anderson bears his seal, and, for better or worse, he deserves the brunt for its failings too. Especially given that he could've made completely different decisions than the ones he did.

However, there's a bigger issue here that's a two-fold problem. First and foremost, Anderson doesn't exist in a vacuum. He's an artist in an artist colony known as Hollywood, one that shares many of the same worldviews as him by proxy. I know this is code for "Wes Anderson is a white man surrounded by white people in a white institution", but he's limited in scope of ideas. That's not necessarily a fault of skin colour, but as with Burton's remark, it's telling of how Hollywood operates.

So when Wes Anderson, master of quirky, oddball comedy-dramas, makes a movie about Japan, a country quite different than his own, this worldview will come into play. It's no different than a Japanese director peering into my culture, aka Judaism: they can try, but unless they understand my history and life experience, it'll never be entirely-successful. Thus is the issue of racial bias: you can take the person out of the culture, but you'll never take the culture out of the person. Whether it's Anderson casting mostly white people for his roles, stereotyping Japanese people, or even limited the scope of what he covers in his story, that racial bias is gonna be there in some form. And that's troubling.

The general perceptions of art need to change too. Hollywood needs to let other voices speak, irrespective of what position they're given. And we, as a collective, have to demand better of artists. It's not like Wonder Woman and Black Panther were only box-office smashers because they were superhero films. That may be part of it, but they also catered to niches not normally represented.

If we're gonna live in a globalized world, then our art should reflect that. And it's not happening fast enough. Especially in animation, where the excuse "you can draw them however you want, so who really cares?" is still valid for casting non-diverse talents. I see it all the time, such that even my favourites aren't immune to whitewashing.

I know some of you don't understand, and I get it. That's your privilege talking, of which I also possess a certain amount. But think about it this way: when Love, Simon came out, there were stories of gay people finally feeling comfortable enough to express their gayness. Amongst them was Joey Pollari, an actor from the film who'd long felt shame. This is a phenomenon not exclusive to gay people or Love, Simon, as it happens whenever a minority of any kind gets a chance in the limelight. Isn't that something we should be celebrating, not shaming?

So yes, I stand by my claim that this isn't entirely Wes Anderson's fault, even if he deserves some of the rap. Because art is also part of a grander system of biases and prejudices. If we're to change that, part of it means acknowledging that Wes Anderson's failings aren't the full picture.