Tuesday, February 13, 2018

I Am Panther, Hear Me Roar!

Internet, it's time we had another talk…


I'm sure everyone who hasn't been living under a rock knows what Black Panther is. It's the first major superhero movie starring a black lead and directed by black man that's receiving critical praise (I know the Blade movies predate it, but they weren't directed by black directors and weren't critical darlings.) This is a big deal, especially since superheroes have been at the forefront of mainstream film culture for over two decades and haven't made gains on proper representation for minorities. To paraphrase an old mantra, Black Panther matters.

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks that way. The existence of early-backlash against the film has been centre-stage for weeks now. This isn't new, Frozen and Selma also received pre-release pushback, but it's especially egregious in light of the circumstances leading up to it. For one, there's the anti-Disney/Marvel group that claims Disney's buying good press. There's a lot to be unpacked here about how ridiculous that is, but I think Bob Chipman did a better job than I ever could.

The bigger pushback, I think, comes from an underlying paranoia. Like the recent Star Wars films, Black Panther's become the victim of angry nerds who feel Hollywood's leaving them behind. But since they have no control over that, their only outlet of venting is to down-rate the film. It's as sad as it sounds.

It's worth noting that, despite its perceived status as a bastion of social progress, Hollywood's still largely ethnocentric in its casting and storytelling. Most individuals working in the industry are white, straight men, and their output reflects that. In an article written on July 31st, 2017, Variety noted that little social progress has been made in Hollywood over the last decade. To quote the article directly:

"…[O]f the films surveyed in 2016, 31.4% of speaking characters were female, unchanged from 2015 and not much higher than the 29.9% logged in 2007. The overall ratio of male to female characters was 2.3 to 1, and 34 films had a female lead or co-lead, compared to 32 in 2015…

…70.8% of speaking roles in 2016's top 100 were white, far outweighing the tallies for characters who were black (13.6%), Asian (5.7%), Hispanic (3.1%), or other (7%)…72 of 2016's top 100 films had no Hispanic or Latina female speaking roles, and 91 had none for LGBTQ females.

Women were underrepresented behind the scenes…making up 4.2% of directors, 13.2% of writers, 20.7% of producers, and just 1.7% of composers…[O]nly 34 unique female directors that released films between 2007 and 2016 (excluding 2011). Male gay characters were among the few demographics to rise year-on-year, up to 36 speaking roles in 2016 from 19 in 2015...The 2.7% of characters with disabilities in 2016 films was about on par with the 2.4% reported in 2015."
This snippet highlights the disparity between perception and reality. Hard-right critics of Hollywood like to point out the "liberal agenda", but the truth suggests otherwise: Hollywood talks the talk, but refuses to walk the walk. And in an increasingly-globalized world, the leading outsource of global entertainment is failing to keep up. Which is all-the-more reason minority voices of any kind should get their dues, as that's the only way for change to happen.

Enter Black Panther. I haven't seen any of director Ryan Coogler's prior films. I wanted to watch Fruitvale Station when it was in theatres in 2013, since 2013 was an awful Summer for blockbusters, but due to circumstances not within my control it never happened. Creed was intriguing, but I decided to skip it because I hadn't watched the Rocky movies prior. I feel bad, especially since I loved Michael B. Jordan in Chronicle, but it simply wasn't meant to be. And that's why I'm excited to finally catch Black Panther, as I get to see a new and exciting voice tackle a comic book character. That the reviews have been great so far helps.

This is also why the racist backlash is so concerning. Not only is this a Marvel movie, but it's a character based on an obscure property like so many of The MCU's prior films. We've embraced a guy in a suit of armour, a green monster, a Norse demigod, a genetically-engineered super-solider, a rag-tag group of space scoundrels (one of whom is a talking tree), a guy who can communicate with ants and a sorcerer who can bend dimensions, but a black man in a cat suit? That's pushing it!

That isn't to say Black Panther will be flawless, or that there won't be legit reasons to end up not liking it. But that so many of the complaints lobbed against this film come from having a black lead makes me sad. People are also whining that there are only two white people in the entire cast, to which I reply with "How does it feel?" Because movies have so frequently done the reverse that, as with last year's Wonder Woman, having an underrepresented demographic be at the forefront is a nice change of pace.

Besides, Black Panther, judging by early box-office estimates, will have intensely high turn-outs from audiences, including audiences of colour who wouldn't otherwise see movies in theatres. Like it or not, representation matters because it means that people care. You're not simply a wingman to someone else. And given there are other groups of people than straight, white males, isn't that good?

Let's not forget, we're also getting a Captain Marvel movie next year. And a Wonder Woman 2. And I'm sure that won't be the end of it. And if you can't accept that? Well…no one's forcing you to watch these movies, right?

Really, this backlash is a lack of understanding of what it means to share. There's a reason that people are taught how to share when they're babies, as it's an important life-skill. By letting Black Panther exist, you're sharing with black filmgoers. Why's that so bad?

I guess the racist backlash will have to be shown up by opportunities for inclusive film-going. I know there's been an initiative to help students from underprivileged communities watch the film for free, and I strongly support that. Because if Iron Man and Spider-Man are allowed to be heroes in 2018, then so should Black Panther. I only hope that people realize that soon enough…

Monday, February 5, 2018

Walt Disney Revival Studios

These past few months have seen a serious shake-up. With Harvey Weinstein being stripped of the limelight following allegations of sexual assault and rape from various celebrities in Hollywood, the #MeToo movement has shed light on an onslaught of predatory behaviour in every industry out there. Notable predators include Kevin Spacey, George Takei, Mario Batali, Stan Lee, Max Landis, Roy Moore and Patrick Brown, to name a few. It appears as though some real change is happening, and it's happening fast and aggressively.


I mention this because of a video I recently watched discussing "the end of The Revival Era" for Walt Disney Animation Studios. It brought up the company's recent preference of sequels with Wreck-It Ralph 2 and Frozen 2 over original ideas, as well as the resignation of John Lasseter following his predatory behaviour. It suggested that the momentum that started with Bolt in 2008 might finally be over because of those factors. It's a cute sentiment in theory, but it doesn't hold up for a few reasons.

Let's start with the obvious: Disney's always had its ups-and-downs qualitatively. This goes back to the early days of Walt's studio, as following its first five films-Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi-the studio was hit by the war effort and wouldn't make another real stride until Cinderella in 1950. It'd take, yet again, a hit following the financial failure of Sleeping Beauty in 1959, and would stagnate even further following the death of Walt in 1966. Even during the 90's, the studio released Pocahontas in 1995, and the latter-half of the decade never quite matched the prowess of the former-half. And let's not forget the 2000's, where most of the films that came out weren't successful critically or financially.

Basically, Disney's always been a roller-coaster of quality. If anything, a potential slump is expected, especially after 9 critical hits in a row. This isn't something to be feared, but embraced, as even the greats aren't infallible. It's a real learning opportunity. Also, given how Disney has Marvel and Star Wars to fall back on, I'm not terribly concerned.

Disney's sequels that are coming out don't concern me either. I'm actually excited for Wreck-It Ralph 2, while Frozen 2, though unnecessary, doesn't upset me in the slightest. Remember, this isn't the first time Disney's made a canonical sequel to a Disney property. Remember The Rescuers Down Under? Remember Fantasia 2000? Remember Winnie-the-Pooh? If those are well-liked, then so can these be.

Then there's Disney's near future. Disney announced plans a while back for some "original" projects, including ones based on Jack and the Beanstalk and The Princess and the Pea. They changed the names, obviously, and I doubt the films will follow their sources, as per usual, but they still look promising. And these have been in production for a while now! Disney has unique ideas, don't worry.

Finally, let's talk John Lasseter. For as much as it pains me that Lasseter's a sex offender, especially considering what he's done to rebuild Disney's image, I doubt Disney will die without him. Lasseter hasn't directed a truly great film since Toy Story 2 in 1999, let-alone a film at all since Cars 2 in 2011. He's had a ton of producing and executive producing credits, but he's never truly been active in the field for years now. And while I'll forever respect the dedication and passion he brought to the craft, he's not irreplaceable.

Besides, there are other, equally-talented individuals who deserve recognition, especially now that he's gone. These include female directors, producers, writers and animators who'd have otherwise not had a chance at fame and fortune prior, and it's high-time they got one now. I know that Brenda Chapman, Pixar's first female director, never got to truly show off what she was capable of before retiring in 2012, and she's one person! If Lasseter's accusers are to be believed, there are plenty of lost voices animation that deserve to be heard. It's merely too bad we won't get to hear them.

Don't get me wrong, Lasseter's contributions are immense: he helped Pixar kick off in the 80's and 90's. He helped CGI animation become mainstream in the mid/late-90's. He revived Walt Disney Animation Studios in the late-00's following their failures. And while he may not have been the originator of their success, he did help Studio Ghibli become well-respected by Western animation fans thanks to his friendship with Hayao Miyazaki. I'm forever thankful for all of that.

But I also have to acknowledge that he's an awful human being who's preyed on. The stuff that's been lobbed against him? That's probably not everything, especially given his tendencies to stalk women. It's like someone on my Twitter Feed stated: for every talented predator, there are a dozen, equally-talented women he's left behind. It's a serious problem, and if it means not seeing Lasseter's imprint on Disney anymore, then we'll have to live with it.

And yes, I don't think that Disney's Revival Era is over. Or, if it is, perhaps it's for the best until a wiser, less-destructive replacement comes along. Especially if it's a woman, because we don't have enough of those!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Wonder Woman (2009) VS Wonder Woman (2017)-Which is Better?

On March 3rd, 2009, Warner Bros.’s animation division released an original, direct-to-video feature about comics’ prized superheroine, titled Wonder Woman. A trailblazer in many ways, it was also the first superheroine film directed by a woman. The film was an underachiever financially, yet has received critical praise and gained cult-status in the years following its release. For many years, it was also the only feature-length film to focus on Diana of Themyscira exclusively.

On May 15th, 2017, Warner Bros. took another shot at the titular heroine for the big-screen, titled Wonder Woman. A trailblazer in many ways too, it was the first theatrical superheroine film directed by a woman. The film was a smash-success at the box-office, generating a little over $800 million, and remains the sole critical darling in the struggling DCEU. Second-time’s the charm?

It’s easy to look at the latter as the better film. Not only did it perform better, it also accomplished more for comics’ first feminist icon and helped save the reputation of a slowly-dying film universe. Even its critical success is better, outdoing its animated counterpart’s 88% on Rotten Tomatoes with a whopping 92%! Surely, it’s no contest, right?

As with my previous comparison pieces, I’ll make two disclaimers: first, this is all subjective. Nothing I say should be taken 100% at face-value, I’m only doing this for fun. And second, there’ll be heavy spoilers for both movies. You might wanna watch them before reading this analysis.

Let’s begin with…

Story:

VS

The basic premise of the Wonder Woman mythos is as follows: the gods create mankind. Ares, the God of War, corrupts man for his own benefit. In retaliation, Zeus creates the Amazons, only to have them be mass-slaughtered. As a last-minute salvation, Hera gives the Amazons a private island and grants Hippolyta, their queen, a daughter named Diana. Many centuries later, a pilot, named Steve Trevor, crash-lands on said island and is rescued by Diana. The Amazons are initially distrustful of him, yet eventually agree to let Diana escort him to his home world.

Both films take different approaches to the source material. The animated film updates the story to set the crash in modern-times. The plane becomes a jet, Steve a military pilot who gets downed during a…secret mission, and his plane doesn’t so much crash as emergency lands. Even the part where Steve’s rescued by Diana is flipped on its head, with Diana engaging him in a fight, kicking him in the groin and taking him back to the other Amazons for interrogation. And the traditional interrogation scene, a famous moment in DC Comics’ history, includes jokes that’d only fly in a modern context.

The live-action film goes the opposite route. Traditionally, Wonder Woman’s origin begins in WWII, as that was when it was written. However, because her story is about humanizing men-something made complicated with our contemporary understanding of fascism and its inherent evils-the film reverts to WWI instead. The film even plays into Steve being a spy escaping a German platoon, with said platoon finding Themyscira actively fighting the Amazons. The rest of the origin story, however, remains mostly intact.

There are also minor details in both films that make them distinct. In the animated film, the Amazons hold a contest to determine who brings back Steve, which Diana sneaks into and wins despite her mother initially refusing to let her participate. In the live-action film, however, Diana actively disobeys her mother’s wishes, sneaks into a secret shrine, steals the legendary armour and leaves with Steve anyway. And while the animated film gives better context to why Diana dons the traditional armour Wonder Woman’s famous for, I prefer the higher stakes of live-action.

That having been said, I take issue with facets of both films’ set-ups. For one, the animation has a few plot-holes with how Steve arrives on Themyscira: who was Steve fighting during his crash? Who punched the mirror that allowed Themyscira to appear as a landing strip? And how did Steve manage to have his combat exercise right above the island? I don’t expect every detail in the movie to have an explanation, but those particular questions are never answered.

The live-action film has a better sense of narrative geography, but it also takes way too long to get to the same point. Much of its set-up is necessary, like the whole back-story involving The God Killer, but then it also has a pointless debate about whether or not Diana should be trained to fight. It’s so dragged-out that by the time Steve crashes, I was starting to get bored. I’m not sure if this was mandated by WB’s higher-ups to connect to the grander DCEU, but I’m unimpressed. I think this film should’ve been isolated from The DCEU, especially given the franchise’s other outings.

The animated film also has structural issues that permeate the rest of it. While in Hades’s realm, Ares has a brief moment of weakness when he sees what happened to his son. It’s meant to humanize him, and it works, but it also drags out the scene. Additionally, the final fight has some plot-points that end anticlimactically, including one involving a missile that ends up being a red herring. These don’t kill the momentum, but they feel like padding to fill the 72-minute runtime.

I also don’t buy Ares’s speech about how he’s superior to the gods while fighting Diana. He mentions that he’s “…stronger than Hercules, as fast as Hermes, and…like Hades…[has] dominion over the dead.” The film shows these attributes, but why would a nuclear warhead give them that much power? I’ve seen the movie many times, and that still leaves me scratching my head.

The live-action film, however, has a bigger problem. Once you get past the set-up, the movie’s great, with the stretch from No Man’s Land to the battle with Ludendorff being excellent. Yet once Ludendorff is dead…it begins to fall apart. The real villain, Hades, is introduced in a twist, and the movie then becomes yet another DCEU spectacle (i.e., a bombastic mess). It’s nowhere near as bad as Man of Steel or Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, and it has its share of emotional tension and pay-off, but that last fight needed another pass at the script.

I’ll give the live-action film an advantage over the animated one with its dialogue. For all of its strengths, the animated film has overly on-the-nose writing. It’s not subtle at all, especially in how its characters exposit their thoughts, and that can get a little grating. Especially considering that the film’s message, though well-executed, is yet another “not all men” statement that I’m sure feminists are sick of. Being time-crunched doesn’t help much.

It’s tough, but I’ll cede this to the animated movie. It’s less subtle, feels rushed for time and has several plot-holes that aren’t properly addressed, but it’s also much more consistent and economic. Like a supermodel, there’s little body fat, which isn’t something I can say for the live-action film’s meandering first-act and messy third-act. I still think the live-action film is better-written dialogue-wise, but it’s the weaker film story-wise.

Winner:


But a good movie is only as good as its lead and their support, so…

Cast:

VS

Speaking about a strong cast of characters, which is better?

The animated film’s main players, save Steve Trevor and Diana, are introduced in the film’s opening battle, where they’re all given their character quirks: Artemis is a bloody-thirsty, arrogant war-monger. Her sister, Alexa, is the opposite, being a passive bookworm who’s afraid of violence. Persephone, later revealed to be a supporting antagonist, is fleshed-out enough to understand why she’s unhappy with her lot. Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, is a fierce and strong-willed leader. And Ares, the archetypal war profiteer, the one who feeds on the psychic energy of carnage, is shown revelling in bloodshed, right before his son is slaughtered by Hippolyta and he’s bound by Zeus for his crimes.

Every character that matters is accounted for, with Diana and Steve arriving shortly afterward. Which is important because the animated film’s short enough that every second counts. Every frame, every bit of dialogue, every movement these characters take, it’s all carefully constructed. And bless it for that.

Which makes it all-the-more important that the live-action movie goes the reverse route and take its time to establish its characters. The movie’s cast is huge, and it divides its introductions into three parts: The Amazons of Themyscira, the military personnel and the small infantry Steve assembles. They’re all done wonderfully, with not a single character wasted or beat missed. That’s equally difficult for a movie to achieve, and this one does it with flying colours.

Perhaps the real star is Diana herself, played by Keri Russell in the animated film and Gal Gadot in the live-action film. It’s hard to beat Russell’s millennial snark and constant banter with Nathan Fillion’s sexist quirks, especially since she sounds like someone desperate to come into her own skin, but Gadot has the tougher position of playing comics’ biggest, feminist icon while working around her Israeli accent. Her movie, to be fair, has all of the other Amazons don accents too, to mixed effect, but it’s a tough and thankless role. Add in that Gadot saw a slew of backlash that ranged from her not being the right build, to her being a Zionist, and it’s amazing that she made it work.

If there’s a real downside I have with both films’ casts, it’s that they both have a weak-spot. For the animated film, I’d even argue there are actually two. The animated movie completely wastes Etta Candy for a cheap gag, something that’d most-likely anger comic fans. Steve’s character-arc is about learning not to be a shameless womanizer, yet Etta’s entire shtick is that she’s a secretary who flirts with Steve. I’m not sure what the creative team behind this movie was getting at, (did they think Etta’s initial character was sexist?) but if Diana doesn’t approve, then neither do I.

Hades is also a wasted character. His whole purpose revolves around helping Ares because “family”. He acknowledges that he’s “a dog [who] will obey every command”. He removes Ares’s bands after tormenting him briefly with the half-dead corpse of Thrax, presumably to anger him for fun. Yet he could’ve been replaced with anyone, so why have him?

The live-action film fixes Etta and removes Hades from the picture, yet it ruins Ares in the third-act. Not only is this out of left-field, but it’s the point at which the movie starts falling apart. Why couldn’t the film have resolved after the fight with Ludendorff? It’s fun to see David Thewlis act slimy, something I’ve yet to see with him, but it’s nothing more than an excuse for a fight on-par with The DCEU’s lesser-entries.

I think this is more clear-cut a victory than the last category, and for one reason: the live-action film’s finale. Sure, the animated film ruins Etta and underutilizes Hades, but it at least doesn’t shove in a second villain. I like the racial politics of the live-action film more-I’ll cover that in the last category-but its twist-villain really does hamper it. Sorry.

Winner:



It’s now time for…

Aesthetic:

VS

This is tough.

On the one hand, the animated film has the advantage: it’s clean. Its Greco-Roman art-style is easy on the eyes. Its colour-palate’s also easier on the eyes. And it’s hyper-detailed for direct-to-video. If anything, this should’ve been released in theatres, as it’s on-par with Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and The Iron Giant aesthetically.

But as I began to think about it, I realized the live-action film does something you wouldn’t expect from a DCEU movie: it uses colour-grading smartly. Past DCEU movies had a muted, darker palate consistently, making them ugly to look at. In contrast, this film uses different colours to signify moments in Diana’s journey, with No Man’s Land even regaining its colour after she frees it from German control. It’s something you wouldn’t think of the first time around, but it works in its favour.

Think about it this way: what’s more-impressive? A consistently beautiful palate, or a dirtier one that progressively gets more-lively? A Greco-Roman art-style that was hard to draw, or a deceptively-dingy one that was hard to make look convincing? I think the latter’s more interesting, especially given the constraints it had. Also, this is the only DCEU film to use Zack Snyder’s obnoxious slow-motion style in a way that’s artsy and not pretentious.

Winner:



Speaking of impressive, it’s time for…

Sound:

VS

Oh boy!

Right from the get-go, the animated film has musical brilliance. Because of composer Christopher Drake, who’s scored several of DC’s animated ventures, the movie’s littered with a Greek chorus and female harmonies, both of which match the film’s vibe. It’s also used to excellent effect. This seems like an easy win, right?

Not quite, and it all boils down to three words: electric cello riff. It’s only ever used four times in the entire film, the last being the end credits, but it sticks in your head! You immediately hear that riff, and your head starts bobbing up-and-down like you’re at a heavy metal concert. Take that, animated film!

The rest of the film’s score is pretty good too, by the way.

Winner:



It’s time to decide the victor once-and-for-all with…

Entertainment factor:

VS

Determining which of these two films is superior is like someone determining which of her children she loves more. However, I’ll try my best.

I’ll begin with the overall themes. This should be a no-brainer theoretically: the animated film, while well-executed and well-balanced, is really a 72-minute exercise in “not all men”. I recognize that that’s an important message from-time-to-time, but given the rise in sexual misconduct stories these past few months, well…it’s unhelpful. The live-action movie, in contrast, is all about the good and bad in humanity. I can get behind that.

I also like how the live-action film isn’t afraid to tackle uncomfortable issues of race and women. One of the crew Steve acquires is an Ottoman Turk who tell Diana that he wants to be an actor, but “is the wrong colour”. That’s…surprisingly on-point for how Hollywood casts its movies. Another is a Native American who lost everything to Steve’s people. Again, that’s…surprisingly on-point in its commentary on colonialism. Even Diana’s an openly-active protagonist, as opposed to being active in the context of those around her in the animated film.

The live-action film also has its share of inspiring moments. The most-famous is No Man’s Land, where Diana jumps into the trenches and fends off German soldiers. There’s a reason it’s a great moment: it’s optimistic and heroic. At best, the animated film’s most-optimistic moment is when Diana helps a little girl swordfight. Even then, as Steve points out, it’s kinda twisted.

Fortunately, the animated movie’s much funnier. There’s a running gag surrounding the word “crap” that has an excellent pay-off in the finale. Steve also has some of the best lines and moments. Perhaps the funniest is when the two are drinking, and Steve mentions that if Diana’s mother had been seduced by the god of dependability, she’d say, “You’re sweet, but I think of you as a friend”. There’s also the punchline to that drinking, where he passes out drunk before Diana’s even partly inebriated, although how Steve recovered as quickly as he did…

The two movies also compliment/oppose one-another brilliantly: both films have an alleyway fight where Diana shows off her bulletproof wrist-cuffs. Both films have an emotional scene involving the death of a prominent Amazon. Both films also highlight different aspects of the Amazon culture and mythos, with one tackling Greek gods and the other touching on the Greek concept of Paradiso. And the fight scenes in both films are incredibly-impressive.

Personally, I’m siding with the animated film. The live-action film’s great, has lots of great moments and touches on great themes and concepts, but it’s a much messier experience. The animated film, though often rushed and expository, is more economically-efficient and wastes relatively little time. That’s something the live-action film should’ve strived for, hence losing by a hair.

Overall winner:



And there you have it! Thanks for sticking with me yet again, and I’ll see you next time!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

In Defence of/A Take-Down of Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Storytelling is tricky to truly master. For one, there has to be a plan connecting everything together. And two, it must be done in such a way that it doesn’t feel manipulative. This is especially challenging for a long-running series, which needs to do the above while setting the groundwork for the grander picture. There are definitely wrong ways to pull this off (see Lost), but there’s also no one way to do it correctly.


Take Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Star Wars is no stranger to narrative inconsistencies, due to the franchise frequently building off of previous installments, but it’s always seemed like there was a plan in place. Even lesser-entries, bad as they are, had a reason for existing, an established goal worth respecting. Unfortunately, this latest film bucked that trend. Despite taking the franchise in a new direction, which I’d argue isn’t a sure-fire guarantee of quality on its own, the film has seen backlash over a few dropped threads from its predecessor and its decision to include a detour on a planet called Canto Bight. I happen to not mind these decisions too much, but I’ll play Devil’s Advocate and explain why I think it’s not fair to dismiss the criticism.

By the way, spoilers.

The first I’ll tackle is the attempts at a new direction. Star Wars: The Last Jedi, right from its opening scene, subverts expectations. Poe Dameron, the loveable pilot of The Resistance from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is reckless and gets most of his fleet killed. Luke, seen at the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, immediately chucks his prized lightsaber off a cliff in his first scene. Even Snoke, built-up to be another Emperor, is defeated by Kylo Ren, only for Kylo Ren to shock Rey and usurp the title of Supreme Leader shortly after the regime change. These are legitimately new and surprising decisions for an over 40 year-old franchise.

But is “new and surprising” necessarily good for Star Wars? Remember, the oft-maligned prequels introduced new and surprising elements too: the introduction of political banter was new, and Anakin’s descent to The Dark Side was surprising. That doesn’t, however, mean that these inclusions were good. And they shouldn’t be expected to, either. It’s a case of “different =/= better”, and it’s important that people understand that.

Fortunately, these decisions do work in the movie’s favour. Remember, Star Wars is over 40 years old. Even if you remove the “what ain’t broke, don’t fix” mantra so many people love touting, or that, to paraphrase George Lucas, Star Wars is like poetry and, therefore, rhymes, there’s a point where retreading too much can be a bad sign. It’s one of the many ill-founded complaints detractors lobbed at Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and it was used to reverse effect here. To paraphrase Jeremy Jahns in a YouTube video on the film, “It’s all about The Goldilocks Effect”.

That said, I do think there’s no real Goldilocks Effect with some Star Wars fans. The franchise is so deeply-rooted in nostalgia, and their hatred of Disney’s so strong, that they’d complain regardless. I don’t think Star Wars fans would be truly satisfied even if a movie found that balance, essentially.

The dropped threads are included here. Star Wars: The Force Awakens built up real questions and potential lore for future movies to address: who are Rey’s parents? Who’s Snoke? Why did Kylo Ren turn evil? And, most-importantly, how did Maz Kanata acquire Luke’s old lightsaber from Cloud City?

How does Star Wars: The Last Jedi address these questions? By ignoring the questions. To be fair, some of the answers are fine, like Rey’s parents being nobodies, but others rub me the wrong way. I know Snoke isn’t important, and that The Emperor originally had no backstory either, but so what? The Emperor sucked until the prequels anyway, and a simple acknowledgement of who Snoke was would’ve sufficed. Also, Luke’s lightsaber was the laziest part of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and not addressing that irks me.

This is the biggest disconnect between fans and detractors. On one hand, not every franchise needs Harry Potter-levels of Rube-Goldberg connectivity, that’s asking too much. But, on the other hand, it’s ridiculous to bring up major questions, then drop them Damon Lindelof-style. Even if the question’s more important than the answer, there’s a fine line between creating intrigue through ambiguity and laziness. Some of these answers fall into the latter category.

Fortunately, I can forgive it somewhat because the Star Wars franchise is coded with laziness and false-leads. The initial cut of the original film was a mess, saved at the last-second by rush-edits and decisions. The sequel’s original script was trashed, with a new director, the late-Irving Kershner, replacing George Lucas in the end. The trilogy’s finale, arguably its worst entry, had plenty of padding and two anticlimactic deaths, the second being my biggest gripe as a whole. And the prequels were guilty of many contradictions and retcons, the most-egregious being Midichlorians.

Let’s address Canto Bight. It’s a detour in the film where Finn and Rose are dispatched to find a secret codebreaker at a casino. They end up getting arrested, find another codebreaker in prison and escape on alien horses. They then arrive at The First Order’s flagship destroyer, whereupon the codebreaker betrays them in time for everything to go crazy. It’s a subplot that I like, since it deals with classism, but it’s received the biggest split reaction of everything that people were split on.

I get it: it feels tacked-on. The social commentary about the elites trouncing on the poor feels out of left-field. It distracts from the main story. It goes on for too long. And it ends up being a pointless distraction.

I also get the defence for it. Not only is it thematically in-line with Star Wars in general, it’s also a fun way to explore a new side of the universe’s lore. It also builds Rose and Finn’s characters, and its pointlessness is kinda the point. And given the weird detours Star Wars has gone through in its history, both show and movie-wise, it’s not the most-outlandish part of the mythos either. So I’m cool with it existing.

But I think that, in an attempt to defend it, we mistake the forest for the trees. Star Wars has had some weird detours, Star Wars Ep. VI: Return of the Jedi’s opening act qualifies as one, but they usually lead to something. Canto Bight doesn’t lead to anything until the end of the movie, and that can be jarring for those not patient enough to endure. Also, while not everything needs to be a Rube-Goldberg machine, there’s a difference between breaking conventions because there’s something fun/meaningful to say, and simply diverging from structure because you want to. The former is interesting, the latter, again, lazy, and that’s an important distinction.

That’s really the problem in the discourse surrounding Star Wars: The Last Jedi: there are many points of criticism that are irrelevant, like how Luke failing Kylo Ren is considered to be a flaw, but some of the complaints are, in fact, valid…from a certain point of view. It’s not enough to brush them off as “irrelevant whining”. Especially when they’re not.

Do I love this movie regardless? Yeah. It has its moments of wasted potential, and Carrie Fisher is, once again, underutilized, but more of it clicked than didn’t. And I liked how it was bold enough to try new ideas. But it’s not perfect, and the sooner people recognize that, the better.

I’m also not sure if I liked it more or less than Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but I guess time will tell…

Sunday, December 17, 2017

21st Century Disney? A Post-Mortem

(Note: The following is all based on speculation and personal concerns, and is subject to reflection pending what happens next.)


Last month, I wrote a blog discussing the talks Disney was having with 20th Century Fox to buy their films and TV divisions, the implications behind the deal and what I personally thought. This past Friday, the deal was closed for $52.4 billion. While some people were cheering at the prospects, others were mortified by Disney gaining control of more of Hollywood’s assets. I still remain divided on this, but for the sake of inner-peace, I’ll argue both sides and explain why this is a big deal in hopes of making sure my readers better understand where I’m coming from:

Pros:

In the 80’s and 90’s, Marvel, now a giant corporation, was on the verge of bankruptcy. In order to help their situation, Marvel comics siphoned off their IPs to different film studios with the intent of making movies. Said siphoning came with a single clause: in order to keep hold of the property indefinitely, the studio had to begin work on a new film every few years. Note that they didn’t have to make the film, but rather begin work on it.

Many of Marvel’s high-profile IPs went to big-budget studios. Fantastic Four, for example, went to a studio that’d later be bought out by 20th Century Fox, while Spider-Man would float around for many years before being grabbed by Sony Pictures. And, of course, The Incredible Hulk went to Universal. This decision saved Marvel from collapsing, but it left them with little of their own in the end.

That didn’t stop Marvel from working with what they had, however. After seeing the frequent misuses of their IPs on the big screen, in 2008, after reclaiming Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, Marvel began an experiment that’d become known as The MCU. Beginning with Iron Man, they kicked off a shared universe on the big screen, with mostly C-tier superheroes, and made a name for themselves in Hollywood. This was further amped up by Disney purchasing Marvel in 2009 and adding them to their growing arsenal. With their success all but assured, Disney simply had to play the waiting game to gain back all of Marvel’s lost IPs.

But there was a problem: not every studio was willing to co-operate. Some, like Lionsgate, were happy to oblige, seeing no real use in failed IPs, but others, like Universal, would only give up what they had on the condition that they shared profiting or licensing rights. This was how Marvel reclaimed Spider-Man from Sony in 2015, and even now any solo Spider-Man efforts are under the Sony Pictures banner. Yet the biggest thorn in Disney’s side was 20th Century Fox, who stubbornly held onto Fantastic Four (despite four failed movies) and X-Men (a property they had mixed success with.) Disney and Fox were known enemies, with Fox making their acquisition of Star Wars in 2012 a living nightmare, so reclaiming these properties seemed like nothing but a distant dream in the eyes of Marvel fans…until now.

The one upside to this deal is, as I mentioned, a full acquisition of Marvel’s properties. Finally, after decades, Marvel’s complete! Fantastic Four has a shot at a good movie now! X-Men can appear in The MCU! It’s like I said last time: think of the possibilities.

But even outside of that, Disney can now use Fox’s IPs in any way they so desire: want to finally make Avatar the franchise Disney’s clearly wanted since they opened up their theme park? It can happen. Want to reboot the Alien, Predator, Terminator and Die Hard franchises properly? It can happen. And with The Simpsons being well-past its prime, having gone on for 28 seasons, perhaps it’ll finally be cancelled? Who knows?

What’s best is, on a purely theoretical level, the amount of creative freedom Disney’s giving these properties and the results they’ve received because of that. The Muppets has seen a renaissance under their rule following two successful films this decade. Disney’s Marvel and Star Wars divisions have really shone, with Star Wars getting a second-life following the reception of The Prequels. And with the announcement that Deadpool 2 will get to keep its R-rating, this looks to be a deal with no losses on paper!

Cons:

All of this is hunky-dory, but at what cost?

Keep in mind two points: first, this wasn’t a cash deal, but a stocks deal. That $52.4 billion was all in shares of the Fox enterprise. And now that Disney owns the film rights to its biggest competitor, this makes for some really shady investing considering that Disney was on the verge of bankruptcy 30 years ago.

Remember, Disney’s not infallible. They’ve made big mistakes, and I’d argue that their streaming service they’re set to launch next year will be another one. It’s easy to assume that Disney’s untouchable, especially given their record profits these last few years, but they could crash-and-burn if they’re not careful. Pride goeth before a fall, after all!

On a deeper level, this also reeks of anti-competitive practices. We bemoan big corporations running Hollywood, but the diversity of studio output allows for healthy competition and creative options. Art never works well under unfair monopolies. As so do big corporations, since they never feel a need to expand their horizons and challenge themselves.

This is something I don’t think fans are aware of. True, X-Men was always a Marvel property, but while it’d had its ups and downs under Fox, it was going in unique directions that Disney wouldn’t take. An ambitious film like X-Men: Days of Future Past would’ve never flown with Disney, nor would small-scale ventures like Logan or Deadpool. They wouldn’t be acceptable under the family-friendly reputation Disney’s made for themselves. And that’s important to note in a superhero market like the one currently dominating Hollywood.

It also bothers me because Disney’s now one step closer to owning everything in Hollywood and charging more for consumer to watch movies. Films are already expensive enough as is, I don’t need to pay any more than I already do. Yet I might have to, and that worries me.

Essentially, this is greed at its finest. I can appreciate Marvel owning Fantastic Four, as Lord knows the IP was struggling, and X-Men being back at Disney is fine, if not a little disappointing creatively. But owning all of 20th Century Fox’s IPs? Isn’t that a bit much? Isn’t that a bit scary?

Still, I’m willing to be proven wrong, so who knows?

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Stranger Things and 80'stalgia

I have no affection for the 80’s. Aside from having been born in 1990, I think people are so caught up by the Cold War paranoia and constant frustrations of Reagan-era policies that any sincere love for the decade is soured by how crappy it was to grow up then. I also think its films, which people hold in high-regard, have largely aged awkwardly, with its weird blend of timelessness and edgy causing most of its output to feel either outdated (Ghostbusters), blatantly-offensive (Revenge of the Nerds, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), or over-compensatory for lacklustre storytelling (Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal). And sure, there are some real gems, like Robocop and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, but not enough to fangasm. Especially now that 80’s nostalgia is permeating film culture like a curse.


So it’s curious that I was sold on Stranger Things, especially since the series thrives on its love of the 80’s. I’d heard plenty of praise from friends and family, but being a love letter to a decade I couldn’t relate to made me skeptical. Still, I gave it a shot and watched Season 1. That it delivered was impressive on its own, but that it delivered in ways I never thought it would was even more so. I’d even argue that this makes me excited for my inevitable Season 2 viewing, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Stranger Things begins on an evening in 1983. After four friends depart from their Dungeons and Dragons campaign, one of them, Will Myers, is attacked by a monster and vanishes. Around the same time, a psychic, dubbed Eleven, escapes from a lab and runs into Will’s friends. Initially hoping to use Eleven’s powers to find Will, these friends, Mike, Lucas and Dustin, discover something sinister and disturbing that connects her to Will’s captor. The situation becomes more complicated when Mike’s older sister, Nancy, gets involved, reaching a head when the protagonists realize what they’ve stepped into. I’d give away more, but it’s densely-packed and I don’t want to ruin the show.

On the outset, Stranger Things feels like a typical Netflix offering: its budget is cheap, so The Duffer Brothers, for whom this was a passion project, had to get creative. Not a lot of action is shown, the special effects are minimal, many sets are reused and there are long stretches of padded-out conversation. Fortunately, like many low-budget projects that are successful, it works, thanks to strong performances across the board. Special shout-outs to Finn Wolfhard and Millie Bobby Brown as Mike and Eleven. Child actors are hard to get good performances from, and these two make it look easy.

Stranger Things also excels at suspense. The show isn’t exclusively horror, but it does use many of the genre’s trappings to great effect. I especially like its execution of jump-scares. People love giving modern horror crap for its over-reliance on those, but it’s all a matter of how they’re used. To that end, Stranger Things follows the familiar patterns of suspense, build-up and payoff to make these scares work, something badly-made horror films should take notes from. The show also uses that pattern to make its thriller components work, but given how thrillers and horror often go hand-in-hand…

[Insert jump-scare here]

Stranger Things has a love for 70’s and 80’s film. It incorporates elements from the greats, like Jaws, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial and Alien, but it doesn’t do so in a way that feels cheap or pandering. Much like the Daniel Craig James Bond films, Stranger Things’s goal isn’t to bonk you over-the-head, but rather reference in subtle and subdued ways. This allows die-hard 80’s fans to appreciate the references, while those unfamiliar with these references can enjoy a well-written show. I definitely appreciate that.

It’s also for the best, as Stranger Things, like YouTube user Mother’s Basement pointed out, does the 80’s better than many 80’s films. Its timeless feel feels relevant now, unlike many 80’s films being dated, and its dark edge isn’t cheap or over-compensatory. That’s not to say it doesn’t fall back on Reagan-era paranoia, as it does, but even then it feels welcomed because it amounts to something significant. Stranger Things is truly the best kind of 80’s love-letter for someone who doesn’t care much for the 80’s. Because I don’t, and I love it.

Stranger Things does occasionally stumble, however. Ignoring occasional cracks in its production design, the show revels in instances of homophobia and sexism. I understand the intent, given how people talked then, but it can be jarring in 2017. The show also feels a bit slow and disjointed in its attempts to wrap up four plotlines in 8 episodes, forcing you to stay to the end and punishing you for getting distracted. In those two areas, Stranger Things could use work.

But that doesn’t distract from the show’s strengths. After all, this is a series seeped in the best of the 80’s. It’s got the creepiness of the best horror, and the quirky irreverence of the best drama. It’s an “80’s movie” for Netflix in 2017, but it knows its audience well and can be enjoyed by people who both grew up in the 80’s or didn’t grow up in the 80’s. As someone who fits the latter category, I can respect that.

Now then, I’m curious if the second season is as good as the first…

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Hollywood Washing Machine

Being a minority can be frustrating when it comes to proper representation in society.


Take me, for example: the most obvious characteristic people notice is my tics. The questions I’ve been asked, whether it’s if I have epilepsy, or if my face is okay, are perturbing, but after over a decade I’ve come to peace with that. Once you get to know me better, however, you pick up on the social barriers of Asperger’s Syndrome/Autism, as well as the heightened insecurity of anxiety, OCD and ADHD. Add in that I wear a yarmulke, a sign that I’m Jewish, and you have a recipe for trivial jokes, most of them pretty awful and not funny.

I mention this in light of a recent documentary, one that’s been circulating for a while, yet I can’t view because I’m Canadian. Enter Hari Kondabolu, an Indian-American (from the real India) who’s taken on a beloved character from The Simpsons. Kondabolu loves the show, yet he’s never sat comfortably knowing that everyone’s favourite convenience store clerk, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, is played by Hank Azaria, a “white man”. And, what’s worse, he’s a racist stereotype. Ignoring that Azaria’s actually Sephardic Jewish, more on that later, that’s something you wouldn’t think about unless it were pointed out.

Kondabolu’s stance on Apu has sparked a backlash, with detractors calling him a “liberal, cuck, social justice warrior snowflake who needs to get over it and whine in his safe space”. He even mentions this in the trailer of his documentary, stating that he has gotten over it for the longest time, yet can’t anymore. Considering the recent surge in respectful, Indian-American representation, Kondabolu feels it’s time to shed light on why Apu’s an example of Hollywood brownface.


I can relate. As a Jew, it upsets me how frequently Jewface is used in subtle ways in the mainstream. Jews in Hollywood are frequently confined to nerdy and entrepreneurial roles. Jews in politics are often slammed by conservatives for being socialists, while liberals shun them for excelling at the capitalist system. Jews in world politics face unfair castigation for being Zionists, stating that they’re “ethnic cleansers of Palestinians” without getting the full and nuanced story. And Jews in media haven’t gotten over their stigma of being “inheritors of white privilege”, which ignores that this is recent, easily-revoked and how Jews are too diverse to really be “white”.

I haven’t even covered my disabilities. Because that’s a whole other can of worms! Not only do disabled roles go to able-bodied individuals, but they’re riddled with inaccuracies and over-romanticized attributes. At worst, they’re even portrayed as helpless and incapable of taking care of themselves, or smug jerks who lack empathy. That I understand Kondabolu’s point is eerie, and that I actually agree is even more so.

That said, I want to prod Kondabolu a bit. Not because I’m a jerk, but because there are a few points that deserve clarity and/or defence. For one, Hank Azaria isn’t white. This is a misconception that frequently gets tossed around about Jews, even Ashkenazi ones. Jews, firstly, have been around longer than the concept of race theory. Additionally, Wilhelm Marr, the inventor of modern-Antisemitism, wouldn’t have considered them white. I know that second point is a bit flimsy, but given how white-supremacists still abide by Marr’s principles when it comes to Jews, well…it’s fair game.


Two, while we’re on the subject, Hank Azaria wouldn’t be white even if he weren’t Jewish. His parents are of Spanish/Middle Eastern decent, so he has more in-common with Iraqis and Spaniards than traditional, white Europeans. It might seem trivial to play semantics here on some level, but racial politics and identity politics often go hand-in-hand. I’m playing by everyone else’s rules, after all!

Three, Kondabolu shouldn’t only be going after Apu. He should go after Azaria’s other roles in The Simpsons too, including Akira and Bumblebee Man. I know it’s unfair to assume that of him, but he needs to play fair. The Simpsons has whitewashed many different minorities, most of whom were voiced by Azaria. (Then again, you have to pick-and-choose your battles.)

Four, hate the game too! Entertainment’s riddled with whitewashing almost-consistently, to the point where it’s become a running joke. Sure, we don’t do it as much in live-action anymore, but animation? It’s everywhere! Even Avatar: The Last Airbender, arguably my favourite show, has instances of subtle whitewashing with its casting! You wouldn’t notice it from the get-go, but it’s there.


And five, I don’t think whitewashing alone is the issue. I take offence to able-bodied individuals embracing disabled characters, but I’m less-offended by Sally Hawkins playing a mute in The Shape of Water than Jim Parsons playing an Autistic savant in The Big Bang Theory. I could also be a tad biased, knowing how Autism should function, but Eliza appears to be better-written than Sheldon Cooper. She has agency, a character and general respect for those around her, while Sheldon’s narcissistic, self-obsessed and blatantly-sexist/condescending. Both aren’t ideal, but one’s at least respectful.

What it really comes down to is, in a word, discourse. I know I’m one guy in a world of many, but for as much as I appreciate art despite its flaws, I similarly appreciate thoughtful discourse with marginalized groups. It’s not always easy, and sometimes I feel like my own struggles go on deaf ears, but it’s important. It’s important because it lets concerns be known, and it’s important because it challenges preconceived notions. But, most-importantly, it’s important because it offers perspective. And we could always use some more of that.

Also, people really need to stop with the “SJW snowflake” nonsense. Not only is it unhelpful, but it’s extremely hypocritical to turn around and get offended when the tables are turned.