Thursday, November 16, 2017

Casting Ouch! On Hollywood and Sexual Predators...

(Apologies in advance for the roughness of this piece, but I figured that something raw and heartfelt was better than something more polished and mechanical.)

Geez! And I thought politics was a circus…

I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate on the current surfacing of rape/harassment accusations that are flooding pretty much every area of work ever. It’s been on the news constantly since the floodgates on Harvey Weinstein broke about a month ago. And while some could argue that this should’ve been happening sooner, I’m glad that it’s at least being acknowledged in large numbers that’s there a serious power imbalance. But that discussion is a rabbit hole I’m not an expert in, so I’ll leave that to the psychologists and victims to share. In other words, not important right now.

I was originally not gonna discuss this on my blog. Firstly, despite having my own story of assault (small as it may be) to share, I’m not sure I could really do something this terrifying and dark justice. And secondly, I’ve always tried to judge art outside of its behind-the-scenes nonsense on principle, so this really spit in the face of that. But the allegations moved from Weinstein to more respectable individuals like Kevin Spacey and Louis CK, so it seemed almost inevitable. I finally caved once George Takei was revealed to be a predator, since I happen to really admire Takei’s advocacy work for the gay and Asian-American communities, and now my sorrow’s being shared with you. Welcome to my pain.

Allow me to clear a few misconceptions up: one, sexual harassment and assault being rampant in Hollywood shouldn’t surprise anyone, especially men. Hollywood, despite touting itself as being “progressive” on a face level, is actually regressive in certain respects. Many of its big kahunas are pretty traditionally-mined conservatives, valuing money over dignity, and they’ll stop at nothing to obtain that precious green. Its stars, whom are incredibly-diverse and often insular, aren’t much different, with some of them even being bred into acting royalty from childhood/acting families. This isn’t to say that all of them are like this, but a lot of actors and actresses are, to put it bluntly, kinda spoiled. When you put that all together, it’s amazing what goes on behind closed-doors that we never hear about.

Two, rape culture is a serious problem that’s been going on for eons. We may not have started talking about it until fairly-recently, but it’s always been there. Women had learned not to talk about it in public, even, for fear of ostracizing and shame, especially if the perpetrator in question had power and influence, but it was there. And Hollywood, an incredibly insular industry, was especially guilty of it. It’s been so guilty of sexual abuse that there was even a code-word for it, one that porn has lovingly parodied on numerous occasions: the casting couch. If a woman wanted to get far in her career, then the casting couch was a great way for that to happen…even if it meant enduring acts that she didn’t want to endure in the first place.

Three, sexual abuse isn’t about sex. It never has been, and it never will be. I remember hearing a statistic that only 50% of rapists have erections during rape, and I’m assuming that sexual assault isn’t much better. Sexual abuse, like any other form of abuse, is about power and control. The power that one has, and the control that individual has over someone else. Therefore, chalking this up to “biological urges”, while cute in theory, doesn’t cut it. At all.

Four, that all of these allegations are against male predators doesn’t mean that society’s suddenly condemning men altogether. That’s not true. I’m a man, and I don’t feel like my manhood’s being threatened in the slightest by these stories that are coming out about “Hollywood’s biggest and brightest”. I’m actually relieved knowing that we’re discussing this sort of stuff, even if it’s a bit late, as it means that we’re putting our unrealistic expectations of our celebrity heroes in-check. In some cases, it’s also the only way for us to heal from this mess, irrespective of how deep the rabbit hole goes. It’s also somewhat ironic that our fickle celebrities are taking more accountability for their actions than our serious leaders, but politicians never take accountability for anything.

And five, this isn’t the time to be shaming individuals for not coming out sooner. Victims are victims for a reason, and the aftermath of abuse and rape can often be hard to cope with. I’m no expert in this area, but I can assure you that for every story that’s being shared, there are plenty more that aren’t being discussed at all. Simply speaking up at all takes courage, and that’s something to commend and applaud. It’s not something to shun and shame, though given that our attitudes toward victims is still pretty negative, it’s gonna take a lot of retraining to get this to change for the better.

I’m not sure how else to say this. It’s scary to think how dangerous and irresponsible we can be when drunk with power. All I can suggest is that we listen to the victims, punish the predators and hope for the best. In any field, not only Hollywood. Because that’s the only way we’re gonna fix this for the better.

I’ll be heartbroken regardless if Tom Hanks turns out to be a predator too. Because even I need something to hold onto every-so-often, people!

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

21st Century Disney?

Oh boy!

It seems like Disney’s trying to rule the world these days. It was only 30 years ago that, honestly, they were barely making ends meet. Now look at them: they’re a multi-billion dollar entity, absorbing everything they can get their hands on. Whether it’s their acquisition of The Jim Henson Company in the early-2000’s, their purchase of Marvel in 2009, their purchase of Star Wars in 2012, or their more-recent purchase of Indiana Jones, it’s like someone forgot to tell The House of Mouse to finish what’s on their plate before getting more food. Or, if someone has told them, they’re too busy being gluttonous to care!

I mention this in light of a recent development that broke. There’ve been many takes on it since, but it’s only fair to see the source: CNBC.
"21st Century Fox has been holding talks to sell most of the company to Walt Disney Co., leaving behind a media company tightly focused on news and sports, according to people familiar with the situation.”
To quote John Oliver from Last Week Tonight: HOLY SHIT!

This is a big deal. It’s a big deal because Disney’s a film-giant powerhouse in Hollywood, and it’s a big deal because Disney and 21st Century Fox are enemies in the world of film. To put it into perspective, when Disney purchased LucasFilm from George Lucas in 2012, for a mere $4 billion, 21st Century Fox held onto the unedited versions of the original films and immediately cancelled Star Wars: The Clone Wars out of spite. Fox has also stubbornly kept hold of the X-Men and Fantastic Four IPs, rushing out Fant4stic in 2015 to mess with Marvel’s ambitions of reacquiring all of its properties. So to see Fox talking to Disney, well…it’s huge.

Before we get carried away, allow me to clear something up. The big misconception is that this is official. It’s not; in fact, CNBC even mentions that “there is no certainty” that a deal has been agreed to yet. It’s still a big deal, but let’s not jump the gun. There’ll be plenty of time for that later.

I’m torn on this news. On one hand, this is exciting for film fans. Think of what this could mean: Fantastic Four getting a decent movie in The MCU! X-Men also joining The MCU! Disney getting The Planet of the Apes franchise! And, after years of begging, the unedited versions of the original Star Wars films can finally be ours in crisp-clear 4K! It’s a win for Disney!

On the other hand, I’m a little concerned, for a few reasons. For one, Fox is in serious trouble financially if this is happening. You might say that this a long time coming, but it’s sad that a studio in Hollywood is desperate enough that it’d come crawling to its rival for help. The implications are troubling if this is the case.

Two, Disney shouldn’t have a monopoly on film. I know they’re doing quite well for themselves at the moment, but I want them to continue to innovate too. History has shown that companies become complacent when they’re in the lead, and it’s especially bad when they have a monopoly. We always rail on companies like Fox for rehashing success stories, but their presence keeps Disney in-check.

Three, Disney won’t always be in top-form. They are now, but even as recent as the early-2000’s they were struggling. There was a time when their own animation studio was trying to stay afloat amidst the competition of Pixar and Dreamworks, and it showed in their output. Disney, in a nutshell, can always fail again. So to place all their eggs in one basket isn’t smart.

And four, I can’t help feeling like Disney’s biting off more than they can chew. This is the same corporation that’s launching two streaming services next year to compete with Netflix. This is the same corporation that also got itself into hot water this week with their decision to revoke The LA Times’s screening passes for future movies after they reported on one of their dirty secrets. Disney might be a giant, but they’re not infallible.

Besides, I feel uncomfortable with Disney owning everything. I can deal with The Muppets, Star Wars and Marvel being in their grasp, since they’ve done great stuff with all three, and Indiana Jones isn’t far-fetched either. But what would they do with X-Men that Fox hasn’t already done? Can they churn out an epic trilogy on-par with the recent Planet of the Apes movies? And if they ended up in control of Fantastic Four, something I’d be happy about, where would they take the IP?

I don’t mean to slam Disney. I like Disney. I don’t love them, but I like them. I like them enough to understand that they shouldn’t own everything simply because they can. That’s not success, it’s greed. And Lord knows we already have enough of that.

Still, like I said, the decision isn’t final yet, so there’s time to see what unfolds. Either way, I’m unimpressed, even though this appeals to my inner-film fan.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Trauma Town-5 Moments that Scarred Me as a Child

Ah, Halloween! A holiday I used to celebrate, but not anymore. I know it’s a cop-out to say that, as it detracts from the fun of the holiday, but I’ve kinda grown out of terrorizing people for candy. Plus, the concept of dressing up exists in Purim, a day dedicated to giving and not taking. So yeah, not a fan.

That said, I’m game for this trend that’s been floating around the internet since the Summer, in which people list traumatic moments in entertainment that scarred them as children. I know I’m late to the party, but seeing as it’s Halloween, and I’m ready to jump on the trend bandwagon, I figured why not? I have several moments that perturbed me growing up in the 90’s, and I guess I can share 5 of them with you all. You ready?

(Also, spoilers!)

Beginning this list is a moment that hasn’t aged well. Like, at all. Remember that really “beloved” Pokémon show that’s still going strong? Remember when said show had its first movie, and the hype was everywhere? I do, and I even dragged my uninterested mother to the theatre for it. I think it might’ve even been a birthday present, come to think of it…

Either way, I remember the film being pretty dark and scary at a few points, most-notably when Pikachu’s running from those shadow balls Mewtwo used to capture the Pokémon of the guests he’d invited to his sanctuary. But the moment that hit the hardest came in the film’s climax. I’m sure you know where I’m going with this, but it’s the scene where Ash intervenes in a match between Mewtwo and Mew because he can’t take their senseless fighting anymore. He stupidly runs in-between their attacks, gets hit by them and turns to stone. Pikachu tries shocking him back to life, but when that doesn’t work, well…he starts crying.

This scene got to me for the longest time. For one, despite being a reckless idiot, I liked Ash as a kid. Two, he looked like he was gone for good. And three, seeing Pikachu attempt to revive him unsuccessfully, then cry, was heart-breaking. It got to the point where I couldn’t watch the scene for years without bursting into tears myself. Of course, it’s stupid in hindsight, especially since Ash is revived with the power of Pokémon tears, but I was 9 years old.

Transitioning to an entry that’s aged much better, I can’t discuss Pokémon without mentioning Digimon. Digimon has plenty of traumatic moments throughout its first four seasons, most of them being, obviously, in Season 3 (Digimon Tamers for those outside of North America.) However, for nostalgic purposes, I’m sticking to Digimon Adventure, and its Myotismon Arc. Specifically, Episode 37, “Wizardmon’s Gift”, and its one moment that destroyed me. Even after the first season had ended its syndication, I went out to buy the VHS collection that featured this episode so I could prove that this was actually scary. Call me a masochist, perhaps.

The moment comes when The Digidestined are battling Myotismon atop the tower. Myotismon clearly has the upper-hand, being an Ultimate, and his only real opponent is Angemon. Even then, Angemon can only bruise him, not defeat him. With the kids’ Digimon unable to take him down, Myotismon plays dirty and aims an attack at Kari, who’s stuck at the sidelines and unable to join in the fight with Gatomon. It’s here that the wounded Wizardmon jumps in and takes the full blast. It kills him instantly, to the shock of Kari and Gatomon.

What makes this moment traumatic is that, similar to Pokémon: The First Movie and Ash, Wizardmon was a character I’d grown to love and care about. What makes this moment even more traumatic than Ash is that his death isn’t a fake-out. The reason is that the show had made it clear that Digimon who die outside of The Digital World don’t reincarnate as eggs, but rather stay dead. That this happened to Wizardmon, who was built up as a hero, made his death even more terrifying. Add in the music in the English dub, which was actually fitting for once, and you’re left with 9 year-old me scared pants-less.

Moving to Western animation, because I grew up on a diet of good and bad, Pixar had plenty of nightmare fuel when I was growing up. There were many terrifying and traumatic moments in their early works, and they all scarred me in some way, shape or form. Monsters, Inc., for example, had that heartbreakingly terrifying moment where Sully showed off his scream, not realizing that Boo was right there and got the full brunt. Finding Nemo was packed with scary moments, like when Bruce got a whiff of Dory’s blood and went on a rampage. And while I never saw the movie in its entirety until teenage-hood, anything involving that bird in A Bug’s Life scared me to no end.

However, I have to go with Toy Story here. I was the prime age for this movie when it released, so I was excited by toys coming to life when their owners weren’t around. I got so sucked in that witnessing one of them get blown up by child psychopath Sid was horrid on its own. As I watched that poor army soldier, complete with rocket attached to its back, get blasted to smithereens, all-the-while Sid laughing maniacally, I shrank in my seat. True, the soldier never actually was shown exploding, because kid’s film, but with the debris flying in the air, well…y’know.

This moment was so etched in my 5 year-old mind that whenever I saw the movie afterward, be it on VHS or TV, I’d get uncomfortable when it came up. Even now, as the movie’s visuals themselves have aged terribly, that scene is chilling. And yeah, it’s a movie, so it's not exactly real. But it’s pretty traumatizing regardless. (That poor soldier… *Sniff*)

Speaking of which, we can’t forget Disney, the master of childhood nightmare fuel, can we? There’s a lot to choose from, be it the Pink Elephants scene in Dumbo, the Chernabog skit in Fantasia or Shere Khan ripping Baloo to shreds in The Jungle Book, if I’m only considering the old classics. Even in The Disney Renaissance, you had Gaston fighting The Beast in Beauty and the Beast and the entirety of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the latter of which I remember leaving the theatre because it was too scary. Still, I was initially gonna have The Cave of Wonders collapsing in Aladdin as my choice, but I chose not to at the last-second. It freaks me out even today, but this spot belongs to Ariel’s voice being taken away in The Little Mermaid.

I had a soft-spot for The Little Mermaid for years, to the point where my shock that it doesn’t fully hold-up actually scarred me in its own right. But “Poor Unfortunate Souls” hasn’t aged a day. Nor has the song’s conclusion, in which Ariel’s gasping for air with her new lungs, all-the-while Ursula’s laughing in the background, as she swims to the surface. I wasn’t a great swimmer when I was younger, so seeing the heroine nearly drown made me self-conscious. It eventually got better when she gasped for air for the first time, but that struggle, when mixed with the suspenseful music, was a nail-biter!

I guess, as a runner-up, I’d include King Triton blowing up Ariel’s collection with his trident. That’s pretty scary on its own, but it’s been knocked down over time because: a. I sympathize with Triton as an adult. b. Triton’s shown to have remorse afterward. c. It’s a cheap set-up for Ariel’s lowest point, and she immediately heads to Usrula following that. Ariel losing her voice, on the other hand, still creeps me out now.

In keeping with Disney nightmare fuel, I saved the best for last. Everyone loves The Lion King, or at least respects it. It’s easy to see why, as its ambitions are equally-matched by its storytelling. It may be easy nowadays to point out its most-obvious plot-hole, which occurs during its third-act confrontation with Scar, but no one can deny its most-famous scene. You all know what I’m referring to.

The worst part about the stampede is that, as a 4 year-old in theatres, I had no idea what was going on initially. The song about murdering Mufasa, for some reason, had eluded me. So seeing this moment, where an entire stampede of antelope nearly runs Simba over, came out of nowhere. I honestly thought Simba caused it himself by accident, hence being badly-traumatized by the time it was over and saw Mufasa’s dead body. That alone was enough to give me nightmares.

This moment gets the top spot because it hurts even more as an adult. It hurts more because I understand the full-context, and it hurts more because I appreciate why Simba was tricked. But, most-importantly, it hurts more because it highlights how evil Scar is, driving home the central conflict. It’s not even the saddest Disney moment I’ve ever seen, Dumbo being cradled by his caged mother is, but it’s definitely the scariest. That alone makes it worthy of the top spot.

So there you have it: 5 moments in TV and film that traumatized me as a child. Let me know what your choices are, if you have any, and have a spooky/fun Halloween.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Copycat Cinematic Universe

*Sigh* Here we go again!

I often feel like I’m dancing in circles over The MCU, as if it’s a personal lifeblood. It’s irksome because, despite my constant defence of the franchise, I’m not its biggest fanboy. I enjoy what it has to offer, but, save Iron Man, none of the movies have transcended a 4/5 on my personal enjoyment scale. So frequently seeing people argue how it’s “destroying film” or “mediocre entertainment”, only to present weak or easily-rebuffed arguments in favour of their positions, is tiring. And, to be frank, I’m tired of responding.

However, for the sake of trying to extrapolate writing ideas, and because The Whitly-Verse hasn’t seen an entry for a month, I’ll do it again:

… (Courtesy of The Unintentional Fallacy.)

I’d like to apologize for getting to this video 5 months late. I subconsciously mark video essays calling Marvel movies a “problem” with red flags, so I usually avoid them like a plague unless I’m desperate. But there can be no holding back how pretentious I think the video is. I think it’s pretentious because it assumes, like most detractors, that MCU movies are solely created with the intent to pander for money, completely ignoring that they almost all function as films, and I think it’s pretentious because it assumes that said films don’t inspire individuals to be creative. I also think it’s pretentious because it assumes that Star Wars, a franchise the essayist holds in high-regard, wasn’t made for intertextuality, even though George Lucas acknowledged inspiration from Akira Kurosawa and the Flash Gordon serials of the early-20th Century.

However, the one area this video missed the mark in is in its insistence, perhaps indirectly, that Marvel’s responsible for the corporate, franchise-based model that modern-Hollywood’s vapidly abusing. Because it’s not. It’s not Marvel’s fault that Hollywood’s mimicking its formula without understanding why it worked. It’s also not Marvel’s fault that The MCU’s successful enough to warrant shameless copycats. And it’s not even close to Marvel’s fault that the films are adored by moviegoers, yet their imitators aren’t. How do I know this?

Because I’m a moviegoer.

I’m not much of a comic reader. I’ve read the odd issue here-and-there, and there are definitely stand-outs that I own, but for the most part it’s never been a medium I’d spend hundreds of dollars on a regular basis. Comics, despite being interesting, don’t fancy my interest. And Marvel Comics, a brand that’s been around for over 50 years, is guilty of constant interlocking and continuity nods spanning so far back that knowing where to start would give me a headache.

I am, however, a film fan. I enjoy some genres less than others, but I’m open to anything so long as it looks good. And The MCU, for all of its continuity nods and winks, captures my fancy because it deals with superheroes, whom I happen to really like and admire. Plus, the franchise can draw-and-pull from the best of the archives while ignoring the garbage. Captain America: Civil War, for example, drew from a largely-maligned event series, yet it was praised because it knew which ideas to keep and which to discard. That’s a luxury that film’s entitled as a medium.

This is why I respect Marvel despite not loving them. I also mention this to springboard from the above video on how Marvel’s opened the door for low-strung imitators that miss why they’ve been so successful. Not that some of them aren’t entertaining, I enjoyed Star Trek into Darkness and Spectre despite both being completely ludicrous, but when they mimic The MCU without knowing why it works-its commitment to characters and story-then whose fault is that? If the smartest kid in class inspires lazy copycats, would you criticize the kid for being smart, or the copycats for being lazy?

This is why the video bugs me so much: it claims the franchise is responsible for a corporate attitude toward filmmaking, all-the-while not recognizing the bigger issue of laziness. Is it a problem that so many franchises are attempting half-baked MCU replicas? Absolutely. Will it kill the film industry? Maybe. But is it solely The MCU’s responsibility? Absolutely not. Because Hollywood has always run after trends in an attempt to make quick money, not realizing until it’s too late.

Also, digging into the essayist’s reverence for Star Wars, keep in mind that there was resistance to that franchise in its early days too. The older crowd of critics doomed it as the “death of filmmaking”, and the franchise’s most-beloved entry, Star Wars Ep. V: The Empire Strikes Back, was met with lukewarm responses from many respected tabloids of the time. We look fondly on it now, but hindsight’s 20/20. Not to mention, Star Wars inspired its share of knock-offs too, such that Castle in the Sky, which I adore, wouldn’t exist without it.

I know it’s easy to point fingers at the flavour of the day for “ruining ice cream forever”, but it’s not fair to shirk the blame on populist tastes. Because The MCU isn’t an exercise in vapid entertainment. Could it be better-executed? Yes, but it could also be worse-executed. And until that level of self-awareness is understood by its detractors, then the real issue, a lack of effort from Hollywood, will continue to be ignored. And I think that that’s most harmful.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Sugar and Spicer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Humanity of Studio Ghibli: Why I Enjoy Their Work

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

Welcome to a Studio Ghibli film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Inglourious Dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Fresh Tomatoes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Edgy Player Won?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Star Wars: The Rogue Fan Re-Awakens

I feel conflicted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Aladdin and the Minority Report in Hollywood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Challenge of the Studio Executive

Art’s a difficult world to make it big in. For one, many artists struggle their whole lives to make a name for themselves. But even on a practical level, unless you tap into a niche and exploit it at the right moment, chances are that you won’t make it big unless you fall victim to The Streisand Effect. In the meantime, you’ll be tossed around by people with way more power than you, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Hollywood.

I’d been meaning to write about “studio execs are evil” for some time, especially in light of instances like Josh Trank’s Fant4stic being a mess of a production, but I couldn’t figure out how. Then I found out that Chris Miller and Phil Lord were fired as directors from the Han Solo spin-off film and replaced with Ron Howard. This became the talk of film discourse for several days, to the point where it was pointed to as proof that “Star Wars had been ruined by Disney forever” and that “studio execs were stifling artistic visions yet again”. Speaking as someone who appreciates film as a medium of artistic expression, yet understands that the financial side is important, I can’t help but raise a red flag here.

So, are studio executives inherently evil? Maybe, but not for the reasons that people claim. True, they often put money ahead of vision, much to the dismay of product, but sometimes putting your foot down works. Why? One word: compromise.

The word “compromise” has gotten a bad rap in discourse. It shouldn’t, as life is full of compromises. Not everything can go your way 100% of the time, and it’s unhealthy to insist that it should. We live in a collective where different individuals have different needs and wants. Truth be told, the word “compromise” implies that, as it takes its roots in the French word for “arbitration”. In a real compromise, no one’s 100% happy, but they can at least come to a middle ground.

I mention this because film’s no different. On one hand, the medium is, and should be, about artistic expression. You shouldn’t be afraid to try new ideas and push boundaries. But on the other hand, with art comes limitations. Not everything can be provided for, and sometimes certain ideas have to be dropped. This can range from the animatronic shark not working in Jaws, hence Steven Spielberg being forced to focus the film from its perspective, to having the fights in Deapool be small in scale because the budget didn’t allow for grandiose shoot-outs and explosions.

We’ve seen what happens when that balance of artistic expression-to-full-on interference is tipped on either end. In the case of too much freedom, you end up with the Star Wars Prequels. I don’t hate them as much as most, but I can’t deny that their biggest flaw was George Lucas be in-charge of writing, directing and producing at the same time. Keep in mind that he hadn’t directed anything between 1977 and 1999, only produced, so having him tackle a new trilogy without running it by anyone was a disaster waiting to happen.

It doesn’t even have to be that extreme. Anyone remember the 1980 flop Heaven’s Gate? The film’s budget was purported to be about $44 million, yet the end result was such a nightmare that it nearly caused United Artists to go bankrupt. It also was responsible for the current studio system, so good on it! But yeah, having too much creative control, especially when you don’t know what you’re doing, is bad.

Of course, the pendulum can also swing too far the other way. I don’t need to go into much detail about Fant4stic, but did you know that the theatrical cut of Blade Runner was a studio-meddled mess? Film fans consider it a masterpiece now, but the original version was heavily edited and contained droned narration from Harrison Ford. It took three cuts and over a decade of gestation to finally get what we know today.

So what are studio execs for? They’re meant to serve as that balance, and a good executive will know when to step back and when to intervene. Sometimes the changes they suggest are helpful, like how the MCU’s Kevin Feige has kept a tight leash on franchise continuity. Plenty of film purists hate him, as he “stifles artistic expression”, but given that, at least of the film end, there’s yet to be a true dud in the MCU I'd say it’s working. Really and truly, studio execs are that compromise when they do their job well.

And yeah, it can be frustrating having your boss dictate what you can and can’t do. I get it, I hate working under someone else’s deadlines. But the grand irony of the studio system is that it was initially formed as a way of breaking free of Thomas Edison’s tight grip and make films their own way. It’s also ironic that Lord and Miller would be mad about being fired over the Han Solo spin-off considering that their biggest success story, The LEGO Movie, was all about compromising artistic freedom with guidelines and structure. Because if everything I’ve said above is indication, you have to have boundaries sometimes.

I’ll end this with a relevant quote from a great song:
“You can’t always get what you want/but if you try sometimes/you just might find/you get what you need.”