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.”

Friday, June 30, 2017

Oh Crap! An Update

(I apologize in advance for the roughness of this piece, but I want to get a status update out as fast as possible for you all.)

Most of you won’t know this, but I use a special medication for my hair to control my eczema. The upside is that it works. The downside is that it wakes me up early in the morning because of its smell, only dissipating after I take a shower. However, because I’m already awake, I usually take that time to check my emails for a bit until I’m too tired and fall back asleep.

This morning, however, as I was checking my emails before dozing off, I got an unusual notification from Photobucket, aka the site I use to host the many wonderful pictures you’ve seen in my pieces on both Infinite Rainy Day and The Whitly-Verse, stating the following:


The email went on to explain what a Plus 500 Plan entails, but at first I thought this was spam. It had to be, there was no other way of explaining the ridiculousness of this email. So I went on my phone to check one of my blog entries, in order to make sure it wasn’t. Sure enough, my images on both sites were down. Considering that I have 62 pieces worth of material on The Whitly-Verse and who knows how many on Infinite Rainy Day (I’ve lost count), this immediately freaked me out like no tomorrow. Not only were my images gone, but I didn’t even remember which images went where due to the almost 8 years worth of uploading I’d done on Photobucket.

Anyway, I decided to do a little research into what a Plus 500 Plan would cost me. Turns out that it’s about $40 a month to use, and I’m assuming that’s in American dollars. Since I don’t have that kind of money to waste on image linking, I figured that that was it. I’d been having trouble with Photobucket for a while now, most-recently with even uploading images at all, but this was the last straw. I’d have to either download all of my photos onto my computer and re-upload them manually, or download them and re-upload them to a different site. After the former proved tedious and time-consuming, I decided to opt for the latter.

So goodbye Photobucket, hello Imugr, right? Well, kinda. See, past brush-ins with Imugr have shown the site to be far more efficient than Photobucket, but because I had so many images to upload the uploading process would take a long time. Even now, as I write this, Imugr has yet to upload my entire library from Photobucket that I’d downloaded onto my computer, and I’d started the transfer hours ago.

Well, what does that mean for all of you? For one, I’m hoping it’s not permanent as I swap photos, but you’re gonna see a lot of error messages in my blogs and articles for a bit where images once were. And two, I’m not ever using Photobucket again. The writing’s been on the wall for quite some time now anyway, this isn’t the first time the site’s bugged me, and it’s time I jump ships before I hurt myself further. I’m also considering calling Photobucket’s technical support to give them crap and see if I can get a grace period to help me with the transition, as Infinite Rainy Day is also a side-job that pays me money to write for them.

But anyway, that’s my situation for now. Apologies again for the shortness and rushed nature of this blog entry, but it’s been a rough few hours and I want to be transparent should any of you be confused. Don’t worry, I still have future blogs and articles I want to write, but for now I have to focus on maintenance of my brands.

Until next time!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

"Issues" VS "Problems" in MCU Analysis

I sometimes wonder why it’s even worth defending the MCU. It’s not because I’m insecure and like the films blindly, because I don’t; in fact, there are at least a dozen or so franchises that I love more, and I acknowledge the flaws that exist in the MCU on a visual, tonal and narrative level. Rather, I wonder why it’s worth defending the films because they’re multi-billion dollar money-makers with a near-consistent streak of praise on Rotten Tomatoes, hence being pointless. No matter how much I play defence attorney, in the end they’ll still sell tickets. So I’m really screeching into an empty void.

However, I’ve been noticing a trend in film circles that’s driven me bonkers. Ever since the MCU’s kicked-off, there’s been an intellectual backlash meant to try and knock the movies down a peg. This includes criticizing uninspired music choices, complaining about senseless needs to connect everything, chastising the dialogue as amateur, insisting the colour-grading is awful, scoffing at filmmaking techniques and bringing up constant writing and tone problems. And it’s getting exhausting to listen to. However, I’ve already gone into specifics, so instead I’m putting my foot down and stating that these are definitely “issues”, but not “problems”, with the MCU.

Let me explain.

I’ll put up an arbitrary divider, for the sake of this piece, on “issue” and “problem”. Ignoring their proper definitions for a moment, when there’s an issue with something, it’s usually framed in a more…let’s say “passive” way. Issues are when something’s noticeable, yet not distracting. Fixable, but not immediately fixable. Saying that there’s an “issue” means that it’s not ideal, but we can always work with it.

Problems, on the other hand, are more direct. Problems needs fixing, as they can make or break something. A computer virus is a problem because it can destroy a computer. Conversely, climate change, despite what anyone says, is a problem because it directly impacts the balance of nature. Saying that there’s a “problem” implies that it needs your immediate attention.

I say this because the MCU is often framed by detractors as having “problems”, when they’re really “issues”. Something like, say, a bland colour scheme isn’t a deal-breaker because the colours don’t get in the way of what’s going on. Uninspired scores don’t break the experience because films are primarily a visual medium. And continuity is neither a problem or an issue, namely because the MCU has one of the tightest, overarching plans of any franchise ever made.

But even ignoring that distinction, I think it’s become somewhat of a problem hearing how much the MCU “fails” on basic filmmaking levels. I say this for two reasons: one, it ignores what the MCU does well, which is characters and cohesiveness. And two, every time I hear complaints about the MCU as a series, never once have I heard practical suggestions for what can be done to fix them. I’ve sometimes heard vague ideas when the detractors are pushed hard enough, but even then it seems like these ideas are framed as obvious no-brainers for people who watch movies regularly, yet know nothing about making them.

Speaking personally, I can safely and honestly say that while I understand a lot of the complaints about the MCU, at the same time I don’t think they’re quite as bad as people have made them out to be. At the expense of downplaying individuals with film and music degrees, I also feel they miss the intent of the MCU. To quote myself from a few years ago:
“I was unaware that varying shades of toilet droppings qualified as ‘interesting’; after all, I don’t pay attention to bodily waste. Besides, if ‘interesting’ means ‘boring, badly-written and broodingly-flat imitations of Spider-Man and Batman’, then I’d love some of what you’re smoking! It’s not even me saying that, look at any feedback and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Even on a bad day, see Thor: The Dark World, the MCU is leagues ahead of those films in quality. If you don’t believe me, watch any MCU entry and one of those superhero films back-to-back.

I’m not sure what else to say: that I’m sorry you don’t like the direction the MCU is headed? That I’m sorry you’d rather routinely subject yourself to something awful, because it at least has stuff to talk about? Actually, I do have something to say about the latter: you’re insane. If you’re so interested in subjecting yourselves to tripe because ‘it turns you on’, then by all means grab a hot poker and shove up you rectum. You’ll need to be rushed to the hospital from third-degree burns, but you’ll get ‘the feels’.”

It’s easy to tell that I was angry when I wrote that, but my point remains: the MCU may have “issues” with how it’s presented, I’ll be the first to admit that, but saying that these issues are problems is arrogance. Because Marvel properties, for the most part, were abused in the hands of other studios for years, to the point where for every Spider-Man 2, we had Ghost Rider, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, The Punisher, The Punisher: War Zone, Daredevil, Elektra, Fantastic Four, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, X-Men 3: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Blade Trinity lining up behind (I’ll be kind and call Hulk and Spider-Man 3 “okay, yet messy”.) For years, Marvel movies were expected to suck, and they did. So now that the MCU is taking these characters and making them into recognizable names, well…I’ll take it.

Could these movies be better? Absolutely! It’d be great if Marvel eased up on demands and spent more time on films with distinctive styles, I’d be quite happy with that! But I’m fine with what we have, especially if it means that we don’t get a slew of what I call “50 shades of bleh!” It doesn’t even matter that there are more unique action films that go by unnoticed, like Pacific Rim, especially when most are, honestly, not as well-written/consistent as the MCU.

I’ll end this with a fitting comparison: back in 1977, when the first Star Wars movie was released, there was a fear from film enthusiasts that this would be the end of filmmaking; after all, George Lucas’s previous film was American Graffiti, one that embraced Old Hollywood’s risk-taking mentality. Star Wars Ep. IV: A New Hope, on the other hand, was a kitschy space serial with hokey acting, much to the dismay of many. Yet it endured, and 40 years later, the film’s a timeless classic. Perhaps that’s something people can take from the MCU? We don’t know what the future will bring, so maybe!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Curious Case of The Legend of Zelda

My problem with the Zelda franchise can be seen right from its first entry: you start in the middle of a field, then head through the cave opening above to acquire your first sword. You immediately leave the cave and begin searching for the first of the game’s dungeons. Except…it’s not so easy to find. Veterans will no doubt locate it with their eyes shut, but to the uninitiated it’s a trial-by-error of scouring the overworld, all-the-while avoiding enemies that overpower you.

And the game's consistently like this, with each of the objectives as a series of guesses and puzzles that have multiple wrong answers, but only one right. Sometimes the puzzles are simple and straight-forward, clear the area of enemies, but many aren’t. Who could’ve guessed that pushing the right block in the right direction would open up that blocked passageway? And who could’ve figured out that traversing the overworld in the right way would allow access to the next dungeon? Again, a veteran could do it blindfolded, but for a novice, which we all were in 1986, this is insanely frustrating!

This is the pattern that The Legend of Zelda, as well as its sequels, is guilty of: the game is meant to pick your brain, as no doubt it should, but there’s a fine line between thinking and guessing. The former stimulates the logical side of the brain, the one that works in patterns and comprehension, while the latter…frustrates you to no end. You can argue limitations all you want, or that most adventure games on the NES were this way, but if a game isn’t accessible to newcomers decades later, well…what’s the point?

Unfortunately, future games would rely on this formula for years to come. In fact, it’d only get worse with each entry, as advances in technology would create greater possibilities to redo a well-worn formula that wouldn’t see improvements or changes until The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Which begs the question: if the Zelda franchise is meant to be accessible to newcomers, then why does each one employ franchise history for its puzzles and boss fights? Why must each game have the same solution to an obstacle from 20+ years prior? How is that fun?

And here-in lies my fundamental issue with the Zelda franchise: it’s more tedious than enjoyable. I’m of the generation of gamers old enough to remember when the franchise was becoming mainstream, but while I had plenty of old material to reference, I still found that the core mechanics refused to evolve. Games have changed a lot since the 80’s, so there was no need to keep using a formula that may have worked then, but feels archaic now. Besides, aren’t video games supposed to be fun? Because being chained to walkthroughs and speed-runs isn’t fun!

I’m not kidding: I’ve played through over a half-a-dozen Zelda games, and all of them required a walkthrough to complete. Even then, not all entries were successfully completed. If I’m resorting to someone else’s cliff-notes in order to finish a Water Temple, then there’s a problem. I don’t care how highly-praised your game is, I shouldn’t have to do that to properly enjoy a video game. Because that’s homework, not entertainment.

Each game also has its own gimmick that adds to the challenge. Except that they also feel like a chore, which is doubly-annoying: love The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? Better get used to constantly visiting The Temple of Time in the second-half! Adore The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask? Hope you like time-limits! Enamoured by The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker? If that adoration includes lengthy sailing and hunting tirelessly for pieces of an ancient relic, then good for you!

Let’s not forget the in-game help! It seems like practically every 3D Zelda game has had an annoying companion that’s supposed to be helpful, yet isn’t. Whether it's Navi, Saria, Tatl, Midna or Fii, “help” in a Zelda game means interrupting you at awkward times with suggestions that break your focus and frustrate you. Even The Red Lion from The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, a talking boat you use to sail throughout the overworld, isn’t immune to this, and he’s actually helpful! And God forbid they say anything you don’t already know, right?

I know I’m being harsh on the Zelda franchise, but it’s only because so many people hand-wave my frustrations whenever I mention them. It’s not like these are badly-made games, either. Nintendo clearly cares about each entry, or they wouldn’t spend 3-4 years on average making them. But I can’t keep my mouth shut about what bothers me any longer, especially when they’ve been part of the public consciousness for so long.

I guess that also makes them reliably-predictable. It’s that predictability that lets me know that the item you acquire after each mini-boss will play a role in fighting the main boss. It’s that predictability that also lets me know that each main boss drops a full Heart Container when you beat them. But it’s also that predictability that lets me know that what I’m getting into will often be tedious and rely on past franchise knowledge and guesswork in order to appreciate. Some might call that fun, and I respect that, but for me it’s more of a hassle than it’s worth.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Subtextual AND Problematic?

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of watching this lovely little video on YouTube:

Why 80’s film fans drive me crazy: a case study. (Courtesy of Pop Culture Detective.)

Ignoring that there's a lot to unpack about Jonathan McIntosh as a person, I actually found the video quite interesting. The voiceover could use work, but Jonathan’s decision to shed light on the toxicity of Harrison Ford’s screen persona and why it embodies rape culture is something you’d never stop and think about unless it was pointed out that his most-iconic characters were kinda creepy. Granted, I think Han Solo’s relationship with Princess Leia got better and less-awkward over time, but…yeah, Indiana Jones will forever be disturbing.

This got me thinking, yet again, about the problematic nature of art. For those of you who’ve read my piece on why I hate the term “problematic”, you’ll know that it’s often used as a short-hand to dismiss a piece of narrative art’s function. By labelling something “problematic”, you overlook its merits, especially when said merits flip the material on their head.

This is noticeable in film especially because it’s a universal and broad-reaching medium that appeals to even those who aren’t fully-literate. Books or text narratives require basic fluency in written language, but while movies might have some textual components, especially when subtitled, for the most part a well-written film can make some sort of sense if muted and reliant solely on the visuals. The language of film is show-don’t-tell, after all, so even the most-complicated of narratives are streamlined in relation to books.

That doesn’t mean a film narrative can’t be discussed via a problematic lens of interpretation, because it can. One of the beauties of good cinema is that it lends itself well to interpretation on various levels: there’s the base, surface level, i.e. what you see, there’s the thematic level, i.e. what the film’s purpose is, and there’s the subtextual level, i.e. what the film’s really about. And even subtext-wise, there are different levels of analysis, how they function, and whether or not they convey positive or negative themes and lessons. Add in that film is the easiest medium to convey ideas to the largest group of people in the shortest amount of time, and you have a recipe for dense talking points compacted into 2+ hours.

So yeah, of course film can be discussed as “problematic”! But that “problematic” analysis should be tempered with expectations that, at the end of the day, it isn’t the only valid reading. It’s how The Matrix, a film that’s inspired white supremacists to “rebel against the system”, gets by as a classic despite being problematic: the white-lash was unintended. Like Fight Club and toxic masculinity, it wasn’t made to perpetuate evil.

The issue of intent VS consequence is also important when discussing the problematic nature of adaptations. Biblical epics, for example, have to frequently wrestle with their source material coming off as uncomfortable in the modern age, hence being problematic by default. However, by focusing on the problematic content only, you miss out on their intention, hence being more problematic. Plus, in the event where the story is “updated”, you risk the end result being even more problematic by alienating audiences. That a work is problematic shouldn’t be the end-game for shutting down discourse, especially when intent is key.

This extends to production history and/or the politics of filmmaking. Titanic is a revered film, even earning multiple Oscars, but its production history highlights how problematic a director James Cameron really is. I enjoy the MCU, but most of its big-name stars lead incredibly problematic lives. Even Hollywood’s constant spotlighting of certain groups over others is problematic, and it can lead to outright backlash when not fully-thought through until it’s too late. Everything about film, even down its inception, is problematic, hence why the word is so problematic to begin with.

Besides, I think there are bigger issues in a film that are worth discussing than their unintentionally-problematic components. Like how Ghost in the Shell, a film with problematic casting, made its whitewashing a major component of the overarching narrative. Or how Birth of a Nation, despite being a landmark achievement in filmmaking, is blatantly racist. Or how The Triumph of the Will, despite being problematic as a representation of Nazism in the early 30’s, is also praising Nazism. Being problematic isn’t the problem, framing the problematic material the wrong way is.

And that’s what really needs to be understood when discussing film. Is it problematic? In many ways, yes. But that’s to be expected. It doesn’t mean you should ignore the parts that are worrisome, but that also doesn’t mean that you should only focus on them exclusively. Because that’s even more problematic.

I still think that Harrison Ford’s characterizations in the 80’s were toxic, however.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Wonder Woman and the Faustian Bargain

I sometimes feel watching a movie’s like making a Faustian bargain: I give my time and money, and in exchange I expect the end result to woo me. This goes doubly-so for films from franchises with little-to-no expectations of quality, and even triply-so when said films end up good. The skepticism levels are too high, so either the film has to have some semblance of quality, or it fails. In the case of Wonder Woman, this couldn’t be more true.

It’s not like the film doesn’t already have a lot going against it: it’s the fourth entry in a series of films that haven’t been well-received thus far. It’s said franchise’s token entry about “the girl”. Said “girl” happens to be one of comics’ biggest feminist icons. The movie is also helmed by a female director, which is huge considering that Hollywood, let-alone the superhero genre, has yet to have any serious stand-outs there. On top of that, it’s the first time we’ve seen a superheroine film with a big-budget that looks like real time and effort went into it, as opposed to being a side-venture (Supergirl, Elektra) or a joke with money tossed at it (Catwoman). So yeah, no pressure.

When I first heard that Wonder Woman was getting good reviews, I was skeptical; after all, early feedback for Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice was also positive, and look how that turned out. Hearing the usual accolades at this point was tiring. It didn't matter that this was Wonder Woman, and that her official debut on the big-screen was quite significant for superheroines, I wasn’t ready to take the praise at full-value. It’s not unlike having your abusive, alcoholic ex-boyfriend go to rehab and come out clean: even if he’s being serious this time, past experience insists that you not trust him immediately. If Wonder Woman was really that good, I needed to see the results with my own eyes.

Then the review embargo went down, and my whole perception changed. For once, even if only once, the hype was matching the reviews! It was a miracle! It was unexpected! That a superheroine film could wow people no longer seemed like a fantasy, it was actually happening! For the first time, the DCEU, normally the bastion of awfulness, had done something right! But how?

Well, being a competently-made film definitely helps. One of the big issues gripping past superheroine films was their lack of competency. Either by relying on brand name to a fault, or simply putting a third-rate script together, past superheroines couldn’t be taken seriously in their own movies, especially compared to their male counterparts. This led to audiences not caring, thus causing them to tank, thus perpetuating the myth that audiences “didn’t want to see female-led superhero films”. It’s a shame because, honestly, a good chunk of superhero fans are women, so not catering to them means shutting out characters they can relate to.

All the more reason why Wonder Woman being a good movie is a big deal. It’s proof that not only can superheroines be worth writing about, but that they can do so without relying on brand name or tag-a-longs. Because Wonder Woman is a compelling character, and stories focused around her are worth exploring and telling. Especially in 2017, where women are accepted in almost every field out there.

What helps is that the director’s a woman. You’d think it wouldn’t matter, but most superheroines are thrown under the bus that is the “male gaze”. That’s not to say it’s impossible to be good anyway, see the original run of Jessica Jones, but there’s the issue of not having the right clarity to think like a woman if you’re a man. Patty Jenkins directed Monster, so having her tackle one of the greatest women in comics for the big-screen is seemingly ideal. That she pulls it off is no small miracle, especially in-light of previous DCEU films.

I’m not kidding. I may have avoided the DCEU up until now, but even as an outsider I knew people weren’t so hot on Man of Steel, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. These three movies propped up a filmic dumpster fire, so having a superheroine origin story be tossed into there was asking for trouble. That Wonder Woman ended up being good, let-alone great, is a testament to how even the biggest messes can be fixed with the right clean-up crew. It also reinforces how much more competent women are than men.

There’s really so much this movie does well that can’t be taken for granted. It still has that rough, dirty, realistic feel first established by Man of Steel, but where as that film suffered from sloppy pacing, disjointed writing, chaotic action and weak characterizations, this film is well-paced, well-written, has clear action and has characters that act and think believably. There’s no dialogue or logic that contradicts its grounded tone, it’s all cohesive. Bless it for that.

That’s not to say it doesn’t adhere to previous institutions of DCEU films. The atmosphere’s still grey. The colour’s still desaturated. And the costume designs are “edgier” than your typical affair. But Wonder Woman makes it work, and by the time the big finale happens, it’s excusable because the spectacle is earned.

There are other details that make it stand out from other comic book properties. The grainy quality of the film makes it look beautiful. The action scenes are clear to see, and the editing is tight. The music has recurring motifs, making its score more memorable than the MCU. Even its use of slow-motion, no doubt a contribution of Zack Snyder, feels artsy in the right way, being used to elevate tension or show off Wonder Woman’s prowess.

But above all else, it works. It, honestly, works better than most of the MCU, further proving that while I like Marvel, DC on their best day still blows them out of the water. Does this mean the DCEU's Faustian bargain is over? I’m not sure. This could be the start of a new leaf, but it could also be a one-off knowing the DCEU thus far. Regardless, Wonder Woman is a worthwhile endeavour that anyone can enjoy, and proves that superheroine films are viable cash-cows. So congratulations, DC, and your move, Marvel.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Collateral Cinematic Universe

Superhero films share many common themes: the tragic origin story gives the hero or heroine a motivation. Teamwork is an efficient way of saving the day. You can’t save everybody. Even jerks deserve redemption. However, the one that drives home in many of these movies is collateral damage. Ignoring that these are often big-budget spectacles, hence destroying stuff comes with the territory, the recurring motif of accountability has played a role in the disbanding of supers in The Incredibles and Batman’s driving ethos in The Dark Knight Trilogy.

However, the place where this theme gets brought up most is in the MCU. You’d think that after 9 years there’d be an attempt to sell-out on this front, but the MCU hasn’t lost sight of that quite yet. Which is good, because collateral damage and the accountability that comes from that has played a big role in at least 4 of the movies. So let’s see why that is. Be warned: spoilers ahead.

The first of the movies is The Avengers, a film that's about conquering Earth and the fight to defend it. But while accountability for damage is mentioned throughout the first two acts, it’s in the third-act that everything hits the fan. Buildings crumble, windows break, debris flies everywhere and people die. Yet even amidst the chaos, The Avengers try their best to keep the fighting contained to a small part of the city.

Early on, for example, Captain America co-ordinates with his teammates to limit the fighting to the immediate area. He also demands that the police, in a humorous moment, section off the nearby blocks. In addition, he even takes one for a group of civilians by blocking an exploding bomb with his shield. And, lest we forget, Iron Man drives a missile launched by SHIELD operatives into space to end the war, risking his life in the process. These are as much a part of the film as the fighting, and they’re one of the reasons The Avengers, despite its flaws, works so well.

The issue of collateral damage resurfaces in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In the highway fight, Black Widow openly yells at civilians to “get out of the way” before she’s shot in the shoulder. It’d have been easy to “screw the civilians”, but Captain America and his team limit the number of deaths to approximately zero. This comes back in the climax when Captain America and The Falcon override Project Insight’s “kill a million to save a billion” programming. They succeed, and Project Insight crashes to the sea.

In The Avengers: Age of Ultron, collateral damage takes frontal stage. The opening scene has Iron Man keeping the casualties to an actual zero. He sends out The Iron Legion, aka an army of robotic peacekeepers, to make a barricade and keep civilians at bay. Said civilians aren’t happy by this, one even throws acid at the robots, but mission accomplished.

Where it becomes more complicated is in the Hulkbuster VS The Hulk fight. The objective is to subdue a brainwashed The Hulk long enough to get him out of harm’s way, but seeing as The Hulk is an invincible monster with rage issues it ends up being difficult. Iron Man tries to knock him out by repeatedly punching him at first, but that doesn’t work. He then tries to take him outside of town, but that doesn’t work either. Eventually, Iron Man has no choice but to plunge him into a semi-demolished building, creating a shockwave that hurts many civilians. The Hulk is finally subdued, but not before seeing the aftermath of their fight.

Fortunately, the final battle in Sokovia, against Ultron’s minions, fares better. Oh, there’s still a lot of destruction, don’t get me wrong, but up until Ultron’s final attempt at carnage, in which a few police officers, as well as Quicksilver, die, no one gets hurt. There are many fake-outs, including a woman nearly falling to her doom when her car skids off a cliff, but the objective of the fight is to minimize deaths. It proves successful, a stark contrast to the New York City battle of the first film.

The final example of collateral damage is in Captain America: Civil War. The entire film is the build-up of previous battles in the MCU, as shown through both the opening fight where Crossbones blows himself up in an attempt to get back at Captain America and the introduction of Sokovia Accords. In one of the early scenes, General Ross shows The Avengers clips of four of their major battles from an outsider’s perspective. In each one, said recorder either died or was badly wounded. Regardless of how The Avengers react, the situation is clear: how responsible are they for indirect casualties? Captain America argues that “you can’t save everyone”, but Iron Man’s concerns are indication that it’s not so simple.

The situation gets worse when, in an ironic twist, the building where the Sokovia Accords is signed gets blown up by an impersonator of The Winter Soldier. Said impersonator, Zemo, has a vendetta against The Avengers for “murdering his family” in Sokovia, and he’s using this as revenge. He hopes that the Sokovia Accords would split the team apart and force them to destroy one-another. He, ultimately, both succeeds and fails, as while he gets caught, the damage is done.

It also sets the stage for the big set piece, in which The Avengers duke it out in a vacated airport in Leipzig, Germany. It’s easy to call this fight inconsequential, seeing as Iron Patriot’s injuries are the worst of what happens, but that misses the point. The fight was never about killing anyone, it was about the clash of ideals. Both sides understood that civilian casualties were inevitable, but government chains versus complete freedom to do as they please was what was at stake. It’s a more personal conflict, essentially.

In the end, collateral damage being a running theme in the MCU is tackled with tact and maturity. True, collateral damage is also a theme in the DCEU, see Batman VS Superman: Dawn of Justice, but there it’s more of an afterthought. And this is why the MCU stands out so much. Because while you can argue technical prowess, this is one area where it really shines.

Also, it leads to some interesting discussion. But you can do that on your own.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Avengers: Age of the Flummoxed

There’s a debate in Infinite Rainy Day's Discord chat over whether or not I actually like pure action films. The answer is "yes…but only when the characters are compelling enough to excuse or overlook lacklustre storytelling". There are three films that fit this criteria that I absolutely adore, and they comprise what I often call “The Holy Trio of Dessert Blockbusters”. In other words, much like desserts, I can pop them in occasionally and enjoy them despite not being meaty.

One of these movies is The Avengers, aka “The Orange Sherbet Blockbuster”. Unlike Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, “The Cherry Pie Blockbuster”, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow Part 2, “The Chocolate Cake Blockbuster”, The Avengers, despite correlating in my mind with my favourite dessert, is also the least-interesting character-wise. It’s fun to watch, don’t get me wrong, but like the MCU proper it’s got much of that corporate vibe that makes it less of an instant classic. There’s a lot about it that I love, the climax particularly, but the context leading up to it is equally as important to its enjoyment. In other words, I can’t fully enjoy it on its own terms because it screams “franchise film”.

But these semantics aren’t all that important. I simply needed context for the film’s direct sequel, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and why it’s not as good. I actually re-watched the movie on Netflix for this piece as well. I initially dreaded doing so because my first impression was unenthusiastic, and I was worried that that’d hamper my enjoyment. Rewatching it ended up making me appreciate it more, so I’m happy for that, but its flaws are ever-present.

Before I elaborate about what did and didn’t work, I want to stress that my goal isn’t to say that you’re right or wrong for liking or disliking this film. I’m not gonna spend thousands of pages on that, as it’d be boring and disingenuous. I’m also not gonna play CinemaSins or channel Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, as both would be me shamelessly nitpicking a universe where a green monster lives in-tandem with a demigod and a super soldier. Rather, this is me giving my thoughts, what I liked and disliked, and whether or not it holds up two years later. And yes, there’ll be spoilers.

The premise here's a "saving the Earth story". In The Avengers, Loki, the adopted brother of Thor, uses a magical staff given to him by a warlord alien to open a portal to Earth so it can be conquered, and The Avengers fight to stop him. In this movie it’s a little more detailed: instead of an external force, the premise revolves around Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, creating an AI program to stop an apocalyptic vision. Said AI goes rogue and decides to wipe out humanity, so it’s up to the heroes to save the day. The stories of these films are really secondary to the action, but here it’s also needlessly complicated. In an attempt to make the premise bigger and more weighty, The Avengers: Age of Ultron has also made itself bloated. Factor in the set-ups to future films, and you have a movie that’s doing both too much and not enough.

Take, for example, the scene with Ultron and Ulysses Klaue. Klaue is a main antagonist to Black Panther. Except that Black Panther wasn’t introduced here, so his purpose is to act as a checkpoint for Ultron. Even the moment where his hand gets chopped off, a clear wink to comic fans, feels inconsequential because he feels inconsequential. I guess it’s an attempt to build a motivation for him come Black Panther, but given how the MCU’s rogues gallery is pretty one-dimensional…

Another example is Thor’s dip into a mysterious lake in the second-half of the film. This is now supposed to build on his vision of Asgard being destroyed in Thor Ragnarok, yet all it does is recap the grander plan of the MCU via a montage foreshadowing The Avengers: Infinity War. It’s a needlessly complicated Mystery Box moment, one that didn’t need to be there. And yet, because the movie is so heavily tied to the MCU, it also has to exist. This inherent contradiction is one of many that bog down the plot, making a movie that’s a few minutes shorter than its predecessor feel much longer.

Then there’s the controversial moment involving Black Widow and Bruce Banner/The Hulk. Ignoring how this movie introduces a romance that was never fully established prior, it also fleshes-out Black Widow by making her desperate for children. In theory, this idea isn’t an inherently bad one, and it can make for an interesting story with proper context. But this is the MCU, a universe where Drax called Gamora “a whore” as a joke, so I doubt that’ll happen. Black Widow has also never been consistent, so it reeks of sexism.

On the subject of bogged down, there’s also Tony Stark not learning from his Ultron fiasco when he attempts to download JARVIS into Ultron’s replacement body. I didn’t understand this the first time I saw it, and I don’t understand it now. The film made a huge deal of Ultron going rogue, so…why does the film then reward him for repeating that? Shouldn’t he have learned his mistake? I guess it’d negate the franchise’s running motif of how Tony Stark never learns anything, but it’s still a missed opportunity.

Speaking of which, Ultron. The MCU’s not known for compelling villains (Loki and Zemo are probably the only film exceptions,) and this was something Joss Whedon promised he’d try to address. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. Oh sure, Ultron’s funny and charming, even having some great lines, but for the most part he’s yet another baddie for the heroes to take down. Plus, his characterization, basically a combination of Iron Man and 4chan, is wickedly inconsistent, with him switching from funny to threatening without much transition.

Finally, and this is through no fault of the film, The Avengers: Age of Ultron is guilty of collapsing under the weight of its own legacy. This wasn’t helped by both Joss Whedon frequently butting heads with Kevin Feige constantly and Marvel’s obnoxious hype train. Factor in that it was released during a period in the Jewish calendar where I couldn’t see films in theatres, and expectations were pumped too high. It’s a shame because there was no way this could’ve topped its predecessor even without its problems. The Avengers was far from perfect, Black Widow’s conversation with Loki proves that, but its streamlined storytelling and lack of expectations blew everyone’s minds in 2012. By the time The Avengers: Age of Ultron came out, the novelty had worn off. The film would’ve had to up the gambit qualitatively, and instead we got a 2.0 with even more story problems.

It’s a shame because the parts that work, i.e. when it’s focused, work as well, if not better, than its predecessor. There’s a scene involving The Avengers gathered around Thor’s hammer that’s as exciting as watching Iron Man and Thor duke it out in The Avengers. The Hulk VS. Hulkbuster fight is one of the highlights, even if we never find out what The Hulk’s seeing in his head. Getting more backstory on Hawkeye this time around, even remedying a plot-hole in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, is welcomed, giving us some needed downtime halfway through the film. And, lest we forget, the fight in Sokovia contains as many memorable moments, if not more, than the New York City fight in the first film.

One last detail that I have to mention is that, unlike the first movie, The Avengers: Age of Ultron also managed to get me to tear up. Not a lot, mind you, but seeing Quicksilver die to save an injured kid, as well as the muffled screams of his sister, was heartbreaking. I presume Quicksilver’s death was a workaround with 20th Century Fox so that they both could use the Maximoff twins (the X-Men movies killed off Scarlet Witch in X-Men: Apocalypse, after all,) but even with the internet having ruined that detail prior it still caught me off guard. That’s something Iron Man saving New York City and almost dying for it couldn’t do.

Would I still recommend The Avengers: Age of Ultron? I guess. It’s no sherbet, but even amidst its problems and disappointment there’s a lot that works. It’s amazing that, at least on the movie end, we’ve gotten this far into the MCU without a dud. But even outside of that, this movie delivers. It doesn’t overdeliver, mind you, but it delivers.

That said, that running joke involving profanity? It didn’t click.

Friday, April 28, 2017

La La Loony Land!

Confession time: I don’t like Renegade Cut. I know the video series has a passionate fan-following, and I respect that, but there’s something about Leon Thomas that doesn’t sit well: perhaps it’s his voice? The fact that he constantly sounds bored? The fact that he speaks like a frustrated professor who keeps getting rejected from a tenure position?

I’m sure he’s a sweet guy, but my concerns over Leon Thomas’s Renegade Cut videos are also based around the content. I, for example, thought his solution for “fixing modern Pixar”, i.e. to “make more movies like WALL-E”, was over-simplifying the issue, especially since I’ve always considered that one of Pixar’s weaker offerings during their heyday. Conversely, and this is partly because of my own experience, I found his episode on Perfect Blue to be completely oblivious to the film’s problems. So that Leon’s voice is also grating to listen to is an additional quibble. But enough of that, it’s time for why I mentioned him in the first place:

Hrmmm… (Courtesy of Renegade Cut.)

I recognize that La La Land is a weird movie. It’s basically a modern musical that pays homage, successfully, to a dead genre. It’s also a vanity project for director Damien Chazelle, being a movie that combines jazz, a genre of music that he loves, with the musical, a genre of film that he admires, for the 21st Century. I also want to state that while I did really enjoy this movie, I admit that it’s not perfect. My goal isn’t to trash Leon for criticizing the film, that’s what Reddit and IMDb are for, but to provide a response to a rather misleading analysis of an admittedly-flawed movie.

Also, there’ll be spoilers.

Leon begins by saying that his intent isn’t to disrespect people who like La La Land. His conclusion betrays that, but it’s a nice sentiment. I find that people who dislike popular movies/books/shows/whatever will immediately attack the fans by calling them “sheep” or “ignorant”, so to hear that is a nice change of pace. It’s too bad that, like I said, it ends up contradicting his conclusion. Additionally, since Leon’s video is chopped up into three sections, it’s only fair that I respond in like fashion:

The Non-Musical Musical-Leon begins his piece with his most easily-understandable critique: Ryan Gosling’s singing voice. There’s been a recent trend in Hollywood to cast non-singers in singing roles to appeal to the masses. Leon uses two examples, Moana and Beauty and the Beast, to prove that. The former had Dwayne Johnson as Maui singing “You’re Welcome”, which he argues wasn’t sung well, but had enough charisma to work. Conversely, Emma Watson’s Belle wasn’t “an opera singer”, but she was lovely enough hat she, too, fit the role fine. I’m unsure why he didn’t include the late-Robin Williams in Aladdin, as he didn’t have a good singing voice either and both examples are Disney-related, but whatever. Neither of the aforementioned were great singers.

But then he goes on to match this with Ryan Gosling in La La Land, and I immediately winced. Firstly, as someone who can sing, Gosling’s voice isn’t really that bad. It’s not great, but it carries and has a pleasant, soothing tone. He’s definitely quiet, but bad? There’s subjectivity to singing, but bad he’s not.

Secondly, Sebastian being a “bad singer” is part of his character, let-alone the movie. Emma Stone isn’t a great singer either. Her voice isn’t as “bad” as Gosling, but it’s nothing to write home about. But that neither Gosling or Stone are great singers is why they were cast: because they’re meant to be the every-people in Hollywood. Believe it or not, a lot of actors and actresses in Hollywood are passable, be it acting, writing, directing, and yes, singing. We see them all the time, so making them the centre-stage is praise in a good way.

And thirdly, the alternatives Leon gives for Gosling also misses the point. Damien Chazelle didn’t choose Neil Patrick Harris, Robert Downey Jr. or Jeremy Renner for a reason: they’re too old. Neil Patrick Harris is 43 years old, well into his career and doesn’t fit the role of a “young, struggling artist”. Robert Downey Jr. is 52 years old, well into his career and doesn’t fit the role of a “young, struggling artist”. Jeremy Renner is 46 years old, well into his career and, you guessed it, doesn’t fit the role of a “young, struggling artist”. Ryan Gosling, despite not being new, is 36 years old, still early in his career (he only took off a few years ago in popularity), and fits the role of a “young, struggling artist” more easily.

Leon mentions that there aren’t a lot of noteworthy songs to keep the pace after the opening two numbers to help “drown out Gosling”, but I don’t think La La Land was intending to be an uppity musical constantly. It’s a modern movie with modern sensibilities, and while the “it’s jazz” argument might not be a good enough excuse, it’s not trying to be bombastic or overly-flashy. La La Land isn’t trying to be the next Singing in the Rain, or any of the musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but rather a simple homage. That needs to be factored into the critique of the film.

Finally, Leon ends this section with a complaint about “sound mixing problems”, using the pool sequence in “Someone in the the Crowd” to justify his complaint. For one, the splashing overlapping with the dancing and music is intentional. And two, I could hear the lyrics perfectly fine without Googling them. Because they’re audible, even if he thinks otherwise. If you want proof, I watched this movie in theatres in February, before I went to an ENT to have over a decade’s worth of wax removed from my right ear. If I could hear it fine, then there’s nothing wrong with the sound mixing.

The White Saviour of Jazz-This next section is trickier to really deconstruct, since it deals with the complicated issue of racist casting and character writing. I’ll say that for as much as Sebastian is a struggling artist who prides himself on pure jazz and refuses to pay his bills or “sell out”, I think that’s kind of the point. Sebastian’s supposed to be stuck-up and overly-proud, because it’s part of what makes him appealing. Is it racist to be a white saviour? I suppose. But that’s less to do with Gosling and more to do with Hollywood’s flawed casting system.

See, Hollywood’s afraid of taking risks. Because almost 2/3 of the US is white, Hollywood wants to cater to that. It nets them the most money, so why not? It’s wrong, and it leads to instances like the tone deaf controversy of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, but it’s a long-time bias built-in to the system of Hollywood. Much like being queer or a woman, if you’re not white in Hollywood, your odds of getting anywhere are, sadly, more limited.

And yes, this needs to be changed. But in the same breath, I also think art can function even with its problematic aspects. Because it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so ignoring something like La La Land because it’s not “ideally cast” is ignorance. But then again, I’m an Ashkenazi Jewish male, so what do I know?

Going back to the film, I don’t agree that Keith is inherently a villain because he’s the “New Age Jazzist”. Despite the “framing” that Leon suggests, Keith’s a guy making a living by seeing jazz as an evolving art form. He sees life differently than Sebastian, and that Sebastian decides to play for him is him realizing that he needs the money for his relationship with Mia. The movie might portray it as “selling out”, and on some level it is, but it’s Sebastian also sucking up his pride because he’s starting to realize what really matters. It’s something he didn’t get in the beginning of the movie when he refused to pay rent.

I won’t delve into the whole “whitesplaining jazz” critique, because there’s some truth to it, but the infantilization complaint is unfair for two reasons: one, Mia displayed her ignorance by complaining that all jazz music was “elevator music” and, therefore, boring. I love classical music, but the classical pieces played in elevators are also pretty boring. And two, that Sebastian is somewhat condescending to Mia is part of why their relationship ends up failing. Because while champagne love seems sweet initially, once the bubbles dissipate you’re left wanting more.

Also, since it was so eloquently explained, let’s talk about that Christmas scene: I disagree. Damien Chazelle might have characters in his films that act snobbish about jazz, but it’s never portrayed positively (Andrew’s conversation at the dinner table in Whiplash was him being arrogant.) And for as much as the movie may not have delved into the head of the restaurant owner, at the same time the movie shows that the dinner guests are bored by the traditional tunes that Sebastian’s playing. Sebastian’s not be the greatest piano player, but he’s clearly above playing boring songs that no one likes. So when he breaks his promise, which the guests actually like, and gets fired, the movie makes it a sympathetic-yet-presumably-impulsive decision.

I’ll end this section by touching on Mia, since Leon briefly criticizes her by arguing that she has no characteristics outside of her passion to be a successful actress. I don’t agree: Mia’s stubborn, argumentative, insecure about her hopes and dreams and constantly feeling like she’s falling behind. This is all explicitly stated in-film. And as for why nothing is shown about her one-act play? It’s because it’s less important than digging into her character growth. If Birdman can get away with barely showing Riggan Thomson’s stage play, then why can’t La La Land?

Obnoxiousness Is Not Romantic-Leon makes a clever transition to this point through his ending statement on Sebastian in the last section. Sebastian, according to him, is a mansplaining, egotistical artist with a white saviour complex. This makes his relationship with Mia one of obnoxiousness and romanticism, the latter of which he argues is necessary to an extent in storytelling, but is over-played. Ignoring that I’ve already tackled my thoughts on Sebastian, I don’t think that him and Mia being in an over-romanticized relationship is accidental. The movie makes it abundantly clear that their relationship is flowery and somewhat toxic. You end up caring anyway, but their inevitable break-up is apparent right from when Sebastian “sells out” for money.

I want to point out an inherent critique that I think Leon should know: characters in storytelling need not have arcs, nor do they need to have arcs that progress them in a positive direction. I say this because he doesn't. Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, for example, doesn’t change. But even if he did, it’s not for the better. Having a negative character arc/no arc at all is harder to do right, but it’s not impossible.

Besides, I do think that Sebastian, and to a lesser-extent Mia, grow as characters. Sebastian learns how to become successful, but at the cost of giving up his ego and pursuing hard work. Mia learns how to become successful too, but only once she stops being so insecure. And both of them learn that true happiness and success means not always being with “your ideal other”, something the movie shows was for the best anyway.

There are several aspects to this point that really irk me. One of them is how Sebastian’s line to Mia about not caring what others think of her play is the director’s ham-fisted critique of La La Land’s detractors. Much like Princess Nausicaä in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind telling Prince Abel that the Pejites and the Tolmekkians are “exactly alike”, the line from La La Land wasn’t intended to be that way. It was a reminder that your biggest critic is yourself, and that you only have control of your own actions at the end of the day. Given how many people have told me that I’d never make it anywhere, that hit me hard.

Which is all-the-more reason why Leon’s assumption that Sebastian and Mia think they’re the only ones that matter was so odd. Ignoring that this is a movie, and that they’re the protagonists of the story, I don’t think they’re being egotistical at all. They’re being young and careless, and the film spends two hours giving them a heaping dose of reality. Is it over-sentimental? Perhaps, particularly during Mia’s audition solo. But it’s like Leon said: movies need a little romanticism.

The final point I want to tackle is the “praise” that people give this movie for “subverting” traditional movie romances by having Mia and Sebastian not be together in the end. Ignoring that this is a romance film cliché, not a musical film cliché, I don’t think that the movie was trying to subvert anything. It was paying homage to the film musicals of old, while updating the dated aspects to fit a 21st Century mold. Subversion implies that the movie had something clever to say about this, and given how it’s slowly becoming commonplace anyway, it’s not so much clever as it is normal and expected.

The Verdict-Leon ends this analysis with a rather obnoxious proposition, hence my claim in the opening: according to him, critics were so starved to see a good musical that they over-praised this one, which he claims wasn’t all that good, as a masterpiece. I hate this remark, because it reeks of laziness and insensitivity. Movie reviews aren’t a science, they’re subjective. Critics are allowed to disagree with the masses, and vice-versa. This shouldn’t be some kind of pissing match, nor should it be a game of “critics are stupid”. And yet, I see this so often that I’m sick and tired of letting it slide.

I’m not a big fan Mad Max: Fury Road, for example. I think it’s a shallowly-written, plodding film with two-dimensional characters and ideas that go nowhere. And yet, people loved it. But while I was quick to explain why I’m not a fan, I never once insulted critics. Because that’s petty. The second you resort to that behaviour, I immediately disregard what you have to say.

Critiques like that also mislead your audience into thinking that you’re the be-all-end-all of the debate on quality. I can’t find it anymore, but there was a comment from someone who’d never seen the film, yet was glad they hadn’t based on Leon’s review. That’s some CinemaSins nonsense right there, taking misleading critiques as fact and missing out on forming your own opinion. You don’t have to agree with the praise, but you shouldn’t be so quick to write it off either.

By the way, I liked La La Land a lot, but next to its musical numbers and ending montage it didn’t blow me away. It was shallowly written on a surface level, the general story was predictable and it didn’t do much to innovate a genre it clearly loved. But that’s beside the point, because while La La Land might not be deep, it did one element really well: it showed the millennial struggle as being one of the everyman trying to survive. And yeah, “movie stars” and all that jazz. But that struggle was still present with Sebastian and Mia’s character-arcs.

I don’t want people to think that Leon Thomas’s analysis is automatically trash. He’s entitled to think what he wants, something he’s clearly acknowledged in his disclaimer. But the sword is double-edged, and with that comes a transparency for rebuke or response. Bottom line: I’m unimpressed with this analysis.