Monthly Archives: July 2014

Why Guardians of the Galaxy Will Be Awesome

Guardians of the Galaxy is not a Marvel movie I expected to ever happen. Not because they’re so, well, out there, but because prior to the announcement of the film I had no idea who they were. Unlike Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, these guys had missed the general cultural osmosis that many superheroes enjoy.

So I read the comics; with the ‘new’ lineup from 2008, not from 1969. Simply put, the comics were weird. There’s a telepathic dog, time travel, a space warlock, a talking tree, and a gun-toting raccoon. Even by comic book standards it’s bizarre.

But it’s fun. There’s a cool dynamic to the changing team and their big struggle against Thanos is certainly exciting. The film is drawing on some great source material. Each of the six characters in the film are all rich within the series, which makes sense given that they’ve all been showing up in comics well before they teemed up. There’s history there.

History that the movie doesn’t need to adhere to. It’s an adaption, and as such needs to get at the heart of the idea. One of the cores of Guardians is a ragtag team who have no right to be saving the galaxy having to save the galaxy. There’s a team dynamic there that has to be maintained no matter the adaption.

Which, for all intents and purposes, the film seems to be doing. Based on trailers and such, the characters are all there. Rocket Raccoon is as sarcastic and trigger happy as he should be. Groot has heart. Drax is no-nonsense and hellbent on destroying. Gamora seems to be Drax’s distaff counterpart and properly deadly. Star Lord is roguish but trying to be heroic. The core characterization is there.And that’s quite exciting.

But what of everything else? The plot seems to be the next step of Marvel’s plans. Introducing the cosmic side of the universe allows for bigger stories later on. For the characters, meanwhile, it’s got a lot of what made The Avengers so great: it’s about a team coming together, figuring out how to be a team, and then working as a team. It’s a great personal plot structure and it works. Keeping the central conflict personal allows director James Gunn to go big and out there while we’re rooted with the characters.

That the characters seem to be the focus of it (rather than the world itself) brings to mind the original Star Wars trilogy. Like them it’s about characters in a world going on a big adventure. It’s got a very Star Wars-ian feel to it and may just out Star Wars the prequels. It has that bright, optimistic feel of adventure in a rich sprawling world. Which, adaption or not, is always a wonderful thing to have in a film.

For an idea of the fun nature of the film, look at a recently released clip which manages to balance the funny and the drama within a single scene. There’s an element of threat there, from Drax to Gamora, but there’s a wealth of humor to be found in Star Lord’s attempts at calming them down. Alongside all that we have world building going on too: Star Lord mentioning Kree and other aliens enlarges the world and gives it texture. Even from the scene alone, Rocket’s response to Star Lord’s intervention hints at their friendship. It’s a great scene, and we’re set if the rest of the film lives up to it.

I am excited for this movie, though fully aware there are things that could throw it off. But the trailers and clips thus far, as well as the 100% it has on Rotten Tomatoes while I write this are very reassuring. So yes, I am convinced Guardians of the Galaxy is gonna be awesome. Here’s to Friday. Or, y’know, Thursday night if you’re like me.

 

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The Internet, Neutrality, and Me

Ender’s Game has this wonderful side plot (that didn’t make it to the film) where Peter and Valentine, Ender’s siblings, take to the Nets as Demosthenes and Locke. The anonymity of the Nets allows them, despite their young age, to garner an audience and political influence. Their machinations help prepare Earth for after the war as well as save Ender’s life.

It sounds a little farcical now, since, as xkcd pointed out, they’d essentially just be bloggers. Yet, considering Ender’s Game was published in 1985, it’s an awfully accurate portrayal of what the internet would allow. The Internet is, for better and worse, the ultimate egalitarian democracy. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, you have a say (who listens to that say is another matter). But, stateside, there’s this new issue: Net Neutrality. You may have heard of it, but its end (which the FCC is fighting for) would mean that Internet Service Providers can decide which sites get through fast and which don’t. Want to provide your viewers with smooth video streaming? Pay up. That isn’t a joke, by the way, Netflix had to pay Comcast for faster streaming. The end of Net Neutrality means that if your website can’t afford to pay an ISP then your site can fall through the cracks. Your ISP doesn’t like you accessing a site ran by a rival company? Funny how it loads at dial up speed.

The internet is a beautiful, terrifying place. It needs to stay that way, and we need Net Neutrality.

It’s December 2003. Twelve-year-old Josh is in Peru (he grew up on a ship), on the internet looking for news on Lego’s Bionicle line. He stumbles upon a forum and finds a whole bunch of people like him. Well, they don’t live on a ship, but they like Legos and Bionicle and suddenly he’s found a community. When you’re living on a ship where you don’t have many friends due to not having people your age, it’s incredible to suddenly find peers. That website gave me a social life of sorts, whether I was in Singapore, St. Vincent, or Sierra Leone. In addition to that, the site gave me an outlet for things like writing and cartoons, encouraging me to write stories and make videos.

During my Freshman year of High School I moved twice. Not move across town, mind you: my family and I packed up everything we owned and moved across continents. Enrolling in school would be a challenge, so I did school online. No, it wasn’t my best year academically, but it allowed me to have a somewhat stable education and — this is the best part — interact with other students. Again, I’ve a few lasting friendships from that year.

All that moving (and the ship) meant that a lot of my friends were oceans away. MSN, Skype, and, of course, email, let me stay in touch with them. Once again, despite the distance and craziness of life, I had people to talk to when I didn’t know anyone where I was. These days I can also keep in touch with my often scattered family, even when the four of us are in four countries.

Early in 2012 I’m unemployed and listless so I start a blog to force myself to write. 122 essays (not rants!), three jobs and two years of college later and I’m still at it. Sometimes it’s to help with an essay for class, other times it’s because I’m mad there isn’t a Black Widow movie planned, but I’m writing. And some people are reading (here’s to you!).

The internet is great. It’s been a crucial part of my life for over a decade. I’d be a very different person if I didn’t have access of these sites and services — several of which are not for profit and most likely couldn’t afford an imposed tariff. These days I can read articles on Cracked, watch movies and tv on Netflix, or get lost in TVTropes. I don’t want to have to choose an ISP based on which sites are fastest for them (besides, a lot of places only have one ISP in service). Furthermore, I don’t want the sites I love to have to pay for better access. I want the whole internet, as it is, no matter who I’m paying or what I’m looking up.

Net Neutrality is a big freaking deal. So maybe two kids aren’t gonna use its anonymity to become a famous politician and historian, but an open internet still something worth protecting. I owe the internet a lot, and I want to keep the internet I know in place for whoever’s growing up now. And that’s why I support Net Neutrality

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Of Dragon Training Sequels

So I finally got around to see How To Train Your Dragon 2 this week. I’d enjoyed the first one well enough, but it didn’t stick out as something with a must see follow up. Figured, eh, it’s just another sequel.

I was wrong.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is arguably one of the most important modern animated films. It deserves this title for the reasons you’d expect: beautiful animation and technical brilliance along with a great story; but there are aspects that allow it, like Up before it, to really elevate the animated film.

But let’s talk about the animation for a moment. Simply put, the film is freaking gorgeous. Without a doubt, Dreamworks has finally given Pixar a run for their money. Details. Details like wisps of cloud or individual scales on Toothless give the movie a sense of being larger than life and yet still realistic. It’s amazing, and the quality of that alone makes it worth watching.

Fortunately, the animation isn’t everything. Dragon 2, unlike many other sequels — animated or not — has grown up. To an extent, literally: Hiccup and the other characters are five years older. Stoick is showing gray hairs, Hiccup’s taller; time has passed. This time gap is important. It’s easy for something animated to keep its characters the same age (See Ash Ketchum, who’s been 10 since I was barely seven). After all, it gives it a timeless feel. Going back to Pokémon, it means the show could continue for sixteen years with kids who weren’t even born when it came out able to latch on as if it was theirs. This does mean that characters remain stagnant, which is what Dragon didn’t do. Instead, it went the route of The Empire Strikes Back.

Now Empire is one of the greatest sequels, and also probably the best Star Wars movie. It earns it through several ways. For once it, unlike many sequels that have come in its wake, does not repeat the events of the first movie. Instead, it serves as an addition to the saga, a second episode (or fifth). With it, it takes the characters past where they started: Han’s showing signs of warming to the Rebellion, Luke trains to be a Jedi. Dragon also pushes forward in its plotting: there’s a psychotic warlord to deal with and it’s time for them to learn more about dragons. The same things don’t happen again.

For example, Hiccup’s relationship with Astrid. A simple subplot would be to add tension to the relationship established in the first film. Shrek 2 did it to great effect, others less well like the second Pirates of the Caribbean and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the Princess Diaries sequel ditched the original love interest so there could be a new romantic subplot. It adds drama, so, y’know, why not? Instead, Astrid and Hiccup are untouched in Dragon; there’s no backsliding character development. They’re a couple, and it’s not big deal. Stoick calls Astrid his future daughter-in-law, the pair are seen cuddling and the occasional kiss on the cheek is seen as no big deal. It’s sweet, and it’s also refreshing to see a couple that’s simply understood as being a couple.

Refreshing too is the film’s treatment of its female characters. Astrid’s plot doesn’t revolve around Hiccup. Rather she plays Han Solo to Hiccup’s Luke (to continue the Empire comparison), embarking on her own quest in Hiccup’s absence. Ruffnut, meanwhile has several lingering ogling of a male character which, besides showing off Dreamworks’ impressive animation of rippling muscle, provides examples of the ever elusive female gaze. It’s played for laughs, of course, but that fact that it’s even there is worth mentioning. Valka too is a great character — period. She’s someone who’s spent twenty years out of contact with society. Now, it could be easy to make her a one-dimensional half-feral person, but instead the film takes aspects of that an wraps it into a more complete whole. She’s cool and wonderfully layered. Point is, female characters in this movie don’t get sidelined.

But what stood out the most to me was Dragon 2’s sense of scale. It went big, reaching settings and scenarios that were epic of The Lord of the Rings variety. Its sweeping moments give the film a grandeur just about never found in animation. The human drama is never lost within it, though. Whether it’s Hiccup’s bond with Toothless or a certain parental reunion, the movie keeps has emotion to spare. It also helps keep the fantastical and epic elements anchored.

There’s a gorgeous scene early on where Hiccup and Toothless are flying above their clouds as a Jónsi song plays. The animation and scale of it is breathtaking, but it, along with the dialogue and sound, everything mise en scène, all serves to establish first the relationship between rider and dragon, but also where and how they stand now. It’s beautiful, and one that sums up how well rounded the film is.

I know my reaction is late, but I say this wholeheartedly: How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a phenomenal movie, animated or not, and, once again, easily on the most important animated films of recent memory.

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It’s All In The Pacing

Time is relative. Some scientist said that at some point. For my purposes, it means that one minute can seem longer or shorter depending on the context. That minute in traffic is far longer than that minute playing video games before work that got you stuck in traffic in the first place.

Naturally, this applies to stuff like movies too. A two hour movie can feel incredibly long or it can flash by in an instant. Why? Pacing. Pacing is important. Really important.

Let’s look at An Unexpected Journey. It’s a three hour movie but, unlike the prior The Lord of the Rings films, feels much longer. The simple reason for this is for lack of content: the film takes much to long repeating points. The run in with the rock giants, for example, is a lengthy sequence that adds nothing to the plot (except an extra action scene). Sure, there’s a small moment showing Thorin’s growing acceptance of Bilbo as part of the team, but that’s a beat that’s seen elsewhere. Sequences like these bog down a movie and draw it out. The Return of the King and the rest of the trilogy were bursting with story and characters: every scene added another layer to one or the other. Those films didn’t feel bogged down as every beat felt necessary to the movie at large.

Transformers: Age of Extinction feels overlong in a different way: there’s way too much going on. Though visually pleasing (as you’d expect from a Michael Bay film), it’s a narrative mess. There’s no clear antagonist antagonizing the heroes and, as such, the heroes have little plan thwarting to carry out. With no central throughline pushing the story along, the film winds up feeling like a series of vaguely connected misadventures involving giant robots. Which wouldn’t be so bad if we actually gave a crap about these characters but, this being a Michael Bay film, we really don’t. As such, it’s 165 minute runtime really starts to drag after a while.

Guillermo Del Toro, another purveyor of giant robots, had this to say about film lengths: “All I know is that as an audience member, my ass meter starts ringing its fire alarm after two hours.” Essentially, there’s a point where it starts to feel like you’ve spent too long sitting in that chair. If a long movie is paced well it won’t seem long at all, if it’s paced poorly it’ll feel even longer. That said, you’ll probably start to notice how long you’ve been there as the two hour mark fades behind you.

Take Del Toro’s own Pacific Rim as a great example of a well paced movie that doesn’t feel too long. Big set pieces are linked together through emotional beats: The opening and Gipsy Danger vs Knifehead leads to the introduction of Stacker and Raleigh’s arrival at the Shatterdome before we see Mako’s flashback which in turn gives us a quiet character focused chunk before the big battle around Hong Kong. We get another break as Newt and Gottlieb work out the secrets of the breach before the final confrontation. These lulls not only to allow us to get to know and love the characters, but also give us breathers between action scenes and make us long for the next one. Del Toro, ever conscious of the audience’s collective ass meter, ensures that neither character/plot progression or action scene ever outstays their welcome, rather they work together to keep the movie puttering along, keeping us entertained throughout.

The LEGO Movie opts to follow Campbell’s monomyth and wisely never spends longer than necessary on individual beats. Not only does this allow for the movie to move along at a nice slick pace, but it means that when it comes time for it to spend time on something really important — take the conversation between the father/son and Lord Business/Emmet — there’s leeway for it to sink in without slowing down the plot.

At 143 minutes, The Avengers is a comparatively long movie. But it does as Pacific Rim does, stringing together smaller character moments between bigger set pieces, yet never allowing any to last too long. Add that to a group of great characters who you’re happy just to watch hang out with each other and it’s easy to get lost in the movie. And getting lost is the best, because suddenly you forget about time and your ass meter and just enjoy the movie.

Movie runtimes are one thing, how long they actually feel is another entirely. Watching Sex and The City (151 minutes) for class felt like an eternity, whereas The Dark Knight (165) felt just right. Time is relative — especially when watching movies. That’s where pacing comes in.

Note: Of course it’s not all in the pacing, but it is terribly important. Sometimes, a fascinating subject matter and engrossing characters are all you need — see Lost in Translation. That said, this blog post assumes that’s understood

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