Monthly Archives: December 2016

2016 In Review

Essays, Not Rants! 250: 2016 In Review

Year’s over, so this means I’m looking at the rants essays from this past year. Here we go!

Five Most Popular/Viewed Posts

#5: *general internet frustrations*

Mockingbird became my favorite comic this year for a variety of reasons (feminist, funny, fantastic). But when the final issue was published people got mad. This is about that and why we can’t have nice things, and why Mockingbird and the fallout remain important in the larger dialogue of fiction and fandom.

#4: A (Civil) War of Flaws

I really liked Civil War, in particular for how well done and earned I thought the conflict was. This is primarily because it was born out of character flaws, something that’s terribly important in developing good conflict. Makes it engaging and, rightly, tragic.

#3: Where Josh Explains Why You Should Fund His Movie

I made a thesis film this year! And it’s finally almost done! I’m mad proud of it still and really can’t wait to have it done (just need a few sound effects, mixing, and a score!). It was also a lot of me putting my money where my mouth is, what with diversity and all that, as this post goes into (also, we ended up within budget! Woo!).

#2: The Beauty of Pokémon Go

If you’re wondering, I still play Pokémon Go (I finally got a Blastoise yesterday!). I really think the community and hype that sprung up around it when it was released was truly beautiful. The blurring of the line between gaming and reality is fascinating, and Go illustrates just how it can build a community.

#1: Of Zootopia

Man. Zootopia was – is – important. It’s about bigotry and ignorance and forgiveness and prejudice. It was relevant at the beginning of the year and is, frustratingly, even more relevant at the end of 2016. This movie shows how effective stories are at conveying truths while saying so much about, frankly, racial tensions is magnificent.

Josh’s Pick of Three

#3: To Tell The Truth

I love the idea of storytelling as lies that tell the truth. This is me exploring that while somehow managing to tie in poetry, theatre, and television. It’s fun, and, well, this is pretty much what I studied at university.

#2: The Give And Take of Books

Since graduating, I’ve made an effort to read more (the past six months have consisted of: Ready Player One, The Windup Girl, Pawn’s Gambit, Homegoing, The Chinese in America: A Narrative History, Scoundrals, and Life Moves Pretty Fast). Homegoing was particularly wonderful and it ended on a personal note. This post is about books and the way we interact with them. It’s what makes books so important.

#1: Letting Different People Be Different, Visible Diversity, and Something Something Diversity Something Star Wars

Between Rogue One and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, its been a great year to see people who look kinda like me on the big screen (Kubo and The Two Strings doesn’t count for a variety of reasons that I will rant about later). Diversity’s important, it’s always been important, and I will never not be excited about the fact that there are now Asian protagonists in the Star Wars world. Crazy Ex also does away with stereotyping and, y’know, it’s important that we let people just be people.

And that’s it for 2016. Thanks for sticking with this blog even when the post is just a ramble about science fiction. 2017’s coming up, expect more rants essays about diversity, Marvel movies and Star Wars, feminism, and whatever I want, really.

Cheers.

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In Which Josh Rambles Aimlessly About Science Fiction on Christmas Eve

I liked the idea of Passengers when I first heard about it: On an extra-solar space mission Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence wake up from cryogenic sleep and have to deal with being alone together. It’s like Lost In Translation… in space! And I’m a sucker for a riff on Lost In Translation (Monsters: Lost In Translation… with aliens!). But then I saw the trailer. And look! Explosions! Peril! It’s not just about two people being people with each other.

Bummer.

But then reveals started coming in and it turns out that Pratt’s character wakes up Lawrence’s deliberately: because he’s studied her file and wants to fall in love with her. And he doesn’t tell her the whole waking-her-up-and-ruining-her-plans-without-her-consent-because-he’s-lonely thing and it’s portrayed as, get this, romantic.

So, y’know, my disinterest has now soured to disgust. Woo, another movie where the female character’s agency and goals are subservient to the male character’s want for a warm body.

And it’s all a rotten shame, since the way I first understood the pitch had such promise. How much more isolated can you get than in the middle of space? Lost In Translation used the foreignness of Japan to heighten the isolation of its protagonists – the story wouldn’t work as well in, say, Cleveland. Now replace Tokyo with deep space and you’ve got yourself a whole ‘nother level of existential questioning.

It’s science fiction, and science fiction (and other ‘genre’ stories) is equipped to tell stories that ‘normal’ fiction can’t. Roaming a spaceship meant to house hundreds by yourself isn’t something that could happen in real life (yet), but science fiction can explore that heightened sense of solitude and isolation. Replacing alone in the crowd for a week with alone among the stars while your shipmates sleep for decades allows a story to really look at, say, humanity’s desire for connection and all the drama that comes with it. Fiction is, by nature, a stylized and heightened form of reality; science fiction ratchets that up a few notches.

In addition, the fiction of its world makes its story universal, in that because it hasn’t happened, it could happen to anyone (which doesn’t excuse the lack of diversity sadly prevalent in science fiction). As no one’s blown up a Death Star before, blowing up the Death Star isn’t a ‘white’ narrative. (And because it isn’t a ‘white’ narrative, all the more reason for it to not just feature white actors!) Look at Rogue One. Being a Star Wars story, it takes place in a galaxy far far away free of this one’s messy history with race. So why can’t the rebels be Chinese and Latino? More than ever, is there the leeway for the everyman to not be a white guy, and Rogue One pulls it off magnificently. Suddenly the Rebellion comes alive in a way it never did in the Original Trilogy; there’s room at the space-table for everyone. A story we always hoped was universal really is. You don’t have to look like Mark Hamill or Harrison Ford to be a hero.

With that universality established, now we get to dive back into that heightened reality! It’s the Rebels against the evil Empire! But this is a world where anyone can be a Rebel, and where the Empire really is an unstoppable evil. Compare Rogue One to Saving Private Ryan or Fury, at least in concept. Both Ryan and Fury are World War II movies about Americans against the ostensibly-always-pure-evil Nazi Germany. There are insurmountable odds and crazy missions in all three of the stories, but in Ryan and Fury you’ve gotta be American to see yourself as the hero. Rogue One and Star Wars in general has a leeway you don’t find there.

Even war video games set in contemporary setting have a similar issue, with the Modern Warfare series usually being about American and British soldiers fighting vaguely Russian and Middle-Eastern soldiers/extremists. They’re stories about a certain group of people, during a certain part of time, fighting a certain group of people. Compare that to Halo: Reach which features an international band of soldiers fighting aliens. The villains are drawn in strokes as broad as in Ryan or Modern Warfare, but this time you don’t have to be an American to be the good guy. You get to be Noble Six alongside a team whose voice cast include those of Nigerian, Israeli, Haitian, and South Asian heritage. Anyone can be the hero because the villains aren’t even human. Even though the Halo world may be marked with some shades of gray in its morality, the extreme dichotomy of humanity=good, Covenant=evil lets it be a war story that isn’t reliant on an entire people group being evil.

And again, Rogue One. The Empire isn’t a real country or people group, it’s a fictional villainous government with analogues to real-life regimes. But in Star Wars, the good guys can win, they can really win! Yes, it may come at a cost, but it’s one against an Evil with a capital E. That latitude, for the baddies to be really bad and for the victories to be victorious, let’s a movie like Rogue One have a sense of the epic and hope that just doesn’t happen in reality. There’s a room for the ‘realness’ of realistic fiction, but so is there for the romanticism of science fiction like Star Wars and, yes, Halo.

I love science fiction. Always have. I will vehemently defend it even as I criticize the genre for its faults (ie: being overrun with white guys named John). Same goes for escapist fiction; there’s enough crap going on in the world that some days (a lot of days) I wanna read a book about Han Solo and Lando Calrissian pulling an Oceans Eleven style heist (Timothy Zahn’s Scoundrels is wonderful, by the way). As I say a lot here, there’s a time and place for fiction to be ‘real,’ but sometimes lies about reality can be truer than the truth.

Thanks for sticking with me if you’ve read it this far. This rant started somewhere and ended up somewhere very different, and it’s Christmas Eve and I’m too tired to make it the two essays it should be. So this has been Josh Rambling Aimlessly About Science Fiction. Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas everyone, go watch Rogue One instead of Passengers.

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Prequels Can Work

Prequels, by their nature, face an uphill battle in that we know how they are going to end. We know that Logan is gonna lose his memories in X-Men: Origins, we know that Sully and Mike are gonna be best friends (but only one of them a scarer) in Monsters University, and we know that Anakin is gonna become Darth Vader. By explicitly being movies of the stories that came before, we enter into them knowing where they end up, and, well, already being spoiled.

But, if spoilers don’t necessarily spoil, then this factor shouldn’t necessarily make prequels less enjoyable. Monsters University is still plenty fun, mostly because we want to see how we get to where Mike and Sully are in Monsters, Inc. That the film starts with them in such different spots from where they are in the original. The journey to the familiar is where the excitement of the movie lies. Thing is, it’s easy there for it to quickly become just the retreading of what’s been done before or, at worst, a slow march to the inevitable. Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side in Revenge of The Sith doesn’t feel like a character choice so much as a plot point hit because it had to happen.

Revenge of The Sith could have – should have – explored why Anakin opted for the Dark Side. What was it that drove a promising young Jedi to become a Sith lord? But rather than exploring any of that, the movie just trucked along about the ending of the Clone Wars, an Emperor rising to power, and an arbitrary turn to the Dark Side. Essentially, Sith doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know. There’s little depth added to the events of the originals, we end up exactly where we started with little change in the narrative status quo – A New Hope has the precise same impact whether or not you’ve seen Sith.

And this is where I talk about Rogue One.

We know the Rebels steal the Death Star plans. The question is how.

So the easy thing to do would have been to have just followed the heist of the plans and let that be that. Rebel spies steal plans. Done is done.  Instead, Rogue One contextualizes A New Hope.

For all its grandeur, the original Star Wars showed only a relatively small sliver of the galaxy (a backwater planet, the Death Star, and a Rebel Base) populated by farmers and outlaws, Imperial villains, and a handful of mostly-Rebel pilots. We begin in media res, with all the wheels already well in motion so we can focus on a farmboy from the middle of nowhere. Rogue One expands the scope of the story, showing more of the Alliance part of the Rebel Alliance and further emphasizing the threat of the Empire come A New Hope.

But the movie doesn’t over explain. The Phantom Menace felt the need to explain the mystical Force as microscopic organisms and C-3PO as a kid’s side project. Instead of feeling the need to, say, explain why the Death Star plans are on tape, Rogue One opts instead to fill in some plot holes and expand on things mentioned in the original movies (again: Alliance), but never seems beholden to what came before.

So Rogue One does what a prequel can do best, does what a prequel should do. It tells its own story that feels complete in and of itself, but in turn also adds a layer to the movie that already exists. A New Hope doesn’t feel any different knowing that it’s Hayden Christensen’s Anakin and all that under the helmet, but the final showdown against the Death Star takes on another level of meaning knowing what led to it.

Prequels get a bad rap because, well, a lot of them are bad. But Rogue One is inarguably a prequel (with a sequel already directed by George Lucas), and it’s one that does what those sort of stories can do. I’ve more rants essays to write about this movie, but for now, one thing that this movie does is prove that, hey, prequels can be really good.

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Thoughts on The Prequel Trilogy

Last year I watched all three of the original Star Wars movies and commented on them in the lead to The Force Awakens. Since we’ve got another prequel coming out, I figured I’d do the same thing for the prequels before Rogue One (which I’m seeing on Thursday [!!!] on the biggest freaking screen in New York City[!!!]).

Now, I have a soft spot for the prequels, so this isn’t going to be the angry nerd ranting you may expect.

In fact, I think they actually aren’t all awful. This got a little longer than expected, but that’s because I have Many Thoughts on Star Wars.

I first saw The Phantom Menace for my eighth birthday, in theaters. I loved it and Qui-Gon was (and is) my favorite. These days I still think it’s the best of the prequels, because though it’s a bit irrelevant as a whole, it is relatively well put together. You’ll see what I mean in a bit.

  • After the typically Star Wars offbeat gag of the droid coming out we get to see two Jedi in their prime kicking ass. It’s also a great visual introduction to them, showing us the Force, their ability to block blaster bolts, and how lightsabers can cut through walls. Instant exposition!
  • The conversations between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are such fun, with Qui-Gon’s brashness and Obi-Wan’s chastising despite being the apprentice.
  • One of the biggest flaws of this movie is its unconnectedness. Scenes seem to just happen and characters say things without much cause and effect (ie: Panaka’s “I don’t think this is a good idea” and Qui-Gon’s “You must trust my judgment” has them carry on to Tatooine without issue).
  • Argh, Anakin’s introduction to Padmé shows the issue with telling instead of showing. Anakin tells Padmé he’s gonna leave this planet. In A New Hope we see Luke Skywalker longingly watching the binary sunset. We feel Luke’s want, but are told about Anakin’s.
  • “The Queen’s wardrobe maybe…” Gotta love Obi-Wan’s dry humor.
  • And with Shimi’s introduction The Phantom Menace already has more speaking female characters in its first forty minutes than all of the Original Trilogy (Captain Madakor in the beginning, Padmé, Sabé, Jira the saleswoman, and Shimi vs Leia, Beru, Toryn Farr, and Mon Mothma).
  • The lack of music for most of the Podrace is striking; the engines make their own soundtrack.
  • Anakin having to leave home would have meant so much if we actually gave a crap.
  • When the vote of no confidence is called, Chancellor Valorum sits down out of the light and into shadow. Gorgeous visually.
  • There are still moments in the movie that are just so cool, like all the Battle Droids unfolding as the Trade Federation theme plays.
  • AND DARTH MAUL. AND DUEL OF THE FATES.
  • Seriously though, the lightsaber fight in Menace is one of the coolest things in the Star Wars movies, period. It’s so cool you don’t really care about the lack of narrative purpose. Plus, each combatant’s fighting style reveals character, another cool touch. Its effective, wordless, visual storytelling makes the Gungans & droids, space battle, and palace raid feel clunky.
  • Obi-Wan vs Darth Maul is such a great duel.

Whenever I watched Attack Of The Clones as a kid I’d always fast forward through the romance between Anakin and Padmé, preferring to stick with Obi-Wan’s more interesting plot. Which kinda made sense given how crappy theses scenes are as an adult. That said, Across The Stars is a magnificent piece of music.

  • And within its first three minutes Clones does what the Originals never did: pass the bechdel test.
  • Obi-Wan at the bar with the deathstick pusher is a wonderfully funny gag.
  • Anakin and Padmé striking off together should be fun, flirty adventure, but it’s played so darn drily and self-serious.
  • Anakin is so friggin creepy in his romancing.
  • Obi-Wan’s plot is actually engrossing, which makes the stagnancy of Anakin/Padmé so frustrating.
  • …maybe it’s Hayden Christensen that’s the problem here. His deliveries are a far cry from Han’s gruff charm (which is the benchmark).
  • It’s like Anakin doesn’t believe in subtext. Or a filter.
  • Shimi’s death is legitimately tragic…
  • …which is undercut by Hayden Christensen’s overacting. He really might be the problem.
  • Christopher Lee is excellent. And Dooku and Obi-Wan’s conversation is so well done.
  • The movie seriously gets better after Dooku shows up.
  • Anakin and Padmé’s entrance into the arena: really cool, really effective; just wish their scenes before actually made us care about them!
  • The prequels in general, but especially this one, take themselves so seriously. Where’s the fun romantic adventure that was a hallmark of the originals?

I saw Revenge of The Sith in England the day after it came out. Was really excited and really liked it at the time. Watching it again a few years back I was frustrated about how flat Anakin’s arc felt (especially in light of the Clone Wars show) and, with it, the entire tragic thrust. It’s the messiest of the movies, with some of the prequels’ best moments, but also the weakest.

  • The opening crawls do such a great job in letting the movies open in media res without too much exposition.
  • That opening shot that goes from the Venator to the ETA-2s that race along it and plunge into the battle below is so good.
  • Rescuing Palpatine feels a lot like the cold open-esque ones of Empire and Jedi.
  • A Hispanic actor was cast as Bail Organa, someone mentioned in the originals as Leia’s father. For all the crap George Lucas gets, there was noticeable diversity in the prequels’ casting (Panaka, Tycho, Queen Jamillia, Mace Windu, etc). Small parts mostly, but an effort nonetheless.
  • The political intrigue with the Council having Anakin spy on Palpatine is kinda interesting, if half-baked.
  • Anakin and Padmé’s discussion on the war, however, wasn’t even put in the oven.
  • Ian McDiarmid gives Palpatine such menace and subtext.
  • Padmé is so useless in this.
  • The duel between Grievous and Obi-Wan is shot with far too many close-ups (as was Dooku vs Anakin). Compare it back to the fight with Darth Maul where we could actually see the fight and close-ups were saved for special occasions.
  • Anakin’s fall to the dark side is a result of that sitcom trope where the woman walks in and her boyfriend’s all “this isn’t what it looks like!”
  • Which means that Anakin’s fall is so weak, so unearned. It’s the big turn, but it doesn’t work!
  • The Order 66 sequence is downright inspired, especially the choice of shots for Ki-Adi Mundi’s death and cross-cutting to Yoda.
  • Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa is wonderful. Why wasn’t he in the movie more? Why isn’t he hanging out with Padmé and doing stuff?
  • Holy crap, Yoda is on an assassination mission. Why isn’t this addressed?
  • The two final duels are pretty cool. Especially the music.
  • Oh that clash with the lava in the background. A+
  • Seriously. Obi-Wan vs Anakin is great (if you get past some of the silliness). I just wish the movie had done more to really sell us on how much they loved each other and made the fight genuinely painful (ie: Iron Man vs Captain America in Civil War)
  • But “I have the high ground” is a poor note to go out on.
  • Dear god, Ewan McGregor is so good as Obi-Wan. You can feel his heartbreak in his ‘goodbye’ to Anakin.
  • Vader’s masking, chilling.
  • …why does Padmé die? Argh.
  • The final sequence with Leia and Luke ending up on Alderaan and Tatooine is downright beautiful. It’s such a strong visual ending to a lousy plot.
  • To be honest, Lucas’ prequels are best when his characters shut up and he lets the visuals and music speak.

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But For Different Reasons

I first saw (500) Days of Summer when I was eighteen. Fresh outta high school, I was one of five people in the theater. I loved it, and would go on to watch it in theaters two more times when I moved to Singapore a month later, and then again when I bought it on BluRay. I loved it for its emotional honesty, for the way the film depicted Tom’s thought process on screen. But like Tom’s own relationship with The Graduate, my own love of (500) Days of Summer was based on a bit of a misreading.

See, I, for a variety of reasons, identified with Tom more than I should have. I thought Summer in the wrong and pitied him for pursuing a woman who didn’t feel the same way as him. I have a totally different read on the movie now, seven years later, but let’s stay here for a moment.

I misread the movie (because the wonderful thing about fiction is its give and take), and I liked it a lot. But the reasons I liked it were, in my ways, a little off. It doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have enjoyed it, just that what I brought to it and wanted from it (Tom and Summer should be together!), meant that what I got out of it was filtered through it (at least the devastation from Summer prompted Tom to get his crap together, and hey, there’s Autumn!). Thus my own catharsis through it is, well, different from how it works now.

Now, seven years later and hopefully a modicum wiser, I still love the movie. But, as you may have guessed from what I’ve already said, for very different reasons. Tom seems now less a hopeless romantic and more a selfish git who fancies himself one. He’s made sympathetic through the film’s storytelling, but Tom really isn’t a great guy. The takeaway from the film is instead a cautionary tale about expecting some sweeping love story to solve all your problems (it’s also a brilliant deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl).

So yeah. I still love the movie, albeit for a few different reasons. Which is really a testament to the film itself, that it’s able to make a sympathetic character out of someone as glaringly flawed as Tom; enough that a glowing positive interpretation of him is honestly quite valid.

You’re just missing the point.

Now, the point of any piece of fiction can be argued ad nauseam, and (500) Days of Summer itself remains open to a variety of opinions as to what is its point exactly, but to stop an understanding of the film at it being ‘just’ a love story with a downbeat ending. There’s more to it than that, and an arguably more complete catharsis can be found when you realize that it’s Tom’s willingness to fix himself and find happiness outside of a relationship that helps him get his life back on track. Or is it — since the button with Autumn casts Tom’s development into a measure of question.

I find that this is something true of a lot of stories. Pacific Rim is plenty enjoyable for getting to watch giant robots and giant monsters beat the crap outta each other, but its commentary takes it to another layer, just like how Godzilla is all the more enriching in light of the stances it takes on nuclear weapons or the environment (depending on if it’s the original Gojira or Gareth Edwards’ recent outing). There aren’t really ‘wrong’ ways of loving a story,* there are just different reasons for it. I figure part of really appreciating fiction is being willing to let your understanding and appreciation of a story evolve. Who knows, it may get even better.

*For simplicity’s sake, I’m ignoring flat-out misinterpretations like a white-supremacist/Aryan interpretation of The Lord of The Rings, something Tolkien himself decried. There’s a certain amount of latitude to finding meaning, but there’s also a point where sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Maybe that’s another rant for another day/

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