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Wakanda Forever

So. Black Panther.

Right now, I want nothing more than to geek the crap out about this movie. It’s, wow. Ryan Coogler’s quickly become one of my favorite directors (courtesy of Creed and Fruitvale Station), and this movie is the icing on the cake.

There’s so much to love about it. The plot moves along at a clip pace, so much so that I found myself wanting more when it ended. Its supporting cast is as interesting as its leads, with everyone getting their due and characters like Okoye, Nakia, and Shuri stealing the show (and seriously, Okoye is the coolest). The conflict between T’challa and Killmonger is surprisingly nuanced, one where there is no real easy answer. Does a super advanced African nation have an obligation to other Africans, both those within the continent and part of the diaspora? Or should Wakanda remain isolationist, able to remain free of colonialist influence?

And these are all well and good facets of the movie (Okoye is so stinking cool), but there is, of course, the obvious one: Black Panther is the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to feature not only a black protagonist, but a predominately black cast as well. On top of that, these characters are from Wakanda, a fictional, utopian country in Africa. They’re cool and they’re badass; they get to do the superhero schtick.

That’s a big part of what makes the movie so interesting (on top of that it’s an excellently crafted film): its representation. This is a movie where a bunch of people who don’t usually get to be these sorts of heroes gets to be these sorts of heroes. Not only that, but Wakanda is a science-fiction style setting that doesn’t draw on Western influences, but rather celebrates Africa. Wakanda is Afrofuturism put up on the big screen, and believe you me, it’s refreshing. Characters wear traditional African outfits that, guess what, generate force fields and also look really cool.

That Black Panther is succeeding is excellent news for genre fiction. It proves that blockbuster science fiction and action don’t have to be about white people with decidedly western influences. If we can get this Afrofuturistic fantasy, maybe now an East Asian inspired science fiction story is viable, and one outside of anime at that. Or an anime that’s been adapted and now stars a white actor in the lead. Now there’s room for a Mesoamerican-inspired fantasy world where Spanish conquistadors don’t even enter into the equation.

For better or worse, media (that is, movies, television, books, games, etc) is predominately dominated by the West (and, in particular, the US). As such, most of the stories that Big Movies and blockbusters draw on are Americentric; we’re used to stories with characters who look like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers ‘cuz those are the stories that get told. Black Panther is a shift, it’s a movie that says “Hey, you don’t have to look like Ryan Gosling to be the superhero.” You can look like Chadwick Boseman.

So does this mean there’s gonna be a scifi epic coming out soon starting a Chinese dude in a Changshan kicking ass but not in an orientalized kung fu way? God, I hope so. It’s hard for me to find words to describe exactly what it was like watching Black Panther, getting to see this dope futuristic world that celebrated a culture that wasn’t, well, white. It was different, it was cool; in Wakanda it showed a country that’s as much an ideal as it is a fantasy.

And throughout it all, I couldn’t help but to ask when was my turn. When am I gonna get to see people who look like me in a big blockbuster, when am I gonna get to see the culture I’ve spent so much of my life a part of celebrated in a science fiction film featuring the people who actually live it? Sure, I’m only half-Asian, but that’s a half that doesn’t usually get seen.

In the meantime, Black Panther’s freaking awesome, go watch it, and celebrate what it does.

There’s gotta be more to come. 

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But For Adults

Dennis Villeneuve is currently attached to the latest adaption of Dune. It’s an exciting prospect: Dune is a rich novel and Villeneuve has shown himself to be both a skilled director and excellent at adaptations.  Arrival was an excellent adaption of a terrific short story, one that managed to make the feeling of the ephemeral come as much to life on the screen as the page. Blade Runner 2049 somehow captured the moodiness of the original while injecting it with something new.

So if there’s someone who can do Dune, a big sci-fi epic novel, justice, it’s probably him. And recently, when asked about it, he said “in a way, it’s Star Wars for adults.” Which, at first blush, sounds cool (lasers and spaceships with wanton sex and violence!), but it belies a frustrating intellectual divide when it comes to fiction, particularly genre works.

Take Game of Thrones, which I’ve heard described as The Lord of The Rings but for grown-ups. Which, sure, makes sense. Both are epic fantasies, but Thrones has a more dubious depiction of morality, a stronger emphasis on politicking, and, of course, the sex and violence it’s infamous for. It’s a fair description. But, implicit in the comparison, is the idea that The Lord of The Rings is not for grown-ups and is thus a kid’s story, and a kid’s story not particularly suited for adults at that. In other words, if Game of Thrones is adult, then The Lord of The Rings is childish.

Which is blatantly untrue. Sure, I first read and loved Rings as a kid, but the books and films resonate as much, if not more, today as they did fourteen years ago. Rings might have a clean-cut approach to the idea of good and bad, but is that any less appealing to an adult than what we get in Thrones? Isn’t there something to be said for a story that works well on different levels?

As a side note, it’s kinda ironic too, given than when Rings first came out it was unique for taking fantasy tropes like wizards, elves, and dwarves and putting them into a more mature context.

So Star Wars. George Lucas himself described the movies as basically being for kids. Which is kinda true, even if the prequels spent an odd amount of time discussing trade tariffs. But that doesn’t mean it’s just for kids. The story of a nobody leaving her home planet and finding herself to be more powerful than she ever imagined is as fun as an adult as a kid. Because the Star Wars films don’t talk down to they audience, they doesn’t feel geared too heavily to one audience. In other words, just because a movie works for kids, doesn’t mean it’s a kids movie.

I think there’s an overcompensation here when it comes to science fiction and fantasy works. Because these genres are seen as being less serious than, say, a period piece or a capital-d Drama, there’s a need to make them seem grown-up so as to not be laughed off. Game of Thrones, with its incest and child marriages, gets lauded as showing the gritty realism of a fantasy world that Rings glosses over. And maybe Villenueve’s Dune’s Arrakis will have all the harsh brutality of desert world that we never saw on Tatooine. But isn’t there room for both? Can’t we have more adult-orientated works without dismissing others as childish?

I describe The Last of Us as a grown-up video game. Not because video games are just for kids, but because it goes places most games don’t; its rich exploration of grief and loss aren’t the sort of things you’d find in Halo or even more adult-intended games like Spec Ops: The Line. The pleasure of the game (although The Last of Us can be a decidedly unpleasant game to play in places) comes from having the emotional maturity for the themes to really resonate. That’s not to say games intended for a younger audience like Uncharted or, why not, Mega Man Zero 3 are inherently lesser because they don’t go where The Last of Us goes; rather they’re different games and great for different reasons. I love Mega Man Zero 3 and its epic story as much in my mid-twenties as I did at thirteen.

I’m looking forward to this new adaption of Dune. I’ve been meaning to reread the book and it is one of the grandfathers of space opera as we know it. And of course I’m rooting for Villeneuve and I want the movie to be good. But I think this impression that the more romantic takes on genre fiction are childish is, well, childish. A story can be uncomplicated and romantic but still resonate strongly with an adult. And as an adult, sometimes I want a story uncomplicated and romantic.

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Artistry in Disaster

The Room is an awful movie and I adore it. It’s terribly made, replete with an incoherent plot and some truly questionable acting decisions, but it also manages to cross that elusive line of terribleness into wonder. It’s a movie that makes you ask how on earth could something like this have been made as you delight in the fact that it was. It is also a movie best enjoyed at a midnight screening with a multitude of plastic forks and having imbibed an adult beverage or three.

Like I said, it’s a delight.

Part of the fun of the movie is, of course, Tommy Wiseau, the writer/director/producer/funder/lead actor. Him of indeterminate age and untraceable accent. In an ordinary world he wouldn’t be the face of a romantic drama (turned comedy by happenstance), and yet, here he is, at the forefront of his realized vision. And by vision I mean a fever dream that borders on misanthropy. The making of the film is mythic, with stories from the set describing a filmmaker with too much money who didn’t know what he was doing.

In any case, it’s kinda hard to sum up The Room in all of its absurdity and unintentional hilarity, but needless to say, it’s totally deserving of its cult status.

Which is what makes the film The Disaster Artist so odd. Based on a book about the making of The Room, The Disaster Artist dramatizes the production of The Room, showing off some of the set’s idiosyncrasies and also zeroing in on the friendship-of-sorts between Tommy Wiseau and co-star Greg Sestero. It’s a perfectly decent movie in its own right, but its choice of subject matter is where things get hairy.

Because the production of The Room wasn’t really a great thing. Wiseau was a draconian director which, if reality was remotely like how it’s portrayed in the film, created a really not-great set to be on. Yet it’s really funny to watch, especially as something of a dark comedy. The problem is, Wiseau’s presented as being kinda heroic, which isn’t quite bad, it just makes it a little harder to laugh at. Especially because in The Disaster Artist’s revisionist take, The Room’s premiere is met with immediate laughter and applause and Tommy quickly revels in the so-good-it’s-bad status (in reality, the film was reviled and only later became a cult classic; Wiseau’s embrace of that came even later). In essence, The Disaster Artist is about a funny-but-tortured filmmaker who puts his cast and crew through hell to make Art. Which feels overly simplified.

It doesn’t seem much better if you look at the movie as one about friendship. Tommy and Greg are friends, friends who promise to push themselves further than they’ve gone before in pursuit of their dreams. Yet, within the context of the film (and maybe real life too), Tommy effectively sabotages any chance of Greg’s success outside of the film. And when Greg calls him out on it, Tommy gaslights him into staying friends. Sure, it’s funny, but The Disaster Artist’s basis on a true story moves some of it into the realm of the uncomfortable. Because for all its talk about dreams of success, the real life ending to the story is that neither Greg Sestero nor the rest of the cast went on to any level of filmmaking success.

Maybe The Disaster Artist would have worked better as a really funny tragedy, maybe if the movie had some breathing space after the premiere where Tommy made amends and tried to become a better person before getting his catharsis of being a ‘beloved’ filmmaker. As it is it feels… odd.

I enjoyed The Disaster Artist well enough, and it is a very funny movie. But it falls into the category of a movie about making movies that’s so in love with the idea of making movies that making movies is the ultimate absolution and apotheosis. Which is a bummer, because The Room is at its heart, so much more. Well, maybe less. I’m still not sure. But it’s sure something else alright.

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Personal History

Exposition is, by nature, a weird thing. In fiction, it is effectively the author, whether through prose, dialogue, or (in video games) incidental environmental encounters telling you stuff about The World you’re visiting. It could be something as mundane as Ted and Jack used to be dating but now Jack’s into Sheila and that’s when Ted decided to quit his job or something as subtly major as “Years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars. [need better example]” You need exposition so the audience know what’s going on, but when done poorly it can feel like infodump, that is a whole lotta information dumped at once, usually just to keep the audience in the loop. It can be clunky and heavy handed, transparent in its purpose to the point where the immersion in the narrative is disturbed. It’s especially an issue in fanatical stories where a world’s gotta be established whole cloth (though stories set in the real world do sometimes stumble on the issue).

But sometimes it works.

Let’s talk Star Wars, because I want to. After the opening crawl (which, holy crap, is a magnificent narrative device in its own right that deserves its own essay), we’re told really freaking little about this world until Luke sits down with Ben — a solid quarter of the way into the movie. And so comes the exposition. Leia reminds Ben that he served her father in the Clone Wars. Ben tells Luke about his father. For a thousand years, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace in the galaxy.  But it works. Why? We wanna know what’s going on! After this big space battle we’ve been following a couple droids around and met this kid named Luke. Luke wants to get off this nowhere planet and be a part of something bigger, and we wanna tag along on that journey.

So there’s Horizon Zero Dawn, a video game I’ve only been able to put down because my girlfriend really wants to know what happens next and I’m waiting until we hang out to progress. One reason I love it so is that it uses one of my favorite settings: it’s post-apocalypse, but it’s been so long since that a new society has developed and there’s a mystery about what came before (see also: Mega Man Legends and The Chrysalids). The setting and its history, though, is wonderfully tied into the game’s narrative. In the game I’m Aloy, an Outcast from a matriarchal tribe who doesn’t know who’s her mother. My quest to discover where I come from reveals a connection between me and the Metal World of the Ancients (that is, the ruins of 2066) and starts to raise more questions than answers.

Over the course of the game I uncover more of what caused the apocalypse, and Aloy’s link to it all. There is a lot of expository information thrown around, both through the narrative itself and old records Aloy finds and can read or listen to. But it doesn’t feel like an overwhelming barrage of useless information. For starters, we’re more than halfway into the game when we start getting this and we’ve spent hours surrounded by these mysterious ruins and machines. At this point, we’re ready for some answers. And, it’s all related to Aloy. I’m connected to this history, and that connection might just help me figure out who I am. Assuming you’re invested in her (and why wouldn’t you be, Aloy’s great), you wanna know who you are. The exposition is important because it serves as a narrative catharsis to the character’s arc. In other words, the answers are the answer.

The worst effect of the story is for the recipient to not care. When people monologue on about the geopolitical state of whatever, it’s easy to zone out. But when it’s personal, when the history of an apocalypse is relevant to your character, then it’s easier to care. And it helps when the world’s pretty dope.

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The Ephemeral and The Sublime

Over the years, Hideo Kojima has, because of his Metal Gear Solid games, become one of my favorite video game designers. He’s also certifiably bonkers, mixing in discussions of American militarism-as-neo-colonialism in a game where you fight giant mechs alongside a mostly naked sniper who can’t speak because of a parasite that uses language to spread (and thus serves as a vehicle for Kojima to discuss how English becoming the global lingua franca is in turn another form of colonialism).

Point is, I’m always stoked to see what he’s making.

A new trailer for Death Stranding, his first post-MGS game, dropped last night. Like the handful of other trailers for the game that have come out, it’s weird and near indecipherable, with little information on what it’s like as a game. And at eight minutes long, it’s a pretty long trailer.

To the point where it’s less a trailer and more of a short film unto itself. It’s very self-contained, missing a lot of the “what comes next”-ness of trailers. While it does evoke a desire to figure out what’s going on, but that’s hardly the point.

There is little narrative in the traditional sense. Sure, we have a protagonist in Sam and a beginning, middle, and end; but it’s not about him doing something. Rather, the trailer presents a tableau of a scene, a moment for you to experience and are the better for having done so. The trailer presents the sublime, something quite beyond our comprehension but beautiful in its terror. It’s less about the catharsis and more about the process of watching Sam and his compatriots attempt to fend off these unseen creatures in a mysterious, physics bending world.

So in that sense it’s a lot like the movie Lady Bird.

Lady Bird is about a girl in her senior year of high school, her relationship with her mother, her relationship with herself, and that messy transition from seventeen to eighteen. It’s a tender story, told with a full heart and helpings of honesty. It’s reliant less on vying for that big, cinematic climax than it is on capturing a very particular moment in time for a very specific person.

And like the trailer for Death Stranding, it captures the ephemeral. Things happen, and then something else does. Lady Bird isn’t trying to say something bigger about the world, it’s just trying to tell its story (as Death Stranding’s trailer weaves its vision of terror). There’s no One Big Moment that defines protagonist Lady Bird’s life. Rather we see snapshots of a very specific person. Because of its honesty and specificity (Lady Bird’s idiosyncrasies are at once wholly unique and beautifully universal), we, as an audience, are allowed to experience a part of a life. One that, having seen, we are more for having done so.

It’s a fairly common anti-structure in indie-darling movies; you can see it done well in Drinking Buddies and Lost in Translation. Boyhood doesn’t know what it’s trying to capture besides “uh, time passes, I guess” and so fails to capture anything. Meanwhile Monsters sets its journey against an alien presence to heighten its exploration of loneliness and presentation of the sublime. Ken Liu’s short story “The Paper Menagerie” captures a difficult relationship. And it’s what Death Stranding’s trailer does so well.

I will campaign for narrative until the sky falls. But stories can be about moments too. The key is to make the audience feel something. As a reader/viewer/player I engage in fiction not because I want to sit idly by as something happens, but because I want to be taken on a journey. I want to feel something, sorrow or joy, something funny or something epic. Lady Bird didn’t need a Big Epic Conclusion to make me feel like a teenage girl. And Death Stranding doesn’t need flashy gameplay to present the sublime in a fracking video game trailer.

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Spoilers and Reveals

Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. That’s a spoiler, right? What about Luke fights Darth Vader in Empire Strikes Back? How about Yoda’s the green dude Luke meets on Dagobah? Or Luke goes to Dagobah? Where does it stop being a spoiler and become plot information?

Spoilers used to mean something that’d, well, spoil a surprise, ruin the story. It’d be telling someone that Lando betrays Han in Empire. Since at the point, the story seems to be presenting one thing, but it turns out it’s another. But saying Han and Leia go to Cloud City? That’s just information, it doesn’t tell you anything about the story.

I think we have a tendency to conflate spoilers and plot. Sure, there’s a certain amount of fun to going into something completely blind, but there’s no harm in knowing something. Knowing that Luke goes to Dagobah isn’t gonna ruin Empire Strikes Back.

But then, I’d argue that spoilers don’t always ruin stuff either. I went into LOST knowing that Charlie died, but I still had a ball of a time (and also swore of social media in between the time it aired and I was able to watch it). I started Game of Thrones knowing that Ned Stark died in the first season, but so much of the fun of it was watching how it played out. Saying a spoiler ruins something is indicative of poor storytelling: you know Han, Luke, and Leia are gonna make it out of Star Wars in one piece, but does that make it any less enjoyable? I played MGSV knowing all the twists and turns, yet it’s still a gripping story. A well crafted story doesn’t solely rely on WHAM moments to hook you. But that doesn’t mean I’m trawling through every nugget of information about The Last Jedi. I enjoy being surprised all the same.

Spoilers are a weird beast, is what I’m saying.

Which brings me to Stranger Things 2. I thoroughly enjoyed the first season last year and, of course, was ready for the second. I didn’t watch any of the trailers, but that was more due to apathy than any intent to avoid spoilers. But then they put out a mobile game, which, I’d usually dismiss except this one was styled after Legend of Zelda. And not the 3D ones, but the old school, top down, action-RPGs that I love (Link’s Awakening is the best Zelda game; fight me). When Season 2 dropped, the game updated with a new character, Max, and an extra quest. Cool!

But unlocking this new character, however, reveals that they she has a special ability. And it’s a doozie. Like, major turn of events type reveal. I was… less than pleased. Because this had all the shaping of being a big twist that happens part way through the season and shakes everything up. And here it was in this game.

But what makes this such a spoiler-y thing is that it could be a big reveal, an “I am your father” reveal. The sort of thing I’d rather not have spoiled for something I’m about to watch in the near future. ‘cuz I got clued in to some of the plot developments by virtue of, y’know, being on the internet. Like I knew that Steve would be taking on some adventures in babysitting (though none of the details), but that’s hardly a spoiler because the real interesting part is watching how Steve gets to that point.

So when I actually watched the show, the back of my mind was furiously anticipating That Twist. …aaaaand it didn’t happen.

Finding out that Max has psychic blasts would have been a helluva spoiler, since it’s a big reveal. That it didn’t happen is a nice gag of the developers (inaccurate game adaptions have a long and storied history) that’s a little frustrating because I kept waiting for it to happen.

But Stranger Things isn’t a show that rides or dies on its reveals. It’s a tightly crafted show, with a plot that starts as a slow burn and picks up as it goes; elements are thrown in play and developed to great effect. Furthermore, it’s anchored in strong characters with growth and relationships. Sure, a major plot spoiler would take away some of the surprise, but that’s not the main draw. Even if it was, though, I don’t think it’d have ruined the show. Spoilers aren’t that bad, guys.

But if you dare tell me anything about The Last Jedi that isn’t in the trailers…

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Going Further

The LEGO Ninjago Movie came out about a month ago and it was, well, firmly okay. Like, it’s not awful — it’s entertaining enough — but it never rises to the delightful postmodern heights of its predecessors. But it didn’t have to. While The LEGO Movie toyed with Campbell’s Hero’s Journey by making the chosen one as un-special as possible, and The LEGO Batman Movie used the narrative of a love story to reframe the conflict of Batman and The Joker to craft a hilarious new take on the mythos, all The LEGO Ninjago Movie really had to do was tell a raucous adventure story. Which it kinda does, but it’s very safe, one couched in winks at the audience and a foot still safely in the boat, never taking the plunge.

It’s a shame, too, because The LEGO Ninjago Movie had so much in its hand, it just never went all in.

Let’s just look at the setting. We’ve got Ninjago City, this cyberpunk-by-way-of-future-Asia setting with elevated highways and really cool buildings. But we never get to really explore it. All of our time in the city is set against the backdrop of big fights, which, while cool, are hardly space to get to know a setting. Instead, once the plot begins in earnest, we’re whisked out to a much more generic jungle. And like, sure, a jungle’s a cool enough setting, but it lacks the idiosyncrasy of Ninjago City. Jungles are generic, whereas Ninjago City had this spiffy aesthetic that marked is as different from, say Bricksburg or Gotham from the other LEGO movies or even New York and Coruscant. It wouldn’t be terribly hard to rejigger the central plot to go from exploring the jungle to spelunking in the depths of Ninjago City. There’s more personality there and room for imagination, something the movie really could have used.

Because it plays it all so safe. We have this outstanding (and hilarious) cast who are mostly relegated to bit parts where they can offer commentary on the Quest At Hand. If Ninjago is gonna be a send up of typical adventure movies, then let the main characters be a bunch of savvy wiseacres taking the piss out of the narrative. If it’s gonna be an actual adventure movie, then let it be that, with the silliness seeping in from all sides. But Ninjago couldn’t decide what it wanted to be, and instead we have a normal adventure story that’s undercut by its love of winking at itself. There’s no commitment.

So let’s take The Princess Bride. It creates a delightfully silly world, replete with six-fingered men, Dread Pirate Robertses,  and ROUSes,  but with characters who are completely sold on it. Inigo Montoya searches for the six-fingered man, and though he’s a comedic supporting character, because he as a character is serious about it and because the narrative never ridicules his quest, he is given the ultimate catharsis when he eventually finds him. There’s no winking at the audience, where everything unfolding is an in-joke. Sure, it’s a silly world (there is a place called The Cliffs of Insanity) but because the characters are given a level of emotional honesty, the narrative feels whole.

Even Shrek 2 (objectively the best of the Shreks) treats its characters’ arcs with a great deal of respect. Yes, the movie absolutely skewers fairytales, particularly of the Disney variety, but the story of Shrek trying to fit into Fiona’s world is committed to wholeheartedly. As such we still have a great story in this bizarre world (that we also get time to explore).

A lot of its faults can be blamed on The LEGO Ninjago Movie’s absolutely frenetic pace. The movie barely slows down to give us a chance to be. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a fast paced movie, but the movie barely ever fleshes out anything it has in play, never letting us just be in the space it’s created. It’s a rotten shame, too, because there was so much interesting at its fringes, so much mileage to be had with the banter between the characters, so much capacity for cool with some LEGO-ized martial arts action. Plus, you’ve got the Hero With an Evil Dad trope with the wonderful twist that everyone knows Garmadon is Lloyd’s father. But frustratingly, characters don’t fulfill arcs so much as they check off narrative beats. The movie never trusts its assets enough to capitalize on it, it never goes all the way.


Instead, well, we get something that’s just fine.

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