Tag Archives: Movies

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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Giant Robots

It is no secret that I absolutely adore Pacific Rim. Granted, and watching giant mechs and giant mechs beat the crap outta each other is only a part of it. See, there’s the pure childish glee to it, the great speech, and, of course, its youthful and hopeful worldview. Pacific Rim is a movie about giant mechs and giant monsters, but it’s because it’s so much more than the battle between Jaegers and Kaiju that the movie made the impression it did, it’s why it matters more than you’d expect.

A sequel was up in the air for a while, and, eventually, Guillermo del Toro stepped aside from directing again and Steven S. DeKnight filled in as writer/director and the project officially went into production. There were rumors online about the studio ousting del Toro, but given that he still has a producing credit and DeKnight was in touch with him, it’s safe to say his vision is still there.

So naturally, I watched the trailer for the sequel, Pacific Rim: Uprising as soon as I could. And man, it delivers on more giant mechs fighting giant monsters. And a multinational team, which is something very important to me, obvious. And it’s a glorious trailer, with new robots fighting new monsters in a city and stuff getting destroyed and swords slashing and all that cool stuff.

But all the same, it seems to me that there’s a bit that’s being lost.

Let me preface the following with this: It looks awesome. Mecha action is something near and dear to my heart, and getting to see a glimpse of those behemoths fighting is, of course, a joy. I’m here for it.

But.

Guillermo del Toro’s a self-described pacifist. He deliberately avoids making movies about war, and Pacific Rim was no different. The leader of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps isn’t a general, but rather a Marshal (named Stacker Pentecost, but the ridiculous awesomeness of that name is unimportant here). The Jaeger pilots aren’t Captains or Lieutenants, but rather Rangers. Pacific Rim avoids much militaristic imagery, and there’s no room for jingoism in a movie about an international team fighting monsters. This is all deliberate, as del Toro “…wanted was for kids to see a movie where they don’t need to aspire to be in an army to aspire for an adventure.”[*]

Even the action in the movie follows this trend. Sure, there’s epic destruction, but the operating protocol for the Jaeger pilots is to keep the Kaiju away from the city. When a kaiju attacks Sydney, it’s because it breached the wall that was supposed to keep them out. The fight in Hong Kong is after the defenders have been overwhelmed, and much ado (and a subplot) is made out of making sure civilians evacuate to shelters. When the punching and hitting starts, it’s a lot of punching and outlandish weapons. Gipsy Danger has an energy blaster and a sword, Striker Eureka rockets and knives, Cherno Alpha is really good at punching stuff. It’s fantastical, it’s fun.

There’s a shot in the Uprising trailer that looks like one out of the matrix, with empty bullet shells falling to the ground behind a Jaeger. It’s cool — because of course it’s cool — but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it gave me a measure of concern. Part of what made Pacific Rim so wonderful was it being removed from reality; once the Jaegers started going there wasn’t much in the ways of actual guns. All the violence was out there, fantastical, giant robots punching and giant swords and rockets.

I love Pacific Rim. And I wanna love Uprising too. But lightning in a bottle was caught once, and I’m wary of a followup. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe DeKnight’s got more going on than the trailer lets on. Maybe it’ll be as hopeful and idealistic as the first one. But as we get set to enjoy more mecha versus kaiju action, I want to remember how damn special Pacific Rim is, and how much a sequel has to live up to not only in quality but also in theming. Maybe Uprising won’t have the special sauce that made Pacific Rim so good.

But.

It’s still gonna be giant mechs beating up giant monsters.

And I’ll take it. 

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We Don’t Need No Adaptation

Your Name is an anime film about a couple teens that randomly wake up in each others bodies. One’s a guy at an elite school in Tokyo, the other a girl who lives in a more traditional, rural town. Naturally, hijinks ensure, and I’m left weepy in the cinema as the credits roll.

It’s very much a body swapping love story, but it’s one that holds extra depth due to its intense focus on longing. Much of the romance that blooms between Taki and Mitsuha is due to them knowing each other so well but being unable to really meet. It’s further accentuated by the anime’s gorgeous animation, with some fantastic visual touches that could only be done in an animated movie (seriously, even if you ignore the magnificently crafted narrative, Your Name is a visual wonderland).

Point is, I really like this movie, it is really good, and you should watch it.

It was also just announced that Paramount pictures was teaming up with J. J. Abrams to adapt it into a live action film.

Which is as pointless as it is frustrating.

Look, I’ve nothing against Abrams, he’s a fine director who’s made some of my more favorite films in recent memory (The Force Awakens, Star Trek, Super 8), but you can’t help but to wonder why this movie even needs to happen.

Well, you can: money. Your Name was a ridiculously successful hit in Japan, and, to quite an extent, overseas. It stands to good reason that by adapting it to a more ‘conventional’ medium (live action film) it will make Even More Money, which, well, cynically, is the goal of a lot of art.

But let’s ignore that for now.

If Your Name, a movie that came out barely a year ago in Japan, is being made into a live action western film, then there has to be some need for it, right? Your Name is a beautiful story, one that I can’t recommend strongly enough (as was insistently recommended to me and I then passed on). It’s something of a shame, then, that it’s an anime and thus will only fall into a niche audience of a) people who will watch an anime film, and 2) an anime film that’s relatively ‘realistic’ and not as pulpy as the medium is known for.

In which case, yes, by all means, let’s bring this story to a wider audience.

But why?

Why is it that a film like Your Name needs to be ‘uplifted’ by removing it from where it came? Is it because anime, as a medium, isn’t good enough? Sure seems that way. There’s this weird prejudices against certain medium as not being good enough. A movie can get discounted just because it’s an anime film, just as a story, no matter how moving, can be dismissed if it’s found in a video game. There’s an artistic pecking order, as it were, where certain genres are more artsy than others (drama more so than comedy), and in turn certain mediums are more artsy than others (books over comics). Adapting Your Name to a live action film would, in this mindset, make it more artistically pure. Which is a load of crap; mediums are a means of storytelling. There are some stories that only work in one way, (500) Days Of Summer wouldn’t really work as anything except a film and Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye would lose so much if it were anything but a comic book. It’s a matter of we, as an audience, getting over the fact that Your Name is an anime.

Because there are some things that cannot be adapted. Sure, you can make The Lord of The Rings into a twelve hour saga that’s incredible in its own right, but there’s no way to turn Joyce’s Ulysses into anything but its tome without losing so much of what makes it special. Similarly, Your Name is so rooted in not just its Japanese-ness, but in its anime-ness. Many of the visual touches are of the sort you can only do in animation. So much of what makes the film so magical will be lost with the ‘realism’ of live action, but any attempt to stylize reality (a la Scott Pilgrim) runs the risk of trampling over normal life-ness that makes the heightened reality of Your Name work. The film masterfully straddles an extraordinarily thin line, and it’s one that only works because it’s an anime, not in spite of.

If this adaptation really gets off the ground, then maybe the best course of action would be to just taking the very kernel of the idea (city boy and rural girl sometimes wake up in each others’ bodies and hijinks ensue) rather than trying to adapt it proper. Don’t gild the lily, let Your Name exist and excel in its own right with all of its idiosyncrasies.

And besides, adapting it means losing its dope soundtrack.

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Stepping Away

Ed Skrein – the dude who played Ajax in Deadpool — made headlines recently. Not for taking a role but rather for stepping down from one. See, he was tapped to be in the reboot adaption of Hellboy. But the character he was slated to play, Major Ben Daimio, is Japanese-American in the comics, and Ed Skrein is decidedly, er, white. Upon finding out that his casting would be whitewashing, Skrein stepped down from the role in order to not be part of that machine that decides to make people-of-color white.

And good on him! This is a guy who’s not a Big Actor and had the opportunity for a Big Role, but turned it down after getting hired because, well, whitewashing. So seriously, cheers to him.

‘cuz whitewashing’s an issue. The movie 21 took a team of mostly Asian mathematicians and made them mostly white. Aloha famously cast Emma Stone as a part-Asian character with the last name Ng (as a part-Asian, I can attest that Emma Stone neither looks nor fits the part). Then there’s the Avatar: The Last Airbender movie which takes the wonderfully Inuit and Chinese inspired cast/cultures of the cartoon and makes the main characters white.

I can go on.

And what the hell, I will!

Dragonball Evolution made Goku white. Extraordinary Measures stars Harrison Ford as Dr. Robert Stonehill, a character whose achievements are based on that of Dr. Yuan-Tsong Chen. Scarlett Johansson plays Major in the American adaption of the decidedly Japanese Ghost In The Shell.

In light of all of that, seeing an actor walk away from a project because he’s a white guy playing an Asian guy is absolutely remarkable. Maybe I have half-a-horse in this race, but there’s a noticeable precedent for making Asian characters (and real people) white in adaptions. Sure, I’ll give something like Doctor Strange a pass for playing around with a stereotype, but there’s a point when it is just recasting a character of color because Scarlett Johansson will get more folks to theaters than Ming-Na Wen.

It’s in this context that Ed Skrein’s choice to step down from Hellboy so remarkable. Or at least unusual. Not too long afterwards, it was announced that Daniel Dae Kim, known for Lost and, more recently, not continuing his role in Hawaiian Five-O because the studio did not want to pay him as much as his white co-stars, would be playing Major Ben Daimio in Hellboy. Which, wow, an Asian actor playing an Asian character (albeit a Korean actor playing a character who’s Japanese)? That sounds like a regular fairytale happy ending.

Now, Ed Skrein should never have been cast in the first place. Duh. But the fact of the matter is that this happens far too regularly. It’s not that there aren’t enough Asian actors to go around, or even (actors of color), it’s that there aren’t that many roles in these big-budget movies for them. And even if there is one, there’s still the chance it’ll go to some white dude instead.

Diversity and representation isn’t just about creating roles and characters, it’s also about making space. It’s partially why I find Star Wars’ new stable of characters so wonderful; they’re consciously  making room in their movies and video games for women and people of color. Making the protagonist of Battlefront II a brown woman also means making the choice to not have a white guy in the lead. Something’s gotta give. It’s not always just an easy decision.

So here, at the end of it, there’s a part of me that wants to be hopeful. We got to watch whitewashing happen and then be undone. Maybe this means we’ll see more room for Asians and other actors of color in these big films. And then maybe after that we can split hairs about a Korean-American actor playing a Japanese-American character.

But baby steps!

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The First Seventeen

I was recently on a plane back to New York from Montréal (if you wondering: poutine’s really good, the Canadians are onto something). It’s a short flight in a relatively small plane, but apparently, still one that lets you have those screens in the seatbacks. Which is nice because, y’know, you can watch a movie or something. Good time to catch up on movies you’ve missed or watch different because you wanna.

Thing is, the flight from Montréal to New York is a little over an hour and a half, which, you’ll notice, is a hair short of the typical two hour runtime of a movie. Which means when you watch something, you won’t finish it and that leaves you in a lurch that I don’t like. Means you get a lotta set up, but the payoff doesn’t complete. Take my girlfriend, who decided to watch Alien. She got to the chest busted scene, a little further, and we were in New York. No showdown between Ripley and the Alien, just, y’know, the build.

Seeking to avoid that, I looked for a movie around ninety minutes. The plane had Office Space, one of those movies I know I should watch and just haven’t gotten around to. I decided to get around to it.

Seventeen minutes in, however, it stopped. Like, ended and returned me to the main menu. I was confused and kinda annoyed. The movie was getting into gear and I was getting into it. Also I knew I’d be cutting it close and the couple minutes it’d take to load it back and find my place could make the difference between seeing the ending and, well, not. So I cued it back up and started fast-forwarding to my spot, whereupon I noticed that the timecode for the ending was at, coincidentally, seventeen minutes. Sure enough, when I reached where I was before, it stopped and I was returned to the main menu and Air Canada’s friendly hello.

Office Space has returned to the list of movies that I will watch eventually. But the first seventeen minutes are a lotta fun. Equally importantly, they serve to set up (what I presume) is the plot of the movie. We’re introduced to our protagonist and his two work buddies and we learn that they all really don’t like their job. There are hints of a scheme to screw over their company, the motivation of being free to do whatever they want with a load of money. We’re also given an antagonist in their smarmy boss a ticking clock with their company’s downsizing to speed along the plot. And, of course, it takes a minute to introduce us to our protagonist’s love interest. In short, everything is set up for the movie to come.

Beginnings are important. Duh. You’re still reading this either because you like me or you found my lengthy preamble about inflight entertainment sufficiently charming. A strong start is what keeps the reader, viewer, listened, or player engaged.

But beginnings might matter even more from a narrative point of view. One of the things Aristotle believed to be key about stories was the ultimate catharsis at the end, that great release of emotion (i.e.: blowing up the Death Star). To get that catharsis, you’ve gotta fill your reader (etc) with those emotions (i.e.: take Luke from Alderaan, destroy Alderaan, and lose Ben Kenobi to Darth Vader). You don’t get that release without doing the work (blowing up the Death Star just isn’t the same without all the build up).

From what I saw of it, Office Space certainly lays some strong groundwork. We know the problem — office life sucks — and now it’s a matter of remedying that. I know it somehow involves beating up a printer, but past that I’d have to actually watch the movie.

I’ll get around to it eventually.

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