Tag Archives: Movies

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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Space Nazis

I’m tired, I’ve had a long day. And I’m reading the news, and some days reading the news leaves you unable to finish your silly rant essay about a silly mobile game where you make karps flop around. So let’s talk about Star Wars.

It’s hard to not read the original trilogy as a product of the Cold War, especially given the way contemporary language describes it. The USSR was described as being an unstoppable bear the United States was only outpacing through sheer tenacity and ingenuity. The Death Star, with its ability to obliterate entire planets, is nuclear weapons In Space.

But then, fiction is seldom so clear. Though the Cold War may have been the current war, Star Wars exists in the shadow of the Second World War. The soldiers of the Empire are termed Stormtroopers, which though a general term for shocktroopers, was also a rank and detachment of the Nazi SS. Befitting Germany’s response to WW2, the rank is no longer in use; though in the 60s it surfaced as the title for a magazine for the American Nazi Party. When you combine that with Star Wars’ Imperial Officer aesthetic, it doesn’t take much imagination to see the influences for the famous villains.  For those keeping track at home, the Empire is essentially Nazis In Space with nukes In Space.

Of course, Star Wars is not an allegory, the Empire is fictitious and, for all its villainy, is pretty cool (as the fleet of different TIE models around my shelves will testify). But within the story, they are pretty much the ultimate evil. One that the heroes rally against and overcome.

Now, science fiction, and stories in general, is a safe space to explore ideas. And sometimes, it’s a really simple idea, like that space Nazis are bad, but also that they can be defeated. That heroes don’t stay on the farm, heroes stand up to fascism and xenophobia, but heroes also believe that people can still be redeemed.

In light of this, it’s understandable that The Force Awakens can be read as undoing the eucastrophe of Return of The Jedi, but I disagree. Rather, The Force Awakens builds on the themes of the original trilogy. The villainous First Order, built on the remnants of the old Empire, is described as being like “if the Nazis all went to Argentina but then started working together again”. It’s led by young men who idolize the old regime and fashion themselves as its inheritors. The political climate is far more complex this time around. The New Republic officially ignores the First Order, but a ragtag Resistance fights back. So maybe the space Nazis came back decades after they were defeated, but it turns out there are always heroes who will fight back. 

And now there’s Rogue One, a movie set back during the Galactic Civil War, where the Empire was in full swing, when it seemed like there was no weakness to the ultimate evil. The tenor of Rogue One is different, more dire, it’s all or nothing.

Yet, it turns out, it can be defeated. A band of heroes rise up and find a way to bring down the Empire, find a way to stop the unstoppable.

But remember the themes. It is a diverse group who defeats the space Nazis. Not just white dudes, but a woman and people of color. Turns out, an ideology of exclusion and hate could be beaten by inclusion and hope. Who knew.

Maybe there’s a lesson buried in there. Sure, space Nazis may be a little extreme, but maybe there’s the lesson that fascism, xenophobia, and hate aren’t good things. Maybe there’s the lesson that standing up to evil is an ideal to strive for. Maybe fighting space Nazis is a good thing.

Maybe they’re just stories.

But then again, maybe there’s something to them.

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Trusting The Story

I was initially hesitant to watch Dunkirk, given that it seemed like Christopher Nolan being as Nolan-y as possible. Which, after The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, wasn’t terribly enticing. The Dark Knight Rises was long on ideas and short on smooth implementation. Interstellar too had big ideas but lacked the characterization they needed to land. Dunkirk seemed like it could be more of the same: Nolan being self-indulgent to the point of breaking. All concepts, no substance.

To my delightful surprise, Dunkirk was actually quite excellent. It grounds Nolan’s concepts in a straightforward narrative that allows his strengths as a director to really shine. Even if you don’t really know what’s going on in the beginning, so long as you’re willing to trust him and his movie, things make sense.

But that’s the big If. If you spend the first half-hour of Dunkirk trying to figure out what’s going on, you’re going to have a rough go at it. What’s important is what Nolan tells you: that guy running through the street is English, wants some water, and wants to get across the channel. There’s also a fighter pilot in a dogfight and a civilian volunteering to sail the channel on a rescue mission. You don’t really need to know much more than that, and none of the characters get developed much further. But it’s not important. Over the course of Dunkirk, Nolan crafts a narrative around a particular moment that borders on impressionistic. Dunkirk asks that you watch it on its level, to trust that Nolan knows what he’s doing. Doing so lets you get swept away in the story of the Dunkirk Evacuation, with the movie’s interlocking time periods making themselves clear over time. Don’t overthink it.

There’s an amount of trust that the audience has to put in when watching a movie (or really, consuming any story), namely that if we get invested in this story, it will have been worth it. Something like Dunkirk may seem obtuse at the onset, but you’re trusting Nolan to make sense of it.

Which brings me to Star Wars. The start of A New Hope has you following a couple of droids walking around a desert for a solid chunk of time. You know the droids’ names, sure, and you know there are good guys and bad guys in space from the very first few minutes, but that’s really about it. For all intents and purposes, this seems like it’s going to be a terribly dull movie about actors in metal suits walking in a desert.

But.

If you trust that George Lucas knows what he’s doing, you end up meeting Luke Skywalker and get sucked into an epic battle between good and bad. Y’know, Star Wars. But to get there you have to trust that these droids in the desert have a purpose and aren’t just there for their own sake.

Of course, sometimes that trust can be broken. Let’s talk about Crazy Rich Asians, which has become my go-to now for bad narrative. Throughout the first couple hundred pages we’re led along to a lot of places without a lot of plot, but there’s the trust that it’ll be worthwhile. Maybe we’ll meet some interesting characters, maybe we’re in for some exciting drama. We’re waiting for it, whatever it may be. Thus it kinda sucks when Kevin Kwan’s novel suddenly culminates in an awkward fizzle reliant on characters we don’t really know and a relationship we’re not really sold on. All that trust has been wasted. And I’m left gaping in disappointment at this book.

One of the best things about stories is getting sucked into them, and letting them work their magic. That takes an amount of trust that ought to be rewarded. Just gotta let go. In stories like Dunkirk, it pays off.

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Top Nine Movies of 2016

There comes a point in time when you realize you aren’t going to get around to watching those movies on your list. And then it’s almost August and you’re still thinking about 2016 movies and honestly it’s just embarrassing at this point.

But then again, that’s why it’s a Top Nine, to save one space for that extra movie. Because there are movies out there I know I’d like, like Swiss Army Man or maybe Patterson. And Midnight Special. Man, I can’t believe I still haven’t watched Midnight Special. Maybe even some others that I’ve forgotten. But not La La Land, La La Land was awful.

Look, I had a busy year. So with no more excuses, here are, in a vague semblance of order that is liable to change, my top nine of 2016.

9. The Magnificent Seven

I know that, objectively, this movie is just kinda pretty alright, but I can’t help but to really like it. And of course it’s because it’s about a multiracial band of cowboys doing the hero thing. If your movie gives me a #AsianCowboy, of course I’m gonna be game. I want more movies with teams like this, so, here we are.

8. 10 Cloverfield Lane

I don’t know how I feel about the whole Cloverfield branding thing, so let’s ignore that. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a masterclass in suspense, where half the horror of it comes from your own brain trying to piece together what’s going on. It’s terrifying, without ever resorting to cheap scares.

7. 20th Century Women

It’s hard to put exactly into words what I liked about this movie. It feels like a snapshot come to life, like an attempt to capture a very specific point in time with a very specific group of people. It’s wonderful and bittersweet, the sort of movie that leaves you feeling that this has been something.

6. Rogue One

I have said a lot of things over the past year about why I love this movie. In summation:

  • Epic battle against good and evil
  • AT-ATs and Star Destroyers
  • The good guys aren’t just white dudes
  • Again, the main heroes are women and PoC.
  • Star Wars, yo.

5. Zootopia

A movie about a bunny cop and a sly fox teaming up to solve a crime sounds overly cutesy on paper, but Zootopia succeeds in telling a pretty raw story on prejudice, but without it feeling overly moralistic. Plus there’s a gorgeously realized world in it that you just wanna explore.

4. Captain America: Civil War

Yes, the Marvel movies always get high praise for me. Especially Civil War, which levied the MCU’s eight years of history into a really affecting conflict. It’s an excellent example of causality in fiction, where just about every plot and character beat feels earned and is either pay off or set up for another. It’s excellent all around.

3. Sing Street

I’m not quite sure why I fell in love with his movie. Maybe it’s fresh on my mind because I read the script recently, maybe it’s because it’s such a great coming-of-age story, maybe it’s because it plays out a teenage fantasy so well. More than anything, though, the movie feels honest. There’s no winking, no tongue in cheek; Conor’s quest to start a band and woo wannabe-model Raphina is treated as being perfectly legitimate and not an adolescent flight of fantasy. It may not go quite as far as it could, but it remains a wonderful film.

2. Moonlight

A lot of people have probably said why this movie works better than I can. It’s a beautiful, almost haunting movie. It’s gorgeously intimate, almost to the point of being uncomfortable. Stories let you live someone else’s life, and Moonlight does that so well.

1. Arrival

There are movies that, when hooked on an interesting premise, will be really happy about it and make its whole thing. Arrival has a great twist to it, but it’s not one done just for the kicks nor does it self-congratulate itself for it. Rather, it’s born out of a story about understanding, language, and otherness. Arrival is an incredibly unified movie where everything, its visuals, plot, and characters, all revolve around its central theme. And it’s an excellent movie to boot.

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