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Genre Bending

Altered Carbon is an oddball of a show. It’s got a science fiction setting, but primarily draws on noir for a lot of its narrative structure. Beyond that, though, it draws on a whole host of other science fiction media for inspiration, to varying effect.

The show is science fiction noir in the stylings of Blade Runner. And it’s really, really heavily cribbing from the Blade Runner stylebook. You’ve got flying cars that don’t look a hair out of place flying around a dingy, multicultural metropolis that’s pretty often rain soaked. There’s also a pervasive existential theme, owing to Altered Carbon’s conceit that human consciousness is held in a chip and thus the relationship between body and identity is a lot more tenuous than normal. A lot of this can be chalked up to the noir genre, what with gumshoes hired to take on a case and all that. The atmosphere, for the most part, is appropriately heavy and somber for the most part. It’s a crappy future, the rich get away with all sorts of (futuristic!) crime and the police are powerless. Like I said, very noir. Altered Carbon, however, goes in some very different places over its ten episodes.

For all its noir trappings, Altered Carbon is really loathe to give up the gunfight. In lieu of tense shootouts that are the hallmark of noir films (and Blade Runner, which, this cannot be overstated, is a massive influence on Altered Carbon), we get a lotta gun play straight out of your big action movie of choice. Heck, there’s a sequence where two characters are surrounded by Yakuza and soldiers out to kill them and, what do they do? They go back-to-back to shoot the attackers in a sequence ripped straight out of the video game Army of Two. Now, I’m all for Big Action Scenes and I strongly support borrowing from video games for inspiration, but it all feels so incongruous set against what’s supposedly a very noir story. Altered Carbon tries to move around genres, but its noir trappings end up feeling like concrete shoes when it adds these odd things to the mix.

Genre bending is totally possible, and it can be done well. I’m not just talking about mashing two together, like Spider-Man: Homecoming taking a John Hughesian teen movie and smooshing it with a superhero story, but rather a story that jumps around its genres. Consider Community: ostensibly it’s a sitcom set in a community college about a ragtag group of friends. In actuality, it’s a show that contains within its six seasons pastiches of gangster films, Apollo 13, Die Hard, zombie movies, Law and Order, and a Ken Burns documentary — amongst much more. It works, in no small part because Community sets itself up as being perfectly aware of what genre it exists in and by playing every genre/narrative to the hilt. It bends its genres to tell the story it wants to tell; how better to explore a rift between best friends Troy and Abed than by a Civil War-style documentary? The show also sets itself up as a very silly world, so spending a half hour in a spy movie is hardly out of the ordinary — especially as it does it with aplomb.

Similarly, Cowboy Bebop (which I will not shut up about) refuses to be confined to any specific genre. Right off the bat, it sets itself firmly at the intersection of the western, gangster, and noir genres (in space!), leaning more into each of the three when necessary. Digging into Spike’s story lends itself well to taking on the hallmarks of a gangster movie, but following Jet means we’re in for a much more noir narrative. Throughout it all, though, Bebop keeps its other inspirations close at hand, it’s noir episodes have hints of Westerns sprinkled throughout. And, because Bebop positions itself at an intersection of genre, it’s perfectly in keeping with its stylings when it borrows from other genres, be they cyberpunk or horror. Bebop is a show so sure of itself that it can play around with its makeup and never lose its DNA. Conversely, Altered Carbon sets itself up so strongly in the noir genre that whenever it strays outside (ninjas! anti-establishment rebellion!) it feels like we’ve lost the plot. Genre bending is a lotta fun, but the trick is to do it within what you’ve set as the boundaries. The more flexible those boundaries, the more wild the story can go.

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Space Cowboys

I’m honestly surprised I didn’t stumble upon Cowboy Bebop earlier. It’s got a lotta my favorite things (cool ships, genre blending, a ragtag crew) and it is a maddeningly good show.

It also bears more than a few resemblances to another show about space cowboys that I love: Firefly. Or more Firefly resembles Cowboy Bebop, given that the former show came a few years after Bebop. Now, there’s a wealth of writing to be had about the similarities between the shows. For one, and not just the idea of a crew on a ramshackle ship trying to make ends meet. There’s their setting on, for the most part, the edges of civilization. The civilization present is a mismatch of contemporary cultures; Firefly is a mix of American and Chinese, Bebop a jazzy blend with a little of everything. Aesthetically, both draw on the Western, telling stories about what are inarguably cowboys. Characters too bear more than a passing resemblance to each other; Spike Spiegel and Malcolm Reynolds are both cool gunslingers who give off an aura of being disaffected loners but really have hearts of gold beneath. These may sound like broad strokes individually, but the gestalt of these elements is more than a little suspect (that the makers of Firefly have stayed mum on the topic of Bebop doesn’t help). Again, there’s a lot to unpack here, but it’s not what we’re gonna talk about today.

Rather, let’s focus on how both these shows have one season and a movie, but do totally different things.

This similarity is, at least, wholly coincidental. Firefly was, sadly, canceled early in its run and was clearly intended to last for a few seasons. Bebop tells the story it wants to tell in its 26 episodes and resolves itself. As such, their movies do different things.

Let’s talk about Serenity first, Firefly’s movie. Given the show’s abrupt ending, the film does a lot of work to create a proper resolution and give some closure to the narrative. Serenity succeeds, it brings back these characters for a final hurrah and gives ‘em a big quest. Would it have been better suited to play out over a couple years of television? Certainly. As it is, the film takes elements of the show (River’s past, the mysterious Reavers, Simon and Kaylee) and develops them further. We find out what made River the way she is and the sexual tension between Simon and Kaylee is finally resolved. Serenity provides Firefly with the ending it never got.

Cowboy Bebop, however, decidedly ends. The major plot threads scattered around the show, particularly Spike’s history with the Syndicate, Julia, and Vicious, and Faye’s mysterious past, are wrapped up by the end of the show. Or a lease as wrapped up as they mean to be. Bebop thrives off suggestion rather than explanation and there are a lot of unanswered questions at the end of the final episode, but it is a complete resolution. The show has told the story it wants to tell and it’s done. If you watch the movie looking to to see if Spike and Faye get together or to see the triumphant reunion of Ed and Ein with the rest of the crew, then, well, tough. The movie is essentially a really long episode, which is a lotta fun because, well, extra long episode. But it doesn’t add to the overarching narrative of the show in the way Serenity does. That’s in no small part because Cowboy Bebop doesn’t need any more resolution than it has. To add more to it, to explain away some of what was left hanging, would diminish the show as a complete work.

Every now and then people talk about making a movie based on a tv show. Community had the refrain of Six Seasons and A Movie and everyone and then there’s some fan buzz about making a Chuck movie. But there’s never much question of what those movies would entail. Community wrapped up nicely, do we need to add another chunk of plot? Conversely, bringing the bang back together for one last mission in Chuck would be a lot of fun, but it would by nature have to remove all ambiguity from the show’s ending. And though Firefly and Cowboy Bebop have a lot in common, their different narratives necessitated different sorts of movies. There’s no one-size-fit-all trick to stories, and really, that’s part of the fun.

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Diversity in Middle-earth

The Lord of The Rings is at once both one of my favorite books and one of my favorite film trilogies. And I don’t really feel the need to write another sentence justifying that.

In any case, I reacted with some consternation upon finding out the Amazon was, having attained the rights to Tolkien’s world, developing a new series set in Middle-earth. On the one hand, we get to return to that world. On the other, it’s hard to top Peter Jackson’s interpretation of that world – how else could Minas Tirith look if not like that?

But then, revisiting Middle-earth means a chance to do some things differently. Like maybe making the world look a little more inclusive.

The Lord of The Rings is very white. That’s not so much a judgement as it is a fact. It doesn’t make it any worse as a work, it’s just how it is. So if we’re telling new stories, let’s ask why not and mix things up and cast some people of color as these characters.

Now, my own knee jerk response is “hey, let’s make all the elves Asian!” because that way you’ll be forced to have an Asian actor on screen anytime an elvish character is in play (and also we’ll get Elrond, half-Asian). But equating fictional races with real life ones becomes real hairy real quick. It runs the risk of feeling like stereotyping and, in the case of my own “make all elves Asian” orientalism and exoticism. Because if they don’t look like the normal, clearly they must be other, so let’s make them not-human. That line of thinking falls back on to the white-as-default mindset, where if you need a normal Everyman you make him a white guy. And let’s not do that.

Because if we’re diversifying Middle-earth, let’s let everyone be everyone. Let’s have black elves and surly Asian dwarves, let’s have Latino hobbits and an Indian shieldmaiden of Rohan.

Because why not.

The Lord of The Rings, and a lot of high fantasy with it, falls into the trap of looking a lot like Western Europe in the Middle Ages. Which, I suppose, is fair, given that Rings is the forerunner  of modern fantasy and that in writing it Tolkien wanted to give England its own myths to rival those of Greece. So of course it’s gonna portray a very (white) England-inspired place.  But that’s done, and it doesn’t excuse modern fantasy works (and the upcoming Amazon show would indeed count as a modern fantasy work) from being very white and European.

Cuz there’s nothing in The Lord of The Rings’ mythology that precludes a more diverse cast. Sure, you’d have to ignore Tolkien’s descriptions of characters as fair and golden-haired, but that’s not a loss. Heck, even adding more women makes sense; we’ve already got characters like Lúthien and Galadriel who’ve kicked ass in their time. Eowyn’s given the title shieldmaiden so she’s probably not the first. There’s no reason not to.

This is a fantasy world with magic rings and enchanted swords (and, y’know, elves and dwarves and stuff), there is literally no good reason why everyone has to be white. The only reason a black elf or Asian dwarf sounds so odd is because it’s outside what we’ve internalized as normal for the genre. We’re simply used to seeing these archetypes as white. And that’s s gotta change.

And where better for that change to happen than in the world of The Lord of The Rings? This is the book that elevated fantasy from children’s books to something taken seriously. It’s what inspired the world of Dungeons & Dragons, it’s the basis for just about every modern work of high fantasy. This is a chance to shift the framework, to redefine how fantasy usually looks.

I love The Lord of The Rings (and The Hobbit and The Silmarillion). Why can’t I, someone who’s reread the books countless times, quoted the movies in the opening to his thesis, and dominated Lord of The Rings bar trivia, get to see people in those stories who look more like me?

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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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Star Wars’ Newfound Dearth of White Guys

The Star Wars video game Battlefront 2, the follow-up to 2015’s Battlefront, was revealed a couple weeks ago, and the sequel seems to be righting a lot of the mistakes of the first game. It boasts more interesting combat, the return of classes, multiple eras in which you can play, and Jedi Rey as a playable character (which, right there makes me wanna preorder it). Unlike the first, which was basically online multiplayer only, there’s also going to be a proper narrative single-player mode, that follows an Imperial special forces commander from the destruction of the Second Death Star through the rise of the First Order – which sounds cool!

What’s interesting both as a shooter game and as part of the Star Wars franchise is that the protagonist is a woman named Iden Versio, as was revealed in the trailer when the commander removes her helmet, thus continuing Lucasfilm’s new trend of creating a character who isn’t a white guy every time they need a new protagonist.

We know this from the two new films that relaunched the series, with Rey, Finn, and Poe in The Force Awakens and Jyn and Cassian in Rogue One. But this new emphasis on diversity extends to a lot of the other Star Wars stories in the new canon. The first comic with a protagonist created for the new comics is this year’s Doctor Aphra, where the titular woman Indiana Jones-es around the galaxy. The tv show Rebels, which has been around since 2014, might star the vaguely-caucasian Ezra, but the other humans in the crew are the decidedly Asian-looking Mandalorian Sabine, and Kanan, whose ethnicity is open to interpretation but is played by part-hispanic actor Freddie Prinze, Jr. Point is, over the past couple years, Star Wars has been getting a lot less exclusively white and male.

So now we have Iden Versio, commander of Inferno Squadron, the protagonist of the New Big Star Wars Game and a character voiced by – and resembling – an Indian woman. Iden marks the extension of the trend towards diversity from other areas of the franchise into video games. Throughout the dozens of Star Wars video games released throughout the years, the protagonist has, with a handful of exceptions, always been a white guy. Even games like KoToR and Jedi Academy where you can customize character’s gender and skin tone; later books would canonize the protagonist as being a white guy (KOTOR II’s Jedi Exile is the exception to this). So we see Iden as a shift away from this precedent. Furthermore, it’s not only her appearance which sets her apart, but also her role as a military commander, not a Jedi – Star Wars is taking what’s usually seen as a male role (commando) and giving it to a woman. It’s a subversion of expectations, one that also says “Hey, women can be military leaders too!”

Like I said, Lucasfilm has clearly taken a really strong line on diversity, promoting women and people of color in just about everything they’ve put out over the past couple years. The trade off is that white guys are being put on the back burner.

But if we want more representation in the Star Wars galaxy, that’s the way it has to be. Look, there are forty years of Star Wars stories, especially if you include the old Expanded Universe (I do), and for the vast majority of them, the central main character’s a white guy. Luke Skywalker, Anakin Skywalker, Corran Horn, Kyle Katarn, the list goes on. The spotlight is now being shifted in another direction in what appears to be an attempt on the part of Lucasfilm to even the tally by mandating that all new protagonists not have to be white guys and insisting that other people get featured It means that Rey gets to be the chosen one now. It means that the badass Imperial commander’s an Indian woman. It means, that the people making Star Wars are looking at characters, asking why not, and putting minorities in the lead. It’s a drastic departure from most of the franchise’s history to be sure, but it’s a strong step forward to bridging the gap — and has clearly not hurt the quality of the stories.

‘cuz look, making room at the table sometimes means having to give up a chair. If we want to see a more diverse world in media, it means having to actively curate that world, it means having to have stories that aren’t about white guys for a bit. And at the end of the day those forty years of stories are still there. Making Iden Versio the protagonist of Battlefront II doesn’t undo all those Kyle Katarn stories, Rey doesn’t invalidate Luke. It’s a big, big galaxy a long time ago far far away; there’s room for stories about all sorts of people. Just means that white guys might not be the main characters for a while.

Now, there is that Han Solo movie coming out next year. After that, though, I’m game for Star Wars not having a white guy in the lead for another thirty-six years.

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Spoiled Endings

I really liked Rise of The Tomb Raider up until the last thirty-odd minutes. Everything’s coming to a head, set ups are paying off, there’s a boss fight against a principal antagonist. You go to the next area and… There’s a cutscene, and in that cutscene the game ends, wrapping up most of the plot points with a tidy bow but still leaving a bunch frustratingly hanging for the inevitable sequel. You get another nice little plot button if you continue the game to find some more of the collectibles, but narratively, that’s pretty much it.

Which is a bit of a bummer. Everything has been rising to a crescendo, but the last playable moment is a boss fight that you’re pretty sure is just the prelude to that Epic Climax that, well doesn’t really happen (another tip: in video games that Epic Climax should be playable). In any case, it’s a fairly anti-climatic ending. Some of the more interesting plot points brought up (who/what is Trinity? Holy crap Ana is such a villain) don’t get much pay off within the game’s narrative (not with all that potential sequel money).

And the thing is, that bummer of an ending retroactively colors my entire perception of the game as a whole. I really liked it, but the lack of a return on my emotional/temporal investment leaves a poor taste in my mouth. I wanna go back and get all those collectibles and stuff, but right now I’m not sure I can be bothered.

It’s odd, the way a failure to stick the ending can affect your perception of a piece. Mass Effect 3 is really solid game, but it’s best known for its disappointing ending. Never mind some of the great highlights (and the brilliance of the Citadel DLC), Mass Effect 3 is known for reducing the game’s climax to a choice of color. I didn’t dislike it as much as some did, but it still took me a couple years to return to the game’s story mode and clear it with my other two characters.

This doesn’t just apply to video games; I loath the final half-hour-or-so of How I Met Your Mother, and that in turn makes it hard for me to revisit the show as a whole. I love how Lost ended, but some people hate the show just ‘cuz how it ended. And think about it, how many movies were ruined for you in the final act?

At first blush, this doesn’t make much sense. A really crappy middle doesn’t necessarily ruin a movie, not to the degree an ending does. But here’s the thing, the ending is how it ends. Duh. But it’s what the ending has to do: it brings together everything that comes before and provides that oh-so-important catharsis. Flub that and things feel unresolved; you don’t get the catharsis that lets you leave it behind and get on with your life.

I’m not really sure this blog post has much of a big point besides stressing the importance of an ending. Rise of The Tomb Raider is still an excellent game, exploring, hunting, gunplay, and everything else is so much fun – and nothing beats the aha! moment of solving a puzzle, but the disappointing ending took the wind out of my sails. In the case of this game it’s doubtless because of the developers’ want to provide a hook for the franchise, but there has to have been a better way to end the game than with its rushed climax. There’s a difference between leaving your audience wanting more and not giving them enough to feel complete.

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Stuff From 2016 I Wanna Talk About

Every year I do a thing on this blog where I list my top nine movies. Thing is, movies aren’t the only things that come out in a year. So here’s a list of a bunch of stuff in a bunch of different mediums that came out last year that I really liked that I wanna talk about. They may not be the best thing to come out of the year, but it’s stuff I want to talk about.

Book: Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

I talked about this book when I first finished it, and I’d like to bring it up again to talk about how magnificent it is. It’s a concept album made book, where each chapter/short story stands wholly alone, yet is enriched and inseparable from what comes before it. Plus, it’s a novel about the African Diaspora which, really, isn’t a thing that gets explored nearly enough in fiction, especially at this scale and yet so intimately.

Album: Colors Run, by House of Heroes

…while on the topic of concept albums, I’ve gotta mention House of Heroes’ Colors Run. I haven’t listened to it enough yet, I don’t think, but it’s an interesting album that crafts its narrative through implication. It mayn’t be my favorite album this year (Run River North’s Drinking From A Salt Pond and Barcelona’s Basic Man are two strong contenders there), but it’s one that’s really been sticking with me.

Video Game: One Night Stand, by Kinmoku

I’m a sucker for a video game that goes somewhere most games don’t. One Night Stand has you waking up in a stranger’s bed and piecing together how you got there. It’s essentially a point-and-click by way of a choose-your-own-adventure game, but it’s set apart by how warmly and sweetly it handles its subject matter. Plus, the rotoscoped graphics make the game feel like a sketchbook come to life.

Comic: Mockingbird, by Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk, et al.

I mean, duh. But so we’re clear: wonderfully funny comic with a savage feminist streak that has a lot of fun in a comic book world. It’s too seldom we get to see women as fully-fleshed out characters in comics, and Bobbi Morse is so winning its hard not to love it. Also, major props for being one of the first Marvel comics with an all-women creative team. Man, I really wish this comic was still going.

Television Show: Stranger Things, by the Duffer Brothers

I’m a sucker for 80s movies. I’m also a sucker for movies like Easy A and Super 8 that have their own takes on the aesthetics of those movies. Super 8 marches brazenly into that field with a dose of horror. So yes, there’s D&D and 80s movies references galore, but what really makes Stranger Things better than being just an ersatz Spielberg film is its characters. Be it the boys and the new friend Eleven, Hopper and Joyce, or Nancy and Jonathan; the show is filled with those quiet relationship moments that made 80s films so wonderful. That it tells a delightful science fiction story in the process is just the icing on the cake.

Play: Vietgone, by Qui Nguyen

Look, theatre’s really white. Sure, you’ve got Hamilton flipping things around, but, that’s the exception that proves the rule. So along comes Vietgone, which features a mostly-Asian cast that tells a love story set against refugees immigrating to the US after the Vietnam War. Besides its fantastic use of language to invert the typical understanding of the other, it tells a damn sweet story in its own right – that features people who don’t look like your usual romantic leads from a unique background. It’s plain wonderful, and also the only play I’ve paid to see more than once.

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