Monday, July 27, 2015

On Ant-Man ... (but mostly really the Marvel Cinematic Universe)

Today was actually intended to be a review of Jurassic World, because I'm trapped by my own backlog, but that's not what is calling to me. Yesterday, I finally got my sorry butt to the theater and saw Ant-Man.

I know what you're wondering right now, "Did he think Ant-Man was that much better that he'd ditch his favorite childhood series just to talk about it."

Or you're wondering, "Wait, this isn't the link I clicked on." 

But I implore you, don't flip to another tab just yet. 

I might be an anonymous internet geek, but I think I have something pretty worthwhile to say, and if you agree, you should totally pass this on. I mean, I'd love to plug my blog, but really, I just want to get this out there.

1) I love Marvel's films.

2) I don't think Marvel is telling good stories.

So this will be less of a review of Ant-Man so much as a retrospective on continuing repetitive mistakes made in this shared universe. I want to talk about some basic storytelling structures that Marvel is skimping on, to their detriment, and I want to inform o' yeh three people reading this blog what those are.

One of my favorite professors ever had a favorite saying during her lectures, “The only journey in fiction is the journey from ignorance to self-awareness.” I'm going to take a moment and let you ponder why I'm bringing this up.

And now I'm going to explain. These characters? They're journeys are all out of wack. They don't really progress in any meaningful sense. The Marvel Universe is one long string of establishing origin stories. The Marvel movies hint at character development post-introduction, but the majority of it seems to happen elsewhere. Take for instance, Captain America acclimating to the modern world. When did he actually acclimate? As far as I can tell, he did it between The Avengers and Captain America: Winter Soldier, and we only ever hear about it in spurts. 

What about the red in Black Widow's ledger? That could have dominated its own entire movie (complete with toy-line you sonsabitches, hint-hint), but instead we get a strong establishment of it in Avengers ... and by Avengers: Age of Ultron, she's ... over it? Also, quick side-note, I could do an entire post about the mistreatment of female characters (and Black Widow especially) in the MCU, but maybe that requires a post dedicated solely to itself.

I don't even really need to point out that Thor hasn't progressed since his first outing (which was by all accounts rushed character development anyways), so what about Tony? Well ... it's haphazard at best. I mean, really try to map his character arcs from story to story. They fluctuate all over the map. At times it feels really strong, like in Iron Man ("I must take responsibility") or Avengers ("sacrifice is required"). I personally think Age of Ultron flubbed it at the midway point when they had Tony solve the problem of the psychopathic killer murder-bot by creating another AI. He solves the problem he created the same way he created it. That's ... not really development. Tony didn't learn anything about his fallibility as a human with a massive ego. 

But what about Iron Man 3, you might ask? Well ... he has a journey. He has panic attacks. He solves them by remembering that he's Tony Stark, and that Tony Stark fixes things .... Resounding.

So what is my point? How does this relate to Ant-Man? Well, Scott Lang falls into the same pattern, actually. He's exactly the same at the beginning of the film as the end. He never has to win his daughter's affection. She loves him already, to the point where I felt sorry for the step-father. So is it Scott's relationship with the law? Not really, because at the end of the film, the step-father (who's a cop) let's him go scott-free because ... he's a superhero now, so he's above the law. And we've successfully done away with risk.

Makes me miss the first season of Arrow.

The takeaway from this is that Marvel refuses to develop their characters, because if the characters grow and develop and change, then there is a chance of alienating audience members. It's the old Star Trek model. If you saw one episode with Kirk and Spock, then you've seen them all, for the most part. Any character development over the course of an episode would be rewritten by the next, to maintain the interchangeability of the episodes. Marvel has succeeded in doing the same thing. You don't need to follow the films to understand what is happening. Either the character is exactly as we left them, or whatever changes they've gone through happened, ala Greek Tragedy, off screen and is relaid to us here in the moment to catch up anyone who didn't see the others.

And that is not how you build engaging character-driven stories. It's not. And I think it's starting to show. These movies are revolutionary because they changed the way film franchises are done, no doubt. But there is almost no chance that these movies are going to engage in the long run, because individually, they don't offer anything above fluff. Not in terms of character development, and spoilers, that's the part people connect to.

And I haven't even gotten to the villains!

But I can do that in a much shorter time. 

Beyond the fact that Marvel's villains are woefully underwritten, there's another point I think that is often missed. They oftentimes have zero, and I mean, zero relationship with the hero beyond the circumstantial.
  • Luke and Vader?
  • Buffy and Angelus?
  • Magneto and Xavier? 
These are characters who, if you removed the powers, or plot, would still have the basis of a powerful story, because they have strong relationships. We're not interested in Luke and Vader because of their powers. We care because we're fathers and sons. We're all part of families, and good and bad, we have an investment. Buffy and Angelus? We've all had a relationship destroy us, or a friendship that caused us devastation when it disintegrated, like Magneto and Xavier's. 

But in the Marvel world, we get Yellow-Jacket and Ant-Man who, as George R.R. Martin pointed out, have the same powers, and it's boring. I disagree. I think the similarity of the powers is immaterial. What I find unforgivable is the fact that Cross and Lang have NO relationship. Neither did Peter Quill and Ronan, or Maleketh and Thor, or Captain America and Red Skull. Sure they're diametrically opposed on the moral spectrum, but they have no personal investment in one another. Ronan and Star-Lord don't even come into contact with one another until the climax of the film.

And suffice it so say, this is not how you build character relationships. A villain is meant to test a hero in every possible way. Ultron might have been bogged down by a cut-running time, but at least he engaged the heroes early in the film and utilized different tactics to achieve his goals. 

That's more than can be said about most Marvel villains.

So Marvel, here's what I have to say, cool it on the world building and in-universe connections. At this point they'll happen organically, I promise. Start focusing on telling a complete character arc without worrying about what you'll do next time. If the characters survived decades of comic books, I'm sure you have enough to work with for half-a-dozen movies (before the actors refuse to renew their contracts anymore). Give the heroes a specific goal per movie, a challenge that they can learn about themselves through overcoming. Oh, and I beg you, develop villains with relationships to the hero before you do anything else. Then let the cool bits come to you. Even if the action is meh, the emotions will underscore the story more than anything else you can do. You've got some Shakespearean themes to play with. Run with them. 

Case in point.

PS, where did Yellow-Jacket get the lasers? Is that common in the MCU? During Iron Man 2 they couldn't recreate Stark Tech, so was Cross using Hydra's Tesseract weapons? Seriously, someone help me out here. 

PPS, I'm like ... so excited about DC's Suicide Squad, and Fox's Deadpool movies, because they look like they might actually break the mold, which would fill me with all the happiness.

Monday, July 20, 2015

On Inside Out

So what does some shmuck on the internet have to say about a well established animation studio like Pixar making another quality film? It'd be like trying to deconstruct the hundredth home-run in a row. What more is left to say? 

Well, at least one thing, that I found rather interesting. So strap in, and join me for a few minutes of your time. 

Most Idiotic Review

" ... in so far as Riley never comes into focus as a true flesh and blood girl (she is just a vessel), there is something odd about the fact that Riley (isn't Riley a boys name?) plays a stereotypical male sport (ice hockey). It's as if the film's creators resist really dealing with a female character — even though, reportedly, Doctor drew on his experience parenting a young girl."  — Alva Noë, (NPR)

There's a lot of things I dislike about this article. Of all things, I'm reminded of an interview that Lawrence Krauss gave back in 2012 where he said, "I'd say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn't." Now, is Lawrence Krauss a brilliant mind? Of course. Do I respect his work in his fields. Definitely. Is he an ass? Undoubtedly (as a proud atheist, anytime I watch a theological debate with Krauss, the limits of his knowledge base become pretty clear). More to the point, I dislike the idea that philosophy doesn't progess. Or if it does, it's merely adopting other field's of science's tools. 

How does all this relate to Inside Out? Well, Alva Noë makes me agree with Lawrence Krauss. And that can't be good. 

Besides that, the quoted paragraph makes me role my eyes. For one, Riley is a unisex name. Don't take everything and make it a feminist rallying cry, if you please. Jesus Christ. And by the way, hockey is a stereotypically 'violent' sport. But sure, claim it for the male demographic. Why not. I get the distinct feeling that Mr. Noë has a limited experience with women of diverse backgrounds. 

While I have my own issues with the story, Alva Noë's claim that director, Pete Docter's, inspiration is in some way disingenuous is something I find very bothersome. As a young writer, I know I certainly dislike and will get very defensive when questioned about my inspiration. 

Most Accurate Review

" ... this is that rare movie that transcends its role as pure entertainment to become something genuinely cathartic, even therapeutic, giving children a symbolic language with which to manage their unruliest emotions." — Ann Hornaday, (The Washington Post)

As a happy subject of group and private therapy, I love the power Inside Out has as a catalyst for a dialogue on the topic of, well, unruly emotions. My significant other and I? We actually had the opportunity to talk about it with each other, and I'm sure parents everywhere have been given a tool with which better to communicate and educate their children on the topic. I think that's so much more powerful than anything Frozen or Tangled managed to achieve.

What I Say

Today I'd like to forego my usual sections, Plot, Character, and Spectacle, for something a little more ... fluid. 

I think the characters and plotlines in Inside Out, are basic, trite, cliched, and uninteresting.

<Leaps behind cover>

Volatile statement, I know. But before you burn down my blog or kick my dog, let me also say that I think Inside Out is resonant, heartfelt, and thought provoking.

How can I have these two views?

Well, I want to use Toy Story 3 as an example.

Remember this scene?

Pretty emotional right?

What about this scene? 

I would argue that the two scenes are emotional for a different reason. One, the furnace scene, we relate to because after three films we've really grown to know and love these characters, and the idea of their death in a fiery furnace of Hell, is emotional, but I don't think many viewers, especially in the intended audience, had a lot of personal experience to relate to.

But the scene where Andy leaves, that's also emotional. Is it because we find Andy a resonate character? Hah, not likely. We hardly know him. He has no real goals, no obstacles, no heroes journey, and that's okay. The time Andy spends onscreen is pretty minuscule. So why the emotional resonance? I'd say it's because Pixar timed the released of Toy Story 3 so that the original audience for Toy Story would be in their late teens, kids who were graduating High School, packing up for college, and leaving behind childish things. They had a perfect formula for hitting us right in our shared experience.

Perfect, that is, until Inside Out.

Inside Out isn't resonant because we relate to the journey of Joy and Sadness. Frankly, it's kind of a weaker relationship than Woody and Buzz (Joy and Sadness have really cerebral goals and tactics, whereas Woody and Buzz had very definite goals and tactics) but similar in its dynamic. By the nature of having characters who represent an incomplete range of emotions, our protagonists are limited in what they can do. There's only so many ways to spin them. 

So where's the emotional catharsis? It's not Riley, because, like Andy, she doesn't really have a journey. She's a backdrop against which we see the real heroes perform. She's Westeros and Joy and Sadness are the Starks and the Lannisters. Have fun playing that scenario out in your head, oh three people who see this blog.

The reason, I think, is the film literally, unashamedly, tells a really generic story. And that is fine by me. I cried at least four times in the theater. Many manly tears. The film is pointing to things, like moving to a new school, having issues with your family, fighting with your friends, considering running away, and on and on. These are not new concepts, and Riley's journey? Not really that interesting. On a purely external level, she (Spoilers) moves to a new town, doesn't know anyone, decides to run away back home, decides not to. Not ... groundbreaking. But it doesn't have to be. 

I think it's fascinating that you have two sets of uninteresting ideas, a central figure around which all other characters revolve (Riley) who doesn't have much of a journey, and a cast of main characters who are limited in their emotional output by their very nature, and have nebulous goals and tactics, being mainly reactionary (not to mention Bing-Bong, gotta mention Bing-Bong), and make it a resounding success.
Hell Yeah, fiction and the shared human experience.

~ Godzello

Monday, July 13, 2015

On Terminator Genisys

Oh, happy day! What could have possibly pulled my sorry ass out of retirement? What could possibly drag me away from classes and a minimum wage job selling tarts to confused old people and obnoxious teenagers (or alternatively obnoxious adults and confused teenagers)? 

Why it's the fifth installment of the Terminator Franchise?

Is it because it's the most awful thing this side of the curly hairs of Satan's ass-crack? 


Is is the golden egg laid by baby-jesus riding a Indominous Rex? 


Then what the hell is it?

... kinda meh, honestly. 

Most Idiotic Review

"Watching this ponderous spectacle ... I wished I wasn’t the I sent from the present to make sense of impenetrable nonsense. But then I thought about how much worse it must have been for the writers, the director, the producers and the studio executives to have created a feature film that defied their own comprehension, and rendered moot such conventional judgments as good, bad or indifferent. What could anyone have said of the finished film except that it was finished? “Terminator Genisys” plays like the worst of all outcomes." — Joe Morgenstern (The Wall Street Journal)

I hate reviews that try to get clever (I would neeeeever stoop so low) and this case of playing cutesy with the time travel is just ... painful. I also want to point out that old Joe used the word "moribund" which apparently means "at the point of death/in terminal decline; lacking vitality or vigor" but god-forbid we use a description that isn't archaic you pretentious fuck.

His review as a whole is powerfully negative, and being the neurotic type I am, the more I like something, the more I want to find holes, and the more I hate something, the more I search for redeeming qualities. So considering the film was a domestic flop, what good things are there to say? 

Most Accurate Review

"All of that said, the film works far more often than it doesn’t, and while I cannot say it’s on par with the first two films, it’s the best of the last three sequels and the one closest in spirit and style to Cameron’s films. It didn’t skimp on ideas for taking a new approach, it made the story its own and built a new mythology atop the old one, and it successfully revived the story in a way allowing for a whole new examination of where things could go from here." — Mark Hughes (Forbes)

I can get behind this review, if only because I love a good underdog story (that agrees with me). One of the things that I did really enjoy about this movie was the concepts it played with. I won't say they executed them very well, but they had them, and if a film can spark my own imagination, then I'm usually a lot more forgiving from there on out. 

Genisys is, admittedly, the closest of the films to capture the flavor of Cameron's originals, but I still think it's a far cry from Sarah Connor Chronicles, which I think did a far far better job of it. But it does go in new directions.

What I Say -- Spoilers

I liked the film enough to see it twice. 

Plot — Anyone who hasn't figured out the plot must have fallen asleep during the trailer for the movie, because there it is. The whole story spoiled right out the gate. I wonder how things would have played out with a less infuriating advertising campaign. 

For the first time we see the end of the war with Skynet in the future (2027), where Jason Clarke's John Connor defeats the machines. We see the T-800 sent back in time on its mission to kill Sarah Connor in 1984 and we see Kyle Reese volunteer to go back in time and protect Sarah Connor. We also hear John Connor deliver his famous message to Sarah.

Then shit goes crazy. Connor gets attacked by a mysterious Time Lord and when Kyle Reese arrives, not only has the entire timeline changed, but he begins remembering an alternate timeline where Judgement Day never happened. In this timeline, Sarah Connor has been raised by the Guardian, a Terminator sent back with orders to protect her. She calls him 'Pops' and I still don't know how I feel about it.

Honestly, this is my favorite section of the film. There's a lot of nods to the originals, outside of shot-for-shot recreations of certain scenes, and other than Jai Courtney's performance, there's a distinct sense of returning home, at least for me. I enjoy the interplay of time travel though. So I guess I'm a freak.

Then things ... go off the rails a wee bit. They decide to travel to the future. For reasons. Stopping Judgement Day, yadda-yadda. For whatever reason Pops built a time machine. For whatever reason, he could build a time machine. So our heroes embark into 2017 to stop Judgement Day sooner (for them) rather than later, because they're now representing my generation and patience is not on our list of virtues. 

Then the next major twist. John Connor was attacked by an alternate dimension version of Skynet (played by Matt Smith), turned into a T-3000, and sent back to ensure Skynet's success. 

So, in 2017 our heroes battle John Connor and try to murder the murder-bots. Kill the badguy/save the day type of ending.

Character  — 

Arnold holds this movie together. I'll say it, I think he's a damn fine actor. He brings a lot of pathos to scenes where there shouldn't technically be any (I can use big words too, dammit!), and humor to others. And it all seems so effortless to him. Pops might be old, but he's still a scene stealer. 

Emilia Clarke ... tries. My main complaint with her performance is there are times where she seems to be trying too hard to sell herself as this character. That said, I don't think the writing did her any favors. She has a lot of moments where she comes across as ... fake. In that, she's pretending to be strong. Linda Hamilton's (and Lena Heady's too for that matter) Sarah Connor was tough as nails and vulnerable. She was a impossibly tough woman in an even tougher situation, and even when the chips were down, she was a desperate mamma-bear. This Sarah feels like she has something to prove. Maybe she does. In the context of the story, it makes some sense.

Jai Courtney can just stop. Please just stop. He said in interviews that he in no way tried to emulate or capture Michael Beihn's performance, and it shows. He feels like a smart-alecky action-hero, not a war torn survivor. It's jarring and I don't like it. He also has the emotional range of a dried cookie: dusty and disappointing. This too is in the writing however. I could never imagine the original incarnation (or even the Terminator Salvation depiction) trading barbed comments with an aged-terminator in a Grumpy-Day vs Badboy Boyfriend conflict. Also, the love he feels for Sarah never feels ... deep. He kinda just seems like he hasn't gotten laid in a while and in a post Game of Thrones world, who hasn't fantasized about the Mother of Dragons?

Jason Clarke--I'll stop here and say I like him. I hate that it was in the trailers, but I like this. John Connor is a shit. He's always kind of been a shit. So finally the movies took that to it's conclusion. They made him a shit. What I'm trying to say is, this is new. It's a fun idea. It makes ... some sense. But mostly, Jason Clarke just seems to be having too much damn fun with the role. He's the only actor who has a strong connection with whoever he's acting with onscreen, and his relationship with Kyle Reese is one of the few redeeming factors of Jai Courtney's performance. The two bounce well off each other. 

JK Simmons plays a cop who is criminally underused, and I'll skip spoilers because this is getting overly long anyways, but I personally found him a joy to watch. If ever a sequel were to materialize (long shot at this point), I demand more JK Simmons. 

Lastly, Matt Smith, also criminally underused. I don't really like the idea of having a human version of Skynet from an alternate timeline within the Terminator Multiverse ... wait, scratch that. I do like the idea, in concept. In execution, it's the basis for it's own movie, not ten minutes of this one. 

Any one of these ideas could have been sufficient (John turned Terminator, Kyle Reese landing in an alternate timeline, Sarah Connor raised by Pops, Skynet from an alternate reality), but they tried so desperately to cram them all into Genisys--suffice it to say, they were getting dangerously close to the kitchen sink.

Spectacle — There ... is? I don't know, none of the actions scenes really grabbed me. Did anyone see the initial promo photos? That pretty much sums it up.

The beginning had some fun action scenes, but there never was the sense of risk. I'm on the bandwagon here, but I blame overuse of CGI. Fury Road sees Genisys and laughs and laughs and laughs and laughs....

There is one problem the movie has and it's pretty simple, either the first two films used every trick in the book, or, in terms of action, Genisys was more concerned with emulating action-beats from the first films than having their own (but with CGI). The final moments of the conflict between Pops and John Connor are ... cool in theory, but it only achieves catharsis when the CGI takes a backseat to Arnold's acting (Jason Clarke is replaced by his CGI Terminator body by this point. 

I will say I think the soundtrack is quite nice though. I downloaded it and am very pleased. So if nothing else, you can tune out Jai Courtney's every word, Arnold delivering some really shaking Time Travel MacGuffins about Nexus Points and Alternate Timelines and so-on and so-forth, and listen to some pretty cool music.