Sunday, July 15, 2018

Pixar Imperfect

As a kid, I was ignorant about sexual assault and rape. I knew it existed, having been violated young by a neighbourhood boy, but I thought it was rare. Even as an adult, hearing how 1-in-4 women will experience harassment, I still believed that claims of assault and rape were over-dramatized until fairly-recently. These acts were awful, but they were infrequent in my mind. Surely the problem wasn’t as rampant as it was made out, right?

How wrong I was.


I should preface this by saying that I like Pixar. A lot. They’re not only responsible for innovating CGI in film, but they’ve made many movies that helped shape my childhood and early-adolescence. Even in recent years, they’ve still wowed me with their bouts of mediocrity in ways that others have failed.

Which is why I’m still shocked that John Lasseter, as well as Pixar themselves, hasn’t lived up to expectations. On some level, I shouldn’t be surprised: Lasseter’s a nerd, and nerds are, at best, somewhat sheltered from reality. Considering that so many predators in the line of fire right now are nerds themselves, Lasseter’s creepy, lusty behaviour toward women shouldn’t be unexpected. But I can’t help it. Lasseter’s always prided himself on incredibly high-standards as a creator and film-aficionado, even introducing many to Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. So to find out what I know about him, well…it hurts.

I mention this because of a relatively-recent article from a former Pixar employee discussing the sexism that plagued the company while she worked there. There was a lot that was uncomfortable, but one part in particular stood out:
“Lasseter set the bar shamefully low for the overall treatment of women in his empire, which also signals troubling themes in the films he’s directed, produced, and overseen throughout the years. These projects, which reach millions of children and adults worldwide, have consistently failed to give women equal voice on screen and behind the scenes.”
This is heartbreaking in light of: 1. How much influence Lasseter’s had at Disney, both in their Disney and Pixar divisions. 2. How badly women are treated in animation in general. The latter is seen pretty much everywhere: women are frequently groomed and gaslighted (as evidenced through John Kricfalusi), denied high-ranking positions (as evidence through some remarks made by staffers at Studio Ghibli), or forced to safeguard against unwanted sexual advances from creepy men (as evidenced through Pixar). And this has persisted for decades.

It’s especially bad because, as the article states, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are plenty of talented women who deserve to have their stories shared, instead of being sidelined with the pathetic excuse of “finding the right story”. Like I alluded to in my last piece, you never know if someone’s worthy until you give them a chance. Art isn’t be-and-end-all or all-or-nothing: it’s possible, as “Bao” has demonstrated, to give newcomers a voice and have a quality end-product. This isn’t rocket science.

It’s also bad because hearing stories of predatory behaviour makes me feel incredibly self-conscious. I, like every other man, have desires and urges. Some of them, unsurprisingly, are sexual. But there needs to be an understanding that my urges shouldn’t interfere with others. There needs to be a societal appreciation that, at the end of the day, consent is key in contact with others. Yet there isn’t.

And it’s incredibly-stressful. It’s stressful because it frequently makes men look like creeps, further adding to the “not all men” backlash. It’s stressful because it highlights my own insecurities as someone with anxiety stemming from a learning disability. It’s stressful because it triggers my own memories of being sexually assaulted. But, most of all, it’s stressful because we can, and should, do better.

It also plays into the aftermath of Me Too, and how this is deeper than I, and many others, would like to admit. True, there’ll always be false positives with word-of-mouth allegations. It’s word-of-mouth, after all. But that doesn’t mean that the accusers are lying about their experiences either. Because victims of abuse are too diverse to conspire on such a large level.

The women at Pixar, and animation in general, deserve better. Until they get that, this’ll never be resolved, if at all. I’m not sure if there’s a long-term, foolproof solution, but there are definitely a few suggestions that can be made. The most-obvious one is to hire more women in positions of power, something Disney seems to have already done with Jennifer Lee. I only hope Pixar does the same.

As for John Lasseter? I don’t know. I feel conflicted, knowing that he’s both had a hand in many great films and was largely instrumental in bringing Studio Ghibli’s repertoire to the West. I’m glad he’s gone on a “sabbatical”, even though it’s possible he’ll return, but the damage is already there. It’ll take more than a replacement to fix that.

I’ll end this with a quote from the aforementioned article, one I feel drives home the issue:
“Female narratives are worthy of world-class storytellers, and women deserve to be treated as respected equals in any creative community.”
It’s definitely something worth contemplating.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Transface: Hollywood and MISrepresentation

*Breathes*

Let’s talk “transface”.


About two years ago, Scarlett Johansson, a well-known Jewish actress, was cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi in the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell. Despite the movie ending up being mediocre, the backlash surrounding her decision to play an Asian character was so poorly-received that it marred her credibility. I even wrote three separate pieces on Infinite Rainy Day preceding its release, as well as an emergency blog on The Whitly-Verse and a follow-up post-release. It may seem like overkill, but the disturbingly-racist undertones of the whole ordeal, as well as how it was handled, really warranted introspection.

I wish that was the end of it, but director Rupert Sanders and Johansson herself haven’t learned from this debacle. It was recently announced that the two would team up again, this time in a biopic where Johansson would play a transgender man. As if that wasn’t bad enough, her defence of the decision involved bringing up Jeffrey Tambor, who’d played a transgender woman in the show Transparent. And yes, this is the same Jeffrey Tambor who wound up in trouble when it was revealed that he’d sexually-harassed his transgender assistant. Cue the disappointment.

I know some of you don’t understand why this is a problem; after all, a few probably think that calling someone a “trap” isn’t a big deal. Besides, it’s acting! None of this is real! If Johansson’s job is to be a mimic, then why can’t she play a trans man? It’s not like she’s taking on another race, right? Right?!

If only it were that simple.

It’s an open secret that Hollywood, the outward bastion of “progress”, isn’t the best at marginalized representation. Whether it’s romanticizing minorities, constantly reusing the “white saviour” trope, or simply miscasting roles, there’s a long-standing tradition of “getting it wrong”, often deliberately, in an attempt to appeal to “the majority culture” that watches films. It’s baked into the industry’s DNA, and I don’t see it going away despite it not being as prevalent as it used to be. The issue of binary, or “cis”, people playing trans parts, or transface, is another log in the fire of Hollywood’s discriminatory practices.

Some facts: according to a 2016 study, roughly anywhere from .5-3% of the population identify as transgender in the US. The number has grown since then, but in a population of over 300 million, that’s a lot of people. Trans individuals are also routinely the victims of hate crimes and violence, including murder, rape, sexual assault, persecution and laws like the infamous bathroom bills. That alone is cause for concern.

This doesn’t even account for how trans people are portrayed in media. Ignoring the aforementioned bathroom bills, trans individuals are often either the punchline of a joke, like in The Crying Game and 2oolander, or played by cis people. It’s the latter that’s responsible for Johansson’s backlash: if someone would get crap for playing a character whose race doesn’t match theirs, then why shouldn’t they get crap for playing a character whose gender identity doesn’t match theirs?

Think about it this way: let’s say that someone is trans. Now, let’s say that that individual wants to act. And let’s say that a part opens up that fits them perfectly. Would it be right for them to then be rejected in favour of a cis individual because that individual’s more famous? How do you know that that trans individual isn’t charismatic or well-trained? Acting isn’t be-all-end-all, sometimes it’s good to branch out. Especially since Hollywood has no problems finding minorities for antagonists and side-characters, right?

This is the bind trans actors and actresses are in every day. According to Ranker, there are many trans people working in entertainment. It’s not like film and TV don’t attract colourful characters of all kinds anyway, so…why not give trans people more opportunities? To-date, the only trans woman I know of (who wasn’t even trans anyway) to have a big role in a movie was Jaye Davidson, who played Dil in The Crying Game. But even then, she was a needy love-interest whose transness was a punchline. That I can’t think of trans men off-hand is also pretty telling.

It doesn’t help that cis people playing trans parts lead to the stereotype of transness as “a choice” that can be turned off, inciting further violence against trans people in real-life. (Yes, it does actually happen.) Because let’s not pretend that films can’t have real-world reverberations. Especially when Ordinary People, the 1980 Best Picture winner at The Oscars, helped destigmatize depression. Or when Black Panther became such a hit at the box-office that it prompted producer Kevin Feige to take note. And those are only two examples!

This also wouldn’t be as big an issue if: a. Trans talent had more roles in Hollywood. b. If transness wasn’t the discourse in Hollywood right now, yet trans roles weren’t frequently snatched away by cis individuals. c. Transface weren’t as frightening as any other kind of whitewashing for the aforementioned reasons.

I recognize that I’m not the authority on this matter, being a cis man myself. But I do recognize that, as a cis man, I have more privilege than many trans people because “I’m not biased to the cause” (whatever that means.) Since I have that privilege, I figure I might as well use it to help those less-fortunate. Arguing for proper representation isn’t me being “an SJW shill” either: it leads to better writing, a wider net for audiences that don’t normally see movies and more money for execs. And don’t studio execs love money?

Yes, acting is tough. And subjective. And you’ll never 100% get everything right. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Especially if Hollywood’s made progress in so many other fields.

As for Scarlett Johansson? I don’t know anymore. I still think she’s a capable actress, but she’s definitely worthy of the backlash she’s been getting (except for an Oxfam SodaStream critique someone on Twitter lobbed, because that’s more nuanced than you’d be led to believe.) If Johansson thinks she’s doing nothing wrong by playing a trans man, then she’d better be prepared to take criticism. Especially if she looks up to Jeffrey Tambor in the Me Too era.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Bonding for Love: 007 and Predatory Masculinity

On May 27th, 2001, the Bronx community suffered a tragedy. 9 year-old Julian Roman, a karate and Superman fanatic, leaped from a 5-storey building in front of his friends and cousin. Unfortunately, Julian fell and crashed into a heating vent, eventually succumbing to his injuries and dying in the hospital. The aftermath made headlines all across the US and Canada, leading to some suggesting on the news that superhero comics were a bad influence. How do I know this? Because I was 10 years-old, and it struck me personally.


I mention that in light of how narrative art portrays its male protagonists, and how they’re perceived by the public. June marks the 8th month since Harvey Weinstein was outed as a serial predator. Despite the countless predators that’ve been outed in since November of 2017, as well as the fervour it’s created in its wake, there’s been little change in Hollywood’s depictions of sex and masculinity in film. Males are still seen as romanticized magnets for women, and nowhere is this more-apparent than with James Bond himself.

Before anyone gets angry, I want to give a disclaimer: I like James Bond. I don’t like a lot of his movies, I find most of them boring, but he’s proven himself quite a versatile character. Plus, there’s no denying a love of watching someone fulfill my every testosterone-filled fantasy on-screen, especially in ways that’d get me arrested. He’s the embodiment of what many men wish they could be, which is all-the-more reason why it’s important to recognize how much of a bad role-model he is.

James Bond got his cinematic start in 1962 with Dr. No, where he has his ever-so-famous name-drop during a poker game. It’s an iconic line for many reasons, but it also sets up who Bond is: he’s charming, slick, playful, intelligent and loves cigarettes. The movie also adapted a feature present in the books, yet dialled it down in order to keep up with the latter years of The Hays Code: his lust for women. It’s made most-apparent in Ursula Andress’s first appearance in the film, where she comes out of the ocean in a bikini and you know exactly what the “prize” is.

This lust for women surfaces in pretty much every Bond movie. In Goldfinger, arguably one of the best Bond entries, there’s a scene where Bond seduces Pussy Galore, the film’s main Bond girl, in an attempt to win-over Auric Goldfinger. The scene involves Bond pinning Galore to the ground, while she resists, culminating with a kiss. And to soothing music. Charming.

Except…not really.

For all it’s done for films as a whole, or even the spy sub-genre, Goldfinger’s romantic component hasn’t really aged all that well. Whether it’s Bond smacking a bikini-clad love interest on her rear without consent, or the aforementioned sex scene, Bond comes off as hostile, aggressive and predatory. And it makes the movie’s romantic scenes uncomfortable to watch with a 21st Century lens. But perhaps that’s a “reflection of the times”, making it an unfair critique.

So let’s fast-forward to much later in the James Bond franchise and discuss a more recent entry, Tomorrow Never Dies. The 35 years between Dr. No and the aforementioned film would’ve seen huge advancements in the franchise and the social conscious as a whole, but has Bond changed? Or is the pretense of Bond being asked to sleep with the married wife of the film’s antagonist proof that he hasn’t? We know he no longer smokes, something he makes clear in the opening scene, but has his womanizing really disappeared? The answer, obviously, is no.

Perhaps that’s not entirely fair; after all, Tomorrow Never Dies came out during a mediocre decade of action films and was a mediocre Bond film in a mediocre Bond run. You’re bound to have less-than-stellar portrayals of masculinity when your film isn’t trying all that hard. We can even handwave the feminism of the 90’s a bit because women in film tended to suffer greatly during that decade. That, and, honestly, Pierce Brosnan’s take on the character never spoke to me anyway. Therefore, I think the best way to accurately assess Bond’s toxicity is to look at his current portrayal by Daniel Craig.

In Casino Royale, we see a vengeful, jerkish Bond drown a rogue informant in a sink, chase down another rogue informant that he later kills, chase down yet another rogue informant in an airport and, of course, shoot a rogue informant in the leg when it’s revealed that he might have information on his dead girlfriend. He also sleeps with a married woman to get information, causing her death, and falls in-love with an operative he initially distrusts. He doesn’t force himself on her, for a change, but there’s still a bit of the classic Bond in his relationship with Vesper Lynd. In other words, little has changed since 1962 when it comes to how Bond views women.

The situation magnifies in Quantum of Solace. The premise involves Bond seeking revenge for the death of Lynd, and there’s a subplot involving Mi6 sending a female agent named Strawberry Fields to rope him in. Fields fails, and, in a completely unwarranted moment, the two end up having sex. I guess the writers felt that the movie lacked a sex scene, so why not shove it in where it doesn’t belong? It’s not like Fields doesn’t end up dead anyway, so…

Moving on to Skyfall, Bond only has one creepy sex scene: it centres around him travelling to Hong Kong to find out who’s been leaking the names of Mi6 operatives. After a semi-inappropriate striptease with a fellow operative, which is cut short by the reality that she’s trying to shave his face, Bond meets up with a prostitute. Despite her initial fear for her life, said prostitute agrees to help him. And, true to franchise tradition, Bond breaks into her apartment while she’s showering and screws her.

Smooth.

This leads to Spectre. Long-time readers of my work will remember what I thought of Spectre, but it’s worth noting that Craig’s Bond’s at his toxic worst here. Not only does he force himself on a recently-widowed woman who’s older than him for information, in what’s arguably the most rape-y scene in the franchise, but he winds up with yet another Bond girl, Madeline Swan, in an attempt to uncover the true mastermind. Initially, the situation looks to be going fine: the two share chemistry, they have a mutual respect for one-another, and Swan even sets boundaries. It’s only once the two are attacked on a train by a henchman, whom they defeat by accident, that they’re left wondering what to do next.

So they have sex. And it’s awkward. And it’s uncomfortable. And it reeks of desperation, completely spitting in the face of everything that was established prior.

If you’re wondering why I’m spending so much time on this topic, it’s because James Bond doesn’t exist in a vacuum. He might’ve started as a window into how men were expected to behave in the 60’s, regardless of whether or not it was right, but times change. What was “accepted” then isn’t so much now. Especially in-light of the Me Too movement.

Perhaps I wouldn’t care if this sort of “get the woman, no matter what” mentality was anomalous to James Bond. But toxic behaviours have long half-lives. That Indiana Jones lifts heavily from the James Bond franchise, right down to Indy’s forceful romanticism, should be indication. That Harrison Ford’s 80’s persona breathed forceful romance, right down to one of his characters openly raping someone, should be indication. That Peter Quill’s character from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies openly deconstructs this sort of behaviour, while simultaneously engaging in facets of it, should also be indication.

Even in real-life, the effects of this behaviour can be seen through incel culture, which preaches that men must take revenge on society because women “refuse to have sex with them”. Elliot Rodgers was incel, as was the guy from Toronto who mowed down bystanders with his van. Incel behaviour might not directly be influenced by James Bond, but if the Superman kid mentioned in the start of this piece is any example, then it’s definitely symptomatic of it. Media plays a big part in shaping how we view society, for better or worse.

I’m not saying the Bond movies should be boycotted, as that’s an absurd reaction to largely-forgettable (and occasionally-enjoyable) films. I’m also not saying that common-sense shouldn’t be used when viewing this content, as it should. But I do feel that it’s time for James Bond’s standard of masculinity to rehabilitate itself. I don’t care if that “ruins who he is”: If Harrison Ford has spent the last decade deconstructing the characters that made him famous, then James Bond, which has directly influenced Ford’s repertoire, should nix its “trophy girl” mentality.

And no, making the next Bond a woman won’t fix the problem (even if it’d be a welcome change.)

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Incredibles II Review

The Incredibles II is a movie people were anticipating for a long time. Initially, Brad Bird stated that a sequel to The Incredibles wasn’t gonna happen, as he “doesn’t do sequels” and “the movie ended fine”. But demand lingered for 9 years, until Pixar finally announced plans for one at the end of 2013. By the time the movie was slated for 2018, the time lapse had been 14 years. Even the opening to the movie had several of the voices, as well as Bird, thanking everyone for being patient. The question is, though, if that patience was warranted.


The Incredibles II takes place right after its predecessor, kicking off with the battle the original film had teased at the end. The Parr family, now a superhero team, take on Metro City’s newest threat as effectively as you’d expect, yet it doesn’t impress the police and mayor enough to convince them that supers should become legal again. It does, however, garner the attention of billionaire siblings Winston and Evelyn Deavor, who do wish to make supers legal again, so they hire Helen Parr, aka Elastigirl, to moonlight hero work while Bob Parr, or Mr. Incredible, takes on the stay-at-home-parenting role in their new mansion. Complicating matters is a super-villain desperate to mess everything up, as well as Bob’s frustrations over not connecting with his angsty daughter Violet, his mathematically-challenged son Dash and his newly-super-powered baby Jack-Jack. By the time the real threat comes to a head, it’s clear that the Parrs will have to team-up again to save the day.

Right away, it’s obvious The Incredibles II will be a fun time. Past Pixar sequels not part of the Toy Story franchise, with the exception of Finding Dory, have tended to suffer in quality, but The Incredibles II is pure joy. Everything from the witty banter between the Parrs, to the slick action, to even the retro-future vibe aesthetic, is present from the first movie, except dialled up to 11. Brad Bird clearly feels comfortable enough in this world to return, and his passion and care shows.

Musically, the same can be said too. Michael Giacchino returns, and his jazz-orchestral style underscores the film’s runtime. You can’t have a movie about the Parrs without John Barry-inspired tracks, and I trust no one but Giacchino to pull that off. Especially since the original film had my favourite of Giacchino’s compositions in his short career as a film composer. (And Giacchino’s had quite the career!)

The visual style also returns. Bird’s influences here are James Bond, Mission Impossible and futurist sci-fi, and all three are present. Even the character designs, which look straight from a traditionally-animated film, fit at home, with the advancements in technology allowing for upgrades in detail. My only complaint is that Bird’s team haven’t mastered the art of human feet. They show up in only a few shots, true, but they don’t translate well to CGI.

But that’s okay, because the movie compensates with its action set-pieces. There’s the opening that reorients fans from the first movie, ending, obviously, on a downer. Then there’s the monorail chase, arguably the most intense part of the movie, a close-quarters fight that dizzies the audience, and a climactic battle on-par with the Omnidroid fight from the first film. And let’s not forget when Jack-Jack first discovers his powers. I know the original movie hinted at his capabilities in the finale, but they blossom here and it’s great.

The voice work is top-notch. Everyone reprises their roles, with one exception, and they feel more at home this time around. Special shout-outs to Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener as Winston and Evelyn respectively, as they’re easily the stand-out roles. My only complaint is Dash’s replacement: Huck Milner. I know Spencer Fox couldn’t return for obvious reasons, he’s too old, but Milner never doesn’t feel like an imitation.

It’s easy to think the movie’s on-par with the first in every way. Sadly, while a lot of fun, it does feel like a part-2 to a great first entry. The Incredibles was dense, juggling many themes, but it had flow and sailed to the end without hiccups. The Incredibles II tries to do the same with several plot threads, but it’s also much less graceful in its cohesion. It doesn’t end up mattering, but it’s noticeable.

The movie also has a downgraded villain compared to its predecessor. Syndrome was silly, but he had layers and a connection to Mr. Incredible. Screenslaver, while good, lacks that immediate oomph. The film tries connecting him to Elastigirl, and the Mandarin-style plot-twist works better than it did in Iron Man 3, but he’s no match for Syndrome and his ultimate reveal is a little too obvious. That said, he gets an intense fight involving strobe lighting halfway through the movie, so props for being different.

It’s hard to fault The Incredibles II for its shortcomings. Even had it been a tighter film with a villain equal to Syndrome, I doubt it’d have met expectations. The Incredibles was one of Pixar’s best movies in their heyday, and even now it holds up incredibly, so disappointment was inevitable. That this movie manages to be a worthy follow-up at all is testament to how much time and effort went into it. I applaud Pixar for doing that.

Also, the short before the film, “Bao”, was heartbreaking and charming, so kudos for that.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

WALL-E: A 10 Year Reflection

WALL-E is a film from the greats at Pixar. First released on June 21st, 2008, it, being Pixar’s 9th theatrically-released venture, was incredibly well-received by both critics and audiences. It currently holds a 96%/8.6/10 average on Rotten Tomatoes (based on 249 reviews), a 95 on Metacritic (based on 39 reviews) and an 8.4/10 on IMDb (based on 847397 reviews), the latter placing it at #62 on IMDb’s Top 250 List. It won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 81st Academy Awards, and it was nominated in the categories of Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing. Even after 10 years, it remains one of Pixar’s most-beloved films. Which is all-the-more reason why, despite having a soft-spot, I’m incredibly conflicted over the movie.


Even though I’ve wanted to discuss this film for many weeks, I’ve put it off due to a combination of life stresses and not knowing what to say. Compounding that was the fact that it’d been over half-a-decade since I’d last seen it, so my thoughts weren’t fresh. But I saw it again anyway. Have my thoughts changed? Yes and no.

(FYI, for those who’ve yet to see WALL-E, there’ll be spoilers. You’ve been warned.)

What works?

WALL-E has many strengths, key amongst them being its storytelling. The film, or the parts focusing on WALL-E and EVE, tells a conventional story, a Hollywood romance, in an incredibly-unconventional manner. As sentient robots with minimal verbal skills, the love story between the leads is largely shown through visuals and body language. This is really hard to do in film, so any attempts at tackling it well should be applauded. This movie, to its credit, does that.

I like WALL-E and EVE. Despite clearly being coded male and female, the two aren’t your conventional masculine and feminine ideal. WALL-E, the male, is timid, shy and incredibly naïve, having spent most of his existence alone on a decayed and garbage-festered Earth. EVE, the female, is aggressive, quick-tempered and warrior-like, having been programmed to be the perfect soldier. Despite this, the two present facets of their traditional roles, and by the time the movie has ended, WALL-E has transformed into a confident male and EVE a compassionate female.

Speaking of which, I like the romance between WALL-E and EVE. It’s super-conventional, more on that later, but it’s silly and goofy in a cute way. Given how clumsy and insecure WALL-E is, as well as how aggressive and competent EVE is, it makes sense that WALL-E would initially be intimidated by EVE. Even when it starts blossoming in the second-act, it never feels unnatural. By the time the third-act climax rolls around, and WALL-E is badly wounded trying to save humanity, the heartbreak feels earned.

I also like a lot of the side-characters. Most of the humans are pretty disposable, more on that later too, but the robots are fun: there’s the germophobic janitor who keeps getting fed up with WALL-E’s messiness, the police officer who breaks protocol because he’s a jerk, the ship’s autopilot, or AUTO, being modelled off of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey and the quirky, misfit’s in The AXIOM’s equivalent of a looney-bin. I also like the little bug that WALL-E befriends, while Captain B. McCrea is a lot of fun as a bumbling-yet-well-meaning man who’s become overcomplacent with the lap of luxury. And John and Mary are the film’s most-underrated human couple, taking on the most-personality of all of The AXIOM’s passengers. Essentially, the characters that matter the most are well-represented.

WALL-E looks, and sounds, beautiful. It’s no big deal to mention that Pixar’s movies look amazing, since they always do, but the attention to detail here is amazing. Everything from how Earth looks gross and messy, to how The AXIOM is clean and organized, is accounted for. Pixar takes minute details like lighting and space seriously, and this extends to the film’s constant reminder that this is a science-fiction movie on a post-apocalyptic Earth. Additionally, the designs of the characters, be they human or robot, are varied enough to be memorable, while the integration of live-action musical segments never feel out-of-place. Best of all? Even 10 years later, and especially with advancements in technology, the movie’s visuals still look photorealistic now. That’s something that, honestly, few early-CGI-animated movies, even Pixar movies, can attest to.

I also like the sound design. So much of it can be attested to Ben Burt, who helped bring the Star Wars movies to life, reprising his role as sound director. Everything, from WALL-E’s boot-up noise being reminiscent of an Apple computer, to AUTO’s voice sounding synthetic, to even the contrast between WALL-E’s primitiveness and EVE’s polish, adds to the experience. Even the voice acting is great, with Sigourney Weaver lending her voice to the announcer aboard The AXIOM. And yes, Ben Burt voices WALL-E perfectly, especially alongside Elissa Knight as EVE.

I love the musical selection, both its score and soundtrack choices. It’s Thomas Newman of Finding Nemo composing here, and while not quite as memorable, there are definitely stand-outs, like Define Dancing, that play during WALL-E’s best moments. The movie also references Hello Dolly’s musical cues at several points as a running motif, enhancing the film’s running theme of isolation. And, in a direct reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie uses Also sprach Zarathustra in a tense moment where Captain McCrea faces off against AUTO. It’s as funny as it is awesome.

Thematically, the movie has three major threads that tie it together, an ambitious undertaking. I’m not fond of how they’re tied together, and I’ll cover that shortly, but it’s interesting to see what it has on its mind. I like the film’s romantic thread, as that’s where it excels the most. I like the movie’s attempt at satirizing consumerism aboard The AXIOM, showing how lazy and environmentally-neglectful capitalism is. And I like the suspense thriller aspect with AUTO’s attempt at domination. They’re all clever threads that warrant their own movies.

Finally, the movie’s humour works. It’s not straight comedy, but the laughs it has are great. Perhaps my favourite gags are the “just a trim?” line that’s used several times in movie’s second-half, the germophobic “foreign contaminant” line that gets brought up constantly and Captain McCrea’s confused “uh…” line that activates the ship’s registry. There are other lines too, but I’ll stop there.

Okay, time for to switch gears!

What DOESN’T work?

Enough to bug me.

Let’s get the biggest elephant in the room out of the way: WALL-E’s an incredibly-unsubtle critique on neglect of the environment under capitalism. It’s a neat angle on environmentalism that so many films get wrong, true, and it makes sense that the two would go hand-in-hand, but I can’t help finding this a tad hypocritical. Pixar’s no Disney, but this cheap jab at an institution it benefits from makes the message feel insincere. If it were Disney proper, I wouldn’t mind as much, as they poke fun at themselves constantly. But I expect more from Pixar, and I feel this was the wrong subject for them to approach.

I also realize that this is a tough point to call out. As Leon Thomas once mentioned in his review, artists aren’t corporate entities, so whether or not the intended message is manipulated for mass profit isn’t up to them. What I do take issue with, however, is claiming that the film wasn’t intended as a pro-environmentalism piece. Because if intent mattered as much as execution, then it’d be easier to excuse Rick Deckard’s rape of Rachel in Blade Runner as “aggressive love”. Execution overrides intent.

I wouldn’t be as turned off if it weren’t for another pro-environmentalism movie released the following year, Avatar, being bashed for the same reason WALL-E’s given a pass. Avatar isn’t a perfect film by any means: it’s a ham-fisted, white saviour movie on top of a pro-environmentalism piece, and not even the best of either. But I don’t feel like the “save the trees” message in Avatar is hiding behind another, much better story. I do with WALL-E.

Switching gears, the relationship between WALL-E and EVE is unconventionally-conventional. It follows unusual characters, but plays like a cliché love story: boy meets girl. Girl is initially uninterested in boy, yet is won over by goofy hijinks. Insert slow trust between boy and girl. Insert misunderstanding. Insert reconciliation of misunderstanding. Insert tragic accident that shakes up relationship, leading to “will he, or won’t he?” moment. Insert sappy conclusion where boy and girl reunite and express their feelings.

I don’t mind this type of storytelling, especially in a romance, but don’t pretend it isn’t rote and predictable.

Completing the story complaints, the three plot threads, environment, romance and dark thriller, don’t mesh well. They’re fine solo, and they’d make excellent movies in their own right, but combined they’re constantly in-conflict with one-another. A scene that should feel romantic, like WALL-E and EVE flying in space, is undercut by the environmentalist undertones of Captain McCrea re-educating himself on Earth’s lost terms. It never doesn’t feel jarring, and that’s a problem.

Then there are the characters. Remember how I said that the robots were more-interesting than the humans? With the exceptions of Captain McCrea, Mary and John, every human is interchangeable. It’s the same issue I had with Princess Mononoke, where the cast of side-characters doesn’t stand out, except magnified tenfold. It’s inevitable when your human characters are an afterthought, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.

By the way, remember how I mentioned that the CGI looks amazing even now? Well, I lied a little. There’s one exception involving the humans in the promo ads for The AXIOM. They look off. As in, Uncanny Valley levels of off. It wouldn’t be as distracting had the rest of the human models in-film followed suit, but because they don’t, it’s disturbing. I know the film wants them to mesh with BnL’s shady, live-action CEO, to show how far humans have fallen, but that doesn’t make it any less jarring.

Speaking of jarring, the Hello Dolly musical numbers can feel that way too initially. The movie starts with an opening set to one of that film’s show-stoppers that contrasts the barren wasteland of future Earth, and it works…but then it’s cut off and we’re introduced to WALL-E. It took me several viewings to figure out where the film was going with this, and while I get it now, think it’s brilliant and feel as though it meshes perfectly with the movie, to the uninitiated it can be confusing.

There are other, minor details that also don’t add up. There’s a recurring joke about “pizza plants” that’s more cringe-worthy than funny. The movie’s pro-environmentalist message is openly spelled-out by Captain McCrea halfway through the film. And the end song in the credits, though catchy, is as subtle as a boot to the face. These are little annoyances, but when juxtaposed with the bigger annoyances, they add up.

The verdict?

It confuses me when people blanket praise WALL-E for its storytelling, yet point out that everything beyond the Married Life montage in Up falls flat. Ignoring that film’s a subjective medium, Up’s scrapbook montage in the film’s third-act hits me much harder than the Married Life montage. And for all of its ambitious storytelling, WALL-E’s a far messier movie. Up might be a simple adventure story, but it’s also a clever coming-of-age tale for Carl Fredrickson. It might be silly, but at least that silliness suits its premise. Even the message about family being what you make it to be feels more fleshed-out and consistent in Up than WALL-E’s three storylines.

I know that WALL-E’s well-loved. I love it too. I think it’s an incredibly well-made movie that’s also quite ambitious. But I don’t think it’s one of Pixar’s best from their golden age. I, honestly, think it’s one of their lesser-entries from that time period.

That having been said, I don’t think it’s a total waste of time. I remember one of my old ScrewAttack buddies openly stating that WALL-E would’ve been better as a short film, to which I vehemently disagree. I think WALL-E’s a fine movie, but it’s not a great one. It would’ve been great, however, had it tightened itself up. But it’s too late to rewind time.

Either way, I hold no ill-will against those who think that it’s one of Pixar’s best. It’s well-made, it’s ambitious, and at least one-third of the film, or WALL-E and EVE’s romance, is worthy of full marks. I simply can’t put it on the pedestal that everyone else has for 10 years.

But then again, feel free to disagree with me. I won’t stop you.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Updates!

I don’t normally do updates on this blog, namely because I don’t think that they really add anything to the experience. They’re also clunky, rough and lack the immediate oomph that make my other stuff, even the bad stuff, stand-out to you, the reader. However, I’m making an exception. So much has happened to me, both personally and generally, that I haven’t had much time to write anything this month outside of this really short piece. And while I won’t go into everything, because some of it is confidential, I’ll keep it to four sections and see where this goes.

Get ready:

Job Woes:

As many of you who follow me on Facebook and Twitter know, and even some who don’t, I have a new job in December. Or, I should say, I acquired the job in January, as December was the probation period. It’s a retail position in a former Sears location that’s about an hour away from where I live by bus in good traffic, and it’s been giving me a routine and an excuse to wake up in the morning during the week. Despite it being only part-time, it’s also been giving me a source of income, which has, in turn, helped give me a sense of independence.

Up until last week, I was working there four half-days a week. Sundays were the volunteer days, or the days where I went by the schedule of the charity organization that found me the job. The other days, Monday, Thursday and Friday morning, I was paid. It also helped that I met up with the organization from Sunday partway through my shift, as I got a lift home instead of busing. It was a pretty comfortable arrangement, to say the least.

Unfortunately, through no fault of my own, last week changed the arrangement. I’d put in a request to change my Friday shift to Wednesday, as I hated working there on Fridays, as early as two months ago, and was initially elated that my request was approved. It meant having to change some Wednesday appointments around, which I didn’t mind, and I was waiting for the date of my new schedule to come out anxiously. It wasn’t until last Friday that I got wind of some employees downsizing due to business slowing down, and I had one of my shifts cut entirely. I’d still be working Monday and Thursday paid, but instead of Friday being moved to Wednesday, Friday was axed altogether. Bummer.

So that was a little disappointing and stressful, a fact compounded by the feedback that I wasn’t being efficient enough with my time. I had to work faster, and I’m now under stricter supervision to work my way up to a desired speed. I still enjoy my job, and my bosses, but that pressure has left me more tired and with less energy to write.

Writing Goals:

Speaking of writing, to be more positive, I finally got the drive to start writing fiction again. And give me credit, I actually finished a first-draft of a potential graphic novel I’ve been aching to write for years now. It’s rough, and I need to do some massive fine-tuning of the ideas present in it, but it’s done! I won’t give any details away about its plot or characters, but I’ll say that it’s currently about 55 pages long, give or take.

This begs a few questions: firstly, how do I go about finding a publisher? Better yet, how do I go about finding an editor? I know that paying people to look over your work is costly, so I might consider reactivating my Patreon page to help me out in the near-future. I also might consider getting a government grant to help pay for some of it, even though I’m not a fan of being in-debt.

So yeah, that’s exciting. It’s also why I haven’t had much attention for blogging lately, though, hopefully, that’ll change come June.

Solo Escapades:

I saw Star Wars: Han Solo this past week. I know that’s technically not its real name, but like with Star Wars: Rogue One, it doesn’t sound natural to use its actual title. Anyway, the movie was…fine. Not great, not awful, but fine. I definitely enjoyed it enough, but I wouldn’t see it again. It’s easily mid-tier Star Wars for me. That puts it right near the final prequel film, but below the originals, the newer trilogy and the last spin-off.

I mention this in-light of the absurd backlash the film’s received from die-hard fans. I’d initially planned a full-out rant about how dumb the complaints were, but I ran out of steam fast because it felt like padding. But either way, it’s ridiculous that people are complaining about trivial details that, honestly, are a staple of the franchise as is.

Not that the movie is flawless, mind you, but my point remains.

Star Power:

Kirby: Star Allies, while ridiculously short, is a fun game. Like, really fun. Like, as fun as I’d expect from a Kirby game. Like, almost as fun as Kirby’s Epic Yarn was. Like-I’ll stop now, I think you get the picture.

I kinda knew it’d be enjoyable from the moment I downloaded the demo a few months back. I’m honestly surprised, however, that it took me this long to buy the actual game, though, as I’ve been itching for some Kirby action for a while. But whatever, it’s fun. It also has a great final boss, easily one of the franchise’s best to-date.

Shame though, like I said earlier, about its length. Seriously, I beat it in two days, and I wasn’t trying to either!

Anyway, that’s about it for my updates. Hopefully I’ll have something more substantive next time.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Snokescreen

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a divisive movie. Some of that comes from ill-founded places (i.e. the diverse casting, the socio-political undertones), while some is more sympathetic (the movie flipping established canon on its head and starting from ground zero). Then there’s aesthetic divisiveness, like plot-holes and unanswered questions, which can go either way. Personally, I happen to love the movie even with its flaws, and have warmed up to it even more from when I first wrote about it for The Whitly-Verse. Yet even with my appreciation and respect, there’s one detail I can’t overlook. Let’s discuss why Snoke’s a wasted opportunity.


Forewarning, my complaints aren’t your typical “Snoke is a terrible character” or “Snoke is a shallow villain” retorts that so many have espoused. That’d be a waste of my time, even though the latter is true. I also think that tossing him into the pile of previous Star Wars baddies, while accurate, doesn’t do my concerns justice either. Rather, this is more based on what the Star Wars universe as a whole has done. So be prepared, like the film, for potential disappointment.

Let’s start at the obvious place of comparison with Snoke: Emperor Palpatine. Snoke, like Palpatine, is initially presented as the puppet master behind our antagonist. Snoke, like Palpatine, has corrupted a once-up-and-coming Jedi and turned him against his order, a fact made worse by said order failing him. Snoke, like Palpatine, also controls a military, is ruthless, is deformed, has Sith-like powers and openly tortures the protagonist by tormenting them in the face of all odds. And Snoke, like Palpatine, is defeated anticlimactically by both his hubris and the underestimation of his own apprentice’s loyalty.

If I stopped here, I’d be defeating my own argument. Because Snoke is basically another Palpatine. He’s another old, withered mastermind with immense power whose fate is the most-disappointing part. (Let’s not pretend Palpatine being hoisted over a rail like deadweight is brilliant writing. Especially given how powerful he is.)

But I’m not stopping there, because Palpatine’s story doesn’t end with the original films. Deride The Prequels all you want, but they upgraded Palpatine’s character immensely. Like Boba Fett and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, they took a boring character who dies anticlimactically and added layers. They gave him depth, a backstory, motivations, a rich connection to our baddie and, yes, even some cool lightsaber moments. Palpatine went from a boring deadweight to a cunning and menacing threat, a master manipulator who had The Separatists and The Republic around his fingers, and a charming old man who could fool everyone, the Jedi included, with his warmth and charisma.

This is important context for any and all complaints I have with Snoke. Because while The Prequels fleshed-out Palpatine, you had minimal screentime to flesh-out Snoke. Star Wars: The Force Awakens began with an established relationship between Snoke and Kylo Ren, one where it’s clear that the two had a history. The movie hinted at a backstory the led to Kylo Ren to his side, which was built on in the first-half of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Yet it never came to a satisfying head, getting tossed aside because “not important”.

Except…it is. If Snoke were an essay, he’d be a failing grade. Because why present an argument, expound on it, and then throw it away? You might be onto something, and it could be clever, but theory and practice aren’t one-in-the-same. And unlike how the ending of The Avengers: Infinity War throws you for a loop, the loop here feels cheap and manipulative. It’s unsatisfying.

It’s not even that I needed something grandiose with Snoke. I’d be fine with him as another baddie that props up our main villain, had he had a line or two about his origin: what’s his deal? Why did he pick Kylo Ren to be his right-hand man? Why should I care about him? We’re given nothing, and that frustrates me.

Which is why the claim that “he’s not relevant” still bothers me. I don’t mind that he was taken out so easily, as I liked the ensuing battle that followed. I don’t mind that he was never meant to be the main focus, as I like Kylo Ren. I wouldn’t even mind if we never saw him again, as his story’s now over. But I do mind that he was never given the same care and attention Palpatine had, especially considering the newer movies’ potential to rise above their predecessors’ mistakes.

Perhaps this’ll be rectified come Episode IX. Perhaps there’ll be a line or two that’ll make my frustrations moot. Perhaps. But in the meantime, as it stands currently, my arguments shouldn’t be invalidated. They should hold weight, irrespective of whether or not it’s “too late” to retroactively fix this gaping concern. And that they’re being brushed off because “who cares”? Well, I do. And it’s unfair to assume that I’m wrong.

That being said, I’m looking forward to the future of Star Wars and what it has to offer. I only wish that Snoke could’ve been handled the slightest bit better.