Tuesday, February 23, 2016

#WTFU-Where's the Fair Use?

Let's be clear here: I don’t make videos on YouTube. They’re tedious, time-consuming and incredibly tricky to do correctly. The closest I’ve ever gotten was one, really cruddy commentary on footage I burned from GameSpot back in 2008. And it sucks, sounds rushed and has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. In short, I simply don’t have the patience for something like video creating.

What I do have patience for, however, is watching videos on YouTube. To be fair, much of what I watch is dumb tripe or trailers for movies/shows. But occasionally I get a glimpse into YouTube’s more sophisticated side and discover some genuinely passionate individuals with real talent. Analysts like Channel Criswell, Digibro, A Humble Professor, Every Frame a Painting and RCAnime, as well as reviewers like Jeremy Jahns, Chris Stuckmann, Your Movie Sucks and the Channel Awesome crew, have all provided plenty of thoughtful, carefully-constructed content for me to enjoy whenever I please, and each new video they make gives me real joy in my otherwise mundane week. I love their work, and I strongly encourage watching their videos when they come out.

I bring this up as both a statement of personal attachment and a segue into what I’m about to say: YouTube’s management is garbage.

I’ve been meaning to write this for two weeks now. The idea first sprung to mind when Doug Walker, aka The Nostalgia Critic, posted a video expressing his frustration with YouTube. Say what you will about Doug as an individual, but there’s no denying his immense popularity. As such, he’s been a victim of many of YouTube’s copyright strikes and claims. I’d go on to explain what he’s dealt with, but he says it so wonderfully in the following video:

I think this is pretty self-explanatory.

I’d go on to re-iterate what’s already been said, but I won’t because it’ll confuse you all. Basically, this has been going on for years. What’s interesting is how quickly the internet has united over this cause, as it’s been affecting more content creators than I originally thought. Even people I normally can’t stand, like AlphaOmegaSin, have pitched in with their stories of DMCA abuse, and it’s sad. It’s sad that of all the issues in the world that created unity, it had to be this one. Yeah, forget poverty, hunger, parliament and the environment, abuse of fair use is what finally brought people together.

If I sound somewhat cynical right now, it’s not intentional. I’m actually relieved that we can finally share common-ground on an issue that shouldn’t even be an issue at all. Because fair use abuse has implications for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you make videos or watch videos, it’s there. And to be penalized for unfair reasons isn’t a good sign. You may not think of it that way, but it is.

To put it into perspective, let’s say I want to make a parody video in-sync with this track from Castle in the Sky. The video wouldn’t rip-off the movie, it’d simply use the track. From a general stand-point, I’m doing nothing wrong (unless you count using the track as plagiarism, but that’s another, much stickier subject for another day.) For purposes of being fair, I’d even change certain aspects of the tune to make it sound more original. According to Studio Ghibli, who owns the track, I’m still in “violation” of copyright abuse, and I could have my video taken down at any moment without warning. I’d then have to either wait until the claim is dropped, give up and stop making videos altogether, or fill out a form and write to YouTube in hopes that the situation is resolved.

For the first instance, I’d be fortunate if it actually happened. For the second, I’d be seen as a quitter. But for the third, would it even be worth the stress? Would it be worth fighting the case and losing sleep and sanity over something this dumb? And what about if the claim does get removed? Will I have wasted my time over nothing?

So I'm sure some of you are thinking that this isn’t such a big deal, and that it couldn’t possibly happen to you. Well, guess what? Studios who make these sorts of claims don’t discriminate. They see a potential “violator” of their trademarks, and BAM! Instant claim. And that they don’t get penalized for it either is adding insult to injury. There are plenty of stories of average Joes having this happen to them every day, we simply don’t hear about them because they’re scared.

Look, I don’t like engaging in misguided political issues any more than you do. I recognize that the DMCA guidelines are complicated. And I’ve been called out enough times by my family for misrepresenting hotspot issues that others take as nuanced. But this is serious stuff. The problems on YouTube are only getting worse as more and more companies see opportunity for easy money, and fair use abuse won’t go away unless we do something about it. So please, please, let everyone you know who uses YouTube about the Trend #WTFU (or Where’s the Fair Use?) I know it sounds like I’m swearing at you, but I’m not. I’m swearing at YouTube for being obnoxious, and so should you.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Source VS Adaptation, aka, "Is the Book Always Better?"

Is the book always better? This is a debate that’s been going on for a long time. So long, in fact, that you probably don’t remember its origins…assuming it has one, that is. Anyway, the argument of “adaptation VS source” is a tricky one, no matter how much you try to distill it to a basic side. Why? Simple:

Because it’s incredibly subjective.

Art, for good or bad, is in the eye of the beholder. A book might be cherished by some for X reason, while others might hate it for Y reason. Conversely, the adaptation might be loved by some for X reason and hated by others for Y reason. But, above all, there’s usually a personal reason for the preference.

Allow me to give some context for this piece: a few weeks ago, my family had a big dinner at my house in honour of my grandparents being in from Florida for a few days. It wasn’t long before the dinner conversation turned to the Oscar nominees for Best Picture. As one of my cousins read them aloud, she eventually got to The Martian and shared a brief look of disgust before muttering “the book was so much better” under her breath. As someone who loved that movie, I was dumbfounded. Given how much she’d been looking forward to seeing the film, it didn’t help either.

My cousin couldn’t articulate why she didn’t like the film as much as the book when someone challenged her. I don’t blame her, as it’s not something most people stop and think about. But it offended me that she couldn’t do it, as this wasn’t the first time I’ve heard such a statement. I’ve heard it several dozen times over the years, and it’s always bothered me. So I decided to write about it on my blog.

Anyway, since this is a tricky topic, as there are so many failed and successful adaptations out there, let’s look at a few reasons for why a book might be considered “better” than its adaptation:

First, context. When writing a book, it’s important to remember that the author, assuming they’re intelligent, probably has a reason for why the story’s being written. For some, it might be political, as with George Orwell’s 1984 or Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Others might be writing to express themselves in a way that can’t be contained in their minds, like with JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. But above all else, context dictates material, and that might not translate as well to adaptation.

Second, lack of limitations. Books are one of the few mediums in which restrictions are almost non-existent. Movies, TV shows, films, they all have to factor in practical and time restraints, not to mention financial limitations. With all of these mediums, you can only do so much realistically. With a book, however, all you really need is an imagination, some paper and some relatively cheap accessories that aren’t hard to find. Because of this, a book can go on for however long the author wants.

Third, format. I’m not opposed to adaptations when done right, but some books don’t translate well to other mediums. Usually this involves books that are either incredibly dense, or are so elaborate that no other medium can truly replicate it. Because of this, the end result might not work because it’s not feasible. The best example I can think of is Cloud Atlas, which is so dense and intricate that successfully translating it to film was nigh-impossible no matter how hard The Wachowskis tried.

Fourth, vision. This one’s trickier because it’s the most subjective, but the vision of the author and the vision of the adapter aren’t always in-sync. This isn't always the case, especially when the original author is a consultant (see, again, the Harry Potter series,) but oftentimes there’s a disconnect between source and end-result. It can work in the adaptation’s favour, I much prefer the Lord of the Rings movies to their book counterparts, but often it’s a recipe for disappointment. Especially when the adaptation lacks passion, but that’s another subject on its own.

And fifth, overhype. This one’s the most blunt and least fair, but it’s also probably the most-important: sometimes…an adaptation can’t meet expectations. You see this time and time again, even with good adaptations, and it’s especially difficult the longer a gap there is between book and adaptation. It doesn’t help that human nature complicates matters, as we often get excited over the stuff we love and set the bar unrealistically high. An nothing can reach unrealistic expectations, even when it’s good.

As you can see, there are many reasons for why an adaptation might not be considered as good as its source. I’m now going to tackle each point, deconstruct it and explain why it isn’t always fair.

Beginning with the first point, while it’s true that a good book has an underlying message behind it, not all books are. Sometimes, even when there’s a message to be had, it’s harmful and toxic. The Twilight books condone stalker romance, while the Fifty Shades books romanticize BDSM relationships. Even Atlas Shrugged, a highly-respected novel in the ultra-conservative world, preaches trampling of others in hopes of underpinning the current, distorted version of The American Dream. Books aren’t always perfect.

Additionally, sometimes the movie can improve on the message. The Lorax might speak volumes about the negative effects of business on the environment, but its 1972 short film adaptation also presented the other side with a simple claim that livelihoods matter too. It kept Dr. Seuss’s message intact, but it added weight to The Once-ler’s character. In the same breath, Les Misérables works better as a musical because it keeps the core themes of the book while trimming a lot of the fat.

The best example I can think of is Batman: Under the Red Hood. Based on two famous stories, that being Jason Todd’s death and his eventual resurrection, the movie’s considered superior because it’s more-focused than both comics. It also helps that Judd Winick, the original writer, was a consultant for the film, meaning that not only was his message about vigilantism and the fine-line between justice and extremism not lost, it was actually improved upon. In other words, sometimes the adaptation adds to the original vision.

Next, limitations. This is mostly true, since books are cheaper to produce, but not always. Ignoring the aforementioned example of Les Misérables, my favourite counter-argument is Peter Jackson’s take on the Lord of the Rings books. Sure, they’re flawed and different quite a bit in tone, but I prefer them for one reason: they use film as a medium to their advantage. As I've said on Infinite Rainy Day:
“JRR Tolkien loved to hear himself speak, enough so that his writing was cumbersome on more than one occasion. Frequently throughout, Tolkien would halt the narrative to either describe a backdrop, or insert a song that did the same…[t]his is where the movies were an improvement. For one, most of the songs were axed, allowing room to focus on the content and characters. Additionally, the descriptions that took pages to get through were summed up in a few seconds via camera shots. And they were equally effective at conveying scope. Jackson understood that film is a visual medium, and, hence, used that to his advantage.”
I still hold this to be true. I also stated that I preferred Fullmetal Alchemist as a show to its Manga counterpart because, if going by the “more faithful” adaptation, it improved on many areas of the comic that didn’t really work in my eyes.

Remember, books aren’t flawless. They, like any other art-form, are a product of the human element, an author, and suffer from the setbacks that come from it. Even the best-written books are riddled with problems if you look for them, all stories are. And sometimes the adaptation might improve on these setbacks in ways you never thought possible. It happens more often than you’d think.

Then there’s format. While some adaptations don’t work because the book was clearly the superior format, there are always exceptions. Les Misérables is a prime example. Like I said, the musical trimmed a lot of the excess fat. Victor Hugo came from a time-period where authors were paid by the word, and the book frequently goes on long, wordy tangents to meet paycheques. It made sense at the time, but in the 21st Century, where writing is more about efficiency, it doesn’t fly anymore. So cutting the extra details out makes sense.

Additionally, some format changes work for the best. Les Misérables worked because it trimmed the fat. The Lord of the Rings movies worked because they condensed long-winded prose into palatable sweeps of cinematography. And plenty of other examples of “improvement over source” exist, so much so that I can’t name them off the top of my head. All you have to do is look.

On the subject of vision, that’s not always bad. Like I said with Fullmetal Alchemist, I much prefer the anime because it knew what to change, add or remove for the sake of TV. I also prefer Coraline as a film because it made Coraline a more compelling character. These aren’t the only examples, they’re merely the ones I can name off the top of my head. Essentially, sometimes the adaptation does it better.

And if it doesn’t do it better, so what? Plenty of adaptations are inferior to their book counterparts…and they’re still good. Some are even, dare I say it, excellent. Writing them off because they don’t line up with the original vision is ridiculous, as a literal, 100% faithful adaptation would take too long. Not to mention, it’d be impossible if the adaptation were to be good.

Finally, there’s overhype. This isn’t a fault of the adaptation at all, but rather of the audience. When you overhype something, you’re setting the bar way too high. So when the end-result doesn’t meet that expectation, even if it’s good, then who’s really to blame? Is it the adaptation’s fault for not meeting your unrealistic expectations? Think about it.

I’m not suddenly calling adaptations “saintly”. They’re inherently flawed, as are books. But to write them off because “the book was better” is dishonesty. Because sometimes they are. And when they’re not? Well, they might still be worth checking out. Also, I do think The Martian was a great adaptation, and I do think my cousin was being unfair. She can disagree all she wants, but it’s worth thinking about.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

My 2015 Movie Year Recap

Another year gone, another year of reflection. Politics wise, it was the year of Donald Trump’s presidential hopefulness, Justin Trudeau overtaking Stephen Harper as leader of Canada and the influx of refugees from Syria. Celebrity wise, it was the year that Bill Cosby and Jared Fogle’s dark pasts came to the public’s eye. And movie wise, it was another year of booms, tears and laughter, such that I feel it best to reflect on it…in February. Well, better late than never, right?

I initially wanted to bring back the format I used two years ago, since it worked so well. But as I got about 2/3 of the way through, I realized something: it’s boring. Why not discuss my thoughts in detail? That's harder, but more rewarding. So that’s what I’ll do.

Also, minor spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Anyway, every year has that defining theme or feel to it. Since my previous piece, we’ve had a really strong year with a weak finish (2014) and this year. 2015 was decent, being neither disappointing nor fantastic, although little stood out as “this is why 2015 was amazing”.

It started with the potential to be one of the best years in film, with Paddington being the “I’m amazed you don’t suck” movie in the month of “why does stuff generally suck here?” January. January’s the film-equivalent of “shovelware” en masse early in the year. Generally speaking, January releases are either leftovers from Oscar season, or lame, uninspired trash that no one gives a damn about. So when I heard Paddington was getting a January release in North America, I prayed it’d be over quickly. It not only wasn’t bad, it ended up being a clever comedy with great visual gags and a message about the immigrant experience in modern-day Britain.

February also had a decent entry by the name of Kingsman: The Secret Service. I say “decent” because, being a Matthew Vaughn film, it’s tonally-inconsistent. I enjoyed it, but that doesn’t mean it’s immune from the “what exactly are you going for here?” plague of his other movies. It’s more self-assured than Kick-Ass, but the comparison to a “snot-nosed kid” that Rule 3rds mentioned is accurate. That being said, the Church scene…

Spring was when the year started slipping into conventionality, with Cinderella and It Follows, being good, but nothing spectacular. I have to commend Kenneth Branagh for making the former tolerable, especially compared to some of Disney’s other live-action fairytales lately, but…man, 2014 had The LEGO Movie and the dub premiere of The Wind Rises by this point! Where was one of those?

The Summer line-up that followed, while fine enough, didn’t fix that. Unlike the barren wasteland of 2013, there were plenty of titles, but few of them exceeded expectations. More-importantly, some were even let-downs, as was the case with The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Coming off the high of the first film, and even Marvel’s strong year in 2014, I had such high-expectations. It disappointed with a mess. Was it enjoyable? Would I call it bad? Yes to the first, no to the second. But given the behind-the-scenes troubles, I’m not at all surprised.

Of course, everyone’s favourite movie, Mad Max: Fury Road, didn’t wow me either, but that’s for another day.

On the plus side, there were some pleasant surprises. Ex Machina was the first genuinely-great movie of the year, while Spy was Archer if it wasn’t annoying. When Marnie Was There, a film I was initially quite disappointed by, has grown on me, and I’d definitely recommend without question. But it was Inside Out that really got me; after all, Pixar had been in a slump since Cars 2, and the trailers didn’t impress. That it rekindled my faith in Pixar is an achievement, but that it’s my favourite film of 2015 is a testament. It’s also in my top 5 from Pixar.

The rest of the Summer was meh. Ant-Man was fun, perhaps more than I thought, but it wasn’t fantastic. Jurassic World and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation were both mediocre, while Shaun the Sheep is my least-favourite of the four Aardman films I’ve seen. The only other movie of note was The Gift, which, for all intents and purposes, is this past year’s Gone Girl. Seriously, GO WATCH IT!

As Fall came and films starting upping their game, I was waiting for the cream of the crop of the year. What I got was another typical, run-of-the-mill slew of films. For the first time in ages, the year’s Oscar season was underwhelming, with some strong candidates, but nothing that instantly screams “Best Picture”.

The season started with Black Mass, the true story of gangster Whitey Bulger. It was good, but it felt like a typical biopic: safe, not all ambitious or daring, worth seeing mostly for the best performance Johnny Depp’s given in 10 years. Steve Jobs also didn’t wow me, which is weird considering Aaron Sorkin’s screenwriting clout, but I think it’s because the main character left me cold. Was that point? Because if you want cold-yet-sympathetic from Sorkin, I’d say go for The Social Network. (It’s also a far better movie.)

Conversely, The Martian, The Walk and Bridge of Spies were all fantastic, albeit for different reasons. The first was a fun sci-fi film that showed that Ridley Scott can still make good movies, something that Exodus: Gods and Kings wasn’t. The Walk was a fun, campy heist movie that got my adrenaline going, while Bridge of Spies was another solid film from Steven Spielberg (i.e., it’s better than 90% of the films released this year.) The former two also looked amazing in 3D.

Then…there’s Spectre. I’ve covered my thoughts on the film in full-detail, so…moving on.

The Peanuts Movie was another surprise, in that it was actually good, while The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 was a disappointing finale. I liked it, but it was too dour for its own good. And it dragged. And it’s ending was anti-climactic. And it should’ve been merged with the previous film. Seriously, why are so many final books in franchises split into two for movie adaptations, it makes the end-result feel so needlessly-

Sorry, I needed to vent.

The next entry is The Good Dinosaur, and I know what you think I’m gonna say: it’s awful. It’s a mess. It’s Pixar’s worst movie to-date. Sorry to disappoint…but it’s none of those. It’s not great, but too much of it worked in my mind for me to hate it. Plus, it made me cry. A few times.

As for Star Wars: The Force Awakens? My thoughts remain the same since my review, save that Rey’s Theme is growing on me. That, and Kylo Ren’s Theme isn’t half bad either. I might like it more the next time I see it, however.

The final two Oscar films I saw were Spotlight and The Big Short. I loved both. One of them was great despite me still not understanding what a CPO is, while the other was great despite it not being filmic. I think the reason why I attached to both is because of their human elements. In the case of Spotlight, it tackled a serious issue that’s still happening today. In the case of The Big Short, it tackled a serious issue we all need to know about. In both cases, it was an eye-opener.

Finally, there’s Tomorrowland. Forgive me, but I have to rant on this one:

There were plenty of possible candidates for this category: Fant4stic, Pixels, Jem and the Holograms, Fifty Shades of Grey, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Aloha, the list goes on. However, since I try to avoid bad movies unless I can’t otherwise, they weren’t watched by yours truly. And probably for good reason, as I most likely would’ve been miserable. Regardless, one that I kinda knew would be bad, yet was curious about, was a film by a great director that could’ve been promising had it not been co-written by one of the most amusing science-fiction hacks working in film. That’s right, we’re talking Tomorrowland.

The premise involves a world where the most brilliant people to ever live could harness their skills and creations without limitations. One of these individuals is Casey Newton, a naïve teenager with a high IQ who frequently tries sabotaging NASA to save her father’s job. When her escapades get her caught, she’s stealthily recruited by an android girl to join this world and fix it. Along the way, she encounters other androids who are out to stop her, plenty of weird contraptions, a jaded inventor named Frank Walker and a megalomaniac who believes that the world is doomed. All the while, plenty of questions are raised, many of which are either not answered, or answered sloppily. In other words, it’s co-written by Damon Lindelof.

Honestly, I’m torn on this one. On one hand, Lindelof needs to stop trying to be clever. I’ve seen two other films he’s had a hand in writing, Prometheus and Star Trek into Darkness, and while I enjoyed both, they also suffered from trying to over-complicate straight-forward scenarios that needn’t be explained. Tomorrowland’s more of what I’ve come to expect from Lindelof, but, being a Disney movie, it’s also insincerely cloaked by the family-friendly schmaltz you’d come to expect from The House of Mouse. I firmly maintain that Disney isn’t inherently awful, but when they hire Lindelof to write a film based on one of their amusement rides…it screams “lazy” and “greedy”. Because while Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl worked because, flaws aside, it had focus, Tomorrowland doesn’t. It’s messy and sloppy in many ways, and while they’re subtle enough to hoodwink someone looking for a good time, nothing about this film’s premise makes sense when you stop and think about it.

I’m sure you want examples, but the aesthetic plotholes (like how no one guarding it had the faintest clue that the Eiffel Tower was a satellite spaceship) matter not to the core problem: arguing that freedom without limitations can solve all the world’s problems. It’s a cute, but life doesn’t work that way. Reality is messy and flawed, and every good idea must have limitations in order to function. Is that cynical to say? Perhaps, but given how too much free reign is proven to be detrimental, I think it’s reasonable to say that. I hate restrictions as much as anyone else, but they force you to be strategic and clever. Essentially, saying “no” sometimes can be healthier than always saying “yes”.

The real kicker is the forced message about the environment. I’m not talking in an Avatar kind of way, that I can tolerate. No, the film argues that the environment is doomed to fail because we believe it’s doomed to fail and feed on that, and that the way to change that is by breaking the cycle of negativity. An interesting idea in theory, but it’s shoved in so poorly in the final act that it hurts thinking about it. How do you make self-guided optimism, something so clearly healthy and important, feel forced? Movie, do you even?

Still, I don’t hate this film. On the contrary, it’s quite entertaining. Is it sloppy? Yes. Is it another example of why Damon Lindelof’s pretentious? Again, yes. But it’s kinda fun. Dumb and bad, but fun. Let’s hope Brad Bird’s next movie isn’t a dud.

In short, this year was okay, but nothing special. I saw 28 films in 2015, and while that’d normally be enough to judge the cycle, most of my choices were fine at best. Some of them were disappointing too, with only one truly exceeding expectations. Still, it could be worse. I give it a 3.5/5.

Lastly, here’s a ranking of my 12 favourite movies of 2015, from least-favourite to favourite:

12. The Peanuts Movie
11. Paddington
10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
9. When Marnie Was There
8. Spotlight
7. The Big Short
6. Bridge of Spies
5. The Walk
4. The Martian
3. Ex Machina
2. The Gift
1. Inside Out