Friday, April 28, 2017

La La Loony Land!

Confession time: I don’t like Renegade Cut. I know the video series has a passionate fan-following, and I respect that, but there’s something about Leon Thomas that doesn’t sit well: perhaps it’s his voice? The fact that he constantly sounds bored? The fact that he speaks like a frustrated professor who keeps getting rejected from a tenure position?

I’m sure he’s a sweet guy, but my concerns over Leon Thomas’s Renegade Cut videos are also based around the content. I, for example, thought his solution for “fixing modern Pixar”, i.e. to “make more movies like WALL-E”, was over-simplifying the issue, especially since I’ve always considered that one of Pixar’s weaker offerings during their heyday. Conversely, and this is partly because of my own experience, I found his episode on Perfect Blue to be completely oblivious to the film’s problems. So that Leon’s voice is also grating to listen to is an additional quibble. But enough of that, it’s time for why I mentioned him in the first place:

Hrmmm… (Courtesy of Renegade Cut.)

I recognize that La La Land is a weird movie. It’s basically a modern musical that pays homage, successfully, to a dead genre. It’s also a vanity project for director Damien Chazelle, being a movie that combines jazz, a genre of music that he loves, with the musical, a genre of film that he admires, for the 21st Century. I also want to state that while I did really enjoy this movie, I admit that it’s not perfect. My goal isn’t to trash Leon for criticizing the film, that’s what Reddit and IMDb are for, but to provide a response to a rather misleading analysis of an admittedly-flawed movie.

Also, there’ll be spoilers.

Leon begins by saying that his intent isn’t to disrespect people who like La La Land. His conclusion betrays that, but it’s a nice sentiment. I find that people who dislike popular movies/books/shows/whatever will immediately attack the fans by calling them “sheep” or “ignorant”, so to hear that is a nice change of pace. It’s too bad that, like I said, it ends up contradicting his conclusion. Additionally, since Leon’s video is chopped up into three sections, it’s only fair that I respond in like fashion:

The Non-Musical Musical-Leon begins his piece with his most easily-understandable critique: Ryan Gosling’s singing voice. There’s been a recent trend in Hollywood to cast non-singers in singing roles to appeal to the masses. Leon uses two examples, Moana and Beauty and the Beast, to prove that. The former had Dwayne Johnson as Maui singing “You’re Welcome”, which he argues wasn’t sung well, but had enough charisma to work. Conversely, Emma Watson’s Belle wasn’t “an opera singer”, but she was lovely enough hat she, too, fit the role fine. I’m unsure why he didn’t include the late-Robin Williams in Aladdin, as he didn’t have a good singing voice either and both examples are Disney-related, but whatever. Neither of the aforementioned were great singers.

But then he goes on to match this with Ryan Gosling in La La Land, and I immediately winced. Firstly, as someone who can sing, Gosling’s voice isn’t really that bad. It’s not great, but it carries and has a pleasant, soothing tone. He’s definitely quiet, but bad? There’s subjectivity to singing, but bad he’s not.

Secondly, Sebastian being a “bad singer” is part of his character, let-alone the movie. Emma Stone isn’t a great singer either. Her voice isn’t as “bad” as Gosling, but it’s nothing to write home about. But that neither Gosling or Stone are great singers is why they were cast: because they’re meant to be the every-people in Hollywood. Believe it or not, a lot of actors and actresses in Hollywood are passable, be it acting, writing, directing, and yes, singing. We see them all the time, so making them the centre-stage is praise in a good way.

And thirdly, the alternatives Leon gives for Gosling also misses the point. Damien Chazelle didn’t choose Neil Patrick Harris, Robert Downey Jr. or Jeremy Renner for a reason: they’re too old. Neil Patrick Harris is 43 years old, well into his career and doesn’t fit the role of a “young, struggling artist”. Robert Downey Jr. is 52 years old, well into his career and doesn’t fit the role of a “young, struggling artist”. Jeremy Renner is 46 years old, well into his career and, you guessed it, doesn’t fit the role of a “young, struggling artist”. Ryan Gosling, despite not being new, is 36 years old, still early in his career (he only took off a few years ago in popularity), and fits the role of a “young, struggling artist” more easily.

Leon mentions that there aren’t a lot of noteworthy songs to keep the pace after the opening two numbers to help “drown out Gosling”, but I don’t think La La Land was intending to be an uppity musical constantly. It’s a modern movie with modern sensibilities, and while the “it’s jazz” argument might not be a good enough excuse, it’s not trying to be bombastic or overly-flashy. La La Land isn’t trying to be the next Singing in the Rain, or any of the musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but rather a simple homage. That needs to be factored into the critique of the film.

Finally, Leon ends this section with a complaint about “sound mixing problems”, using the pool sequence in “Someone in the the Crowd” to justify his complaint. For one, the splashing overlapping with the dancing and music is intentional. And two, I could hear the lyrics perfectly fine without Googling them. Because they’re audible, even if he thinks otherwise. If you want proof, I watched this movie in theatres in February, before I went to an ENT to have over a decade’s worth of wax removed from my right ear. If I could hear it fine, then there’s nothing wrong with the sound mixing.

The White Saviour of Jazz-This next section is trickier to really deconstruct, since it deals with the complicated issue of racist casting and character writing. I’ll say that for as much as Sebastian is a struggling artist who prides himself on pure jazz and refuses to pay his bills or “sell out”, I think that’s kind of the point. Sebastian’s supposed to be stuck-up and overly-proud, because it’s part of what makes him appealing. Is it racist to be a white saviour? I suppose. But that’s less to do with Gosling and more to do with Hollywood’s flawed casting system.

See, Hollywood’s afraid of taking risks. Because almost 2/3 of the US is white, Hollywood wants to cater to that. It nets them the most money, so why not? It’s wrong, and it leads to instances like the tone deaf controversy of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, but it’s a long-time bias built-in to the system of Hollywood. Much like being queer or a woman, if you’re not white in Hollywood, your odds of getting anywhere are, sadly, more limited.

And yes, this needs to be changed. But in the same breath, I also think art can function even with its problematic aspects. Because it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so ignoring something like La La Land because it’s not “ideally cast” is ignorance. But then again, I’m an Ashkenazi Jewish male, so what do I know?

Going back to the film, I don’t agree that Keith is inherently a villain because he’s the “New Age Jazzist”. Despite the “framing” that Leon suggests, Keith’s a guy making a living by seeing jazz as an evolving art form. He sees life differently than Sebastian, and that Sebastian decides to play for him is him realizing that he needs the money for his relationship with Mia. The movie might portray it as “selling out”, and on some level it is, but it’s Sebastian also sucking up his pride because he’s starting to realize what really matters. It’s something he didn’t get in the beginning of the movie when he refused to pay rent.

I won’t delve into the whole “whitesplaining jazz” critique, because there’s some truth to it, but the infantilization complaint is unfair for two reasons: one, Mia displayed her ignorance by complaining that all jazz music was “elevator music” and, therefore, boring. I love classical music, but the classical pieces played in elevators are also pretty boring. And two, that Sebastian is somewhat condescending to Mia is part of why their relationship ends up failing. Because while champagne love seems sweet initially, once the bubbles dissipate you’re left wanting more.

Also, since it was so eloquently explained, let’s talk about that Christmas scene: I disagree. Damien Chazelle might have characters in his films that act snobbish about jazz, but it’s never portrayed positively (Andrew’s conversation at the dinner table in Whiplash was him being arrogant.) And for as much as the movie may not have delved into the head of the restaurant owner, at the same time the movie shows that the dinner guests are bored by the traditional tunes that Sebastian’s playing. Sebastian’s not be the greatest piano player, but he’s clearly above playing boring songs that no one likes. So when he breaks his promise, which the guests actually like, and gets fired, the movie makes it a sympathetic-yet-presumably-impulsive decision.

I’ll end this section by touching on Mia, since Leon briefly criticizes her by arguing that she has no characteristics outside of her passion to be a successful actress. I don’t agree: Mia’s stubborn, argumentative, insecure about her hopes and dreams and constantly feeling like she’s falling behind. This is all explicitly stated in-film. And as for why nothing is shown about her one-act play? It’s because it’s less important than digging into her character growth. If Birdman can get away with barely showing Riggan Thomson’s stage play, then why can’t La La Land?

Obnoxiousness Is Not Romantic-Leon makes a clever transition to this point through his ending statement on Sebastian in the last section. Sebastian, according to him, is a mansplaining, egotistical artist with a white saviour complex. This makes his relationship with Mia one of obnoxiousness and romanticism, the latter of which he argues is necessary to an extent in storytelling, but is over-played. Ignoring that I’ve already tackled my thoughts on Sebastian, I don’t think that him and Mia being in an over-romanticized relationship is accidental. The movie makes it abundantly clear that their relationship is flowery and somewhat toxic. You end up caring anyway, but their inevitable break-up is apparent right from when Sebastian “sells out” for money.

I want to point out an inherent critique that I think Leon should know: characters in storytelling need not have arcs, nor do they need to have arcs that progress them in a positive direction. I say this because he doesn't. Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, for example, doesn’t change. But even if he did, it’s not for the better. Having a negative character arc/no arc at all is harder to do right, but it’s not impossible.

Besides, I do think that Sebastian, and to a lesser-extent Mia, grow as characters. Sebastian learns how to become successful, but at the cost of giving up his ego and pursuing hard work. Mia learns how to become successful too, but only once she stops being so insecure. And both of them learn that true happiness and success means not always being with “your ideal other”, something the movie shows was for the best anyway.

There are several aspects to this point that really irk me. One of them is how Sebastian’s line to Mia about not caring what others think of her play is the director’s ham-fisted critique of La La Land’s detractors. Much like Princess Nausicaä in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind telling Prince Abel that the Pejites and the Tolmekkians are “exactly alike”, the line from La La Land wasn’t intended to be that way. It was a reminder that your biggest critic is yourself, and that you only have control of your own actions at the end of the day. Given how many people have told me that I’d never make it anywhere, that hit me hard.

Which is all-the-more reason why Leon’s assumption that Sebastian and Mia think they’re the only ones that matter was so odd. Ignoring that this is a movie, and that they’re the protagonists of the story, I don’t think they’re being egotistical at all. They’re being young and careless, and the film spends two hours giving them a heaping dose of reality. Is it over-sentimental? Perhaps, particularly during Mia’s audition solo. But it’s like Leon said: movies need a little romanticism.

The final point I want to tackle is the “praise” that people give this movie for “subverting” traditional movie romances by having Mia and Sebastian not be together in the end. Ignoring that this is a romance film cliché, not a musical film cliché, I don’t think that the movie was trying to subvert anything. It was paying homage to the film musicals of old, while updating the dated aspects to fit a 21st Century mold. Subversion implies that the movie had something clever to say about this, and given how it’s slowly becoming commonplace anyway, it’s not so much clever as it is normal and expected.

The Verdict-Leon ends this analysis with a rather obnoxious proposition, hence my claim in the opening: according to him, critics were so starved to see a good musical that they over-praised this one, which he claims wasn’t all that good, as a masterpiece. I hate this remark, because it reeks of laziness and insensitivity. Movie reviews aren’t a science, they’re subjective. Critics are allowed to disagree with the masses, and vice-versa. This shouldn’t be some kind of pissing match, nor should it be a game of “critics are stupid”. And yet, I see this so often that I’m sick and tired of letting it slide.

I’m not a big fan Mad Max: Fury Road, for example. I think it’s a shallowly-written, plodding film with two-dimensional characters and ideas that go nowhere. And yet, people loved it. But while I was quick to explain why I’m not a fan, I never once insulted critics. Because that’s petty. The second you resort to that behaviour, I immediately disregard what you have to say.

Critiques like that also mislead your audience into thinking that you’re the be-all-end-all of the debate on quality. I can’t find it anymore, but there was a comment from someone who’d never seen the film, yet was glad they hadn’t based on Leon’s review. That’s some CinemaSins nonsense right there, taking misleading critiques as fact and missing out on forming your own opinion. You don’t have to agree with the praise, but you shouldn’t be so quick to write it off either.

By the way, I liked La La Land a lot, but next to its musical numbers and ending montage it didn’t blow me away. It was shallowly written on a surface level, the general story was predictable and it didn’t do much to innovate a genre it clearly loved. But that’s beside the point, because while La La Land might not be deep, it did one element really well: it showed the millennial struggle as being one of the everyman trying to survive. And yeah, “movie stars” and all that jazz. But that struggle was still present with Sebastian and Mia’s character-arcs.

I don’t want people to think that Leon Thomas’s analysis is automatically trash. He’s entitled to think what he wants, something he’s clearly acknowledged in his disclaimer. But the sword is double-edged, and with that comes a transparency for rebuke or response. Bottom line: I’m unimpressed with this analysis.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Star DON'T: Why Remaking the Star Wars Prequels is a Bad Idea

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Star Wars franchise. Initially the passion project of George Lucas, the franchise-to date-has spanned almost nine movies (one of them a spin-off), three TV shows and dozens upon dozens of video games, books, comics, audio recordings and web-shorts, to name a few. It’s even gained new life in recent years following the acquisition of the IP by Disney in 2012 and the promise to keep it going until, as of now, 2030. There’s much to discuss with the movies specifically, but it’s almost unanimously agreed on that the era of films from 1999-2005, known as “The Prequels”, are the worst aspect. And with Disney trying to please fans, there’s been demand to remake them from scratch, this time the “right” way. But is that necessarily a good idea?

I’ll be the first to admit that The Prequels aren't “great”. I don’t despise them like so many, especially since all three have moments of brilliance, but time hasn’t been kind to my perceptions of their quality. I also know that many die-hard fans have pitched their thoughts and ideas on how to “improve” the trilogy, most-notably Belated Media, but I’m not so sure that going back and fixing these films would be so great. I, honestly, think it’d be a terrible idea, for one reason: continuity.

See, Star Wars thrives on continuity. It might not seem so initially, especially since the universe is so vast, but it absolutely has connecting themes and plot-threads. The Prequels, for example, tie directly into The Original Trilogy through inter-connected world building, as does The Original Trilogy to the newer films. In the same breath, The Prequels also tie into the new films, as do they to the two cartoons considered canon. And, of course, said shows tie directly into the movies, including the spin-off film that, you guessed it, ties directly into everything in the Star Wars chronology.

To give an example, let’s use Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker. Considered one of modern-Hollywood’s greatest characters, his presence is felt in every canon film and show. In the original films, he was the looming baddie that shifted from a nasty villain, to a villain with depth, to a redeemed villain. The Prequels added context by showing his descent into villainy, transforming him into a tragic hero. Star Wars: The Clone Wars, both the pilot film and the 6 Season TV series, then further fleshed him out, while Star Wars Rebels showed the time period between his downfall and his initial reveal in the original film. And finally, the newer trilogy, if everything is playing out the way it has been, is building on the aftermath of the character’s death by showing how the galaxy has progressed. Everything Star Wars that’s canon has built on this one character.

But even outside of that, and this is delving into spoiler territory, Star Wars canon still fits together via easter eggs and/or callbacks. One of the best examples is the franchise’s first side-film, Star Wars: Rogue One. The movie’s littered with details that fit into the grander universe: Saw Gerrera is a character from one of the story-arcs in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and his character-arc is completed via his death at the hands of The Death Star. Conversely, this is the last canonical appearance of Senator Bail Organa, a character featured heavily in The Prequels and TV shows, before his death on Alderaan in Star Wars Ep. IV: A New Hope when it’s blown up. The movie also has The Ghost, a ship that takes centre-stage in Star Wars Rebels, and an indirect mention of Mustafar from Star Wars Ep. III: Revenge of the Sith in the second-act. And, lest we forget, it ends seconds before Star Wars Ep. IV: A New Hope, with its last shot being of the same ship we see in the latter film’s opening scene.

The canon is so meticulously woven together at this point that if Disney were to remake even a tiny detail of The Prequels, it could throw everything off. It’s not impossible, but it’s tricky. Because you’d risk messing up everything, and that’s not what people want either. I know it’s tempting to take the gamble anyway, but in the long-term it’s better not to. Especially considering how the newer films and shows are working with a trilogy that’s already messy anyway.

I get it: The Prequels are embarrassing. They’re a reminder that Star Wars isn’t flawless. They bum out fans by the sheer fact that, yes, everything in them is canon. It seems like such an easy remedy in the hands of talented individuals who respect the collaborative process of film, something George Lucas didn’t. But “fixing” them would do so much damage that it’s not worth the chance.

And honestly, it reeks of entitlement. A good artist learns more from their failures than their successes, while a great artist learns from others’ failures. If the current holders of the Star Wars franchise are the “great artists”, they’ll take that to heart. Especially since The Prequels are a valuable learning experience, and instead of erasing them, Disney has an opportunity to incorporate their best ideas effectively in future movies and shows.

But ultimately, fans need to let it go already. So what if The Prequels were “bad”? So what if you think you can do better? There’s a time for do-overs, and a time for restraint. This is one of those times for restraint. If fans can accept the good with the bad, instead of ignoring the bad, then perhaps we can move on and focus on the future of the franchise.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Songs of Egypt: A Passover Special

Happy Passover! As of writing this, we’re currently in the midst of the most stomach-ache inducing holiday in the Jewish calendar. So while you’re busy chewing TUMS and GAS-X pills to alleviate your upset constitutions, all-the-while cursing your inability to eat real food, why not reminisce about arguably the greatest Passover movie ever made? And no, it’s not The Ten Commandments, although good try! No, I’m talking about this gem instead:

To those who don’t know, i.e. all three of you, The Prince of Egypt is one of my favourite animated movies. It ranked at #5 on my now-illegible list on ScrewAttack, and with good cause: it’s excellent. It’s not flawless, mind you, but the movie’s so good that I even once tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to write a blog on it a while back. But the desire lingered, so I figured that I’d write a different blog on the film’s best aspect: its songs. So here’s me ranking them from worst-to-best and discussing each one. The movie has no bad songs anyway, so why not?

Keep in mind that this is a personal list. If you disagree with it…go write your own. No really. Anyway, let’s get started!

7. “I Will Get There”

Courtesy of Karly Emily.

So remember when I said that The Prince of Egypt had no bad songs? I lied. “I Will Get There” is the sole bad song. It’s not flat-out atrocious, or even the worst ever, because it’s not. But it suffers from a serious setback: it reeks of the 90’s. And not in a good way.

I’m not kidding! Listen to it and tell me it isn’t the most-90’s song ever! I think that’s because, like “I Believe I Can Fly” from Space Jam, it’s not all that deep or compelling. It’s fitting that I mention that, especially considering that both songs were sung by 90’s pop sensation Boyz II Men. No really, that’s what they’re called. And it’s hilarious.

I haven’t touched on the song yet, so I’ll be brief and say that it’s nothing special. Boyz II Men had a fatal flaw in that for as ridiculous and forgettable as their name was, their songs were more-so. “I Will Get There” is the epitome of that, saying little-to-nothing about the movie. It only serves as a excuse to pad the credits, which it does. Moving on.

6. “When You Believe”

Courtesy of peepo23.

And now we get to the controversial ranking. Why? Because I utterly loathe “When You Believe”. It’s not a bad song, it’s excellent, but ignoring the credits' Whitney Houston/Mariah Carrey cover, it has the misfortune of being over-sung at family gatherings. I love my cousins, but they don’t know when to stop singing it. And they butcher it constantly. And one of the lines happens to contain the name of one of them, so it’s always awkward when that part is brought up. I usually end up caving in an attempt to correct them, but awkward embarrassment is awkward.

Ignoring that, “When You Believe” kicks off the denouement of The Prince of Egypt in fitting style. Considering that this is the earned redemption for the Israelites, you’d better believe that it’ll be thankful and powerful. It starts slow and quiet, as a duet with Miriam and Tzipporah, but quickly goes into a full-blown chorus when the children pitch in. By the final stanza, it’s an epic. And it’s amazing because of that.

That having been said, if I have a quibble, it’s that it uses God’s prayer name. Considering that it’s sacrilegious to use God’s prayer name in Judaism when you’re not praying to God, those lines are always a little uncomfortable. Even as a kid I’d be frantically searching for a yarmulka to wear when that part came on. These days I wear one anyway, but it’s still jarring. Other than that, no complaints.

5. “All I Ever Wanted”

Courtesy of Nicole Rey.

“What?! You’re placing ‘All I Ever Wanted’ above ‘When You Believe’?! Are you crazy!” Firstly, my list. And secondly, I already explained why I did that. Besides, I actually think that this is one of the more under-appreciated songs in The Prince of Egypt, specifically because it’s so low-key.

And yet, that’s kinda why I like it. It’s not only low-key, it’s also intimate in a unique and charming way. It’s sung from the perspective of a confused Moses, having been told who his real family is, and is pretty much him in denial. The entirety of the ballad reconciles the house he grew up in with reality, coming to the conclusion that he doesn’t care before dozing off to sleep near the chamber of etchings (which, by the way, leads to a powerful sequence. But that’s not relevant right now.)

As a side-note, I also like the reprisal with Moses and his adoptive mother for two reasons: firstly, it’s a nice bonding moment between adoptive mother and adoptive son, showing that she still loves him despite having lied all these years. Anyone who’s ever been adopted can instantly relate, especially if the adoptive parents are on good terms with them. And secondly, the reprisal ends with a subtly-inserted jingle that hearkens back to the movie’s opening cue. Considering that the running motif with Moses for the first-act is him slowly learning the truth about who he is, it’s a nice callback. All-in-all, a fitting companion to a fitting ballad about ignoring your heritage.

4. “Through Heaven’s Eyes”

Courtesy of Łukasz Frączek.

Much like “All I Ever Wanted”, “Through Heaven’s Eyes” is personal and low-key. Unlike “All I Ever Wanted”, “Through Heaven’s Eyes” is also a powerhouse song that marks the halfway mark. It’s the montage/time-skip sequence that animated musicals tend to be known for, but it’s not wasted space. A lot happens in it, namely Moses adjusting to life in Median and marrying Tzipporah, that serves to set up the more powerful and action-filled second-half. And it does this under the guise of Jethro recounting a life-lesson about one’s place of life.

Like I said, not a single moment is wasted: Moses starts as a guest in Median. He takes up residence and flirts with Tzipporah. His beard grows, signifying lapses in time. He eventually courts Tzipporah in a dance, followed by a silhouetted conservation with Jethro about marriage arrangements. The montage then ends with the marriage itself, followed by dancing and a pan upwards into the night sky.

And all of this in a few minutes. It’s pretty much the Biblical, animated musical version of “Married Life” from Up, except upbeat instead of sad. Regardless, it’s equally as powerful, with some concrete character building and little spoken dialogue. If the first-half of this movie’s about Moses finding his way, and the second-half’s about Moses saving the day, then this is the halfway point where he’s content with his lot in life. As an audience member, it’s also needed downtime before the heavy material.

3. “Playing with the Big Boys”

Courtesy of Teresa Gonzalez.

The Prince of Egypt has a wide variety of songs that elicit different reactions. Some, like “When You Believe”, evoke a feeling of grand, earned belief. Others, like “Through Heaven’s Eyes”, elicit contentment with Moses’s lot. Even others, like “All I Ever Wanted”, create a connection through confusion and uncertainty. Then there’s “Playing with the Big Boys”, which isn’t only a showcase for parlour tricks and editing that plays to the strengths of animation, but is also the epitome of cool in general.

The song’s biggest strength is slyness. Ramses’s priests could’ve easily used gone for a grand number and it would’ve worked perfectly. They could’ve also not sung at all and it would’ve worked. But they decide to be more sadistic and, like the showmen they are, tempt Moses into submission with their display of magic. Everything about this, right down to the use of shadows and lighting, screams devious and manipulative. And it’s awesome.

Of course, it’s also back when Ramses still thinks Moses is joking. We know better as the audience, but why not humour us? Moses was notorious for being a joker, so play to his mischievous nature with some dramatic irony! It’s a cleverly-written, sung and animated sequence in a movie already filled with those. Best of all, it’s fun.

2. “The Plagues”

Courtesy of Nicole Rey.

It was tough picking my runner-up. In the end, “The Plagues” lost by a small margin. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastic in its own right! But it’s not as good as my #1 spot. That said, “The Plagues”’s biggest strength is its grandness.

I’m not kidding: the animation is grand, showcasing the horrors of destruction and chaos of the plagues. The use of lighting and shadows is grand, especially when contrasting the reactions of Moses and Ramses. And the lyrics are grand, with Moses and Ramses duking it out via a variation of “All I Ever Wanted” from earlier in the movie. There’s no way around it, this is a grand song!

I think what holds it back from the top-spot is that it has a crippling flaw: the chorus. Which, don’t get me wrong, is still excellent, really driving home the stakes. But the lines are said so quickly and/or quietly for the majority of the song that it’s hard to make out what they’re saying most of the time. I, honestly, thought that the opening lines were “a syphilis” over and over for the longest time, and it stayed that way until I looked them up online. Even now, I still can’t get them right! But it’s a small quibble for the runner-up to my favourite song in The Prince of Egypt

1. “Deliver Us”

Courtesy of Jessica van den Brand.

Be honest: you were waiting for me to mention this. I can’t lie: while many musicals have had grand opening numbers, none hit me quite like this. I remember a YouTube video describing “Deliver Us” in the vein of Les Miserables’s opening number, and it’s not hard to see why. And truthfully, it’s as perfect an opening as you can get for a film like this anyway, with the song transitioning from powerhouse chorus, to somber ballad, to powerhouse chorus, to emotional lullaby and then back to powerful chorus without feeling awkward. It’s so great that, aside from setting up the inevitable pay-off of “When You Believe” in the third-act, it can easily be broken up into three parts akin to a three-act story on its own: the set-up, Yocheved’s lullaby to Moses and Miriam’s prayer for Moses once he’s found by Pharaoh’s wife.

Actually, let’s focus in on that second part. Not only is it the emotional high-point, containing a lullaby that resurfaces a few times in the first act, but it gives you a chance to hear the late-Ofra Haza. Her voice resonates because of how much raw energy she has, and she even provided the singing voice of Yocheved in several other languages. It’s also a real shame that this was her big break before dying of AIDS, as we never got to witness her full-potential. But you can’t change the past, so…

If there’s one detail that binds “Deliver Us” together, it’s its narrative cohesiveness. Like I said with “Through Heaven’s Eyes”, this works as its own short-film in that it flows in a complete arc: there’s the opening that sets up the conflict, the star the story centres around, the song that sets up stakes and a thematic resolution and a hopeful-yet-open-ended conclusion. “Deliver Us” is only the beginning number, but it’s so well-structured that it could’ve been its own piece without much trouble. It’s that good. And while it might be unfair to have the opening cue be at my top spot, I dare you to disagree. Because it really and truly sets up why The Prince of Egypt’s as good as it is.

So yeah, that’s my ranking of The Prince of Egypt’s songs. Have a happy Passover!

Sunday, April 9, 2017


I’d like to preface this piece with a disclaimer: I haven’t been much of a gamer in years. I purchased a WiiU last year, and I enjoy the games I have for it, but I haven’t had the enthusiasm I used to in close to five years. I guess I’ve moved on, a fact made that much easier by gaming culture having become really toxic (more on that another day). So anything I say from here-on in must be understood with that lens.

Anyway, let’s talk about Yooka-Laylee:

So Playtonic Games, comprised of former Rare Ltd. employees, decided to create a retro-style video game platformer via crowdfunding. Said game would emulate Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie in aesthetic and mechanics, and for many, especially after the initial trailer, this was the Banjo-Threeie they never got. The anticipation was high, and people were expecting a grand masterpiece…until reviews came in.

I’ll say now that people’s fascination with Metacritic astounds me. Its system of weighing averages doesn’t make sense when the site refuses to show its calculations, and its numbers come off as arbitrary because of that. I find that plenty of games the site was unfavourable/mixed on were, honestly, a lot of fun (like Yoshi’s Wooly World). Not that I begrudge the reviewers featured, mind you, but…moving on.

I mention this because Yooka-Laylee’s reviews weren’t even that bad; on the contrary, they were decent. But the underlying concern seems to be the same: its aesthetic. Many critics felt as though the style of platformer it pays homage to, the 3D, open-world collect-a-thon, doesn’t work in 2017. Video gaming has moved on, so shouldn’t this be considered obsolete? Is there a need for this anymore?

Personally, I’m not a big fan of collect-a-thons to begin with. I never have been. For one, I’m terrible at video games. I enjoy them, but I find it takes me longer than many of my peers to complete them because I get stuck so much more frequently than I intend. And two, collect-a-thons are tedious. My goal with a video game is to enjoy the experience, and collect-a-thons get in the way by making everything a chore.

I’ll use two examples, one past and one recent, to demonstrate this. The first is Donkey Kong 64. Considered one of the best Donkey Kong games ever, let-alone one of the best games on the N64, Donkey Kong 64 thrives on collectibles. There are eight worlds, as well as an overworld, and the developers, Rare Ltd., reasoned that jamming them full of collectibles would entice exploration and create a fun challenge.

This isn’t a bad idea in theory, especially with five playable Kongs that you can swap via DK barrels, but the complication comes in execution. Each of the eight worlds has 500 specially-coloured bananas, or 100 per character, that are needed to unlock the level’s boss battle, as well as 5 Golden Bananas for each to find either via mini-games or special objectives. On top of that, 5 of these Golden Bananas per level are blue print bananas that can only be found by defeating certain enemies to encode a map of King K. Rool’s ultimate weapon. If that’s not bad enough, there are special medals scattered throughout, special balloons that reveal bananas, special coins that act as currency scattered throughout, fairies that have to be photographed to increase health and stamina, film canisters to photograph them, crystal coconuts that increase your Kongs’ special powers, specially-marked ammo boxes for each of the Kongs’ weapons, music notes for each of the Kongs’ musical instruments, watermelon chunks that restore health, oranges that act as grenades and one DK Star per level that triggers a special mini-game. And that’s not forgetting the respective power-ups, musical instrument upgrades and weapon upgrades that each Kong accesses over time. Oh, and did I mention that there are 2 secret medals that need to be found via special mini-games to access the final boss?

If it sounds like that last paragraph was dense and complicated, don’t worry: it’s even worse in-game. Not only do you need all of those items to 100% complete the game (or 101% if you find the secret Golden Banana), but the items are scattered so haphazardly that completing tasks requires swapping Kongs constantly. It usually requires backtracking, swapping out, collecting what you need, backtracking again, swapping out once more, collecting what you couldn’t access before, backtracking a third time, swapping out again, backtracking a final time, swapping to your first Kong and continuing onward. It’s gruelling and frustrating, and while it’s neat in theory, in practice it makes Donkey Kong 64, a relatively fun and well-designed game, a nightmare to finish. I haven’t played it in years, but even as a kid that sort of swapping was tedious.

I’ve heard many defences of the game mechanics: it was because of technical limitations. The game’s flawed, yet the good outweighs the bad. People are being overly-critical in hindsight. While I understand the first defence and sympathize, the second is subjective and the third is harmful to discourse and the advancement of gaming as an art-form. But if me picking on Donkey Kong 64, an almost 18 year-old game, is being “unfair”, then don’t worry: I’ll attack LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga instead.

I adore LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga. It’s easily my favourite piece of Star Wars media, and this is including the films. But it’s far from perfect, and its collectibles are one of the reason. To be fair, the system used is optional, making it a challenge to find all the studs, LEGO canisters and red bricks, yet not mandatory to complete the game proper. Even Free Play mode simplifies collecting everything by giving you an immediate roster of playable characters, whom you can cycle through on the fly, to complete objectives that were impossible in Story mode.

The complication, however, is, again, that some of these collectibles require cycling back-and-forth between characters to access hard-to-reach areas for little-to-no reward. It’s not as bad as Donkey Kong 64, at least you don’t need to backtrack to swap out, but it can be tedious when you forget that that one cluster of studs needed to fill your Stud Meter was in an area you can’t reach without a character you haven’t purchased yet.

On top of that, LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga encourages exploration for the sake of unlocking Gold Bricks. But if you don’t have the patience to find that one canister, or aren’t fast enough to collect all those studs from an exploding door before they disappear, then what’s the point? The game might be way too lenient with lives, but that doesn’t mean that 100% completion isn’t still a chore. Because if me not being able to do so 10 years later is indication, then it is.

This is the trouble with collect-a-thons: they punish you for not collecting what you need to progress forward. Collectibles on their own aren’t the problem, and in small doses they can be fun to search for. But when they detract from the enjoyability factor and become a chore, well…why have them? They teach patience and perseverance, but that often becomes an addiction. And addictions aren’t healthy.

Which is probably what reviewers were concerned about with Yooka-Laylee, a fact made worse by the game adopting an aesthetic that was abandoned in the early 2000’s. And yeah, this doesn’t mean the game sucks. Unlike Mighty No. 9, it looks to be competent and playable. Chances are, even, that people will enjoy it quite a bit! But that doesn’t make the complaints less-valid. Nor does that change my outlook on collect-a-thons.