Friday, June 30, 2017

Oh Crap! An Update

(I apologize in advance for the roughness of this piece, but I want to get a status update out as fast as possible for you all.)

Most of you won’t know this, but I use a special medication for my hair to control my eczema. The upside is that it works. The downside is that it wakes me up early in the morning because of its smell, only dissipating after I take a shower. However, because I’m already awake, I usually take that time to check my emails for a bit until I’m too tired and fall back asleep.

This morning, however, as I was checking my emails before dozing off, I got an unusual notification from Photobucket, aka the site I use to host the many wonderful pictures you’ve seen in my pieces on both Infinite Rainy Day and The Whitly-Verse, stating the following:


The email went on to explain what a Plus 500 Plan entails, but at first I thought this was spam. It had to be, there was no other way of explaining the ridiculousness of this email. So I went on my phone to check one of my blog entries, in order to make sure it wasn’t. Sure enough, my images on both sites were down. Considering that I have 62 pieces worth of material on The Whitly-Verse and who knows how many on Infinite Rainy Day (I’ve lost count), this immediately freaked me out like no tomorrow. Not only were my images gone, but I didn’t even remember which images went where due to the almost 8 years worth of uploading I’d done on Photobucket.

Anyway, I decided to do a little research into what a Plus 500 Plan would cost me. Turns out that it’s about $40 a month to use, and I’m assuming that’s in American dollars. Since I don’t have that kind of money to waste on image linking, I figured that that was it. I’d been having trouble with Photobucket for a while now, most-recently with even uploading images at all, but this was the last straw. I’d have to either download all of my photos onto my computer and re-upload them manually, or download them and re-upload them to a different site. After the former proved tedious and time-consuming, I decided to opt for the latter.

So goodbye Photobucket, hello Imugr, right? Well, kinda. See, past brush-ins with Imugr have shown the site to be far more efficient than Photobucket, but because I had so many images to upload the uploading process would take a long time. Even now, as I write this, Imugr has yet to upload my entire library from Photobucket that I’d downloaded onto my computer, and I’d started the transfer hours ago.

Well, what does that mean for all of you? For one, I’m hoping it’s not permanent as I swap photos, but you’re gonna see a lot of error messages in my blogs and articles for a bit where images once were. And two, I’m not ever using Photobucket again. The writing’s been on the wall for quite some time now anyway, this isn’t the first time the site’s bugged me, and it’s time I jump ships before I hurt myself further. I’m also considering calling Photobucket’s technical support to give them crap and see if I can get a grace period to help me with the transition, as Infinite Rainy Day is also a side-job that pays me money to write for them.

But anyway, that’s my situation for now. Apologies again for the shortness and rushed nature of this blog entry, but it’s been a rough few hours and I want to be transparent should any of you be confused. Don’t worry, I still have future blogs and articles I want to write, but for now I have to focus on maintenance of my brands.

Until next time!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

"Issues" VS "Problems" in MCU Analysis

I sometimes wonder why it’s even worth defending the MCU. It’s not because I’m insecure and like the films blindly, because I don’t; in fact, there are at least a dozen or so franchises that I love more, and I acknowledge the flaws that exist in the MCU on a visual, tonal and narrative level. Rather, I wonder why it’s worth defending the films because they’re multi-billion dollar money-makers with a near-consistent streak of praise on Rotten Tomatoes, hence being pointless. No matter how much I play defence attorney, in the end they’ll still sell tickets. So I’m really screeching into an empty void.

However, I’ve been noticing a trend in film circles that’s driven me bonkers. Ever since the MCU’s kicked-off, there’s been an intellectual backlash meant to try and knock the movies down a peg. This includes criticizing uninspired music choices, complaining about senseless needs to connect everything, chastising the dialogue as amateur, insisting the colour-grading is awful, scoffing at filmmaking techniques and bringing up constant writing and tone problems. And it’s getting exhausting to listen to. However, I’ve already gone into specifics, so instead I’m putting my foot down and stating that these are definitely “issues”, but not “problems”, with the MCU.

Let me explain.

I’ll put up an arbitrary divider, for the sake of this piece, on “issue” and “problem”. Ignoring their proper definitions for a moment, when there’s an issue with something, it’s usually framed in a more…let’s say “passive” way. Issues are when something’s noticeable, yet not distracting. Fixable, but not immediately fixable. Saying that there’s an “issue” means that it’s not ideal, but we can always work with it.

Problems, on the other hand, are more direct. Problems needs fixing, as they can make or break something. A computer virus is a problem because it can destroy a computer. Conversely, climate change, despite what anyone says, is a problem because it directly impacts the balance of nature. Saying that there’s a “problem” implies that it needs your immediate attention.

I say this because the MCU is often framed by detractors as having “problems”, when they’re really “issues”. Something like, say, a bland colour scheme isn’t a deal-breaker because the colours don’t get in the way of what’s going on. Uninspired scores don’t break the experience because films are primarily a visual medium. And continuity is neither a problem or an issue, namely because the MCU has one of the tightest, overarching plans of any franchise ever made.

But even ignoring that distinction, I think it’s become somewhat of a problem hearing how much the MCU “fails” on basic filmmaking levels. I say this for two reasons: one, it ignores what the MCU does well, which is characters and cohesiveness. And two, every time I hear complaints about the MCU as a series, never once have I heard practical suggestions for what can be done to fix them. I’ve sometimes heard vague ideas when the detractors are pushed hard enough, but even then it seems like these ideas are framed as obvious no-brainers for people who watch movies regularly, yet know nothing about making them.

Speaking personally, I can safely and honestly say that while I understand a lot of the complaints about the MCU, at the same time I don’t think they’re quite as bad as people have made them out to be. At the expense of downplaying individuals with film and music degrees, I also feel they miss the intent of the MCU. To quote myself from a few years ago:
“I was unaware that varying shades of toilet droppings qualified as ‘interesting’; after all, I don’t pay attention to bodily waste. Besides, if ‘interesting’ means ‘boring, badly-written and broodingly-flat imitations of Spider-Man and Batman’, then I’d love some of what you’re smoking! It’s not even me saying that, look at any feedback and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Even on a bad day, see Thor: The Dark World, the MCU is leagues ahead of those films in quality. If you don’t believe me, watch any MCU entry and one of those superhero films back-to-back.

I’m not sure what else to say: that I’m sorry you don’t like the direction the MCU is headed? That I’m sorry you’d rather routinely subject yourself to something awful, because it at least has stuff to talk about? Actually, I do have something to say about the latter: you’re insane. If you’re so interested in subjecting yourselves to tripe because ‘it turns you on’, then by all means grab a hot poker and shove up you rectum. You’ll need to be rushed to the hospital from third-degree burns, but you’ll get ‘the feels’.”

It’s easy to tell that I was angry when I wrote that, but my point remains: the MCU may have “issues” with how it’s presented, I’ll be the first to admit that, but saying that these issues are problems is arrogance. Because Marvel properties, for the most part, were abused in the hands of other studios for years, to the point where for every Spider-Man 2, we had Ghost Rider, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, The Punisher, The Punisher: War Zone, Daredevil, Elektra, Fantastic Four, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, X-Men 3: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Blade Trinity lining up behind (I’ll be kind and call Hulk and Spider-Man 3 “okay, yet messy”.) For years, Marvel movies were expected to suck, and they did. So now that the MCU is taking these characters and making them into recognizable names, well…I’ll take it.

Could these movies be better? Absolutely! It’d be great if Marvel eased up on demands and spent more time on films with distinctive styles, I’d be quite happy with that! But I’m fine with what we have, especially if it means that we don’t get a slew of what I call “50 shades of bleh!” It doesn’t even matter that there are more unique action films that go by unnoticed, like Pacific Rim, especially when most are, honestly, not as well-written/consistent as the MCU.

I’ll end this with a fitting comparison: back in 1977, when the first Star Wars movie was released, there was a fear from film enthusiasts that this would be the end of filmmaking; after all, George Lucas’s previous film was American Graffiti, one that embraced Old Hollywood’s risk-taking mentality. Star Wars Ep. IV: A New Hope, on the other hand, was a kitschy space serial with hokey acting, much to the dismay of many. Yet it endured, and 40 years later, the film’s a timeless classic. Perhaps that’s something people can take from the MCU? We don’t know what the future will bring, so maybe!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Curious Case of The Legend of Zelda

My problem with the Zelda franchise can be seen right from its first entry: you start in the middle of a field, then head through the cave opening above to acquire your first sword. You immediately leave the cave and begin searching for the first of the game’s dungeons. Except…it’s not so easy to find. Veterans will no doubt locate it with their eyes shut, but to the uninitiated it’s a trial-by-error of scouring the overworld, all-the-while avoiding enemies that overpower you.

And the game's consistently like this, with each of the objectives as a series of guesses and puzzles that have multiple wrong answers, but only one right. Sometimes the puzzles are simple and straight-forward, clear the area of enemies, but many aren’t. Who could’ve guessed that pushing the right block in the right direction would open up that blocked passageway? And who could’ve figured out that traversing the overworld in the right way would allow access to the next dungeon? Again, a veteran could do it blindfolded, but for a novice, which we all were in 1986, this is insanely frustrating!

This is the pattern that The Legend of Zelda, as well as its sequels, is guilty of: the game is meant to pick your brain, as no doubt it should, but there’s a fine line between thinking and guessing. The former stimulates the logical side of the brain, the one that works in patterns and comprehension, while the latter…frustrates you to no end. You can argue limitations all you want, or that most adventure games on the NES were this way, but if a game isn’t accessible to newcomers decades later, well…what’s the point?

Unfortunately, future games would rely on this formula for years to come. In fact, it’d only get worse with each entry, as advances in technology would create greater possibilities to redo a well-worn formula that wouldn’t see improvements or changes until The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Which begs the question: if the Zelda franchise is meant to be accessible to newcomers, then why does each one employ franchise history for its puzzles and boss fights? Why must each game have the same solution to an obstacle from 20+ years prior? How is that fun?

And here-in lies my fundamental issue with the Zelda franchise: it’s more tedious than enjoyable. I’m of the generation of gamers old enough to remember when the franchise was becoming mainstream, but while I had plenty of old material to reference, I still found that the core mechanics refused to evolve. Games have changed a lot since the 80’s, so there was no need to keep using a formula that may have worked then, but feels archaic now. Besides, aren’t video games supposed to be fun? Because being chained to walkthroughs and speed-runs isn’t fun!

I’m not kidding: I’ve played through over a half-a-dozen Zelda games, and all of them required a walkthrough to complete. Even then, not all entries were successfully completed. If I’m resorting to someone else’s cliff-notes in order to finish a Water Temple, then there’s a problem. I don’t care how highly-praised your game is, I shouldn’t have to do that to properly enjoy a video game. Because that’s homework, not entertainment.

Each game also has its own gimmick that adds to the challenge. Except that they also feel like a chore, which is doubly-annoying: love The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? Better get used to constantly visiting The Temple of Time in the second-half! Adore The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask? Hope you like time-limits! Enamoured by The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker? If that adoration includes lengthy sailing and hunting tirelessly for pieces of an ancient relic, then good for you!

Let’s not forget the in-game help! It seems like practically every 3D Zelda game has had an annoying companion that’s supposed to be helpful, yet isn’t. Whether it's Navi, Saria, Tatl, Midna or Fii, “help” in a Zelda game means interrupting you at awkward times with suggestions that break your focus and frustrate you. Even The Red Lion from The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, a talking boat you use to sail throughout the overworld, isn’t immune to this, and he’s actually helpful! And God forbid they say anything you don’t already know, right?

I know I’m being harsh on the Zelda franchise, but it’s only because so many people hand-wave my frustrations whenever I mention them. It’s not like these are badly-made games, either. Nintendo clearly cares about each entry, or they wouldn’t spend 3-4 years on average making them. But I can’t keep my mouth shut about what bothers me any longer, especially when they’ve been part of the public consciousness for so long.

I guess that also makes them reliably-predictable. It’s that predictability that lets me know that the item you acquire after each mini-boss will play a role in fighting the main boss. It’s that predictability that also lets me know that each main boss drops a full Heart Container when you beat them. But it’s also that predictability that lets me know that what I’m getting into will often be tedious and rely on past franchise knowledge and guesswork in order to appreciate. Some might call that fun, and I respect that, but for me it’s more of a hassle than it’s worth.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Subtextual AND Problematic?

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of watching this lovely little video on YouTube:

Why 80’s film fans drive me crazy: a case study. (Courtesy of Pop Culture Detective.)

Ignoring that there's a lot to unpack about Jonathan McIntosh as a person, I actually found the video quite interesting. The voiceover could use work, but Jonathan’s decision to shed light on the toxicity of Harrison Ford’s screen persona and why it embodies rape culture is something you’d never stop and think about unless it was pointed out that his most-iconic characters were kinda creepy. Granted, I think Han Solo’s relationship with Princess Leia got better and less-awkward over time, but…yeah, Indiana Jones will forever be disturbing.

This got me thinking, yet again, about the problematic nature of art. For those of you who’ve read my piece on why I hate the term “problematic”, you’ll know that it’s often used as a short-hand to dismiss a piece of narrative art’s function. By labelling something “problematic”, you overlook its merits, especially when said merits flip the material on their head.

This is noticeable in film especially because it’s a universal and broad-reaching medium that appeals to even those who aren’t fully-literate. Books or text narratives require basic fluency in written language, but while movies might have some textual components, especially when subtitled, for the most part a well-written film can make some sort of sense if muted and reliant solely on the visuals. The language of film is show-don’t-tell, after all, so even the most-complicated of narratives are streamlined in relation to books.

That doesn’t mean a film narrative can’t be discussed via a problematic lens of interpretation, because it can. One of the beauties of good cinema is that it lends itself well to interpretation on various levels: there’s the base, surface level, i.e. what you see, there’s the thematic level, i.e. what the film’s purpose is, and there’s the subtextual level, i.e. what the film’s really about. And even subtext-wise, there are different levels of analysis, how they function, and whether or not they convey positive or negative themes and lessons. Add in that film is the easiest medium to convey ideas to the largest group of people in the shortest amount of time, and you have a recipe for dense talking points compacted into 2+ hours.

So yeah, of course film can be discussed as “problematic”! But that “problematic” analysis should be tempered with expectations that, at the end of the day, it isn’t the only valid reading. It’s how The Matrix, a film that’s inspired white supremacists to “rebel against the system”, gets by as a classic despite being problematic: the white-lash was unintended. Like Fight Club and toxic masculinity, it wasn’t made to perpetuate evil.

The issue of intent VS consequence is also important when discussing the problematic nature of adaptations. Biblical epics, for example, have to frequently wrestle with their source material coming off as uncomfortable in the modern age, hence being problematic by default. However, by focusing on the problematic content only, you miss out on their intention, hence being more problematic. Plus, in the event where the story is “updated”, you risk the end result being even more problematic by alienating audiences. That a work is problematic shouldn’t be the end-game for shutting down discourse, especially when intent is key.

This extends to production history and/or the politics of filmmaking. Titanic is a revered film, even earning multiple Oscars, but its production history highlights how problematic a director James Cameron really is. I enjoy the MCU, but most of its big-name stars lead incredibly problematic lives. Even Hollywood’s constant spotlighting of certain groups over others is problematic, and it can lead to outright backlash when not fully-thought through until it’s too late. Everything about film, even down its inception, is problematic, hence why the word is so problematic to begin with.

Besides, I think there are bigger issues in a film that are worth discussing than their unintentionally-problematic components. Like how Ghost in the Shell, a film with problematic casting, made its whitewashing a major component of the overarching narrative. Or how Birth of a Nation, despite being a landmark achievement in filmmaking, is blatantly racist. Or how The Triumph of the Will, despite being problematic as a representation of Nazism in the early 30’s, is also praising Nazism. Being problematic isn’t the problem, framing the problematic material the wrong way is.

And that’s what really needs to be understood when discussing film. Is it problematic? In many ways, yes. But that’s to be expected. It doesn’t mean you should ignore the parts that are worrisome, but that also doesn’t mean that you should only focus on them exclusively. Because that’s even more problematic.

I still think that Harrison Ford’s characterizations in the 80’s were toxic, however.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Wonder Woman and the Faustian Bargain

I sometimes feel watching a movie’s like making a Faustian bargain: I give my time and money, and in exchange I expect the end result to woo me. This goes doubly-so for films from franchises with little-to-no expectations of quality, and even triply-so when said films end up good. The skepticism levels are too high, so either the film has to have some semblance of quality, or it fails. In the case of Wonder Woman, this couldn’t be more true.

It’s not like the film doesn’t already have a lot going against it: it’s the fourth entry in a series of films that haven’t been well-received thus far. It’s said franchise’s token entry about “the girl”. Said “girl” happens to be one of comics’ biggest feminist icons. The movie is also helmed by a female director, which is huge considering that Hollywood, let-alone the superhero genre, has yet to have any serious stand-outs there. On top of that, it’s the first time we’ve seen a superheroine film with a big-budget that looks like real time and effort went into it, as opposed to being a side-venture (Supergirl, Elektra) or a joke with money tossed at it (Catwoman). So yeah, no pressure.

When I first heard that Wonder Woman was getting good reviews, I was skeptical; after all, early feedback for Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice was also positive, and look how that turned out. Hearing the usual accolades at this point was tiring. It didn't matter that this was Wonder Woman, and that her official debut on the big-screen was quite significant for superheroines, I wasn’t ready to take the praise at full-value. It’s not unlike having your abusive, alcoholic ex-boyfriend go to rehab and come out clean: even if he’s being serious this time, past experience insists that you not trust him immediately. If Wonder Woman was really that good, I needed to see the results with my own eyes.

Then the review embargo went down, and my whole perception changed. For once, even if only once, the hype was matching the reviews! It was a miracle! It was unexpected! That a superheroine film could wow people no longer seemed like a fantasy, it was actually happening! For the first time, the DCEU, normally the bastion of awfulness, had done something right! But how?

Well, being a competently-made film definitely helps. One of the big issues gripping past superheroine films was their lack of competency. Either by relying on brand name to a fault, or simply putting a third-rate script together, past superheroines couldn’t be taken seriously in their own movies, especially compared to their male counterparts. This led to audiences not caring, thus causing them to tank, thus perpetuating the myth that audiences “didn’t want to see female-led superhero films”. It’s a shame because, honestly, a good chunk of superhero fans are women, so not catering to them means shutting out characters they can relate to.

All the more reason why Wonder Woman being a good movie is a big deal. It’s proof that not only can superheroines be worth writing about, but that they can do so without relying on brand name or tag-a-longs. Because Wonder Woman is a compelling character, and stories focused around her are worth exploring and telling. Especially in 2017, where women are accepted in almost every field out there.

What helps is that the director’s a woman. You’d think it wouldn’t matter, but most superheroines are thrown under the bus that is the “male gaze”. That’s not to say it’s impossible to be good anyway, see the original run of Jessica Jones, but there’s the issue of not having the right clarity to think like a woman if you’re a man. Patty Jenkins directed Monster, so having her tackle one of the greatest women in comics for the big-screen is seemingly ideal. That she pulls it off is no small miracle, especially in-light of previous DCEU films.

I’m not kidding. I may have avoided the DCEU up until now, but even as an outsider I knew people weren’t so hot on Man of Steel, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. These three movies propped up a filmic dumpster fire, so having a superheroine origin story be tossed into there was asking for trouble. That Wonder Woman ended up being good, let-alone great, is a testament to how even the biggest messes can be fixed with the right clean-up crew. It also reinforces how much more competent women are than men.

There’s really so much this movie does well that can’t be taken for granted. It still has that rough, dirty, realistic feel first established by Man of Steel, but where as that film suffered from sloppy pacing, disjointed writing, chaotic action and weak characterizations, this film is well-paced, well-written, has clear action and has characters that act and think believably. There’s no dialogue or logic that contradicts its grounded tone, it’s all cohesive. Bless it for that.

That’s not to say it doesn’t adhere to previous institutions of DCEU films. The atmosphere’s still grey. The colour’s still desaturated. And the costume designs are “edgier” than your typical affair. But Wonder Woman makes it work, and by the time the big finale happens, it’s excusable because the spectacle is earned.

There are other details that make it stand out from other comic book properties. The grainy quality of the film makes it look beautiful. The action scenes are clear to see, and the editing is tight. The music has recurring motifs, making its score more memorable than the MCU. Even its use of slow-motion, no doubt a contribution of Zack Snyder, feels artsy in the right way, being used to elevate tension or show off Wonder Woman’s prowess.

But above all else, it works. It, honestly, works better than most of the MCU, further proving that while I like Marvel, DC on their best day still blows them out of the water. Does this mean the DCEU's Faustian bargain is over? I’m not sure. This could be the start of a new leaf, but it could also be a one-off knowing the DCEU thus far. Regardless, Wonder Woman is a worthwhile endeavour that anyone can enjoy, and proves that superheroine films are viable cash-cows. So congratulations, DC, and your move, Marvel.