La La Land and the Winter Blockbuster

la-la-landI decided to hold off on writing up the last of my New York trip to discuss the movies, especially after seeing La La Land last Sunday night.

December is usually a crowded month as many directors pursue an Academy Award. Most of these films aren’t even that memorable; often flawlessly acted but without compelling scripts or interesting cinematography. Anything between science fiction and fantasy, or based on comics or pulp, rarely escape the technical awards category.

The most common winners (or high-reaching nominees) tend to fall into two categories. The first are the period dramas or the “based on true events” winners such as The King’s Speech, SpotlightArgo and 12 Years a Slaveas though Hollywood were trying to do important work by recording their vision of history. 

The second type however, is anything involving the struggling artist. In the last six years: The ArtistHugoBirdmanBlack Swan, and arguably Damien Chazelle’s prior film Whiplash. You can guess under which category this film falls.

Hence there’s little question that La La Land is a contender. Probably even the winner unless Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea are better than we realize (admittedly I’ve yet to see them), or if the academy finally feels this is the year to break ranks and put sci-fi film Arrival forward (unlikely but one can dream).

Like the Now Kiss! meme, producers have seen fit to pair Emma Stone with Ryan Gosling again (prior pairings include Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad) in a love letter to the whimsy of old movies, musicals and dance numbers. Gosling is Sebastian, a musician determined to reclaim his Jazz club after his last venture failed. Mia, portrayed by Stone, is a barista and aspiring actress who has yet to find her first big break.

Because it’s determined to pay respects to many facets of these gone-but-not-forgotten era performance pieces, La La Land stays away from any mundane formulas. Sometimes you get a tap dance routine almost out of the blue, sometimes it’s more a solo that tells a/the story in real time, while duet numbers tend to be these flights of fantasy that stretch a few seconds into three minutes of daydreams. As you can imagine, the latter category lends itself to romantic scenes of Venetian waltzes across the stars or fast paced montages through Paris and what could be. Cinematic care was taken to ease the audience into these moments: too long and the film risked going well over its two-hour length, too fast and it risked being jarring or unintentionally hilarious.

The former point about its running time was probably a factor in its somewhat abrupt leap to the ending. The movie would have been ripe to have been split into two parts (not sequels), as I felt somewhat cheated in this investment in the characters as a pair. The storyteller in me wants the whole.

But there’s no denying that this is an exceptional piece of movie making that everyone should see, even if musicals aren’t their normal fare. Damien Chazelle put genuine, hard effort into La La Land where as most other directors feel like they’re just doing the rounds; creating what they think the academy wants, relying heavily on the skills of their actors while crossing their fingers and hoping that the rest of the competition isn’t trying.

But the funny thing is, I’m not certain as many directors and studios followed that formula this year at all, with a dearth of dramatic movies and more “Winter Blockbusters.”

Doctor Strangerogue-one, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Assassin’s Creed and of course Rogue One (no spoilers, I have yet to see it). The strange thing is there were signs that maybe audiences preferred more action and adventure films in the colder months as far back as Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I suspect Hollywood dismissed the sign because of the existing popularity of Tolkien’s magnum opus. At least until one Mr. Eastwood made a movie about one American Sniperand Hollywood took notice of both the critical respectability and financial success that was.

And indeed, while most of these movies are franchises, they were still considered moderate risks: no one was exactly clamoring Marvel for Doctor Strange before, but we quickly loved it afterwards. Fantastic Beasts finally escapes the conflict between Harry Potter and Voldemort to tell its own great story. Assassin’s Creed is based on a video game (and reviews suggest it will fare no better than usual) while Rogue One is the first Star Wars film independent of the regular episodes.

But the numbers certainly suggest we could use hot action in the colder months. Maybe January of 2018 will see more interesting films than the first month of the year often gets.

C’est la Divertissement Vie. (That’s the Entertainment Life.)

Games:

I may seriously never purchase another game from Konami again.

mgsvYes, I’m late to the party. But their last great game, Metal Gear Solid V, was never given the chance to be completed. The game was delivered in an episodic fashion that spanned 50 missions. 51 was supposed to effectively be the game’s final boss battle. Cut material from the collector’s edition showed a half complete last episode, which would have been an excellent note to satisfy one last dangling plot thread and go out with a bang.

It was never released. And according to Konami’s spokesmen, never will be.

This information was never quite clear to me given the layouts of story-focused wikis, or the strategy guides and commentary boards that avoided discussing the plot for fear of spoilers: I only just learned of the mission conclusion after completing 89% of the game. But imagine, if you will, the Harry Potter series sans the final battle with Voldemort and the epilogue. Or Star Wars: Return of the Jedi without the Battle of Endor.

Others have covered the likely cause of this sad state of affairs better than I have, but the likely culprit was the Konami/Kojima split. I’ve played several Kojima games in my life and I know that he would never willingly leave a story incomplete. Of those titles were Zone of the Enders and its sequel, as well as Metal Gear Solid, Sons of Liberty and Snake Eater. While he always had more stories to tell, leaving the current arc incomplete was simply never his style.

Of the game itself, I could see how it was almost a masterpiece. Almost. The game play constantly brings me back again and again for its completeness, it’s total immersive elements. The depth of strategies is profound in and of itself, where no item or weapon ever seems to have just one purpose. Every game play session, I learn something new about how to combat my foes; some trick, a tactic or vantage point I never considered before. Even without the cut ending the story was somewhat weak, but this was countered with dozens of great moments that constantly made me forget vulnerabilities in the overall tale. Mission 51 would probably make me condone this, but I will never know for certain.

That being said, I refuse to give up after coming this far. I’ll see this through to the end but that is all, despite my disappointments and reservations.

Movies:

The Professional: Golgo 13golgo13 feels like something that could and should have been better.

Golgo 13, sometimes known as Duke Togo, is Japan’s answer to James Bond: an ageless, ongoing assassin whose stories often have to entertain without ever developing the man himself. Instead, the creators rely heavily on crafting sensational plot twists, over-the-top sex scenes, backstories for his victims, visually insane villains or researching mind-boggling but physically possible acts of sniping such as ricocheting a bullet off an ocean wave. Anything to avoid piercing the titular character’s stoic demeanor and mysterious allure.

In this film, Mr. Togo is contracted to end the life of Robert Dawson. However, it happens at a sensitive time during a company coronation, when Robert is dubbed the new CEO of a massive, massive enterprise. Although Togo succeeds, the contract’s legacy turns sour as the would-be CEO’s father (the current CEO Dawson) seeks revenge for the death of his son.

The beginning feels almost distracted by another contract that Golgo accepts, which concludes with him being chased by the FBI, CIA and Pentagon. All these agencies under the employ of Dawson himself, who wields his company’s power in a way that the Sherman Antitrust Act was exactly designed to prevent. Despite the threat, Togo seems oblivious to the danger and completes another contract. Only then does he realize how unrelenting the government’s hitmen are, as Golgo’s informants are either killed or turn on him.

The visual style of The Professional was somewhat distracting. While the action scenes were straight forward, coherent and well handled, Director Osamu Dezaki seemed determined to punch up even basic dialogue with flair unnecessarily. The movie also used some CGI animations to handle some helicopter assault scenes, but the technology was simply too immature at the time to effectively tell a story. Likewise, the story concocted several Bond-level villains for Golgo to fight as well, the story actually suffers from the introduction of too many antagonists to effectively develop in its 90 minute running time. However, the final plot twist at the end was somewhat satisfying (highlight to see spoiler): It turns out that Robert Dawson ordered the hit on himself, an act of suicide because of his fear of being unable to live up to his father’s expectations.

Television:

I gave up on Orphan BlackAmazon’s sci-fi series about clones.

“Where’s this madness going?” I asked myself after the ninth episode of season two. The plot consisted of most of the characters milling about in circles. Once again, the protagonist’s daughter had been kidnapped, after a long season of hiding about the countryside to no real effect. Meanwhile, antagonist Helena was stolen by some strange religion-meets-genetics commune who took her eggs. After she escaped and then willfully came back, she threatened a harsh nanny for mistreating the children under her care, not long before Helena sets the compound on flame regardless of the lives of the kids inside.

Characters portrayed by anyone besides Tatiana Maslany became less interesting, and except for concerns regarding a genetic disease amongst the show’s many clones, the entire season felt like little more than “filler.” ggrThe show felt like it willfully resisted growth despite a strong first season. Only Maslany’s skillful acting kept me going this far, as she slips in and out of versions of herself in a believable manner.

On the plus side however was Good Girls Revolt, an amusing and unexpected show actually made me realize how bloody boring Mad Men sometimes was.

I can see how Good Girls Revolt was probably stiff-armed by Amazon for years until the latter show came to an end. Mad Men was/is the Oscar of television, but sometimes didn’t feel like it wore enough of the sixties (at least the pieces we wanted to remember) on its sleeve. GGR certainly does, but the other huge difference is that the series focuses around one major climax that the main characters built towards through behind-the-scenes politicking and subterfuge.

The girls seemed to truly wrestle with their guilt; a sharp contrast to the occasional acts of Mad Men’s cruel, tragic and unapologetic attitude.

The bad news however is that the show isn’t going to get a second season, at least not on Amazon. One aspect downplayed is that GGR is built on real events, namely Newsweek’s EEOC lawsuit in 1969. Although the name was changed to the fictional “News of the Week,” the historic aspects are still very highlighted. It’s safe to doubt that Newsweek enjoyed someone dredging up a nearly 50 year-old legal filing that put them in a bad light. And I could see why Amazon might not want to start a mudslinging contest with the news outlet in all in the name of entertainment.

Ant-Man Review

antmanThis review is a critical analysis of the movie, and as such there are spoilers. 

There’s a part of me that secretly worries Ant-Man may just be the outlier, the black sheep of Marvel Studios. Originally to be directed by comic genius Edgar Wright, that duty passed to Peyton Reed, who did an exceptional job of bringing our tiny hero to the screen. Wright’s departure was earmarked as being one of “creative differences.” One reasonable explanation was that Wright began his work on Ant-Man in 2006, when Marvel (as a cinematic studio) was still young. During the course of the script’s development, the studio was acquired by Disney, which changed their direction considerably. As a result, the introduction of the greater Marvel universe was a factor in Wright’s decision to leave.

In that sense, Ant-Man is a marvel in and of itself. It’s rare that multiple visions blend and arrive at something cohesive, as the recent Fantastic Four movie has so reminded audiences. The original script may still bear resemblance to Wright’s work, but it has been altered by both Adam McKay and star Paul Rudd with input from Marvel. Reed as director also must have added his own touches.

From start to end, Ant-Man does an exceptional job of shaking up the usual tropes that have come to dominate comic book derived films. Sam Raimi is probably the most thought of director for establishing these conventions in his overall impressive Spider-Man trilogy (I leave your opinion of Spider-Man 3 to you, dear audience.) I like to believe that Wright respected this and worked with the original source material to avoid these cliches.

Rather than a young man still wrestling with his budding sense of morality, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a former thief recently paroled for a righteous heist against his former company. Despite his good intentions a crime is still a crime, and Lang is divorced and kept at arm’s length from his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) until he can at least provide child support payments, a challenge given his background. The usual moral convictions many super heroes earn from mistakes are set aside for a more understandable desire to be connected with family.

antzMeanwhile, former Ant-Man Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) returns to the company from which his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and former protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) expelled him. There Pym witnesses the unveiling of the Yellow Jacket, a suit that uses a modified version of his size altering particles to shrink and grow.

Realizing what Cross is about to unleash on the world, Pym takes the steps to recruit Lang and pass on the mantle. This flies against the wishes of his grudge-bearing daughter, who now spies against Cross and sees herself using the suit to stop the Yellowjacket.

Ant-Man has a number of themes worth mentioning. Broken families are a constant for both the main characters. One tries to mend the damage caused by his absence, the other is trying to prevent it. Rather than some unrealistic sense of healing the fractured relationships perfectly, there is more an acceptance of the imperfections and general good will to try and become better men. Although it takes a dramatic act on the parts of the characters to prove they truly mean it.

Hope_Van_DyneThere’s also an insinuation that corporations were inherently malevolent; while Iron Man was more inclined to take the view that companies represent the views of their owners, every corporation in Ant-Man is at worst morally corrupt and at best unkind. VistaCorp, Stark Industries and the current Pym Technologies are varying degrees of villains.

Even Baskin Robbins (of all businesses) gets teased, as they eventually learn of Lang’s criminal past and terminate his employment with them. Given the swiftly established likability of Rudd’s character, this casts the ice-cream giant in a negative light for being unwilling to give our hero a second chance.

But the hints of redemption are the best elements of all. More on that in a moment.

Michael Douglas is far more than good as Hank Pym. He crafts a brilliant and angry character, portraying Pym’s ardor in several degrees that never grow dull. From a provoked violent streak to calmly delivered sarcasm and frustrations with his daughter, the trio of van Dyne, Cross and Pym make for a satisfying though partial story. Cross, I feel, wasn’t the under developed villain many critics think he was. Rather I believe Reed wisely veered away from revealing too much of Cross’ motivations for fear of indirectly illuminating Hank Pym’s secrets too early. The two men’s histories are, after all, greatly entwined.

Redemption requires regret, and that’s a line that Marvel seems to tread with care. In the original comics, Hank Pym has a history of domestic violence towards his wife Janet van Dyne. A single act during the 80s is perceived as accidental, but the more recent Ultimates series portrayed Pym as mentally unstable, and left no doubt that abuse was on-going.

hank pymThe movie seems to insinuate, based on Cross’ increasingly erratic behavior, that this is a side-effect of prolonged exposure to the Pym particle. It is possible that Pym’s secrets were simply remorse for the fate of Janet, but it could also imply that the MCU Pym may have mistreated his wife as well. This issue is not something to be casually tossed into the script without prudence and remorse, something Ant-Man didn’t have time to approach.

Likewise, Rudd’s Scott Lang has a similar need for a second chance. But while people can be on the fence about Pym, Lang is instantly likable, not really flawed but rather carrying the burden of his mistake. Even the Baskin Robbins’ manager was sympathetic as to the reason for his criminal history despite still having to fire him. You see Lang trying against the odds to be there for his daughter when it actually matters and not years down the road after the heavy lifting has been complete. Lang is so cool, he even helps make sense of Pym’s concern for his daughter, articulating with emphatic brilliance why Pym was so reluctant to let his daughter be the Ant-(Wo)man, and helping to cement another path for her.

With regard to that future, I am rather excited for the possibility of Evangeline Lilly as the future Wasp in the MCU. Marvel has suffered from a lack of good super heroines due to Fox Studios possessing the rights to the X-Men, and Lilly is a great actress who portrays Hope van Dyne with an emotional depth surpassing Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow (Elizabeth Olsen hasn’t had much time to fully mature into her role as the Scarlet Witch yet.) It has also been suggested that Janet van Dyne may someday return, as Scott Lang figured his way out of sub-atomic space. But if Lang could, then what of Darren Cross?

smp-ant-man_612x380

Ant-Man is easily one of Marvel’s best movies. It’s fun, it’s funny, and although it hints at the Avengers it never really needs them. It values wit, smarts and charm over power, and these factors put it more on par with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. One would never believe that someone could take a hero named Ant-Man seriously, but not only does it succeed, it does so over the sound of laughter.

Déjà Vu

The title will probably make sense in a moment.

It has been an incredibly chill weekend for me. Television wise, I started finishing off the final episodes of this season’s Game of Thrones. But more awesomely, I completed the second season of Penny Dreadful. The series greatly improved over the first, being better rounded with its character development, stronger with its emotional impact and incredibly addictive story line, yet still setting and expanding the greater stage. I’m not going to go into too much detail right now simply because it deserves a full, in depth review later.

But Penny Dreadful isn’t alone in deserving discussion. I finally saw Ant-Man this Sunday. It was interesting hearing people’s various gripes regarding the movie, but I had a terrible amount of fun and couldn’t help but think it one of the Marvel’s best. If you’re a little tired of the superhero movie, or even if superhero movies aren’t normally your thing, Ant-Man is unusual and trope toppling as to be worth catching in theaters. This too will probably deserve a full review.

On the gaming front, I’ve been working through Final Fantasy VII for the PC. I’ve been taking my sweet time too, building great levels, earning my Limit Breaks and strengthening my materia early on. In the plot, I only just finished visiting Cosmo Canyon. I’m curious as to what changes will be made for the upcoming remake, so at least now my memory will be fresh.

Finally, writing.

Hate to say it, but I had my hopes up to submit to a “hunting” based submission call. The window of opportunity, being open in Australia, closed at 10:00 am EST. My story had more than 5,000 words down, but it just wasn’t ready yet and still required formatting. The story will be complete and submitted elsewhere. It’s not a total loss, just not what I hoped for.

On the plus side however, I did finish cementing some publishing deals and took care of some domains that I would be needing. For starters, I finally started my own website at www.jamesfadeley.com. As well as my own company, Thunderbird Studios.

At the moment, Thunderbird Studios is more of a tool than a company. An easier means of managing sales concerns and building a brand. My friends and I have a horde of ideas to put together, including a friendly, fan facing Wikipedia for an upcoming series. We plan to go full scale with certain ideas in the next year, but for the time being are content just to tinker and get our technological infrastructure down.

Comic Book Movies vs The Oscars

oscars-nominations-marvelI caught bits and pieces of the Oscars on Sunday while working hard on my novel. And based upon what I saw, heard and read both during and after, I can’t help but think this may have been the single most contentious year in the award show’s history.

The spectacle felt like it managed in someway to rile, vex or anger almost everyone at some point. And I don’t mean in the funny, early Family Guy way. Several political statements were made, ranging from Selma and racial diversity to pay gaps for women. Edward Snowden winning an Oscar for best documentary and a somewhat brow raising comment from Sean Penn involving Birdman director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and a green card.

But to be fair, at least these statements were somewhat counter balanced by moments of emotional connection. Such as when J.K. Simmons pushed the audience to call their parents. Or when Dana Perry called for suicide awareness, and Graham Moore encouraged kids who are struggling to fit in and find a place in life to stay weird.

And then there were the good old fashioned disappointments, such as The Lego Movie not even being considered for best animated film (which went to Big Hero 6.) And despite an incredible showing at the box office, American Sniper lost to Birdman for best picture, which dismayed conservatives who loved Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper’s biopic about Sniper Chris Kyle.

I’ve actually seen both films. The fact that American Sniper is a biographical film kind of tempers my response, and not because it’s bad. It’s a fantastic film. But I loathed myself whenever I enjoyed watching it, as my conscience struck me with a rolled newspaper, shouting, “These events actually happened! How the hell can you say you are entertained by this movie?” Eastwood has crafted his best movie yet. But by walking the non-fiction line, the film demands respect that curbs one’s enthusiasm.

But I digress.

It is actually an intriguing coincidence that Birdman is about former superhero actor Riggan (Michael Keaton) who is trying to put together a Broadway performance to prove he can create art. The movie follows a pattern of high-personal drama storytelling, as the play’s previews always find a way to go wrong, inciting powerful, stressful and volatile reactions from the actors and producers involved. Riggan in particular wrestles with his alter ego Birdman who whispers old glories in his ear, and constantly urges him to return to the camera. All this, while play critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) desires to destroy Riggan’s efforts out of hatred for “movie star frauds,” adding to the already intense pressure.

That last point seems to hit a sensitive nerve both in the movie and reality. After the Oscars, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn addressed some quips against superhero films that happened during the award show.

I feel that Gunn is only giving voice to a frustration that has been mounting for sometime in the film industry. As John Scalzi correctly pointed out in 2008, no superhero flick has ever been nominated for best picture. But against his prediction then that The Dark Knight might be nominated, the aforementioned fact remains true even today. Although Heath Ledger did posthumously receive the academy award for best supporting actor that year, it does feel like superhero movies aren’t exactly respected.

Guardians-of-the-GalaxyGuardians of the Galaxy is intriguing because it’s a great, fun and very successful film that has nearly reached cult status. I actually like it even more than The Avengers if you’d believe it, perhaps because Gunn united an ensemble cast built on no prior movies and still totally nailed it. Yet at the same time, many of the film’s fans love it a little too passionately, somehow giving it 110%, A+++. Thus despite how good the movie is already, they still found a way to make it impossibly overrated.

This is not a knock on Guardians of the Galaxy. I will probably catch its sequel opening day with a smile on my face. It’s just that the fans need to calm down a notch.

But it’s worth discussing. Guardians of the Galaxy was packed full of aliens who felt more human and more emotionally deep than most other characters we’ve seen on the big screen. Science fiction, horror and fantasy can be even more potent than drama, because those genres force us to explore the human reaction to events, technologies, politics and peoples that we may never normally interact with. So why is it that some look down on the mere attempt to explore our potential in a theoretical and thoroughly fictional context? Is it because they want the fiction to always mirror reality, for the masses to know the cultural elite’s struggle to make it in the industry?

I could certainly believe that latter point. In 2011, the films The Artist and Hugo both revolved around the struggle of an actor and movie director respectively. And both films did very, very well for themselves with the academy, as well as other award ceremonies. The insinuation that the winners should be those who best reflect the personal strife within the industry only adds fuel to the fire, and raises the timeless question of how we should define art.

But before I close out, I will say that Birdman was a very good film. Did it deserve best picture? I can’t even say. There’s no question in my mind that it deserved the nomination. But I will say it’s almost ironic… that the winner depicts some of the frustrations and grievances that Gunn, and many other genre defining directors, bear.

Star Wars Episode VII

As I drove into work this morning, I was thinking about the very thing that was every nerd’s mind right now. Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilms, and the upcoming new installment to the Star Wars franchise. Episode VII.

As I considered the possibilities, I couldn’t help but feel that there’s just no way the Star Wars movies could get worse after the most recent trilogy of episodes I through III. Web comic artist Zach Weiner(…smith) nailed the sentiments on the head with his tweet on the matter.

In her defense, she's probably the only Disney Princess with a blaster...

In her defense, she’s probably the only Disney Princess with a blaster…

The purchase is a blessing and a curse in my opinion. On one hand, Disney has had very impressive returns after purchasing Marvel. The downside is that Disney would have a lot of incentive to avoid some of the darker themes that were explored in the third episode and persisted through the original trilogy.

I honestly have very, very little idea what Episode VII would contain. My understanding is that the ideas and story for tales of a post-Imperial galaxy exist. Several novels suggest as much. But I really don’t know what to expect. Disney gave themselves a due date of 2015, so I’d like to think they had a game plan on the table. At least a script of somekind and a few ideas of what to look for cast wise.

To be honest, my favorite area of the Star Wars franchise is actually the awesome Knights of the Old Republic series by BioWare. The intriguing first game was so good, I beat it and immediately started a new character. While I haven’t touched the MMORPG, the single player games were fairly awesome and I hope Disney has the guts to continue making them. Perhaps even talk to BioWare about a new KotOR trilogy in the same continuous vein of Mass Effect.

While I don’t know if Disney can do as well as the original movie trilogy, I don’t think they can do as badly as the prequel trilogy. It will probably help that Lucas will not be directing it. Episodes V and VI were not directed by him for one. Guess we’ll find out in a couple of years.