Monday, July 13, 2020

"LOOM"

When I was a kid, my dad "borrowed" and never gave back (i.e. stole) a CD of LucasArts games from his work, a disc for Macintosh computer featuring The Secret of Monkey Island, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, and, if I recall correctly, Pipe Dream. The first of these would go on to be one of my favourite games of all time (bested only by its own sequel). But another game on that disc was LOOM.
These days I think of myself as someone who knows LucasArts adventure games, but the truth is the games I really know are The Monkey Island series, and the other ones I've played and finished are the two Indiana Jones games (Last Crusade and Fate of Atlantis), Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max Hit the Road, and Grim Fandango. I've played a bit of, but never finished, Maniac Mansion and Zac McKracken, I don't think I've ever played The Dig, and the one time I tried to play the full version of Full Throttle its unintuitive (in my view) puzzles annoyed me so much that I stopped. But I always forget about LOOM.
I definitely played LOOM as a kid, albeit without the copy protection information allowing the player to leave the opening island, and saw m'colleague playing the rest of it later in my youth, but I'd never played the full thing until this last week in which I decided to sit down and experience the full adventure of Bobbin Threadbare of the Guild of Weavers. The game has a point-and-click interface in which Bobbin must use his magical distaff to interact with objects in the world by playing various "drafts", i.e. magic spells. There are no dialogue trees and there's no inventory.
The two things people generally say about LOOM is that it's easy and it's short. I'm not entirely sure of the first part — as with all LucasArts adventure games I feel like some puzzle solutions suffered from not clearly indicating that it was even possible to try certain actions, let alone accomplish them. The second part I definitely agree with. The game feels as if it has only just established its world and cast of characters when it rushes to its dénouement. Maybe it was because I was only familiar with the first section, but the opening Loom Island portion of the game, in which you are introduced to the distaff mechanic, I always assumed was a mere prologue to a much larger experience, but it isn't really. After you escape from Loom Island, the game only has one other "open" section, Crystalgard, which really only features a single puzzle, and it then becomes more or less a linear sequence of set pieces until the end.
So LOOM feels a little bit underdone, especially compared to the LucasArts games which came out around it, namely Indy 3 and Monkey 1. We don't get to spend much time with any characters, and the plot moves extremely quickly. The whole thing almost feels more like a proof-of-concept for a larger experience that never came to fruition, and I suppose given that it was designed with the idea of two sequels which were never developed this makes sense, but again the linearity of the second half of the game emphasises a sense of unfulfilled potential, in which there could have been much more room for experimentation.
Like all LucasArts games, one thing LOOM does well is atmosphere. Partly this is due to its Tchaikovsky-derived soundtrack and early-90s LucasArts' ever-pleasant pixel visuals. However, it's also enhanced by the world that it imagines. LOOM's world is truly fantasy, with much magic and no visible modern technology, but it doesn't just present itself as a pseudo-medieval pastiche; there are no kings, knights or bedraggled peasants, just guilds of different artisans who all use magic in their own unique ways: shepherds who render themselves invisible to stealthily guard their flocks, blacksmiths who craft weapons of exceptional quality, clerics who dabble in necromancy, glassmakers who make scrying spheres, and the weavers, who warp the very fabric of reality itself. The guilds have distinctive outfits, unique visual styles and appropriate names. Thus the game presents itself with a fantasy world which truly feels "fantastic", a world of high magic and possibility, not just medieval Europe with wizards. One thing I especially appreciate is that the game does not use invented languages or similar, instead creating names from suitable arrangements of English words.
Of course, in some respects, this refreshing potential only makes LOOM's short and simple nature feel more unsatisfying. However, I'm immediately intrigued by the bits of story we hear about the past; when did the Age of the Great Guilds come into being, and how? What were the First and Second Shadows that seem to have threatened the world previously? Maybe this is revealed in the audio drama which accompanied the game's EGA graphics release (I've listened and it doesn't add much), but it creates a sense of wonder, of a world we can both understand (the professions are relatable, albeit magical), and speculate about regarding its broader story. Perhaps it's a shame that there were never any sequels to LOOM, but equally perhaps there's no harm in it being left to fire a player's imagination thirty years later. That's also something to say in favour of the LucasArts adventures; unlike some games of their era, they're still actually playable without immense frustration. And perhaps with the benefit of hindsight we can interpret LOOM less as a sprawling puzzle game in the vein of Monkey Island or Myst, and more as an early graphics-driven example of a visual novel or interactive storytelling with a puzzle element, which of course has only become more and more common as game development tools have become more accessible.
With that in mind, then, I think LOOM is worth thinking about in two ways: firstly, it's a taste of what was to come in player-driven audio-visual experiences. Secondly, and strikingly, however, it's a good example of what fantasy could be and, in my experience, still rarely is: something truly distinctive and imaginative, while simultaneously having a grounded narrative. Imagine what could be made with today's tools yet with the simple, but powerful, spellbinding of LOOM? And thirty years later it feels like it's still waiting to be the creative inspiration it deserves to be.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Hindsight: A 2019 Cinematic Retrospective

If you'll excuse the inevitably rapid senescence of this contextual gag, back when you could go to the cinema I went and saw a bunch of films. Many, if not most, if not all of them, are your usual Hollywood fare. But let's begin at the beginning, shall we?

Films I didn't see in 2019
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part
This didn't half bomb, did it? I only saw the first one shortly before the trailer for this one came out, and it looked reasonably amusing, I suppose. But then it came out and no one cared. I'm kind of curious as to why this did so badly at the box office, but all the articles I've read on the subject are rather wishy-washy. My gut instinct is that it was a combination of poor marketing and too great a distance of time between the first instalment and this. Market saturation has been blamed but I don't think anyone cared about Lego Batman or the Ninjago (?) movie. I think they just waited too long and didn't push hard enough. They probably didn't give the public enough of a reason to be interested in seeing the continuing adventures of Emmet, Wyldstyle and friends.

The Curse of La Llorona
I think I've given up on the spinoff parts of the Conjuring franchise after The Nun. Heard it was bad, didn't even bother. It's always directors with absolutely no experience doing these things, isn't it? Writers/script editors who are just dumped in the director's chair because James Wan and now David Sandberg are too busy making expensive films.

Dark Phoenix
Heard this was bad too, but admittedly I've never bothered to watch any of them at the cinema since either First Class or Origins: Wolverine, whichever came last. Might check it out one day if I'm really desperate for some X-Men. Wasn't this directed by the same guy who wrote X-Men 3, which was also about the Dark Phoenix storyline and was also bad? God knows what Fox were thinking there. "Give him another chance, eh?"

Annabelle Comes Home
See my remarks re La Llorona above. Even the presence of Wilson and Farmiga (which I assume was brief) couldn't entice me back. Plus they recast the role of Judy, yet the original actress is going to be in Conjuring 3, I believe. Hard to make it feel like an effective side story.


Zombieland: Double Tap
It's been obvious for years that a sequel to the original Zombieland was on the cards because the Facebook page has been maintaining a steady if low rumble of marketing for a long time. But in 2009 when the original came out I was 19 and the revived zombie apocalypse craze was at its height with the Left 4 Dead games and the like. Ten years later, my interest is just not really there.
Update: Yet I watched this a few days later. It's pointless, the cast surely all have better things to do, it has none of the freshness of the original, the plot is sloppy and lacking in structure, and virtually none of the alleged emotional moments are afforded any weight, yet I laughed and had a good time watching it. Perhaps it could have made more of the significance of the "evolved" zombies, of the relationships between the main characters, and the dramatic potential of the new characters, but evidently that wasn't really the point. Completely inessential, but surprisingly fun.

Films I wouldn't mind seeing
Ophelia (maybe)
I don't think this is actually meant to be that good, but it'd be nice to see Daisy Ridley in a more serious role.

The Lodge
The trailers looked a bit silly but it got good reviews. And even "okayish" horror films are often more engaging or at least more atmospheric than "okayish" films in bigger-budget genres. I hope to check this out at some point.

Films I did see
The Favourite
Technically a 2018 film, but I saw it in 2019. Everyone knows it was good. I just want to point out what an odd rarity it is to watch a contemporary film in which the historical background is the War of the Spanish Succession. Not my favourite Lanthimos, that's probably The Killing of a Sacred Deer (although I haven't watched Dogtooth yet), but it lived up to the hype.

Captain Marvel
It was decent, like most of the Marvel superhero films. See my review here.

Us
Like a number of people who saw Us, I fall into the "I wish he hadn't revealed what was going on with the doubles" camp. Other than that I thought it was pretty thrilling, maybe even better than Get Out, although they're both very much cut from that quasi-Twilight Zone mould. Plus this one had Tim Heidecker in it.

Shazam!
More fun than Captain Marvel, if a bit sloppy. Full review here.

The Wind
This originally came out on the festival scene in 2018 but didn't get a cinematic release in the States until 2019 and only got a DVD release here. It's a sort of dual narrative, with a present storyline interspersed by flashbacks, and this structure is laboured somewhat excessively in my view, but the present narrative is a great highlight with a terrible, crushing feeling of isolation and paranoia. This was brought to my attention by the tie-in game by Airdorf, maker of the excellent FAITH series of horror games, and I'm glad to have seen it.

Avengers: Endgame
Meh. Full review here.

Tolkien
It's a tepid biopic without much focus or direction. Is it about Tolkien's romance with Edith, his friendship with G.B. Smith, his writing inspiration, or his experiences in the war? The film doesn't seem to be entirely sure, and doesn't deliver much insight about the man. A particularly obvious issue is the fact that the film leads up to him starting The Hobbit, which is to say the work of his with which general audiences are familiar, and completely omits the decades of narrative writing he did, admittedly mostly for his private interest at the time, beforehand. If anything, the story of The Fall of Gondolin is the most immediately relevant tale of Middle-earth for his early life because it's the one he wrote first, but the film either can't mention this because of copyright issues or won't because it's scared of alienating the general audiences who probably wouldn't have gone and seen this film anyway. His life simply wasn't that interesting, and the film avoids real issues, such as much of the influence of Catholicism on his life and how that affected his writing and relationships. I know lots of people have said that, but a lot of people who have said that are, I suspect, Catholics who want to indulge in conspiracy theories about why the Church would be passé in a light biopic (as if any of us need more reasons). But I'm not religious and am certainly not a Catholic, yet it still stood out to me. It's just not much of a film.

2040
This is my local item, a nice little documentary about how already-existing technologies, if implemented more effectively and widely, could drastically improve the Earth's environmental conditions right now. I do feel like it was a bit soft, putting too much onus on the community and not enough on governments and industry or business, but it also implies that that is an additional benefit, i.e. that community environmentalism might foster the, ahem, withering away of such things. I appreciated that.

Toy Story 4
I was intrigued about this being a story reuniting Woody with Bo Peep, but I didn't feel like this added anything new to Toy Story, which more or less wrapped itself up neatly in the near-perfect third film.

Spider-Man: Far From Home
This was pretty good, confirming Tom Holland as most likely the best cinematic Spider-Man and presenting an effective continuation of the "cinematic universe" after Endgame. Mysterio was handled appealingly and his illusions made for some engaging set pieces, and the balance between the Peter Parker stuff and the superhero stuff was funny and reasonably heartwarming. Probably better than Homecoming and almost certainly the best of the three cinematic universe pieces of the year.

Midsommar
It's good! But so was Hereditary, and while Hereditary felt in many ways like a moodier, classier take on the classic familial deal-with-the-Devil tale, Midsommar was a little too familiar having seen the original The Wicker Man not too many years ago. That being said, it's visually striking and the representation of passive-aggressive mind games and gaslighting does give it unique qualities. Probably the best stuff, however, is the opening and the occasional flashbacks to the horrific family annihilation sequence that starts the film.

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood
It's okay? Yeah, it's cool that Tarantino still has enough clout to do his own thing, and parts of this, such as the cowboy show scene, were fun, but I found chunks of it a little too slow for its own good, and in my head it's completely melting into the Coen Brothers' Hail, Caesar! from 2016. But I get that the film is good (and also bittersweet) simply because it exists, even if it didn't blow my mind.

Joker
Taxi Driver with clowns. See my full review here.

Jojo Rabbit
Taikia Watiti takes what sounds like an incredibly disturbing novel about the Holocaust and turns it into a relatively light-hearted and life-affirming comedy. This was a fun watch, but it suffers from, in my opinion, the general issue with Watiti's films, which is that they become unfocused. The first act, with Jojo at the camp, is strong and clear, but after he goes back home things become rather more fragmentary just as the narrative actually gets going, with Jojo negotiating between his Nazi brainwashing and the presence of a Jewish girl in the house. As I say, it's quite funny, and Stephen Merchant's scene is great. It just feels a bit sloppy, Scarlett Johansson is hardly giving her all, and the young lead feels a touch out of his depth.

The Lighthouse
Much like Midsommar to Hereditary, The Lighthouse is perhaps not quite as good as The Witch, although it's still very tense and stylish. It just perhaps plays its "the characters are insane" concept a little too heavy-handedly. Dafoe and Pattinson play off each other very well, and the depiction of isolation, drudgery, sordidness and "cabin fever" are well realised. Visually it's also very tight and suffocating, in almost a square aspect ratio and entirely in black and white. A touch overplayed, but gripping nonetheless. 

Marriage Story
"Being aliiiive! Beeing aliiiiive! Be-ing a-liiiiiiive!" Anyway, this is quite an engrossing character piece, although it's slow and, once again, I wasn't super impressed with Scarlett Johansson, but it was certainly the Adam Driver performance I preferred of the two I saw in 2019. In fact, Driver is the highlight in my view, although Laura Dern and Alan Alda both give memorable performances too. Not being either a divorcee or a child of divorce, I'm not sure this had the impact for me that some people have described, but it's still both moving and funny; however I think my attitude towards Joker might be applicable to this if you've seen Kramer vs. Kramer.

Knives Out
Whaddya know, Rian Johnson continues to be a good writer-director. Full review here.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
It's dumb and squandered the best parts of The Last Jedi to make what is basically a DC fiasco in a galaxy far, far away. My extended thoughts are here.

1917
Watch out for those wicked Jerries! It's like watching someone play a video game, the Germans are cartoonishly evil, and the characters are pretty thinly-written, but it's visually engaging, fairly historically accurate in terms of costumes, props and the like, and you do feel the men's desperation. Definitely one of the stronger war films of recent years, and good to see the First getting some attention rather than the Second.

So that brings us to...

Worst 2019 film I saw
Easy. The Rise of Skywalker. And not because I think "Disney ruined Star Wars" or something; I mean I overall like... half... of The Last Jedi, for goodness' sake. No, it's because Rise of Skywalker was sloppy, lazy and dramatically inert.

Best 2019 film I saw
Maybe Knives Out? Nothing stands out as a particular highlight; a number of strong items such as Midsommar and The Lighthouse, plus some better-than-average Hollywood fare such as Spider-Man and Shazam! are at least worth mentioning. I guess more good ones are better than a bunch of crap and only a single highlight, maybe. Maybe I just need to watch a wider variety of films.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Rise of Skywalker: Initial (manic) reactions

SPOILER WARNING
Pictures to follow.
I changed my mind about both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi upon rewatch, the latter admittedly to a greater extent, so I can't necessarily trust my reaction to the latest instalment of Star Wars, but I also can't deny it when one of my reactions, unlike those previous two, is "I'm not sure whether I even want to see it again."
On the simplest level, my reaction to The Rise of Skywalker is that I was bored and bewildered simultaneously. The film is paced utterly frenetically, with almost no room for character development, and it's hugely plot driven to an embarrassing extent, with little real sense of natural conflict. As a result, it doesn't feel much like a Star Wars film at all, which both of its predecessors, in my view, did in their best moments, especially The Last Jedi.
It's been argued that the Sequel Trilogy had nowhere to go after Episode VIII, but to me it was fairly obvious: how will Rey fulfill her role as leader and inheritor of a great legacy? How will Kylo Ren be redeemed? What's noteworthy about this is that in this structure the conflict between the Resistance and the First Order is not particularly important; it's just dressing for the story of two young people who find themselves in positions in which their decisions will affect the fate of many: not a bad place for a narrative, in my view.
The Rise of Skywalker, however, either doesn't recognise this or doesn't want to, because while the film touches upon these points amid its relentless Macguffin-driven plotting, it pays them so little attention and breathing room amid the endless journeying and changing of location that they are practically lost, and in this regard the film, in contrast to, to make an obvious comparison, Return of the Jedi, cannot deliver a clear and satisfying resolution for its primary hero and villain.
The film has a handful of good moments, mostly centred around the bond between Rey and Kylo, and Kylo's moment of redemption, but these are soon over. In its inability to construct a character-driven drama, the film lurches from place to place in an exhausting fashion, struggling to give Poe and Finn some depth by giving them single conversations with irrelevant secondary characters who contribute nothing to the story. The film also suffers in its use of the legacy characters, with the exception of Han. The presence of Leia, achieved using old footage of Carrie Fisher, is unnecessary and encumbers the writing, and Luke's scene has absolutely no presence or gravitas, especially in contrast to Yoda's appearance in The Last Jedi.
The film is also frustrating in its cowardice and laziness, undermining the previous film by presenting Rey as Palpatine's inexplicable long lost granddaughter and using Palpatine as its villain rather than driving its narrative through meaningful conflict between Rey and Kylo. Instead of taking a mature approach in continuing the previous film's narrative it tries to create a new and arbitrary threat which also undermines the previous trilogy. The story structure and writing feel "off", out of kilter with the other films in their heavy focus on exposition, and consequently lack emotional impact.
I shouldn't be surprised that a film cowritten by Chris Terrio, who worked on some of DC's worst recent offerings, felt this way, but it's frustrating to see this writing inflicted on characters who may have had some potential for a satisfying resolution in more subtle hands. I feel particularly sorry for Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, who are given roles with none of the relative meatiness of the previous film outside of a couple of scenes still compromised by the grotesque focus on Star-Wars-mythology-based exposition. Their characters are not allowed to reach satisfying dramatic conclusions, only endings produced by the inertia of the plot; Rey wielding two lightsabers to disintegrate Palpatine with his own lightning means nothing when it's not clear what character journey is being completed in that moment.
The film wants to do something interesting with showing Rey's temptation by the dark side, and a noteworthy highlight is when Rey, in her desperation to save Chewie (she thinks) uses Force Lightning and seemingly kills him. However, this is lumbered with the unnecessary associations of Rey being a descendant of Palpatine rather than the situation symbolising an ordinary human desire for control in difficult circumstances. As a result the film pointlessly rehashes the thesis presented in The Last Jedi that lineage is not important, but in a rushed, clumsy and unsatisfying way.  Rey's temptation by Palpatine to assume the leadership of the dead Sith Order is a complete reprisal of his temptation of Luke in Return of the Jedi but without the tension and drama which that film possessed due to Luke's relationship with Vader; by eliminating Kylo from the scene by that point no relationship exists to inform Rey's decisions apart from her distant affection for Finn and Poe, which this film fails to provide with much chemistry despite trying to cram a madcap adventure for the three of them into the film's middle act. There's simply not enough motivation for Rey to want to join or lead the Sith, and thus the climax is weightless and lacking wholly in tension.
Similarly, the redemption of Ben Solo, born of Rey's kindness and his mother's sacrifice, is somewhat effective, largely due to the conversation with Han, but this is just a brief moment in a film too lacking in clear character arcs for the development to be wholly effective. I criticised The Last Jedi for not giving its critical character moments enough structural focus; in The Rise of Skywalker they don't receive enough composition at all. The film has the seeds of interesting ideas within itself, but they are completely drowned by the mindless obsession with plot and excessive action.
As irritating and frustrating as the other two films in the Sequel Trilogy could be, when I was watching them I always at least felt that I was watching a film with some degree of structure and vision. With The Rise of Skywalker I felt more like I was viewing a studio-mandated mess in the manner of Suicide Squad or Justice League. The Star Wars film it reminded me of the most, sadly in my case as I consider it the worst of the Disney-era projects  (perhaps until now) is Rogue One: characterisation dumped in favour of plot-driven setting-hopping and fanservice. Despite, say, Canto Bight, I dearly wish Rian Johnson had accepted the writer/director job after Colin Trevorrow was let go; even if what we'd received was flawed, even annoying at times, it probably at least would have been measured and thoughtful. Maybe I'll change my mind if I can face watching this again, but Lucasfilm and Abrams let down not fans or audiences but their cast and themselves in this stupendously botched finale.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

"Knives Out"

You, your friends and your Johnson.
"It's good and I enjoyed it." I can see this being my review of Rian Johnson's 2019 murder mystery in my as-yet-unwritten "Hindsight 2019" film recap, and while it's never as much fun praising a film as it is explaining what I disliked about it, I have to admit that as someone with more than a soft spot for half of his 2017 outing, The Last Jedi, I'm pleased to see that audiences and critics seem to be enjoying Johnson's newest film. It's a quirky murder mystery with an all-star cast, strong direction and excellent cinematography. So what am I going to say about Knives Out that isn't just me saying what everyone else has already said?
Wasn't I going to do a "Halloween sequels"
review project one of these days?
Ever since The Last Jedi, Johnson has developed an often-mocked reputation for "subverting expectations", although in that case it was mostly the expectations of media-manipulated unimaginative Star Wars fans, not average cinema-goers. I wouldn't want to spoil any of the plot of Knives Out but it still conforms to this pattern, changing direction on a number of occasions. Spoilers beware, so don't read on if you care, but it starts, seemingly, as a fairly conventional murder mystery, then becomes a story about the killer covering their tracks with only the culprit and the audience in on it, and then it becomes a sort of moral drama, and then it goes back to being a murder mystery again. What this means is that, given the length of the film, it maintains a sense of pace and structure without the kinds of conventions that usually prop up detective mysteries.
Please just end the Bond franchise after No Time to Die.
As a result there's no major need for the film to string an extended series of crimes together which occur during the investigation, to involve an extensive hunt for clues, or to rely on any particular character being too obvious or too conspicuously implausible as the villain. This does have the effect, in the denouement, of making the plot revelations a little confusing to follow. Johnson takes a relatively light touch with his storytelling, beginning the narrative in the middle of the investigation and keeping expository flashbacks relatively brief and quick, and while for most of the sequence of events this keeps things pacey, admittedly there are a couple of times in which information can be a little unclear. In addition to the final revelations, there is one secondary character who becomes relatively important late in the story whose role was not made sufficiently clear, in my opinion, early on. There is a level to which I appreciate the story expecting the viewer to pay attention, but I did feel that this could have used a touch more emphasis. This only means, however, that the film will reward repeated viewings.
I was initially very confused about who she was meant to be.
It's also worth discussing the film for its political message, something much more explicit than Johnson was mindlessly accused of including in The Last Jedi. It's hard not to see that he must have been influenced by the nonsensical and repugnant "culture war" discourse surrounding his Star Wars episode when writing this, as several of the younger characters toss about online political jargon, with one of the elders pointedly observing that they don't have a clue what the kids are talking about. This kind of bickering between wealthy, privileged whitebread elites is strongly juxtaposed to the kindness and compassion of Marta, the deceased's nurse. The racial and cultural screaming match of US politics is contrasted to one woman's simple humanity, and Johnson cleverly has this recognised not by the East Coast literati of the deceased's family, but rather by the broad-Southern-accented detective played with much relish by Daniel Craig. The film's message, ultimately, is rather radical: personal kindness is more important than partisanship. The justice served in the film, as a consequence, goes beyond the spirit of the law and functions on a human level.
"That's actually hilarious."
I'd probably argue that of the three film's of Johnson's I've seen, the other which I haven't otherwise mentioned being Looper, Knives Out is the most effortlessly, consistently enjoyable. Much of it is carried by the performances of Craig and Ana de Armas, but the rest of the large cast has fun in fairly simple whodunnit-archetype roles; Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson and Toni Collette are all entertaining to watch, and you seemingly can't go wrong with Chris Evans. Humour and lightness suit Johnson well, and his rigorous approach to scripting, which I felt made The Last Jedi at times over-intellectualised, works aptly here for reasons of pace and plotting. Oddly enough, the night before watching Knives Out I'd been complaining to two friends that mainstream audiences never watched anything but superhero films anymore, so I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in a full house to see this. I could almost see Johnson occupying a weird space somewhere between Tarantino and Wes Anderson with more films of this stripe. What if Rian Johnson saves mid-budget Hollywood? Wouldn't that be the ultimate triumph?

Saturday, November 23, 2019

"The Mandalorian" First Impressions

Supposedly Lucas himself invented the name,
so sadly not an instance of EU daydreaming "gone on".
Talking about Star Wars on the internet at any time since about 1999 on virtually any platform, let alone a small personal blog, is little different to standing on your verandah on a hot summer night in the tropics and trying to out-chirp the cicadas, but one has to write about what takes one's interest in the moment, and while I'm sure it would be enormously more productive for me to review, I don't know, some small independent project in need of love and attention (like The Siècle podcast or something), I just watched the first three episodes of Disney's new effort to please developmentally-arrested dudebro fanboys and didn't mind it, so let's talk about The Mandalorian.
Squeeze his legs together and he fires.
Of time of writing there are three episodes (or "chapters") of The Mandalorian out, and of course YouTube is awash with, spoilers beware, videos about the significance of aliens of a certain variety, references to the Prequel Trilogy and the cartoons, the old Extended Universe and anything else one would care to imagine, but the question which is of most important relevance is why the show seems to be decent. At the very least it's worth considering what the explanation is for the tone and style of the show and what it seems to have been designed to resonate with.
This blue dude looks like he should be studying
with Wesley Crusher at Starfleet Academy.
Probably the most obvious reason I can think of is that it has some very reliable people behind it. Jon Favreau, as writer-producer, has always been very good at making "solid" entertainment: not necessarily mind-blowing, but rarely (in my experience) too annoying or dull either. Along with Favreau are creative types like Dave Filoni, who ran Clone Wars and Rebels, and Christopher Yost, who wrote The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, which for three-quarters of its existence was a very consistently enjoyable Marvel superhero cartoon with clear storytelling for kids and lots of references and fan-pleasing for nerds.
"Uh... streets in The Galaxy are built to a template,
like kit homes."
And I think this speaks volumes about what The Mandalorian is, and why it seems to have struck a chord with Star Wars fans: it's a live-action kids' cartoon with cinematic production value and a "Mature" rating. It's essentially a realisation of the dream of any kid who's thought, "I wish that thing from my childhood could be brought back in a way where I wouldn't be embarrassed watching it as an adult" (in my case it would probably be Inspector Gadget or something). The Mandalorian is basically a kid playing with his Boba Fett action figure with a slightly different coat of paint and a Star Wars visual dictionary lying open on the floor. The only difference is that this has more explicit murder, abduction, unethical scientific experiments, massacres and war trauma. But at the end of the day it's just kids' TV for adults.
Everyone's already even made the
Rick & Morty reference.
None of this is a point against The Mandalorian. Star Wars has always been a family-oriented concept, and I think unashamedly playing around with the setting in a way focused on the franchise's core strengths (in the Originals) of likeable characters, fun action and cool designs is entirely appropriate. On that note, however, character is probably where the show could stand to develop further. While the titular protagonist benefits from an expressive physical and vocal performance, a lot of his appeal seems to rely on him looking "cool" onscreen, along with having a token tragic backstory as every Star Wars protagonist has, and this could become uninteresting if not handled well. It remains to be seen.
"Where's my eye?"
I enjoyed the first episode of The Mandalorian and enjoyed parts of the second and third ones. The first episode's strengths came from some effective narrative choices not made elsewhere. For instance, the title character simply zaps a big monster rather than fighting it to get his ship away from the ice planet, and teams up with the IG droid without much fuss, something making it a bit less predictable than the following episodes. My biggest gripe is some of the fan service (see alien mentioned above and a certain previously-uncommon bounty hunting tactic) and the fact that I'm not too intrigued yet about where the story is going. I'm mostly just in it to see Star Wars-y stuff happening on the screen with the camera focused on a guy who has a cool helmet. Hopefully the helmet isn't still the most memorable thing after all eight episodes are done.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

"Joker"

"Are you aware that we live in a society?"
I seem to recall finding the news that DC and Warner Bros. were making a standalone Joker film unconnected to their wider "Extended Universe" (unofficial title, apparently) project utterly laughable – so now there were two Jokers; one the useless Jared Leto version, presumably now abandoned, and a more "realistic" version to be played by Joaquin Phoenix. But it was worth putting aside preconceptions, because not every superhero film has to be part of a cinematic project; indeed the success of this film at the box office has shown that Warner Bros. was wise to do so, extricating the concept from a mess for which Aquaman and Shazam! were only mildly able to continue Wonder Woman's ability to rise above.
"Hey clown! Why do you live in a society so much?"
In saying all this I have to admit that while I enjoyed Phoenix in Her, the only film I can recall ever seeing him in due to my extremely patchy and sporadic knowledge of cinema, I didn't have much interest in a Joker origin story. I've always been fond of that dismissal provided by the Clown himself in his own pseudo-origin, the Killing Joke comic book, that his past was "multiple choice", a concept exploited effectively, of course, by the characterisation of the Heath Ledger incarnation in The Dark Knight. And I've also always had my own conception of the character that's never been fulfilled, even in the die-hard "definitive" animated version voiced by Mark Hamill. I've always thought that the Joker should find everything funny, even when it's at his own expense. But that's a dream which shall continue to be only so.
"And this wiseacre claims that we live in a society!"
There's not much to say about Joker that hasn't been said already, to be honest. People seem to either think that it's brilliantly unique and refreshing for a very old and tired Batman character, or that it's just a derivative pastiche of Scorsese films of days gone by, something the filmmakers were quite openly inspired by. I must admit, having watched Taxi Driver not so long ago it was hard not to see Joker as pure simulation in that mold, and thus I tend more to fall into the second camp of opinion. It felt to me like a psychological thriller for people who probably don't watch many psychological thrillers and haven't experienced some better, older examples of the genre, but that's fine, really. If it could have the same impact on someone who probably wouldn't watch that kind of film as Taxi Driver had on me, there's no real harm. I have little knowledge of the alleged political controversies surrounding the film, and no interest in them; I daresay they are the usual manufactured internet media clicking-points.
"Remember, remember, we live in a society."
But with the media in mind I might as well at least discuss the film in a broader context and in regards to where I thought it succeeded. My favourite part of the film, much to the surprise of my theatregoing companion, was the moment in the film in which the Joker's alter ego, Arthur Fleck, is watching De Niro's character's talk show and fantasises about being invited onto the stage as an audience member to talk about his life and experiences, to fulfill his perceived destiny to make people happy. This part in particular struck me as a unique moment which seemed somewhat rare in this kind of film, something I've only ever seen in contemporary media represented in the indie computer game Actual Sunlight, which features a recurring element of the player character, a severely depressed office drone, fantasising about being interviewed so that he will have an audience for his, as he sees it, uniquely interesting opinions and worldview.
"Bruce Wayne, you don't even know
the society you live in."
I think imagining oneself being interviewed and having a captive, sympathetic audience to which one may disseminate one's (supposedly) unique personality is a common daydream, and I was struck by the effectiveness of this moment early in the film. It characterises the Joker as a man who fundamentally craves attention, who sees himself as "special" and who only needs the everyday people to recognise his quirky uniqueness to feel complete. Indeed, I was so struck by the perceptiveness of this moment that I was disappointed that I felt like nothing in the film after that quite lived up to it for me, and I dearly wished that when Joker finally appeared on the talk show for real that he had been able to adopt the confidence and sympathy of his fantasy only to reveal that, as a result of his own mental health issues, society's negligence and a willingness to succumb to his negative impulses, a desire to inflict violence and cause chaos had emerged through his achievement of his dream, fantasy or delusion.
"We all live in a society."
But it was not to be. I know I'm too immersed in the Batman lore from years of watching films and cartoon shows, playing Batman video games and reading comic books, but I never quite saw the Joker in Arthur Fleck; his ranting fury on the talk show didn't say "Joker" to me, his insistence on not being political soured by his focus on how society ignored him. This was not the elemental agent of chaos depicted in The Dark Knight or in the many incarnations voiced by Hamill. However, I'm obliged to recognise that my own heavy preconceptions coloured my impression.
"Travis Bickle lived in a society too,
and look what happened to him."
What I do think is interesting in regards to all of this, however, putting aside how "Jokery" I thought Phoenix's "Joker" was, is how this film sits as part of a recent trend of films dealing with the relationship between mental health issues and contemporary media. Both 2014's Welcome to Me and 2017's Ingrid Goes West (which incidentally features a secondary character who is obsessed with Batman) explored how modern culture's media- and social media-driven fixation with the pursuit of fulfilment through public attention can react explosively with poorly-treated mental health issues, and as a further exploration of that theme Joker is at least functional as another remark in the conversation. Whether it, or indeed any of these films, gives a reasonable answer, is another matter; then again, perhaps there is no wholly reasonable answer. I'm certainly inclined to listen to arguments which hold both views: that the film advocates a more social approach to mental health care, and that it unfairly implies that people with mental health issues are violent criminals just waiting to emerge. Phoenix's performance, if not the direction or story in particular, at least invite discussion of the film as part of that recent thematic trend in filmmaking.
"Can you introduce me as...
someone who lives in a society?"
Joker is an adequate film with some interesting moments and, as many have said, a strong core performance. I merely thought that it hit its peak, for me at least, much too early. My chief recommendation, as I made to some friends today, is that if you've never seen Joker but you've also never seen Taxi Driver, watch Taxi Driver first. And watch Welcome to Me and Ingrid Goes West too; they're both worth your time, maybe more than another chin-in-hands frowning over DC's eighty-year-old clown.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Fan edit review: "The Fallen Knight" edit of "The Last Jedi"



I've dabbled in fan edits of Star Wars films before, having watched the "Hal9000 edits" of the Prequels, Cloak of Deception, The Approaching Storm and Labyrinth of Evil. These were interesting as an exercise, but didn't change the fact that the Prequels have uninteresting narratives, clunky direction and confused performances.

I've said in many of my articles on The Last Jedi that I enjoy the Luke/Rey/Kylo plot, but don't find the Finn/Poe/Rose plot to be interesting. As such I recently went looking for a fan edit that removed that part from the film, and thus I found The Fallen Knight, by one Clark Zuckerberg.

The Fallen Knight removes the entire Canto Bight and Poe vs Holdo plots from the film, focusing the middle act entirely on Rey, Luke and Kylo Ren's interactions. Finn and Poe only really appear in the first and third acts, Rose and Holdo are reduced to minor characters, and DJ and Phasma don't appear at all. The sections with Rey, Luke and Kylo are my favourite parts of the film, so I was keen to see how a version of the film would play out with those parts uninterrupted by the narratives I didn't enjoy.

As of writing I've just watched The Fallen Knight, and overall I enjoyed it. Its cuts excise an entire 45 minutes from the otherwise two-and-a-half-hour film, and the briefer running time and change of pace are welcome. Focusing the middle act entirely on the Ahch-To island (with cutaways to Kylo aboard the Supremacy) makes Rey's story much more straightforward to follow, as I wasn't mentally jogging back and forth to remember what Rey was supposed to be up to. It's much easier to see how desperate she is to find someone else to save the Light side until she finally realises that she needs to take the lead herself. This is probably the greatest benefit of the edit.

That being said, the edit inevitably requires characters such as Rose and Holdo to appear without really explaining who they are. That's fine, but it emphasises that this cut is more like "edited highlights" for a viewer who has already seen the theatrical release than an entirely coherent narrative in all of its parts. It's also, as a result, less thematically rounded, as the disparate parts of the official film do reinforce each other; I just don't find them terribly interesting. Similarly, Finn and Poe no longer really have character arcs in the edit, which obviously isn't ideal in typical storytelling, but because I didn't really enjoy watching them in the official version it doesn't bother me too much.

In addition, partly due to its policy of removing humour, and partly due to the larger cuts, I did miss a few moments I enjoy in the film:
  • Part of the Poe-Hux exchange: "Can he hear me? He can?"
  • The controversial scene of Leia using the Force to survive in space
  • Luke tickling Rey's hand
  • "You're wrong!" "Maybe."
  • Luke reaching out to Leia through the Force
  • Finn fighting Phasma ("Let's go, chrome dome!" is a guilty pleasure)
  • Hux considering shooting Kylo in the throne room
  • Poe introducing himself to Rey
However, I understand that the editor made these for his personal satisfaction, so it's okay if I miss a few bits; I can always watch the theatrical version if I want to see them. The same goes for the film being a more thematically consistent experience with character arcs for all three protagonists; I'll just watch the official version for that. To be honest, I would rather that the opening bomber attack and the Crait battle were cut down, as I don't find either of them to be terribly engaging; I'm constantly waiting for Rey, Luke or Kylo to appear.

Purely in terms of pacing and content, while I enjoyed the much greater focus on those three characters, I would have retained the destruction of the Resistance bridge, the Leia in space scene, and the scene introducing Holdo. I'd maybe even retain the scene introducing Rose if it would fit, but perhaps then you'd have to retain Finn's attempted sacrifice too, and Rose saving him only works if they've spent time together. Nonetheless, I would have also retained, within the bounds of the edit, the hand tickle and Luke reaching out to Leia.

The edit also reinstates a bit of deleted material: Finn's conversation with Poe about the Resistance and the tears Luke sheds for Han, which nicely cuts to the shot of Leia sitting alone on the bridge. The Finn-Poe scene is useful for Finn, although it doesn't pay off much in the edit. It also makes Poe come across as unpleasantly arrogant ("I was saving the entire fleet"), which speaks to the film's wider problem with Poe's characterisation: it uses him to deconstruct the classic "shoot first, think later" hero, but does so in a way which makes him seem like a jerk rather than just a guy whose priorities are a bit muddled.

In a broader sense, by making the rapidity of Rey's character development more apparent, as well as by bringing Luke and Kylo's flashbacks closer together, I think the edit as a whole reinforces what a poisoned chalice Rian Johnson was handed by Abrams and Kasdan with The Force Awakens' cliffhanger ending: Rey reaching out to Luke, Finn in a coma. I almost wish he'd just jumped ahead in time and explained the resolutions to these in dialogue or even have left them to our imaginations. People complain that Johnson failed to make an adequate follow up to Abrams' film, but I would argue the reverse: that he was constrained by it, and he had to do double the work to be able to tell his own story with the characters because Abrams hadn't grown them in a substantial way, palming off the job of developing them to his successors; imagine if A New Hope ended before they attacked the Death Star. Frankly, despite how wobbly The Last Jedi is, and at times it's incredibly frustrating, dull or even cringeworthy, Johnson should probably be applauded for managing to do anything with these characters given how little Abrams handed him beyond their names, appearances and locations at the end of the previous film.

Regardless, The Fallen Knight was an enjoyable alternative way to watch The Last Jedi in a manner that appealed to my personal tastes in what I preferred in the film, and I'd recommend it to anyone who similarly wished that the Rey-Luke-Kylo plot proceeded without interruption. It's also a much quicker way to watch the film if you're in a rush before The Rise of Skywalker releases in December 2019...