movies


As you may know, they made another Star Wars movie.  It’s called The Force Awakens.

force-is-woke

(Helpful links to my rewatch of the original trilogy: one, two, three.)

Like pretty much everyone else, my reaction is “Whew, they made a good Star Wars movie.” SW is supposed to be heroic, spectacular, and just a bit cheesy, and that’s just what they achieved.

I’ve seen a lot of people saying that it’s kind of a remake of the first film. I’d say that’s true of the last half of the film— the whole Starkiller thing. The first half, with the introduction of Finn and Rey, feels more original. And even if it is a reboot, it’s a very sure-footed one. The acting, the fighting, and the spectacle are really better than the original.

I think Harrison Ford really sells the movie. There’s an art to delivering prime movie cheese. If you don’t accept it, it turns into camp, and if you’re too earnest, it seems laughable in a different way. Ford gets the balance exactly right. He makes his age work for the movie: he’s a tired, tough old rogue, and yet he never upstages the newcomers, but gently welcomes them into the series.

(It’s a narrative danger for a movie or book series or comic to fall in love with itself. You  assume that the audience adores your characters, and you start to treat them portentously, have secondary characters do everything for them, and you forget to actually make them still likable. Danger averted here: Han earns his hero status all over again for this movie.)

The weakest part of the movie is also the riskiest move: Kylo Ren, the emergent emo Sith Lord. I like that he isn’t Darth Vader; he’s young and a little naive, and makes mistakes. That’s a far more interesting Dark Lord to work with. He does better than (shudder) Hayden Christopher, and yet it’s a little hard to take him seriously when he takes off his helmet. He doesn’t do much to show why the Dark Side attracts him, or maybe the script just doesn’t let him do so.

I like the character of  Finn.  Was this someone’s elevator pitch? “Let’s see a Stormtrooper start to question his role.” Not a bad idea at all. I almost wish the elevator guy had convinced Abrams to make that the whole movie, because learning how the Stormtroopers operate and what the human beings inside the plastic suits are like would have been interesting. (They can’t all be motivated by fear, can they?  What do they do off duty? Are there a bunch of gung-ho Trumpists who just love Stormtrooping? Is Finn the only one with doubts?)

Rey is great, and I think she fits in with my contention that women make better video game protagonists. We feel what we see, so a stoic space marine lessens what we feel— if he doesn’t seem to care about what’s happening, why should we? Rey reacts viscerally to everything she goes through.

Her character arc is small here: basically from “wants to go home” to “wants to help out”. She doesn’t have to learn to be a hero; she’s heroic throughout. That’s a major difference from A New Hope, in fact, though in part it’s just that Finn gets the role of “guy out of his depth who has to step up”.  In a sense the usual transformation is applied to the audience instead: we expect an untrained nobody, we suspect Finn is going to be the New Luke, and we keep getting shown that Rey is the more competent one.

It’s tempting to say that a character needs more flaws and setbacks, but that isn’t always the case. Plenty of popular characters are pretty much always heroic. Besides, they’ll probably throw a lot of bad shit at her in Episode 8.

When I think about the story it feels a little contrived, or to put it another way, it’s a little too convenient that people always end up just where they need to be for the next bit of plot. But I didn’t really care about that while watching, and it probably wouldn’t have added much to paper over the contrivances— it’d just lengthen the movie for no great narrative gain. (Example: the raid on Maz Kanata’s planet, which conveniently takes place just after the plot points have been covered. It wouldn’t have been hard to, say, make it a week later. But it works emotionally to have everything happen almost in real time.)

(A bigger hole, I think: they destroyed the capital of the New  Republic, right? Everyone is awfully blasé about that; they react much more to the death of one guy, albeit an important one. The one thing the movie doesn’t sell is the size of the galaxy. Compare the war in Consider Phlebas, which destroyed 90 million ships, 14,000 orbitals, and 53 planets. In many ways Star Wars feels like it has about a hundred planets total.)

OK, onto the traditional notes I took while watching…

  • The opening crawl is less amazeballs in 2015.
  • I’ve never quite got why everyone understands Droid but the audience.
  • That huge ship would make a great video game level. But really, all she could find in it to salvage is a double handful of parts?
  • Is it a good idea to steal that droid from the guy who’s stealing it?
  • Finn sometimes overplays the nebbishness.
  • I’ve played so many Bethesda games that I would’ve kept the armor to sell it.
  • Darth wouldn’t’ve trashed his own terminal, he’d’ve trashed the underling.
  • This whole section of the film doesn’t feel  like A New Hope at all.
  • “We shall see”— you may be Sith, Lord Snopes, but you could be a little more supportive.
  • OK, that’s a cantina scene.
  • No, Rey, never go down into a dungeon alone!
  • It’s taking these dudes a long time to commit to the cause. C’mon, folks, we know you got nothing to go back to.
  • Why is this big galactic laser beam visible from entirely different star systems? The galaxy never really feels like it’s the size of a galaxy.
  • Does anyone in-universe ever wonder why random people have a different accent?
  • Leia’s first appearance gives off a strong Hillary vibe.
  • My sufferance for C3PO hasn’t improved.
  • Hard not to look at Kylo Ren and think of Reaper.
  • Outsmarted, Kylo!  Try not to destroy your terminal again.
  • OK, Bigger Death Star, this is looking like a reboot.
  • The Falcon does pretty well with all this knocking into the scenery.
  • Everything is always so overbuilt in this universe. Wouldn’t plain drywall have been cheaper?
  • Here’s how well I’d expect a soldier trained with a laser rifle to do with a lightsabre: poorly. So from that point of view Finn is doing well.
  • “How fast is the weapon charging?” “At the speed of plot, sir.”
  • How does a planet collapse?  Was it full of air bladders?
  • The Starkiller episode kind of violates Mamet’s tenet of plot. Rather than repeatedly trying something and failing, the Rebels— sorry, the Resistance— come up with a plan and it works as planned on the first try.
  • BB8 didn’t get to go along on the final quest?
  • Pretty long denouement for an action movie.
  • How was that map made?  Did many Gungans die for it?  Also, why did no one not recognize a huge frigging section of the Galaxy?  People live in the Galaxy, they will know its shape.  It’s like getting a map of Europe and saying “I have no idea how this fits on the globe!”

Join me in about two years for Episode 8!

 

I’m doing research on China, and one of the many arduous research tasks is watching Chinese movies. Here’s a neat one: an animated version of the story of 孙悟空 Sūn Wùkōng, the Monkey King, from Journey to the West. The director is Wàn Làimíng and the movie was made into parts, in 1961 and 1964.

The movie’s name is 大闹天宫 Dà Nào Tiāngōng ‘Big disturbance [in the] heavenly palace’, thus Uproar in Heaven. It’s a rather faithful adaptation of the first chapters of 西遊记 Xī Yóu Jì (Journey to the West), by the Míng writer Wú Chéng’ēn.

If you’ve never met Sūn Wùkōng, one of the best-loved epic heroes of China, the movie is a good introduction. He’s a superhero monkey, born in the Flower-Fruit Mountain on the Eastern Continent. The first chapters of the book are largely Dàoist— the monkey searches for the secret of immortality, learning that as well as the 72 Transformations and the 108,000-mile Cloud Somersault from the immortal Subhūti. He picks up his trademark weapon, a size-changing staff, from his neighbor the Dragon King.

The Dragon King complains to the Jade Emperor in Heaven (he didn’t think Monkey could actually pick up the staff). Amusingly, the bureaucracy of the Chinese empire is projected up into Heaven. One advisor demands war against the monkey, but another suggests a very Chinese-imperial solution: give him a minor post in Heaven, as stablemaster. Sūn Wùkōng happily accepts the position— he likes the horses— until he learns that it’s the lowest-ranking post in Heaven…

The movie is very well done— colorful, inventive, drawing deeply on Chinese opera and painting. What I like most about it is how non-Western it feels. The Japanese made their own version, Saiyūki (which is how you read 西遊记 in Japanese) in 1960, based on the manga version by Osamu Tezuka; it’s very nicely produced but highly Disneyfied— Monkey becomes too damn cute.

The animators also rose to the challenge of making supernatural fights into balletic visual spectacles— one highlight is Sūn Wùkōng’s fight against one of Heaven’s champions, where both shape-shift every few seconds. They remember what many modern animated movies forget: the medium is about drawing and movement, not dialog. (Though the voice acting is good… I like the like “Nnnnn” the Jade Emperor utters while contemplating how to address Monkey’s latest impertinence.)

It’s curious that the movie ends just after Sūn Wùkōng has defeated the Dàoist pantheon— and just before he’s defeated by the Buddha. After that, he’s imprisoned under a mountain for 500 years, which breaks down his rebelliousness. When a supernatural guardian is needed to escort the monk Xuánzàng to India in search of Buddhist scriptures, he is happy to take the role. Every demon between China and India— and there are a lot of them— wants to eat Xuánzàng, so he has his furry little hands full.

(Xuánzàng was real— he made the actual trip to India in the 7th century, and did bring back hundreds of Sanskrit texts, which greatly enriched Buddhist literature in China.)

Animation is expensive, and it’s possible that that the studio planned to continue the story— the Cultural Revolution intervened instead, and the studio was shut down. Leaving out the Monkey King’s redemption makes the film an unusual celebration of pure anarchy. Sūn Wùkōng defies Heaven, eats the Celestial Empress’s peaches of immortality, trashes a banquet hall simply because he wasn’t invited to the feast, defeats every champion sent against him, and returns to the Flower-Fruit Mountain unvanquished.

If you play League of Legends, the champion Wukong is a (rather diminished) version of the Monkey King.

I discovered the movie on this list of less-known animated films, which contains plenty of other stuff to check out.

So, tonight was Rocky Horror night. My friend Harry saw it in Austin and wanted to do it again. We went to the midnight show organized, with a complete shadow cast, by these fine folks.

Who let him in?

Who let him in?

I’m not a Rocky Horror virgin; I went back in college with my pal Chris Vargas (if you’re out there, Chris, hiya!), not long after doing RHPS had become A Thing. I was curious how much the movie has held up, and the answer is: surprisingly well. Though the audience involvement thing is a pre-MST3K MSTing of the movie, it’s never done as parody; it’s not a bad movie at all. It’s a thoroughly weird movie, an affectionate nod to the Hammer Horror films, and everybody involved gives it their all. Plus the tunes are irresistible.

If you tried to take the plot seriously you’d have to probably condemn, you know, the cannibalism among other things, but why would you take it seriously? The theme of the movie is what sticks with you– “Give yourself over to absolute pleasure… don’t dream it, be it.” Brad and Janet go through a hell of a night, but one feels that they’ve been un-squared, shaken up in a necessary way.

At least, I think that’s how it goes, since I’ve never watched it without the audience participation, which turns the movie into a celebration of the cheerfully transgressive. It’s fun to see the costumes and fishnets, the parallel live performance (our Criminologist was dressed in a full Svengali costume for Halloween), and it’s just giddy fun to watch everyone waving glowsticks or tossing toilet paper.

Curiously, they frisk you as you enter the theater, so you don’t bring in breakable objects or guns. The Midnight Madness site also includes a list of rules for cast members, whose length and specificity suggest that there must be some very interesting stories behind those rules.

Before the show we had an interesting chat about Chairman Mao. But that’s a story for another time.

Saw The Congress tonight, a film by Ari Folman, loosely based on one of my favorite books, The Futurological Congress by Stanisław Lem.

It’s an amazing book; the film starts slowly (and at first seems to have nothing to do with the book)– I was dubious during the first hour– but then it goes insane. In a good, Lemian way.

the-congress

The first part of the movie is set in the near future. A middle-aged actress, Robin Wright, played by Robin Wright, is approached with what she’s told will be her last film opportunity ever. The studio wants to scan her once, to turn her into a digital character… after that, they have no further need of her, and in fact she’ll be forbidden to act. It’s not spelled out what she’ll get in return, but apparently she’s desperate for cash to take care of her son (who’s going deaf and blind), so she signs the contract.

All this is presented slowly and didactically, and even when the sf elements come in– the actual scanning– it’s not satisfying. They basically want her to emote for a few hours while being photographed… weirdly, there are flashing lights making it seem like they’re taking still pictures. It’s well acted, and yet makes little sense: how could even a couple hours of performance suffice for generating decades of movies?  In the scene she goes from laughter to tears… but what about every other emotion?  Fear, disgust, anger, orgasm? It’d frankly have made more sense if they said they were scanning her brainwaves or something.

Then, we skip forward 20 years, and Wright attends a “Futurist Congress” associated with her studio, which requires taking an ampoule of some drug, which alters her and our perception.  The presentation switches to an animated movie, with a style blending ’20s pipecleaner and ’60s psychedelic animation.  The film suddenly becomes visually inventive, half playful, half nightmarish, and the plot starts to get weird as well.

This half of the film is also, surprisingly, a recognizable adaptation of Lem’s novel, with the substitution of Wright for Lem’s astronaut hero Ijon Tichy. The studio, tired of mere digitization, has switched to powerful customized hallucinogens that reshape reality.  But then things go wrong– there is some kind of rebellion– Wright is rescued by the man who was responsible for animating her, and fell in love with her.  But he can only take her to the underground sewer which the hotel managers have escaped to, with inflatable chairs and their secretaries. And with the chemicals in the air intensifiying, it’s increasingly unclear whether she’s experiencing rescues or drug-induced nightmares.

She’s cryogenically frozen and wakes up in an even stranger future– a world entirely composed of fantasy. Everyone seems happy, but she can’t adjust, and misses her son.  She seizes the chance to take one more drug, which erases all the effects of the hallucinogens… revealing a shabby brown world, back to live action. Should she stay there, or head back to the comforting fantasy world?

I appreciate high weirdness in art, but it’s all too easy to let it get out of control. Fortunately Forman keeps the story coherent– it’s not just a head trip. He grafts the whole story of Wright, her career, and her family onto Lem’s furious satire. It’s an attempt to give the story a heart, which admittedly the novel lacks.  Tichy reacts to things like we would, serving as bemused spectator and then expressing horror and outrage as he learns how the world really is– but we don’t exactly care about him.  Wright on the other hand is little but emotion; she doesn’t seem to think about anything that’s presented to her.

The book is a tour de force, a whirlwind of grotesqueries and wordplay and ideas taken to wild but logical extremes.  But perhaps it was a little too cool-headed to make a good movie.  So read the book and watch the movie… just be patient for the first 45 minutes or so.

Sometimes I’m slow to pick up on things… Youtube has been around for ages, and for ages I’ve read about Winsor McCay’s animations and wanted to see them, but I didn’t put these two facts together till now.

As one of the earliest of animators, he’s most famous for Gertie the Dinosaur, available here.  But to my mind, his 1912 How a Mosquito Operates is funnier and holds up better.

The repetitions are a bit weird, but a) probably were enhanced by music, and b) helped pad out the piece, a perennial animator’s preoccupation, magnified in these days before the invention of the cel.

McCay was an amazing and lightning-fast draftsman, which allowed him to personally produce the thousands of drawings needed.  What’s more remarkable is his ability to produce lifelike movement.  Today you can look up in a book how to animate, or use computer tools to preview your animation, but McCay was inventing his techniques.

And even more remarkable is the humor and humanity that he puts into his characters.  I used to watch compilations of computer animations in the ’80s; the technical mastery was impressive, but almost no one attempted stories or characters.  McCay’s mosquito, though horrifyingly large, is in his own way dapper and endearing.  His persistence and greed give the short a story, and once he’s gorged on blood McCay shows off both technical prowess (the skeeter really looks heavy) and humor (he has such a hard time flying an inch off the humanscape).  Not a few contemporary animators could learn from this sequence how movement can be funny.

(For McCay’s comics work, see Bob’s review here.)

So Li’l Guardian Pyro is up for a Saxxy award. I just watched all of the nominees, and it’s the best. But some others are very good, IMHO:

  • Chinatown Getaway is set in Koth King and feels just like a Hong Kong action film.  Makes me wish TF2 included parkour and expanded melee.
  • Frozen in Love is very clever.  Someone turned their lack of animating skills into a plus.  Plus why can’t we have female models already?  There’s already an insane amount of pictorial variation in the game.
  • A Fragile Dream is affecting.  Post-Apocalyptia is a little bit easy for generating pathos, but this is well done and very well animated.

This is kind of awesome and kind of not: Darkest Days, an original, hour-long zombie horror film done entirely in Source Filmmaker. The creator is Danny Field.

Field creates his own environments but uses the characters from Left 4 Dead 1 and 2, plus a bunch from Half-Life 2. It’s also largely his own zombie apocalypse: no safe rooms, no healh packs, no infinite ammo, and no specials… on the other hand, the regular zombies are pretty buffed.

Where's your melee weapon, girl?

Where’s your melee weapon, girl?

His most unusual decision, however, was to make it a musical.  A heavy metal musical.  So the characters periodically burst into song.  Sometimes the zombies sing along.

This is… OK, this would probably make for a great riffing movie.  Still, it works as well as any musical, and you gotta admit that metal makes an appropriate soundtrack for a zombie film. certainly more so than, say, lounge.  If you can accept a zombie apocalypse at all, you can accept a musical about one.

So, I was pretty much with him for about the first half hour.  Two brothers, who are given different names but are Ellis and Nick from L4D2,  head out scavenging for supplies and find a largeish knot of survivors.  They mostly survive one horde onslaught, and then have to face a decision: head for the docks to hope for a ship rescue, or back to the city to hole up?

And then…. well, I could swallow the metal interludes, but what really grated on me is that none of the characters seem to have played Left 4 Dead.  Seriously, these people are total noobs.  Their characteristic move is to stand in the middle of an open space blasting away at the zombies as they arrive.  They don’t even bother to look behind them, and the zombies ultimately move in and get them.  They have no idea of cover, of defensibility, or of teamwork.

(Spoilers, like zombies, start to crop up here, and within a few paragraphs will overwhelm the review like a horde of undead.  If you intend to watch the movie– and if you like L4D and/or zombie horror, you should at least give it a try– do so and then you can come back.)

In the first battle mentioned above, the group is locked up in an abandoned gas station.  Nick and Ellis have to knock to get in.  Some scouts come in and report that a horde is coming.  So they leave the building and fight outside.  Wut?  This might be OK if there was some plot-CYA about how the building isn’t as safe as it looks.  I’m reminded of Cowboy Wally, facing an attack, who finally remembers “It’s a fort!  Lock the door!”

And then we’re shown what happens to the people who head back to the city.  They manage to arrive, no problem, and then they’re all surrounded and eaten.  Within the course of one song.  Field had been building some narrative tension to this point, but here he pretty much gives it a shotgun to the gut.

And then… this turns out to be not very subtle foreshadowing.  Everybody dies at the end.  I guess this is common in horror, but that doesn’t mean it’s a clever choice. I may be wrong here, but I think “everybody dies” works better either in a short form (where it’s less of a downer) or a very long one (where your attachments to the characters give the deaths greater meaning).

Finally, there’s problems due to the choice of medium.  Again, all kudos to Field for actually achieving his project, which took an insane amount of work.  For the first quarter hour you’ll be marveling at what he can accomplish in Source Filmmaker. But the uncanny valley has its revenge.  Characters and camera shots stop moving abruptly.  Sometimes Field gets some beautiful animation moves… other times the drama is ruined by a too-simple, robotic motion.  The frequent gore gets cartoonish at times– Coach’s end, for instance, is comically over the top.  It’s also a little jarring to see the Valve characters used for a different story.   I understand not wanting to build his own characters, but it leads to some cognitive dissonance as you think “Bill wouldn’t do that.  Oh wait, I guess that’s not Bill.”

(I gotta say though… the Ellis model was a good choice; that’s one hell of a facial model.  You don’t notice it much in the game, but you get to appreciate it as he belts out heavy metal songs.)

But let’s not end on a downer!  I found this by chance, browsing Source Filmmaker films I’d missed, and it grabbed my attention pretty well.  Check it out to see what people are doing with STM these days.

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