Friday, December 23, 2016

I Am One With the Force: Rogue One

 There hasn’t been a Star Wars film released in American cinemas that I haven’t seen there. While Caravan of Courage and The Battle for Endor were not released state-side, in 1997 I had the luxury of watching the original trilogy for the theatrical release of the Special Editions, and in the intervening years I watched all 5 of the new film releases, usually within the first week. So there was really no question of whether or not I would see Rogue One, and really no need for me to watch any of the trailers.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was advertised primarily as the origin of the Death Star plans that were in Leia’s possession at the start of A New Hope. The film stars Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, a novice rebel with some handy skills (presumably from her time as a criminal, the film’s one concession to the underworld). She is joined by Rebel agent Cassian (Diego Luna), reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), blind Force monk Chirrut (Donnie Yen), ranged tank Baze (Wen Jiang), and defected pilot Bodhi (Riz Ahmed).

Like A New Hope, Rogue One is split into three acts: the team meeting up on a dessert planet, the first mission in which a character that matters to the team dies, and the final, impossible mission that the film is primarily known for. Jyn is “recruited” by the Rebellion while she is en route to an Imperial prison due to her connection with both her father – an engineer on the Death Star’s superlaser – and the leader of an extremist cell based on the same planet where, coincidentally, the Death Star is being completed. Bodhi is recruited by her father to visit the same Rebel leader, and you can guess where the team meets up.

I was a little skeptical about this film, only for the reason that I didn’t think there was enough content here to make a movie out of it. I should have known LucasFilm better than to think they would focus the entire film on a single battle. The battle that the film based its promotion on is about half of the film, in some ways mirroring the set-up and execution of the Battle of Endor. I can’t fault the pacing of this film at all; there’s less downtime than A New Hope with just enough slow moments for a cinema-goer to refill their $20 soda from time to time.

Rogue One feels derivative, but in a different way than The Force Awakens. While TFA seemed almost a mirror of A New Hope, with a bigger Death Star and recasting all of the original roles, Rogue One does everything in its power to tie together and homage the rest of the saga.  Dialogue was ramped up, but other than a few speech cadence issues of the returning characters it doesn’t feel as chatty and distracting as it could. Stormtroopers borrow from battle droids’ chattiness in a way that feels authentic to their group character. Scenes and locations are recreated perfectly, but not so often that it feels like they lack original material.

Interestingly, two areas where Rogue One was not derivative of other entries were the score and the opening crawl. The soundtrack is mostly new, with several of the film stings that I expected (and would have helped to sell the recreated characters) not appearing, at least where I expected them. Another thing that didn’t appear was the opening crawl, presumably in an attempt to keep the crawl to episodes only. The score didn't completely do away with the originals, just enough to throw me off a bit.
The characters fall a little flat for me, but not as much as they do in The Force Awakens. If anything I think it’s the quantity – there was just too much going on to develop Cassian, and Chirrut and Baze, and Bodhi. This is rather unfortunate, because there are plot developments that rely on you not seeing these people as redshirts, but it’s not fatal. Rogue One is still a good movie, probably objectively better than The Force Awakens, and at the least a fitting entry to the Star Wars film saga.

Monday, August 15, 2016

We're the Bad Guys: Suicide Squad

I haven’t been doing reviews much, but even if I don’t do any more, Suicide Squad is something that needs a bit more of a thumbs up/thumbs down...or a petition to close down a movie review site that was always biased and anti-genre so why does it get this attention now? I’m going my best to avoid major spoilers, but don’t go past the second paragraph if you want to go in blind.

On paper, Suicide Squad sounds like a very, very bad movie. The plot is all over the place, it’s overburdened by an abundance of exposition, and the villains are less effective than the final boss of a video game. But it’s also fun, visually gorgeous, and created by actors and a director who either loved or were at least incredibly amused by what they were creating.

 These strengths and flaws are immediately evident within the first twenty minutes of the movie. Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) each have scenes where they get to portray their personalities (Will Smith and PG-13 Harley Quinn) and just what it will be like with these characters, which is every bit as fun as it sounds. We then continue to what is more or less a half an hour of Amanda Waller giving exposition about the backstories of these characters.

I can’t help but compare this to Guardians of the Galaxy. In Guardians, we get a few minutes of backstory about one character, and then the movie starts. Throughout the movie, we see more clips of Starlord’s backstory, and we get hints at the other members of the main cast. Sometimes this could be a bit shallow (I’d have loved to see some scenes of Gamora and Nebula when they were younger), but it was generally very well received and hurt the plot much less than too much backstory would have.
Three of the six members of the Suicide Squad get bits of their backstory sprinkled in where relevant. Harley, Deadshot, and Diablo all have pretty much enough. Captain Boomerang really doesn’t need this, and in fact he only has what backstory he does for the sake of the cameo included in it. One character’s fate might not have been so obvious if they had actually included him in the exposition dump, and another could have used this just so as not to become Generic Squad Member.

All of this makes the massive exposition dump about how each member was arrested particularly pointless. It doesn’t treat all of the Squad equally, and it detracts from other things that could have been included later. Interviews have indicated that both cannibals and crocodiles were studied in order to make Killer Croc stand out, yet all the movie gives him is that he was bullied because he was ugly.

From the portrayals in the film, though, I can believe that both David Ayer and the actors really did do all 
they could to make each character unique. And I wouldn’t mind the dark action scenes if not for the fact that Killer Croc is even harder to see in them than your average character of his ethnic background. Add this to the fact that they were fighting literal faceless grunts that would make the Putty Patrol seem like well fleshed-out characters and you get a film that is losing any reason to have these action scenes other than, you know, just to have action scenes.

Which brings us to the villains. Again, mixed bag. Wonderful effects. There were moments where I was transfixed by what was going on on-screen. Of course, they clearly couldn’t afford to keep all these effects up – or was the studio worried the audience would forget who the actress was? I can never keep these meta-reasons straight – because they dropped off the effect used to make the Big Bad scarier pretty early on, leaving to an endless torrent of people posting on social media about how unscary the actress's regular face is. I wouldn’t have even noticed it without these two aspects, though looking back I do think she could have piled on the “possessed by an evil spirit” acting...yet would that have undermined her whole “join me, as only I understand you” schtick? Funny thing about that, as somebody who didn’t see multiple takes as the Director surely did, I don’t know the answer to that.

Still, I’m qualified to criticize the villain’s plan. The villain resurrects her brother to fill in some of the holes in her plot and add more visual appeal, makes minions by making out with people, and sits working on something that she alternates between referring to as a spell or a machine. Her brother apparently just hangs around watching her instead of actually trying to stop the people determined to kill her, but you probably knew that already, didn’t you?

The making out with people is a strange touch and a topic I need to touch on. There doesn’t seem to be a reason beyond titillation for this, but it’s an extremely short cut. It’s as if there was somebody in the editing room setting a limit on potential male gaze scenes, as if to say “yes, there are straight men in the audience, but there are other people too”. A lot of people have criticized two scenes in particular, both relating to Harley Quinn (though oddly enough, the scene where she’s cage-dancing doesn’t get much attention). First is the scene in the trailer, where she strips down, puts on her brightly colored, non-prison-issue underwear and then her outfit, surrounded by staring soldiers. What people don’t realize is that there is literally about one second or less or Harley in her bra while she pulls her shirt down. There is a small amount of titillation in the scene and I’d be a fool to pretend there isn’t, but it’s a short scene focusing on how she (ignorantly or manipulatively) ignores social customs while focusing on her own needs (what some would call the definition of empowerment). Frankly, the only thing that disturbed me about this scene is when I was trying to find images for my Harley Quinn article and found multiple Youtube videos looping this scene on slow motion. Finally, there is the scene in which Harley is walking and gives a bit of a jiggle as her booty walks past the camera. Again, an extremely short cut. This draws the attention of the audience...but that’s why women in real life make the same gesture. They want someone to look at their butt. Except in this case, you don’t have the chance to stop and stare the way you would if someone did this in the mall...and you definitely don’t have a chance to take this to creepy levels. I guess what I’m saying is that there is some male gaze here, but it’s no more than real life, and it definitely didn’t give me the heebie-jeebies the way some of the scenes lingering on Gamora’s butt in Guardians did.

 Thus far, I’ve described Harley in two ways: wanting attention and either unaware of social norms or manipulatively acting as if she is. One thing I find interesting is that Robbie mentions how Quinn uses her psychological training to be manipulative, which indicates that her childish behavior (which I’ve otherwise been treating as a form of dissociation) may all be an act (which is, intentionally or coincidentally, an ongoing discussion about dissociative conditions in the first place). The point here is that Harley is just as fun and interesting to watch as she was in Batman: The Animated Series when she was introduced. She is pretty much the same character without adhering to cartoon physics (although she may still have access to hammerspace). Deadshot is pretty much Will Smith from every Sci-Fi movie with a hint of sociopath added in for fun. I don’t think I’m doing a very good job of describing it because watching these two work – especially around “civilians” – is just pure fun. They pretty much make the movie. Even when they’re taking a few minutes away from doing nothing to do nothing before doing nothing for no reason.

And uh, the Joker. He’s in this movie too much, almost to the point where it feels like not enough. He’s in two or three scenes that are important to Harley’s backstory (which only highlight the fact that Harley is the star of the film) and then another three or four scenes in which he reminds the audience “hey, I’m still here”. I can’t help but wonder given some of the things that were obviously influenced by studio concerns if there was some demand to feature a “better known” character more frequently, thereby breaking up the already choppy plot even further. That’s all speculation though.

If it’s not clear, I love Suicide Squad even though it’s a deeply flawed movie. If there was a show about Deadshot and Harley going on a road trip and just meeting people, I would watch it, except it would never happen because TV can’t afford Will Smith anymore. Every minute, with or without these two, was usually entertaining, and I have no complaints about any of the visuals or the cinematography. The story is fairly straight-forwarded, just presented in a very clumsy way, and if you’re looking for a popcorn flick it’s a great experience. It’s just not something to watch for deep story, unique problem-solving, or powerful allegories, but it’s a great time if you want to see anti-heroes coming together and overcoming a powerful foe. Considering this is a very popular topic right now (and I could speculate as to reasons why, but instead I’m just going to point to Guardians of the Galaxy, Deadpool, and even Daredevil and Jessica Jones), it’s certainly found the right time to come out. I just hope the seeds it’s planted can come to fruition in Batfleck and turn out something really a Harley and Ivy movie.

For more of my thoughts on Suicide Squad, check out this piece I wrote about Harley Quinn on Insomniatic.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Rogue One Story Trailer

The latest Star Wars trailer has been released!

A lot of people I know (myself included) aren't completely sure what to make of Rogue One. It's a very different type of Star Wars movie, hopefully in a good way, but we're just not sure whether or not to be optimistic.

This trailer does look good, though. It's worth noting that it's pretty amazing to see a Grand Admiral uniform in a Star Wars trailer. For a long time there was a sort of canon treadmill, where everything on paper was written to meet new advances in canon but films and TV shows more or less ignored the comics and novels supposedly set in the same continuity as them. The Grand Admiral was invented in the old timeline, but it's one of many concepts that the new story team is carrying over into the new, more unified Star Wars. While I'm not a fan of everything that occurred in the reboot, this is a tremendous improvement and a way to show that all fans are valued, not just the ones that prefer the movies. The fact that a character from The Clone Wars is going to feature in the movie is just more evidence of this.

It's still hard to pre-judge Rogue One, so I'm not going to try to. I'll wait for the release, see it in theatres, and decide from there.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Pokémon Go: State of the Game

I had originally intended to write a different Pokémon Go article in this slot - one about the thematic discrepancies between the Pokémon brand and the mechanics of Pokémon Go - but due to the very loud discussion out there I thought it best if I take a look at the state of the game itself. I do have several articles not about Pokémon in the pipeline, but as they require a little bit more preparation than this I'm going forward with this first.

 So what's the deal with Pokémon Go right now? That's a difficult conversation to have, partially because there are a lot of over-reactions. The tracking system wasn't working, and in fact had not been working for weeks. People recognized that it was not working, and they did not rage about it. Niantic did two things to fix this: they removed the visual representation of failure (the footprints that would have been the tracking system had it worked) and blocked the excessive drain on their servers caused by third-party tracking systems. Naturally, people reacted calmly...except they did not at all, at least not the vocal minority. This decision has been declared by some "the death of Pokémon Go" and other things that don't make much sense.

Much more damaging is the fact that while wild Pokémon encounters seem to have increased ("seem to" being the operative word; I haven't started a new low-level account to see if this was universal or not) it's become much more difficult to capture them. Even the green-tier 'mons (the easiest to capture) are now sometimes breaking out of Pokéballs. In my experience, this has had a pronounced change on the game: I haven't seen a lure model in use in my city since that changed. At least once a week I will go on a two hour walk specifically to get more Pokéballs in areas that are otherwise out of my way. Despite that, I'm scared to use an incense out of concern that I will run out of Pokéballs while it's active. (By comparison, the only time I've ever run out of Pokéballs before this was a time when six lures were used in rapid succession and I was back up/span>to 80 by the end of that night).

When accused of increasing the difficulty in order to encourage players to engage in more microtransactions - specifically purchasing more Pokéballs instead of only using the ones at PokéStops - Niantic claimed this was a mistake. There is of course no way to verify this, and this has become partially fixed over the past week. Still, one would think this a relatively simple bug to fix.

Ultimately, it's not a surprise that a game that swept the nation a month ago is undergoing a bit of a lull right now. While it's become less frustrating to play - it freezes much less - it's also become slightly less fun. The "newness" is also gone. When you're wasting Pokéballs on a regular basis, it's a lot less enjoyable to lay down lures and go hunting. The gyms have developed into a sort of rotation, and this is not helped by the fact that at higher levels there seemto be more opportunities to injure your Pokémon and use items than there are to actually pick up new items. The discussion of adding PokéCenters could fix this, but as they haven't come out yet (I don't think there's been a single update that wasn't fixing a bug, reinforcing the statements of beta testers that the game wasn't ready yet) that's not a fix we can rely on.

I think the game is settling from its position of worldwide phenomenon to MMO. Unfortunately, if this happens it will be among the least successful games in the Pokémon franchise. Still, there are a lot of updates coming. Over the next few years there will be six (probably seven by the time it comes) additional generations of Pokémon to add. How this will function with how difficult it already is to evolve some Pokémon will be a problem for Niantic to decide. As it is, I still think Pokémon Go is a fun game and one that still encourages community togetherness and exercise...but Niantic will need to put in serious work to keep it doing these things rather than becoming a forgotten curiosity.