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Catching 'em All

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jul 09 2016 · 71 views

Essays, Not Rants! 225: Catching ‘em All

Like many people my age, I grew up playing Pokémon. And man, I caught ‘em all. Literally all of ‘em. At least in Yellow and Gold; I got close in Ruby and that’s where I stopped.

So when Pokémon Go was first announced last year I thought it seemed really cool. Like worth upgrading my four-year-old phone for. In case you haven’t heard, here’s the skinny on Go:

It’s Pokémon in real life. You go places, your phone tells you there’s a Pokémon there, you catch it. Certain landmarks are gyms where you can battle people and other landmarks give you items. Again, it’s Pokémon in real life.

Now, the game is very much in its infancy. It’s a drain on battery and there isn’t much in the way of depth to the game (there is no way to traditionally level up Pokémon, which means you’ll probably find yourself releasing your starter). Then there’s the awful server lag currently present that makes playing chancey at best. A game’s not great if you can’t really play it. It’s a mess.

And yet.

I’ve found myself walking through Washington Square Park, looking for Pokémon with friends, and running into other people also looking for Pokémon. I walked to the Arch to challenge the gym there and, upon seeing that someone had used a Lure Module on the Gibraldi Statue, sat around there catching Pokémon with a handful of strangers. And then all of us getting excited when a hitherto uncaught Ekans showed up.

I think this is where the beauty of Pokémon Go, even in its nascent state, shines. There’s an excitement in the traditional Pokémon games when a random encounter yields that one Pokémon you’ve spent ages searching for (I’m looking at you, Tauros). Same with when that egg you’ve been walking around with forever finally hatches. Go takes that feeling of success and translates it to real life. When an egg hatches it’s because you’ve carried it for five kilometers. Not your digital avatar walking around Johto, but you, in real life, walking around your town. When you, at last, finally get a Pinsir it’s because you decided to walk to Starbucks for coffee instead of spending your break inside. That joy you got in the games is made visceral. Now your ability to catch ‘em all is a direct result of your own exploring — you’re looking for Pokémon.

It helps that the simple mechanics (go somewhere, find a thing, get a thing, look for a better thing) is bolstered by the pop culture familiarity brought on by Pokémon. It’s no coincidence that the available Pokémon are the original 150, the ones people my age fondly remember from growing up. There’s an appeal to the familiar, and man, it’s working — I don’t think I’ve been this excited to find a Bellsprout since I was seven. There’s an implicit invitation in the game to be a kid again, to look around your world with a wonderment because that mural on the wall could be a Pokémon Gym and there’s a Bulbasaur down that road in the West Village.

Pokémon Go still has a lot of room to grow — and it’ll have to to keep people interested over the long term. But for now, just a couple days out of the gate, it’s a whole lotta simple, magical, fun.

Except for those Rattatas. I am so sick of finding freaking Rattatas.


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Regarding Movies About Two Superheroes Fighting Each Other

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jul 02 2016 · 36 views

Essays, Not Rants! 224: Regarding Movies About Two Superheroes Fighting Each Other

If you were to put 2016’s blockbusters in a museum, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War ought to be displayed next to each other. They’re the sort of movies that, when looked at together, take on a whole new dimension. Because one is far more successful than the other.

To understand why Civil War succeeds, you don’t have to look much better than at how BvS fails. Both movies have the same conceit: Two heroes fight each other. Thus, if you want both characters to remain sympathetic, they’d better have a dang good reason to be fighting. Funnily, both movies end up on the topic of collateral damage. In Civil War, Tony Stark/Iron Man and Steve Rogers/Captain America disagree on whether to put the Avengers under UN oversight, something that is complicated when brainwashed assassin Bucky Barnes enters the fray, forcing Steve to go outside the law. Bam, conflict.

In BvS, Batman doesn’t like how Superman is so powerful and causes so much collateral damage, and Superman doesn’t like Batman because he, um, takes the law into his own hands? Right off the bat the difference is clear, Civil War had a clear conflict, BvS was murky at best. Watching BvS, I was never sure why they were fighting, what it was they disagreed on. Furthermore, BvS has no complications in the conflict between Batman and Superman; they don’t like each other in the beginning, and continue to dislike each other the same amount until the fight. In Civil War the accords form the initial conflict, which then get complicated by Bucky’s reappearance and what they uncover about Zemo. Meanwhile, in BvS, the status quo between Batman and Superman doesn’t really change.

Which is weird; you’d think that with Lex Luthor running around with Kryponite and Zod’s corpse he’d be in a good place to incite some tension between the two. However, he doesn’t have any direct bearing on the plot until he kidnaps and threatens Superman’s mom well into the second hour (blowing up the Capitol sends Superman into exile and doesn’t directly escalate the conflict between the two heroes). Compare this to Civil War, where Zemo (who fulfills the same role as Luthor) blows up the UN (and frames Bucky), thereby setting Cap on a path that’ll put him at total odds against Tony. That’s before he sets Bucky on the other Avengers too, by the way. In other words, Civil War escalates the animosity between its two heroes. By the time they come to blows, we totally get why.

The coming to blows bit is where we see another divide. In BvS, Batman and Superman’s fight is just a skirmish before their big brawl against Doomsday. Civil War has a big airport fight with all the heroes happen before Steve and Tony’s one-on-one. This ordering shows where the priorities of each movie lie. See, you save the best, biggest, and most important climax for last. Rey and Kylo fight after Poe blows up Starkiller base. Frodo climbs Mount Doom after the battle of the Pelennor Fields. If the fight against Doomsday is the Biggest Moment of BvS, then the “Dawn of Justice” subtitle becomes the most important part. Which is weird, because the whole movie up to that point has been ploddingly trying to excite us to watch the heroes fight, only for the big thing to be them teaming up. Despite Batman versus Superman being the dang title, the ending tells us we’re not supposed to be interested in watching them fight. In Civil War, however, Steve and Tony throw down comes at the very end and proves a catharsis for the entire movie.

Okay, so, there’s actually a lot more about these movies. Both of them have a third party who joins them in the climax, though where Wonder Woman gives interesting looks throughout, Black Panther brings an additional point of view to the plot and ends up being the only true hero. Both have heroes manipulated into fighting, but while Lex kidnaps Superman’s mom, Tony finds out Steve’s best friend kill his parents (and so Tony fights Bucky [and Steve] because he wants to, while Superman is doing it because he has to). Then there’s also BvS contorting Batman and Superman into being funhouse mirrors of their accepted selves to fit the plot, while Civil War sees Steve and Tony’s own flaws orchestrate their undoing.

But I’m at my word limit and it’s getting late here, so I’m ending this here. Point of all this? Sometimes it’s worth watching a lesser movie to appreciate one that does the same thing better.

Except for Fant4stic. That movie just tells you what not to do.


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Sticking To The Obvious

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 25 2016 · 142 views

Essays, Not Rants! 223: Sticking To The Obvious

I put off watching Spotlight for a while. It had a lot going for it — talented cast and the subject matter — reporters investigating child abuse covered up by the Catholic Church — was charged, tragic, and topical. Way I saw it, this was gonna be a heavy, intense movie. Hence putting off watching a presumably gut-wrenching movie

Which is why it’s so frustrating that Spotlight wastes so much potential in favor of being painfully obvious at best, and poor melodrama at worst.

Spotlight is definitely about something: namely the Catholic Church covering up child abuse scandals. This is undoubtedly an important topic. The thing is, it doesn’t say anything about that, except that, well, it’s bad. Which it is, but that’s the obvious thing. It doesn’t say anything more about it, nothing about personal impact.

Since it’s hard to critique this movie in a vacuum, let’s compare it to The Big Short, shall we? There are some similarities; both discuss recent happenings, and both are about a group of people looking into it and are proven right. In Short this is about finance people who saw the housing crash coming and invested on it happening (and they’re right).

Now, Short has an excellent moment when the main characters are finally proven right when the housing market crashes. But rather than just letting it be a victory, the movie turns it tragic when the protagonists realize just what it means. Yes, they’re rich, but the economy is screwed over. It’s not sad just because we know what it means, but it’s sad because the characters realize exactly what their predictions mean.

Conversely, Spotlight has no stakes: the coverup is never made personal. The abuse victims who step forward are supporting characters, plot devices with some great moments, but we aren’t really invested in them. As for the main characters? They’re all lapsed Catholics, which is touched on in one quick scene and never comes up again. The closest we get is when Sacha Pfeiffer mentions that she can’t go to Mass with her grandmother anymore. But we don’t see how the revelations about the Church has affected their relationship (as Sacha only goes to church because of her grandmother). Imagine if we’d been invested in Sacha and her grandmother and we’d seen the rift Sacha’s pursuit of the coverup created between them.

As the movie is, there’s precious little conflict in the film. The Spotlight team never argue amongst themselves and there’s no debate at the newspaper if they should continue pouring all their time into this story. Furthermore, for all the talk of the influence of the Catholic Church on Boston, they don’t really get in the way of the team at all. We’re told that there’s a coverup — and we’re even shown it happening in the first scene — but beyond that the Church doesn’t take an active role in stopping the uncovering. Thus the Spotlight team carries on their investigation without any major obstacles and with little personal/non-professional investment.

All this could be done well enough, but the thing is Spotlight doesn’t spend time unpacking what the cover up really means. Yes, it’s bad, but so what? The movie doesn’t go any further than the first thought. Herein is Spotlight’s biggest flaw: it’s obvious, safe. It’s a good portrayal of investigative journalism, but doesn’t do much to explore just how important it is. Say that covering up child abuse is bad, but don’t get personal with it. Have all the potentiality for negative fallout should the piece go to print, but instead have them getting it published be a plain, obvious, victory. Use ominous piano music to remind us that this is serious.

Now, much of my dissatisfaction with Spotlight stems with my own expectations. Having followed the more recent spate of news concerning the Catholic Church covering up child abuse, I was expecting a movie that really got into it, really explored the corruption and awfulness; I wanted a movie that stressed how much of a fight it was to get this to light. That Spotlight played it so safe was disappointing. So much more could have been done with what they had that the movie can’t help but to end up being a bit of a let down.


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Top Nine Movies of 2015

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 18 2016 · 213 views

Essays, Not Rants! 222: Top Nine Movies of 2015

Woah, it’s June, and I haven’t done of these yet? Big reason is because there are some movies that I still haven’t seen. Like Carol, which I really need to get around to soon. Then there’s The Room, which I really should see, but am not sure if I’m ready for the toll of that movie.

So anyway, here are my, at current, top nine movies of 2015, with an extra space left for a movie that catches me in left field.

9. The Martian
It’s a well done movie about a Mars exploration; honestly that’s all The Martian needed. But that it’s dang entertaining and has a strong scientific (if not totally accurate) bent just makes it that much better.

8. The Big Short
This is a movie that made me not only understand, but laugh at the housing crash that may or may not screw over my financial future.

Yay.

7. Sicario
Woo, another movie about cartels. Except Sicario exists in a very gray world, where good and bad are hardly as clean cut as you’d want them to be. It’s a gripping story, where the lesser of two evils mayn’t be as much of a lesser evil as you’d hope. Plus, this is a movie that makes every freaking gunshot count.

6. Ex Machina
Ex Machina is a small movie that feels so much bigger. It’s tight focus on three characters really lets it explore them, and grapple with the questions of artificial intelligence. Plus, I love me some haunting science fiction, and that’s definitely what this movie is.

5. Infinitely Polar Bear
There’s a beautiful scene early on between the two leads as Maggie encourages Cam that he is capable of taking care of their daughters alone, despite his bipolar disorder. It’s heartbreaking, filled with a tragic honesty that goes on to permeate the entire movie. It’s not a story of recovery — that’d be too easy — instead it tells a story about not being alright. And it’s all the better for it.

4. Inside Out
I’m a Pixar nut; I’ve seen every one since Finding Nemo in theaters. What’s remarkable about Inside Out is how it handles a very grownup topic — depression — with such nuance. It, like Polar Bear is a story about not being alright; and though this one ends with recovery it is no less potent.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road
Dang, dude. This is an action movie. The movie’s outlandish spectacles and nonstop action grip you from start to finish. That it’s grounded with a strong feminist perspective is a bonus that makes it so much better. And that’s not even getting into the sheer craft of how it’s shot. I want more movies like this.

2. Creed
Watch this scene.

I can’t think of a movie as comfortable in its own skin as Creed. Filled with a youthful energy that fuels a terrific underdog story of identity, the movie is an expertly crafted fist-pumping, cheer-worthy movie. Plus, its use of motivated long takes shows The Revenant how to do it.

1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Could it have been any other movie? It’s a phenomenal follow up to the original, that captures the beautiful optimism that made the originals so special. But it’s the old movies updated with wonderful diversity and a worthy successor of a protagonist. This is Star Wars, this is a movie that reminds me why I like telling stories. This one wins, hands down.


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Visions of the Future

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 11 2016 · 169 views

Essays, Not Rants! 221: Visions of The Future

There are a lot of things I like about science fiction, chief among them the genre’s capacity for using metaphor to discuss bigger ideas. Like how the original Gojira explored nuclear fears and Edwards’ Godzilla discussed the question of the relation between humanity and the environment.

But another thing I really like about science fiction is the way it tries to guess what happens next. Ender’s Game saw the potential of computer networks for a user generated news network, though writer Orson Scott Card didn’t quite capture just how prolific the user generated and focused content of Web 2.0 would be. The divide that exists between the future that could be and the future that is is the source of so much fun.

It also says a lot about the concerns of society. Look at how many 80s films set in the near-future showcased crime-riddled New Yorks and Los Angeleses. Or New York as a walled off prison colony that Snake Pliskin has to escape from. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that rising crime was on the public consciousness.

So then it’s interesting to look at what today’s science fiction says about tomorrow. Now, the beauty of science fiction is that it doesn’t have to be accurate, just plausible. I doubt anyone seriously believed New York would become a giant prison, but the looming potential for crime was there. Take Firefly, which envisions a future where the combined might of the United States and China was able to colonize space in order to escape a decaying earth. A logical assumption, what with China on the rise in the early 2000’s.

The Expanse also features a spacefaring humanity, with one of the protagonists being part of a crew mining ice from asteroids. Which makes sense, since getting water would be an essential part of sustaining and off world colony. Another tiny detail of The Expanse that I love is the existence of a seawall around New York. It’s a small thing, but one that grounds the future in a certain kind of realism. Rising sea levels will necessitate some sort of countermeasure, and a seawall makes enough sense.

The Windup Girl takes things in a different direction. Rising sea levels consumed many cities (including New York — why’s it always New York?) and others, like Bangkok, sink a wealth of resources into keeping the ocean at bay. But Paolo Bacigalupi paints a grim image of the future, one where a scarcity of fuel has plunged humanity into a time when electricity as we know it now is a distant memory. Now genetically engineered domestic animals turn cranks to power machinery and store springs with potential energy. It seems old fashioned, but at the same time, all too likely.

It’s a bleak outlook to be sure, but Bacigalupi’s novel (which I’m still reading, as of this writing) is also set against a world where genetic modification and patented genes are rampant. Sure, it sounds like science fiction, but both are things currently being discussed. A world where rice itself is copyrighted isn’t as nonsensical as it would have sounded a few years ago. The Windup Girl just takes sends things to a pessimistic conclusion.

Maybe in a couple decades we’ll have solved the energy crisis and stopped the sea levels from rising and these futures will look as ridiculous as assumptions that the United States and USSR would still be at war in the 2030s (in space!). But it’s okay to be wrong, it’s fun to imagine what’ll happen next. Sometimes things turn out right, sometimes not. Still makes for a good read.


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Clever Stupid

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 04 2016 · 126 views

Essays, Not Rants! 220: Clever Stupid

Hot Rod is one of my favorite movies. I’ve got its poster framed in my living room, and it’a movie that I’ve analyzed on this blog for its presentation of Rod’s mustache as a symbol of self-actualization. It’s also not a movie you’d expect to be analyzed, seeing as Hot Rod is, well, incredibly stupid. It’s about a (bad) amateur stuntman who needs to raise enough money to save his stepfather’s life so he can beat the stuffing out of him (and earn his respect).

Like I said, incredibly stupid.

But.

But but but, what makes Hot Rod so flipping great is how well it harnesses that stupidity. It’s not a smart comedy, and has no intention to be, but it’s done really well. It’s not just dumb jokes, well, it is, but the dumb jokes are couched with a great deal of craft. The team behind the movie (which happens to be a pre-“I’m On a Boat” Lonely Island) know exactly what they’re doing throughout.

Because of this, laughs don’t feel cheap. Yes, there’ll be a throwaway gag involving Cool Beans or exactly how it is you proceed that elusive ‘wh’ sound, but the comedy is anchored in character. There’s a strong central story, characters are fleshed out and have goals; the comedy, stupid as it may be, exists in tandem with the story. The characters don’t feel like they’re just there to be funny or laughed at; it is, put simply, a clever stupid movie.

So why does Hot Rod work?

Hot Rod doesn’t talk down to its audience. Though the film’s humor relies primarily on slapstick, non sequiturs, and downright silliness, never once does it treat its viewers as if they are idiots. In that process, the movie establishes that the audience is in on the joke. The movie isn’t just trying to serve up something barely palatable for laughs. It also helps that Hot Rod isn’t particularly mean. For all its silliness, Hot Rod lets its characters live. There’s nothing vindictive about Rod falling in a pool, or Rod tumbling down a hill for an inane amount of time, or Rod getting hit by a van (again). We enjoy Rod’s pain, but we’re not interested in watching him suffer. Because, and this may be in part to blame on Andy Samberg’s performance, we actually like Rod.

And that’s the proverbial second shoe. Couched among all those silly jokes is that sense of character I mentioned earlier. Rod and his crew, Kevin, Dave, Rico, and Denise, don’t exist just for the sake of jokes. Yes, they’re funny, often outright hilarious, but amidst all that humor are genuine relationships. The characters feel real — well, as real as they can in such an odd world — and, as such, we get invested in them and their plight. We want these idiots to succeed, and we care about their relationships. Stupid as Hot Rod might be, it doesn’t dispense with the humanity of the story.

That’s the thing about Hot Rod, it doesn’t just coast by on stupid and silly jokes, it actually bothers to create a story and characters for those jokes to exist in. Even though they aren’t particularly groundbreaking, they’re executed with enough of a precision that it works on a narrative level. As stupid as it can be, there is a great intelligence in its creation. The movie knows when and how to be silly, there’s a deftness, a cleverness to its stupidity.

And that is how it’s done.


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Being There

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! May 28 2016 · 219 views

Essays, Not Rants! 219: Being There

It’s a stormy night in 1995 and you’re a college student just returned from a year abroad. During that time your family moved to a large house on the outskirts of town. A house, you discover, without anyone home that looks like it’s been stolen.

That’s how Gone Home opens, a game where you assume the role of Kaitlin and explore your new house, trying to figure out what happened during the year you were away.

Now, Gone Home toes the line of being a video game. Sure, it’s ‘played,’ but there’s little in the way of actual choices to be made; you’re essentially walking around. There’s no proper conflict, no goombas to stomp nor Russians to shoot; you’re exploring a house and trying to discover what happened to your family. It’s a cool experience rife with environmental storytelling that sits somewhere as a first-person adventure game where the emotional heft comes from a sense of being there.

But that’s Gone Home, a game built entirely around that experience by an independent developer. It’s not something you’d expect to see in a Triple-A video game, the blockbusters of the gaming world. These games, much like movie blockbusters, focus on the action with the story being told through brief cutscenes (or, in the case of the Metal Gear Solid series, radio calls that last a quarter of Gone Home’s playtime). There’s a distinct separation of gameplay and story.

And this is where I talk about Uncharted.

Now, the Uncharted games have made a reputation for themselves by allowing you to play an action movie. Meaning that you don’t just watch Nathan Drake trying to grab on to a falling cargo container or running through a crumbling city; you, the player as Nathan Drake, get to try to grab on to falling cargo containers and run through crumbling cities. Big moments that would either be a cutscene or ignored entirely are made playable. It makes the action in Uncharted feel that much more visceral, you get to be the action hero.

Story, though, has mostly been done through cutscenes and bits of banter interspaced through gameplay. In that sense, Uncharted wasn’t really doing too much besides telling great stories.

Then, earlier this month, came Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Still a grand action-adventure story that would make Indiana Jones jealous, this entry took the time in the story’s downbeats to really let you be there.

Much of the central tension stems from Nathan being persuaded to leave the normal life he’s built with his wife, Elena. But the game doesn’t just tell you this, because that’d be obvious and boring. Rather, once we’ve caught up to Nathan in the present, we get the beautiful chapter “A Normal Life.” In it, the player can explore Nathan’s house, starting in the attic where they can look at notes and mementos of Nathan’s prior adventures before exploring the rest of the house where they can flip through a book of wedding photos and look at to do post-its on the fridge before sitting down with Elena to talk and play a video game (yes, in a video game; it’s awesome). What this delightfully quiet chapter does is put the player in Nathan’s shoes, establishing what he’d be walking away from were it to go on another adventure. Rather than just having Nathan say “I have a good life” in a cutscene, A Thief’s End employs Gone Home’s technique and has the player explore a space, using the clues to form their own narrative.

In other words, “A Normal Life” has the player playing a cutscene, only instead of an action one, it’s a purely story and emotional focused beat. You don’t fight anyone or climb a rockface, instead you just get to be there.

Which is pretty friggin’ fantastic.


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Superhero Stardom (A Response)

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! May 21 2016 · 173 views

Essays, Not Rants! 218: Superhero Stardom (A Response)

There’s a recent New York Times article I came across that laments how the rise of the superhero genre has conflated actor-stardom with character-stardom. The article itself doesn’t really chase down the points too well, but the central gist (as far as I can see) is that in the recent slate of films, characters have come to trump actors. As Wesley Morris suggests in the article, when you watch Oceans Eleven, it’s George Clooney doing all the cool stuff as Danny Ocean; but when you watch Rush, you don’t see Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt, you see Thor as James Hunt. And as more big name actors get roped into superhero films (Cate Blanchett’s gonna be in Thor: Ragnarok!), it’s more actors being roped in to playing a specific character.

Which makes Morris’ point of view seem a little weird. He implies that the fun of Ocean’s Eleven is seeing the star-studded cast play off of each other, whereas Civil War is more about watching the characters interact; the former being better. Which begs the question of whether or not you’re supposed to forget that it’s an actor playing a character and not something happening before you.

Now, the attitude here feels a lot like that kid who’s angry you got the same toys they did. For ages, the idea of a superhero has been derided. Like science fiction and fantasy it was that genre, one that no serious actor would get involved in. Heck, we even had a movie called Birdman which was all about how superhero films and all their sequels was where art went to die. Except now they are, and with it, taking on (and being known by) personae that they don’t get to create per se. Superheroes are a cultural mythology, why else are we able to discuss who’s the “better Batman?” Taking up the cowl means playing someone bigger than life. Kinda like being the next guy to play James Bond.

Hang on.

See, this is where things start to get a little weird (and Morris’ argument starts to fall down). Daniel Craig’s Bond is sharply different from Pierce Brosnan’s Bond. I mean, sure, they’re the same character, just done differently. Same with Clooney, Bale, and Affleck’s Batman. There’s still some wiggle room in really getting to build a character.

But, all the same, the more recent superhero movies are very much adaptions of the comic books; someone like Batman’s very much in the public consciousness, more so than, say, Star Lord was in 2013. It would make sense, then, that casting Chris Pratt as Peter Quill would allow for a straight shot of an adaption.

Except, again, it’s kinda not. Star Lord as he appeared in the comics was quite different from the one in Guardians of the Galaxy, more authoritative and less bumbling, though still prone to having everything blow up in his face. Much of Peter Quill in the film — and who he’s become in the comics these days — grew out of Chris Pratt’s performance and James Gunn’s script. So sure, it was based on something, but there was still a big room to build there. Heck, you can see it with all of the MCU characters.

In spending a chunk of today trying to pry apart Wesley Morris’ article I kept losing track of his point (which may be because he doesn’t back it up much). In any case, based on the title, is about the changing role of celebrity that the uptick of superhero film franchises has brought about. Which, alright, sure; but we’ve also changed from the studio system of the ‘50s. Marvel with the MCU (and, Fox with X-Men and DC with their attempts at catchup) are working on a new form of storytelling, one that sits somewhere at the nexus of film, television, comics, and those old serials from forever ago. Maybe it’s time that the nature of stardom changes, what with the steady rise of nerd culture into the mainstream. After all, the geeks shall inherit the earth.


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The Elusiveness of Fun

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! May 14 2016 · 216 views

Essays, Not Rants! 217: The Elusiveness of Fun

What is fun?

No, not what’s fun to do, what does “fun” mean? Johan Huizinga, a Dutch guy that wrote a lot about play and what play means, said in his Homo Ludens that “this last-named element, the fun of playing, resists all analysis, all logical interpretation.” He goes on to lament that there’s, to his knowledge, no direct translation in a Western language that really captures what “fun” is (and if you check Wiktionary, you’ll find the translations lacking in words that really capture what fun means).

So “fun” is weird, and writing it so many times has made me start to question whether that’s how you spell it. But yeah, fun is a thing, and it’s part of what makes play, well, play. If you’re not having fun, you’re not really playing, are you?

Fun’s essential to games, then. I don’t play Settlers of Catan or the Game Of Thrones Board Game just because I feel like manipulating and betraying my friends/family/girlfriend, I play it because manipulating and betraying my friends/family/girlfriend are fun (sorry, friends/family/girlfriend). Some people don’t find those games fun, and for them it’s less playing and more of a slog.

Like I said, “fun” is weird.

Video Games, particularly those with a narrative, find themselves in an odd place when it comes to fun. Because video games have to, by nature, be fun on some level. Even something like The Last of Us, which isn’t always particularly enjoyable due to its serious nature, retains a measure of “fun” to it wherein it is, well, pleasing to play. But other games can get by with a weaker narrative simply because they’re fun. There’s nothing innovative or narratively fascinating about a plumber rescuing a princess, but Super Mario Bros is no less compelling for it.

Capturing that fun is where things get interesting. The Division recreated a swath of Midtown Manhattan but does so little with it that there’s little fun to be found in exploring a virtual New York. Clunky controls that inhibit immersion (why can’t I jump off this parapet to a surface a foot below me?) get in the way of any interest in the game’s vague story. Destiny, on the other hand, is stupidly fun on the micro level. Sure, that game’s story’s also lackluster, but developed Bungie has figured out a shoot-melee-jump cycle that’s so darn enjoyable. Because Destiny is more fun on a beat-by-beat basis, it’s more compelling than The Division.

But here’s the weird part about fun: it’s kinda arbitrary. I know people who find Destiny’s shoot-melee-jump cycle tiresome and I’m sure there are people out there who really like The Division for its core gameplay. We joke about people “hating fun” but then again, isn’t “fun” a matter of opinion?

So now we return to that first question: “what is fun?” Amusement, sure, but if games like Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us can be fun on some level then we’re looking at a very different sort of amusement. Engaging? It works, sure, but Fruitvale Station was engaging as all get out and not at all fun. Enjoyable comes close, but runs in to the same issue as amusement. Huizinga didn’t really define fun alone so much as in relation to play, and he has some very clear (and useful) descriptions as what play is.

Think about when you (or I, if you read this blog a bunch) refer to a movie as “fun.” What’s that mean? Civil War had an incredibly tragic climax, but it’s still fun, right? Least I thought so, since some people find Marvel movies to be droll.

Way I see it, fun is something really hard to to capture, that really lacks a solid meaning. Play is fun, I suppose, and fun is play.

No, that’s not much of a final statement, but it’s late and that’s all I’ve got right now.

Plus, I wanna go back to swinging on ropes in Uncharted 4 because that is a lotta fun.


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A (Civil) War of Flaws

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! May 07 2016 · 193 views

Essays, Not Rants! 216: A (Civil) War of Flaws.

Civil War came out. This post it about that. Yes, that’s all the intro I’m giving.

Marvel’s done a fantastic job of giving their characters major flaws. Look at the original (cinematic) Avengers: Iron Man’s selfish, Captain America’s noble to a fault, Thor’s proud, The Hulk’s, er, angry, Black Widow doesn’t trust anyone, and Hawkeye’s just the archer (okay, so he’s more the cynic). It’s these clearly defined character defects that make them clash so well, something made overt in the first Avengers when Loki’s scepter has them arguing in the lab. Flaws make characters interesting. The Avengers wouldn’t be half as fun if everyone got along like sunshine and rainbows, instead they spend half their time arguing and trying to get over themselves.

It’s because it builds on that central tenet that Captain America: Civil War succeeds so well. The question posed to the Avengers in the film is simple: should they report to a higher authority? It’s a question of authority and also who’s responsible for the Avengers’ actions. The creative team behind Civil War deserve major credit for making the question, herein rendered as the Sokovia Accords, feel nuanced, with no side feeling altogether right or wrong.

But that’s all plot stuff, and, as the last eight years of Marvel Cinematic Movies have proven, the best of part of these movies are the characters.

And so the divide of the Avengers falls firmly along character based lines. Tony Stark, who’s selfishness has given way to guilt and paranoia, sees the Accords as a safeguard. Furthermore, they’re a way for him to further absolve himself of guilt; he can be part of a tool to make things right, going where the majority feel he and the Avengers are most needed. Conversely, Steve Rogers’ nobility and idealism has him see the Avengers as guardians. They’re there to fight threats no one else can and they need the freedom to use their own judgement. Where Tony wants approval, Steve believes that they’ll do the right thing no matter what. It all fits into their established characters, characters which, for good measure, get set up again quickly in the film’s opening.

Thus, Civil War’s divide is one built on flaws. Many characters’ allegiances comes out of fears and flaws. War Machine and Falcon are loyal to Iron Man and Cap and so will follow them. Black Widow and Vision see the Accords as an insurance against an unknown danger; Scarlet Witch fears control. Black Panther is nursing a grudge. Even Cap’s idealism is tempered with asking “what if they send us somewhere we don’t want to go?” The battle lines develop naturally rather than arbitrarily. The combatants have a horse in their fight and it becomes personal.

To see this done wrong, you don’t have to look much further than Batman v Superman. There the central question is one guy going “I don’t like the way you’re above it all and cause massive collateral damage” and the other saying “I don’t like the way you’re above it all and brand people.” That Batman and Superman’s eventual fight isn’t born out of an escalation of tensions and faults makes it pointless at best and arbitrary at worst. They start out not liking each other and spend the movie prepping for a fight until they’re manipulated into coming to blows.

Civil War has Steve and Tony start out amicable before the Accords cause an ideological split. It’s the reappearance of the Winter Soldier driving a wedge deeper between them, plus a couple other turns that happen so that by the time they really come to blows it is an inevitable extension of their (flawed) characters. Civil War led it’s hero-fighting-hero with character, Batman v Superman relied on a contrived plot; so while the audience feels apathetic watching Batman fight Superman, the fight between Captain America and Iron Man is brutally tragic.

And so we’ve come full circle. Tragedy is born out of flaws. Creon’s pride is his downfall in Antigone. Othello’s jealousy costs him everything. And in Civil War, it divides Captain America and Iron Man.

Man, aren’t character flaws great?






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josh

twenty-five


grew up on a ship


studied Narrative (Re)Construction

at New York University


frequently found writing in a coffee shop, behind a camera, or mixing alcohol and video games

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