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On Finales

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Mar 21 2015 · 157 views

Essays, Not Rants! 157: On Finales

So Parks and Recreation ended a few weeks ago bringing an end to a particularly great show that I got into far too late. The finale was especially wonderful, elegantly tying a bow on seven years of stories.

Rather than having some big hoorah, though, the episode has the former Parks Department take on an utterly inconsequential task (getting a swing in a park fixed) before going their separate ways. With the whole season serving as an effective wrap up to the current proceedings, there was no need for there to be a big artificially succinct Final Big Moment. Instead, Parks makes fixing the dumb swing matter by flashing forward with each character to see where they are in the future.

Parks is far from the first; How I Met Your Mother did it in their finale first year. I’ve talked about my many qualms with it narratively, but it was a structurally solid technique. We got some closure on characters and know what Ted ended up doing, even if it went against everything that’d been built up thus far. But Parks goes further and arguably does it better by going to several different spots in the future for each main character (and even some lesser ones). We find out many of the key points events happens to them in the years afterwards. Some of their bigger decisions are prefaced with vignettes showing off key character moments and their growth. At the end of it all there’s this strong sense of resolution.

If anything, Parks errs on telling us almost too much. It seems nearly as if we know everything that happens to these characters in the future. Little is left to the imagination, we know Andy and April have kids, we know Ron ends up happily in charge of a National Park, and we know that either Leslie or Ben became president. By the time the finale ends we’re left knowing that we’ve heard just about all the stories there is to tell about these people.

Which makes me wonder what we want out of a finale to a show. There’s something fun about an ending that implies the adventure continues: look at Serenity (effectively the finale to Firefly) which has since spawned a couple comics, or even Chuck which remains open-ended enough for more to happen. But an ending like Lost's which firmly closes the door on anything else isn’t bad either. So what makes an ending satisfying?

I think closure is what really matters. The ending of Serenity left a few balls up in the air while still resolving some subplots, like Simon and Kaylee’s romance and what happened to River. But even though we knew Mal wasn’t quite out of the woods and that the crew as a whole were a little worse for the wear, we’ve got this sense of finality. This adventure is over; even if there’s more to come, for now the major issues are resolved.

What’s important is that the ending fits the story. Firefly’s works so well because the show has always been bittersweet. Lost is fundamentally mythic and Chuck was always about a romance and family. Parks’ fits because the show’s format has always been a little meta, so showing what happens ten to forty years down the line isn’t out of place. Lost couldn’t have Parks’ ending and it couldn't be the other way round either.

It’s hard to get endings right. Don Quixote’s ending allowed for some guy to write a sequel, so when Cervantes wrote an actual sequel he had Don Quixote die at the end so no one would write another allowing him to have the final word on his knight errant. How I Met Your Mother undid (at least) a season’s worth of character development with its finale so even though we knew what happened to the characters we felt a little cheated out of our investment. Parks and Recreation had its cake and ate it too; we know that things work out for everyone in their own way, and we’re okay with that. We’re invited to fill in the blanks (is Leslie or Ben president?), but we’re told things are alright. And that’s good enough.


Superheroes Are For The Birds

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Mar 14 2015 · 164 views

Essays, Not Rants! 156: Superheroes Are For The Birds

I’ve said too many times before that awards don’t always mean quality (especially when The Lego Movie gets ignored), but that doesn’t mean I still don’t have opinions. Especially when those opinions are about Birdman.

I really enjoyed Birdman. Its shot-as-if-it’s-one-take-ness got a little obtrusive at times and bordered on being gimmicky, but its strong plotting and performances helped bring it past that. It was interesting and a great movie; can’t really argue with that.

What I can argue with is with is its point-of-view. Birdman’s about a former superhero actor who’s trying to be taken seriously as a theater actor. The dichotomy there is clear: on the one hand you’ve got superhero movies, the ultimate pulpy-popcorn blockbuster, on the other is a Broadway adaption of a Raymond Carver short story, about as high the performing arts can get. The genres are opposites, and one is clearly shown as being more artistically valued than the other.

Which makes Birdman’s relationship with the superhero genre so fascinating. It’s a movie about a genre but instead of parodying it, the film takes apart the culture surrounding the genre. There’s a question of why so many actors are in superhero films (even Jeremy Renner), but more importantly being known for a superhero film follows Michael Keaton’s Riggan around, a literal ghost of his past. Birdman could have worked differently — we could have had Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger escaping from being action heroes, for example — and the central plot and theming would remain much the same: the idea here is that if you want to make true art you have to escape from the pulp.

Adding on to this view is that pulp and genre movies are inherently lesser than ‘serious’ ones. Especially when the genre’s a popular one. In discussing the overall critical distaste for superhero films, James Gunn, director of Guardians of the Galaxy, said “What bothers me slightly is that many people assume because you make big films that you put less love, care, and thought into them then people do who make independent films or who make what are considered more serious Hollywood films” (x). Way Gunn sees it, people figure that there’s a divide between real art and making money. Birdman, as an artsy movie, was made out of love whereas Guardians, the blockbuster, was made for a quick buck. Gunn vehemently disagrees, arguing that there’s still a great deal of love for the craft and storytelling even in an expensive, pulpy movie.

It’s storytelling, then, that should be paramount to defining art. Without its strong story Birdman would just be a movie about some washup idiosyncratically shot. What makes Guardians such a great movie is its commitment to plot and characters. Storytelling, not genre, should be the ultimate test of a movie.

I think that’s why I love good pulpy movies. Sure, they may not always be serious, but a strong plot goes a long way. Superhero movies too can deal with deeper themes. Iron Man 3 looks at identity, questioning whether you’re defined by who you are or what you’ve done. The Winter Soldier discusses privacy and the relevance of old ideals in a modern world. Guardians is about not having to be particularly special to save the world and the importance of having other people. That we don’t always notice these deeper scenes is part of the beauty, the films aren’t heavy handed; rather they intertwine theme and the story. Pulpiness and a lack of seriousness doesn’t mean a lack of depth.

Point of all this to say, genres are to be used. Though a great film, Birdman perpetuates the annoying trend that real art’s gotta be angsty, that flair has no room for substance. It’s problematic, saying that one way of telling a story is better than another. Because at the end of the day, nobody wants everyone telling the same story the same way.

Writer’s note: I definitely think Birdman earned its Best Picture, but I think Richard Linklater deserved Best Director for Boyhood give how singular that movie is. But eh, who cares, it’s just a statue.


Let's Take A Look at IMDB

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , Mar 11 2015 · 215 views

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And then...

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And then...

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I have an IMDb page.

This is real. This is actually happening. Part of me can't believe it.

Now let's get this sucker screened at a festival.


New Mumford & Sons

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Music Mar 09 2015 · 159 views

Holy mess, I'm in love. I'm usually a fan of bands changing their sound (see Barcelona's three projects, or Relient K's Forget and Not Slow Down versus Mmhmm), and as much as a departure as Believe is from everything else Mumford's done before, holy crud I really like what they've done.

I cannot wait for Wilder Mind.


Twisted Echoes

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Mar 07 2015 · 156 views

Essays, Not Rants! 155: Twisted Echos

I’ve actually got a bunch of half-written posts I wanna post. Stuff on Birdman and the Oscars, or one on the Parks and Rec finale. However something came out, and, well, I can’t help myself.

I’m talking about the new Age of Ultron trailer.

There’s a lot to nerd out about. You’ve got the Vision teaser at the end, all the hints of the Avengers falling apart, Ultron being deliciously evil, and the glorious shot of the Avengers soaring into battle. I’m getting excited. Really excited.

There’s one moment in the trailer that’s particularly significant, and since I’m not above writing a rant essay on a small part of a trailer, we’re going to do so. About 1:36 into the trailer we have one of my favorite bits: Hulk and Iron Man’s Hulkbuster fighting against a building. Obviously, this is another geeky moment; the Hulkbuster has been a staple of the comics since the ‘90s, so seeing it on screen busting the Hulk is grand. But that’s not why it’s important.

Remember the end of The Avengers? After Iron Man has blown up the Chitauri ship he’s falling down to earth. Then Hulk bounds up and catches him, slowing their descent against a building. It’s the culmination of Bruce Banner’s arc, where the Hulk is usually a wild force of destruction now he’s saving someone. Furthermore he’s saving Tony Stark, the first one willing to befriend him not in spite of the Hulk but because of it too (see their first meeting and conversation in the lab).

Age of Ultron looks to be turning it on its head. Instead of going down a skyscraper, Iron Man and Hulk are going up one. Instead of Hulk catching Iron Man, Iron Man is propelling them upwards while Hulk attacks him. It’s visually reminiscent of the beat from The Avengers, only turned on its head into a twisted reflection.

Now, the reason for Iron Man and Hulk’s battle isn’t overly important (there’s a theory floating around that it’s a result of Scarlet Witch’s mind-altering powers). Rather, let’s focus on the visual significance. Beyond being a callback to the first film, we have two friends fighting. This, along with much of the rest of the trailer, brings up the idea of division among the team. It’s somewhat dialectical materialist in its approach; having been brought together by the first movie, now the opposite has to happen. Because a sequel can’t just rehash the first, it has to go deeper. We have a positive, let’s hit the negative of that now.

In a way, Age of Ultron is looking to deconstruct elements of the first movie. Joss Whedon’s said that one of the driving forces of the film is “the idea of heroes and whether or not that's a useful concept.” So where the first film had Nick Fury straight up telling the World Security Council that, yes, we need heroes, Ultron turns this on it’s head and questions if they’re really necessary after all. The new film will probably take each stance (“We need heroes” / “we don’t need heroes”) and synthesize a new idea from the product. This bit of dialectical materialism, playing a defense against a rebuttal to come to a new consensus, serves to reconstruct the themes of the superhero films.

Back before the first Avengers was released, Whedon was asked how he’d try to top it with a sequel. He said he wouldn’t try to, rather he would by “being smaller. More personal, more painful. By being the next thing that should happen to these characters…” Now, he’s since admitted that Ultron’s gotten bigger than the first, but there remains the throughline he set forth three years ago. Age of Ultron is going deeper into these characters, figuring out what makes them tick, and pushing them to their breaking points. From a storytelling point of view, I am beyond pumped to see this movie.

That and, of course, this shot.


Look What Came In The Mail

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Los Legos Mar 04 2015 · 168 views

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Only one I can afford in good conscious at the moment. Doing Mechanical Turk work and signing up for psych studies here at university so I can buy more.

LEGO®: So Addictive You'll Let People Science On You To Buy More


Manners Maketh A Genre

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Feb 28 2015 · 202 views

Essays, Not Rants! 154: Manners Maketh A Genre

Spy movies are old hat. Well, least the slick James Bond ones are. Movies like Goldeneye have either been deconstructed by the Bourne movies (or even by more recent Bond flicks, to an extent) or lovingly lampooned by the likes of Chuck and Archer. Now, this isn’t bad (I love Chuck and Skyfall). Spies aren’t the sort to smoothly enter in a suit with a myriad of fancy gadgets, they’re gritty people in dark, realistic worlds. If you aim for a more lighthearted approach, chances are the genre’s used as the setting for another story, be it a workplace comedy or romance. There’s been a dearth of pure spy movies.

Enter Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman. Though it may seem like a deconstruction — it plays with and pokes at a couple tropes — ultimately, it’s a reconstruction. Now, Skyfall was to an extent a reconstruction in its own right as it defended the relevance of the government-run spy agency (as opposed to, say, rogues like Jason Bourne) in a very modern world, keeping as much of the spy-gadgetry we’d allow in a grounded film. Kingsman on the other hand, decides to amp things up a couple notches.

The throwbacks to classic gadgetry are present in Kingsman: the heroes have weaponized pens, hidden shoe-blades, bullet-proof umbrella shields, and hi-tech glasses. The agents dress in tailored suits and a great deal of emphasis is put on the way one carries oneself. And, of course, this is a slick movie with good guys being awesome and an evil madman trying to take over the world. It’s a straight up spy film.

Now, it’s not all spies-on-missions. The first half of the film focuses on Eggsy training to be one of the impeccable spies. But even though he’s not actively going after the villain, it still feels spy-ish as the candidates go through increasingly harder trials with more and more flair. It’s over-the-top, sure but it’s great fun to see this kid from the wrong side of the London’s tracks grow into a super-spy.

I think what really makes Kingsman such a wonderful ode to its genre is its tone. Classic Bond had this strong sense of romantic adventure to it and many of its imitators followed in its steps. Kingsman returns to that spirit, though it does so older and wiser. The movie knows that a jet pack’s been done to death, so the film uses a mothballed high-altitude balloon from Reagan’s SDI. Similarly, the gadgetry feels appropriately futuristic for a more modern setting (see the AR glasses mentioned above). This keeps it from feeling too old-fashioned, but a technology update alone wouldn’t push it from good to great. The movie knows it’s a spy movie, as do its characters; Eggsy and the others are almost Chuck-ish in their knowledge and meta-commentary on spy tropes. This doesn’t diminish it, rather it keeps the film feeling decidedly present while still keeping a decades old tradition alive.

This is how you breathe new life into a genre. You take all of its flaws and preposterousness and roll with it, accepting its prior deconstruction and morphing it into something new — in other words: reconstruction. Pacific Rim created a world where Mecha made sense and where Kaiju were cool; Godzilla once more had the titular monster a force of nature while still making sense; Star Trek accepted Roddenberry’s idealism and made space opera cool again. Kingsman makes being a suave, well-dressed badowl integral to being a super spy. Manners maketh man and all that.

Writing off a genre as being silly unless you take it apart bit by bit is foolish. But every now and then deconstruction needs to happen. Casino Royale had to show the ramifications of being a super spy so Skyfall could ultimately show why it’s still needed and so Kingsman could deliver its pulpy fun. It’s fun to see things deconstructed — it’s what makes The Cabin In The Woods such fun — but it’s not the only way to make an old genre new again. Look at Kingsman, Skyfall, Star Trek; you take the thing apart so you know how to put it back together better than before.


The Eternal Dilemma

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , Feb 23 2015 · 135 views

I gotta write this essay but all I want to do is make food and eat.


Control in The Avengers

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Feb 21 2015 · 139 views

Essays, Not Rants! 153: Control in The Avengers

I’m working on an essay for school this weekend (seriously, when aren’t I?), and once again I find myself needing to practice analysis and stuff. And because this is me, I’m doing it about something fun.

Manipulation and control of people play big roles in The Avengers. Loki’s staff gives him the ability to outright control minds, the bloodied Captain America cards are Nick Fury’s subtler means to get the Avengers to team up. A lot of the film’s runtime has characters competing to be the one in charge, to be able to control the others.

This is probably most visible in the characters and dynamic of Natasha Romanov and Bruce Banner (or, y’know, Black Widow and the Hulk). When we first meet Natasha she seems powerless: she’s tied up and being interrogated by some Russian mobsters. We quickly find out that this is exactly where she wants to be as she reveals that she’s been using this to get information out of them before effortlessly beating them up. Natasha is used to being in control and around those she can manipulate or overpower, often by seeming like the one who isn’t in control at all.

However, the next time we see her she’s recruiting Bruce Banner to the team. She’s in a position where losing control of a situation could mean Banner hulking out and plastering the room with her. Her wariness of Bruce, which becomes more evident as the story progresses, stems from her inability to control him. Finding out it’s her job to get Bruce on their side is enough to make her stop in her tracks, when confronting Tony Stark — who isn’t a huge fan of hers after the events of Iron Man 2 — hardly elicits a reaction. She can even get Loki to reveal his plans to her — even if he does get under her skin — but she can’t talk down a Hulk.

Bruce Banner’s own arc similarly deals with the question of control. Central to his character is the ability to keep the Hulk in check. If he loses control of his emotions he hulks out and risks being an uncontrollable rage monster, which, as Natasha points out, he’s “…been more than a year without an incident. [She doesn’t] think [he wants to] break that streak.” Bruce is a man who by necessity must always be in control. Not only his internal conflict, but his interactions with others too is colored by this theme. Aboard the Helicarrier is a chamber designed to contain him should he suddenly pose a risk to the safety of those aboard. Even those who want him around want to keep him check, want to stay in power over him.

All this comes to a head at the midpoint. The team has fallen out, Loki’s people attack, and everything goes sideways. Banner is a victim of this chaos and the monster he’s been hiding is released in a fit of blind rage. Natasha is the one who first faces the Hulk and there the the Avenger who’s power is founded on being in control is suddenly powerless to the one who is uncontrollable. For Natasha this is terrifying; she has no angle to control the Hulk. Banner, meanwhile, has been rendered helpless. The team’s low point sees both of them bereft of control.

By the time of the climax, however, things have been reversed. Natasha, after a heart-to-heart with Clint Barton, is coming to terms with not always having the upper hand. Bruce, meanwhile, has been assured of his latent heroism (the security guard tells him lack of hurting anyone was due to “good aim”), and returned to the team. As they face down what looks to be certain doom, Cap looks to Bruce and says:

Steve Rogers: Doctor Banner, now might be a good time for you to get angry.
Bruce Banner: That's my secret, Captain: I'm always angry.

And then we know that Bruce has control over his Hulk and this time, when he transforms, it’s far less painful and far less wild than before. It’s not so much a curse as it is a blessing.

Now, control plays a role for the other Avengers too. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers both play opposite sides of a coin, first is impulsive, the other disciplined. Clint spends most of the movie under Loki’s thrall. Thor, perhaps, might be the one with little personal investment in control (though an argument could be made about his relationship with his brother being one that Loki uses to manipulate him). All this to say, control is obviously a major theme in The Avengers, but it’s in Natasha and Bruce that the conflict takes its clearest form.


Random School Thought

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , Feb 18 2015 · 141 views

One of the (many) things I like about Gallatin is that since I get to design my curriculum much of my classes are seminars. This means, when I play my schedule right, I've got a lot less lecturing and a lot more discussion...ing.

Which makes literature a lot more fun. Now, for pulpier stuff like Ender's Game, BioShock, or When Harry Met Sally (all stuff I've read/played/watched for a class), it means we get to look closely at what's, frankly, entertainment.

But what surprises me is how much it makes me appreciate 'literary' literature. Like how yesterday I found myself vehemently defending/commending the intricately complex characters of Madame Bovary which don't allow for easy black-and-white judgment calls. Funny thing was, halfway through saying it I suddenly realized "Holy [cyprinidae], this is actually a really good book."

Never thought I'd think that about, y'know, a 19th century French book.


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grew up on a ship

studies Storytelling

at New York University

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

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