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The Internet, Neutrality, and Me

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jul 19 2014 · 105 views

Essays, Not Rants! 122: The Internet, Neutrality and Me

Ender’s Game has this wonderful side plot (that didn’t make it to the film) where Peter and Valentine, Ender’s siblings, take to the Nets as Demosthenes and Locke. The anonymity of the Nets allows them, despite their young age, to garner an audience and political influence. Their machinations help prepare Earth for after the war as well as save Ender’s life.

It sounds a little farcical now, since, as xkcd pointed out, they’d essentially just be bloggers. Yet, considering Ender’s Game was published in 1985, it’s an awfully accurate portrayal of what the internet would allow. The Internet is, for better and worse, the ultimate egalitarian democracy. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, you have a say (who listens to that say is another matter). But, stateside, there’s this new issue: Net Neutrality. You may have heard of it, but its end (which the FCC is fighting for) would mean that Internet Service Providers can decide which sites get through fast and which don’t. Want to provide your viewers with smooth video streaming? Pay up. That isn’t a joke, by the way, Netflix had to pay Comcast for faster streaming. The end of Net Neutrality means that if your website can’t afford to pay an ISP then your site can fall through the cracks. Your ISP doesn’t like you accessing a site ran by a rival company? Funny how it loads at dial up speed.

The internet is a beautiful, terrifying place. It needs to stay that way, and we need Net Neutrality.

It’s December 2003. Twelve-year-old Josh is in Peru (he grew up on a ship), on the internet looking for news on Lego’s Bionicle line. He stumbles upon a forum and finds a whole bunch of people like him. Well, they don’t live on a ship, but they like Legos and Bionicle and suddenly he’s found a community. When you’re living on a ship where you don’t have many friends due to not having people your age, it’s incredible to suddenly find peers. That website gave me a social life of sorts, whether I was in Singapore, St. Vincent, or Sierra Leone. In addition to that, the site gave me an outlet for things like writing and cartoons, encouraging me to write stories and make videos.

During my Freshman year of High School I moved twice. Not move across town, mind you: my family and I packed up everything we owned and moved across continents. Enrolling in school would be a challenge, so I did school online. No, it wasn’t my best year academically, but it allowed me to have a somewhat stable education and — this is the best part — interact with other students. Again, I’ve a few lasting friendships from that year.

All that moving (and the ship) meant that a lot of my friends were oceans away. MSN, Skype, and, of course, email, let me stay in touch with them. Once again, despite the distance and craziness of life, I had people to talk to when I didn’t know anyone where I was. These days I can also keep in touch with my often scattered family, even when the four of us are in four countries.

Early in 2012 I’m unemployed and listless so I start a blog to force myself to write. 122 essays (not rants!), three jobs and two years of college later and I’m still at it. Sometimes it’s to help with an essay for class, other times it’s because I’m mad there isn’t a Black Widow movie planned, but I’m writing. And some people are reading (here’s to you!).

The internet is great. It’s been a crucial part of my life for over a decade. I’d be a very different person if I didn’t have access of these sites and services — several of which are not for profit and most likely couldn’t afford an imposed tariff. These days I can read articles on Cracked, watch movies and tv on Netflix, or get lost in TVTropes. I don’t want to have to choose an ISP based on which sites are fastest for them (besides, a lot of places only have one ISP in service). Furthermore, I don’t want the sites I love to have to pay for better access. I want the whole internet, as it is, no matter who I’m paying or what I’m looking up.

Net Neutrality is a big freaking deal. So maybe two kids aren’t gonna use its anonymity to become a famous politician and historian, but an open internet still something worth protecting. I owe the internet a lot, and I want to keep the internet I know in place for whoever’s growing up now. And that’s why I support Net Neutrality


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Of Dragon Training Sequels

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jul 12 2014 · 95 views

Essays, Not Rants! 121: Of Dragon Training Sequels

So I finally got around to see How To Train Your Dragon 2 this week. I’d enjoyed the first one well enough, but it didn’t stick out as something with a must see follow up. Figured, eh, it’s just another sequel.

I was wrong.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is arguably one of the most important modern animated films. It deserves this title for the reasons you’d expect: beautiful animation and technical brilliance along with a great story; but there are aspects that allow it, like Up before it, to really elevate the animated film.

But let’s talk about the animation for a moment. Simply put, the film is freaking gorgeous. Without a doubt, Dreamworks has finally given Pixar a run for their money. Details. Details like wisps of cloud or individual scales on Toothless give the movie a sense of being larger than life and yet still realistic. It’s amazing, and the quality of that alone makes it worth watching.

Fortunately, the animation isn’t everything. Dragon 2, unlike many other sequels — animated or not — has grown up. To an extent, literally: Hiccup and the other characters are five years older. Stoick is showing gray hairs, Hiccup’s taller; time has passed. This time gap is important. It’s easy for something animated to keep its characters the same age (See Ash Ketchum, who’s been 10 since I was barely seven). After all, it gives it a timeless feel. Going back to Pokémon, it means the show could continue for sixteen years with kids who weren’t even born when it came out able to latch on as if it was theirs. This does mean that characters remain stagnant, which is what Dragon didn’t do. Instead, it went the route of The Empire Strikes Back.

Now Empire is one of the greatest sequels, and also probably the best Star Wars movie. It earns it through several ways. For once it, unlike many sequels that have come in its wake, does not repeat the events of the first movie. Instead, it serves as an addition to the saga, a second episode (or fifth). With it, it takes the characters past where they started: Han’s showing signs of warming to the Rebellion, Luke trains to be a Jedi. Dragon also pushes forward in its plotting: there’s a psychotic warlord to deal with and it’s time for them to learn more about dragons. The same things don’t happen again.

For example, Hiccup’s relationship with Astrid. A simple subplot would be to add tension to the relationship established in the first film. Shrek 2 did it to great effect, others less well like the second Pirates of the Caribbean and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the Princess Diaries sequel ditched the original love interest so there could be a new romantic subplot. It adds drama, so, y’know, why not? Instead, Astrid and Hiccup are untouched in Dragon; there’s no backsliding character development. They’re a couple, and it’s not big deal. Stoick calls Astrid his future daughter-in-law, the pair are seen cuddling and the occasional kiss on the cheek is seen as no big deal. It’s sweet, and it’s also refreshing to see a couple that’s simply understood as being a couple.

Refreshing too is the film’s treatment of its female characters. Astrid’s plot doesn’t revolve around Hiccup. Rather she plays Han Solo to Hiccup’s Luke (to continue the Empire comparison), embarking on her own quest in Hiccup’s absence. Ruffnut, meanwhile has several lingering ogling of a male character which, besides showing off Dreamworks’ impressive animation of rippling muscle, provides examples of the ever elusive female gaze. It’s played for laughs, of course, but that fact that it’s even there is worth mentioning. Valka too is a great character — period. She’s someone who’s spent twenty years out of contact with society. Now, it could be easy to make her a one-dimensional half-feral person, but instead the film takes aspects of that an wraps it into a more complete whole. She’s cool and wonderfully layered. Point is, female characters in this movie don’t get sidelined.

But what stood out the most to me was Dragon 2’s sense of scale. It went big, reaching settings and scenarios that were epic of The Lord of the Rings variety. Its sweeping moments give the film a grandeur just about never found in animation. The human drama is never lost within it, though. Whether it’s Hiccup’s bond with Toothless or a certain parental reunion, the movie keeps has emotion to spare. It also helps keep the fantastical and epic elements anchored.

There’s a gorgeous scene early on where Hiccup and Toothless are flying above their clouds as a Jónsi song plays. The animation and scale of it is breathtaking, but it, along with the dialogue and sound, everything mise en scène, all serves to establish first the relationship between rider and dragon, but also where and how they stand now. It’s beautiful, and one that sums up how well rounded the film is.

I know my reaction is late, but I say this wholeheartedly: How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a phenomenal movie, animated or not, and easily on the most important animated films of recent memory.


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It's All In The Pacing

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jul 05 2014 · 128 views

Essays, Not Rants! 120: It’s All In The Pacing

Time is relative. Some scientist said that at some point. For my purposes, it means that one minute can seem longer or shorter depending on the context. That minute in traffic is far longer than that minute playing video games before work that got you stuck in traffic in the first place.

Naturally, this applies to stuff like movies too. A two hour movie can feel incredibly long or it can flash by in an instant. Why? Pacing. Pacing is important. Really important.

Let’s look at An Unexpected Journey. It’s a three hour movie but, unlike the prior The Lord of the Rings films, feels much longer. The simple reason for this is for lack of content: the film takes much to long repeating points. The run in with the rock giants, for example, is a lengthy sequence that adds nothing to the plot (except an extra action scene). Sure, there’s a small moment showing Thorin’s growing acceptance of Bilbo as part of the team, but that’s a beat that’s seen elsewhere. Sequences like these bog down a movie and draw it out. The Return of the King and the rest of the trilogy were bursting with story and characters: every scene added another layer to one or the other. Those films didn’t feel bogged down as every beat felt necessary to the movie at large.

Transformers: Age of Extinction feels overlong in a different way: there’s way too much going on. Though visually pleasing (as you’d expect from a Michael Bay film), it’s a narrative mess. There’s no clear antagonist antagonizing the heroes and, as such, the heroes have little plan thwarting to carry out. With no central throughline pushing the story along, the film winds up feeling like a series of vaguely connected misadventures involving giant robots. Which wouldn’t be so bad if we actually gave a [cyprindae] about these characters but, this being a Michael Bay film, we really don’t. As such, it’s 165 minute runtime really starts to drag after a while.

Guillermo Del Toro, another purveyor of giant robots, had this to say about film lengths: "All I know is that as an audience member, my [butt] meter starts ringing its fire alarm after two hours.” Essentially, there’s a point where it starts to feel like you’ve spent too long sitting in that chair. If a long movie is paced well it won’t seem long at all, if it’s paced poorly it’ll feel even longer. That said, you’ll probably start to notice how long you’ve been there as the two hour mark fades behind you.

Take Del Toro’s own Pacific Rim as a great example of a well paced movie that doesn’t feel too long. Big set pieces are linked together through emotional beats: The opening and Gipsy Danger vs Knifehead leads to the introduction of Stacker and Raleigh’s arrival at the Shatterdome before we see Mako’s flashback which in turn gives us a quiet character focused chunk before the big battle around Hong Kong. We get another break as Newt and Gottlieb work out the secrets of the breach before the final confrontation. These lulls not only to allow us to get to know and love the characters, but also give us breathers between action scenes and make us long for the next one. Del Toro, ever conscious of the audience’s collective butt meter, ensures that neither character/plot progression or action scene ever outstays their welcome, rather they work together to keep the movie puttering along, keeping us entertained throughout.

The LEGO Movie opts to follow Campbell’s monomyth and wisely never spends longer than necessary on individual beats. Not only does this allow for the movie to move along at a nice slick pace, but it means that when it comes time for it to spend time on something really important — take the conversation between the father/son and Lord Business/Emmet — there’s leeway for it to sink in without slowing down the plot.

At 143 minutes, The Avengers is a comparatively long movie. But it does as Pacific Rim does, stringing together smaller character moments between bigger set pieces, yet never allowing any to last too long. Add that to a group of great characters who you’re happy just to watch hang out with each other and it’s easy to get lost in the movie. And getting lost is the best, because suddenly you forget about time and your butt meter and just enjoy the movie.

Movie runtimes are one thing, how long they actually feel is another entirely. Watching Sex and The City (151 minutes) for class felt like an eternity, whereas The Dark Knight (165) felt just right. Time is relative — especially when watching movies. That’s where pacing comes in.

Note: Of course it’s not all in the pacing, but it is terribly important. Sometimes, a fascinating subject matter and engrossing characters are all you need — see Lost in Translation. That said, this blog post assumes that’s understood


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Unflinching

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 28 2014 · 77 views

Essays, Not Rants! 119: Unflinching

I finally got a chance to see Fruitvale Station on a flight last week. In short, it’s a movie that definitely deserves upping my Top Nine Movies of 2013 to a list of the Top Ten Movies of 2013 (though which spot it deserves I can’t decide). The initial expectation for why it’s a great movie is obvious: it’s topical! A movie dealing with race and prejudice in the contemporary USA? If you’ll like this you’ll seem cultured, yes!

But to describe it as such not only does it a great injustice but also hardly describes the movie in full. Fruitvale Station is not a tract. Rather, it presents a sequence of events without actively telling the audience whether what’s happening is right or wrong. Rather the film presents the events leading up to the shooting of Oscar Grant as scenes in everyday life.
Here’s where Fruitvale sets itself apart from similar movies like They Help or 12 Years a Slave. There’s no heroizing of Oscar. He’s presented as, well, as a person.In the film Oscar is, unflinchingly, neither clearly morally good or bad; instead he, like people in general, fluctuates between the two. Sure, he helps a stranger at a grocery store, going so far as to call his grandmother for help, but he also lies to his mother and girlfriend about being unemployed. Shortly after we first see Oscar we see him stashing a big bag of weed in his closet, yet he’s also someone who’s willing to spend what little cash he has on his mother for her birthday. Oscar’s complex, a man of dualities.

It’s rare that we see a character this morally gray. Malcolm Reynolds, of Firefly, almost reaches the same heights of Oscar. Mal too is a man comprised of a duality: he’s rude and borderline mean to Book and Inara, yet he’s quick to defend them should anyone else threaten them. He’s someone who will return stolen goods to a sickly town but soon after unhesitatingly kick an unarmed man into an engine intake. He’s hardly someone who follows the straight and narrow.
Malcolm Reynolds, however, remains fundamentally heroic. He may not be the goodest of the good, but he’s still someone who not only tends to do the right thing but also usually comes out on the heroic side. He robs an Alliance hospital to help two members of his crew and only because the hospital will be restocked in no time. Mal, unlike Oscar, has a moral code. It may not be the most righteous one, but it’s there all the same. Oscar, like ‘normal’ people, has no such clear moral compass. Instead he’s just a guy.

If anything, Oscar is a man with the potential to be good. Yes, he’s an ex-con, but he’s trying to turn his life around. Rather than having the audience invest in Oscar because he’s the ‘good guy,’ like 12 Years a Slave did with Solomon Northup, we invest in him because we see ourselves reflected in him. Oscar’s a guy trying to make his way in the world, trying to do right by the people he loves.

Along with that, Fruitvale Station asks us to empathize with people we may not like in real life. When Oscar drives he blares rap music, like those degenerates who woke you up when they drove through your neighborhood last night. The film has us look beyond first impressions and see the people underneath. Furthermore, Fruitvale Station never tries to tell us to like Oscar, rather it shows us who they are and thereby get to know them.

Which is what makes the shooting all the more tragic. It’s not presented as a case of “look how awful racial prejudice is,” instead the tragedy stems from seeing the life of a young man trying to better himself and beloved by his family cut short. Oscar’s death is the loss of a person full of hopes and flaws. That it comes as a result of prejudice only serves to deepen the tragedy and illuminate problems of the system.

So yes, Fruitvale Station is topical, far more so than film like 12 Years a Slave. This relevance, however, never gets in the way of the characters and plot. It’s a slice of the life of a twenty-two year old man, albeit one which ends in his murder.


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The Dynamics of the Buddy Movie

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 21 2014 · 106 views

Essays, Not Rants! 118: The Dynamics of the Buddy Movie

Im on vacation. As such, heres an essay I wrote for class during my Spring semester. We were assigned seven movies and had to compare the lot of them. Hence writing about The Parent Trap. Enjoy.

The buddy movie is one of the most prolific genres in cinema. With movies as diverse as the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, recent blockbusters like The Avengers, and animated films such as Toy Story; chances are everyones seen some variation of a buddy movie. One of the things that keeps the genre timeless is the myriad of buddies they can feature. We could have four characters who start out as friends and have their friendship tested, or they could be rivals who learn to work together. Alternately it could feature a pair of old friends who decide to roam the world together, possibly saving it in the progress; or two people with opposite personalities and a common goal. Point is, these different character dynamics are what make the genre unique.

At its basest the buddy movie genre allows for two characters to work together towards a similar goal. Such is the case with The Parent Trap. Annie and Hallie, the long-lost twins, are essentially the same character, though in English and American forms. The first portion of the film focus on them meeting, disagreeing, and coming to terms with each other whereas the remainder of the film follows them as they strive to reunite their parents. Here the characters compliment each other, their shared goal and similar personalities allow them to work together perfectly to achieve this goal.

Of course, thats just one personality. Things get more interesting when more personalities are in play. The ancient Greeks put forth the theory of the four humors; that is that personalities could be divided into four temperaments: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic. The definition of these fall on different ranges, being extroverted and people-orientated, extroverted and task-orientated, introverted and task-orientated, and introverted and people-orientated; respectively. Writers and viewers can use these to identify the roles characters have in a group. Take Sex and the City as a key example. Carrie, the main character, tends to be introverted and focused on her work (within the film shes not seen as being terribly outgoing). Samantha on the other hand, is much more extroverted and focused on the people around her, as seen by her frequent flying from California to New York to visit her friends as well as her constant interest in the people (particularly men) around her. Miranda and Charlotte fall between choleric and phlegmatic respectively. When the buddy movie features an ensemble of four, each character will usually embody one of these temperaments. These contrasts allow for tension to build between the characters and conflict among them which, in addition to the central conflict, makes for an interesting story.

The titular foursome of Fantastic Four fit these roles with near perfection. Reed Richards is the cool, collected, melancholic leader of the group; he wants to create a machine to reverse their transformation. Ben Grimm too is task-orientated, though tends to be more outgoing and fulfills the role of the choleric. Johnny Storm is even more extroverted than Ben and lives for the attention of people around him so he clearly is the sanguine member. Lastly, Sue Storm is the mediator of the three focused more on the team themselves and falls under the heading of the phlegmatic. The Fantastic Four fit the temperaments and with it conflict is born.

Johnny, the sanguine, is eager to embrace his powers and go public with them. Reed, however, wants to not only make sure theyre safe but to reverse them. Here we see the tension between Johnnys people-orientated nature and Reeds tendency to pursue tasks. This same dichotomy is where a measure of the romantic tension between Reed and Sue stems from: his want to finish his machine and undo the effects of the cosmic storm and her want for him. Its when Reed pursues her and momentarily abandons his focus on the task on hand that strain between him and Ben develops. Many of the films key moments, the incident on the Brooklyn Bridge and the fight outside the stadium, for example, are born out of the tension between these personality types. Its only when they learn to work together that they are able to beat the villainous Victor von Doom and truly become heroes.

Removing one character from the foursome creates a different dynamic, one which website TV Tropes dubs the Power Trio. In this set up the three characters contrast and compliment each other, often (but not necessarily) with each one embodying one aspect of the Freudian ideas of the id, ego, and superego. The id is wild and impetuous, frequently jumping headfirst into situations; the superego is the ids foil, rational and willing to look before leaping. The ego exists between them, balancing out their extremes. It can be seen in the original Star Trek TV show, with Kirk balancing out the hyper-rational Spock and the instinctive McCoy.

This also serves as a lens to look at Harry, Ron, and Hermiones relationship in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Harry is clearly the id of the trio; when he accidentally makes Aunt Marge float he doesnt think twice about leaving home and charging out into the night. We see this aspect of him again later when, upon hearing that Sirius Black betrayed his parents, he adamantly declares that he will kill the convict. On the opposite end of the spectrum, assuming the role of the superego, is Hermione. She is heavily focused on her studies, going so far as to have one of her professors procure her a time-turner so she can take a large number of classes. Furthermore, she is also the most sensible of the group, often exhorting the other two to calm down and listen to reason lest they get themselves hurt or in trouble at school. Ron stands between them as the ego. Sometimes ###### be as headstrong as Harry, other times hes with Hermione trying to talk down Harry from doing something reckless.

Though theres little infighting amongst the threesome (especially compared to, say, the Fantastic Four), their differing personalities still serve to accentuate each others traits. Harry and Rons laid back attitudes sharpen Hermiones studious nature, just as Hermiones tendency to sit back and figure things out contrasts against Harrys impulsiveness. The different views that Harry, Ron, and Hermione bring to the table enhance the characters and give their interactions and by proxy their adventure a great dynamic. It can also be seen in the key adults at the end of the film, with wild Sirius Black as the id, the mediating Remus Lupin as ego, and calculating Severus Snape the superego.
Narrowing the number of characters further results in foils; two characters who may share a similar goal but contrast sharply with each other. In Kinky Boots the tight-laced, somewhat-sheltered Charlie Price is paired up with the vivacious drag queen Lola. Their differing personalities clash on occasion, primarily over the subject of Lolas identity. Charlie wants her to hide who she is in Northampton for fear that people will think ill of him, whereas shes proud of her identity. The tension between their points of view and what they represent colors much of the films tension and the themes of acceptance and coming to terms with your identity.

Alternately, one character can influence the other. In Fried Green Tomatoes, the straight-laced Ruth becomes friends with the wild Idgie when asked to by the latters family. Over time, Ruth opens up to Idgies adventurous life and their friendship grows. Their differences help each other: its Idgies feisty boisterousness that causes her to get Ruth out of her abusive relationship with Frank; and its Ruths level headedness and warmth that help give Idgie a home. Theyre opposites, yes, but their personalities compliment and strengthen each other, making for a compelling dynamic.
Another common incarnation of the buddy movie is the buddy cop movie. The conceit usually incorporates two police officers of contrasting personalities and, frequently, different races who have been ordered to work together. Films like Rush Hour, BZP Lovers, and End of Watch have done this to great commercial success. Lethal Weapon too was a commercial success and is unquestionably the quintessential example of a typical buddy cop movie.

Like other buddy twosomes, Martin Riggs and Roger Murtagh are opposites. Riggs is young, white, impulsive, and somewhat suicidal. Murtagh is middle-aged, black, reserved, and has a wife and kids to worry about. What Lethal Weapon, and other buddy cop movies, does is accentuate these differences to near extremes and forces them, by virtue of orders from their chief, to work together. This handy trope explains why the two opposites have to be together and provides the catalyst for the inevitable fights between the two.

And fight they do. From their initial meeting, Riggs and Murtagh find themselves at odds with each other. Something as non-dangerous as dealing with a jumper displays their different approaches: Murtagh stays near the car and tries to talk him down whereas Riggs climbs up to the jumper, cuffs themselves together, and jumps off onto the inflatable bag with him. This conflict amongst the cops compliments their struggle against the antagonists. It's only when they are finally able to reconcile their differences and work as a team that they are able to defeat the bad guys, as we see in the iconic moment when Riggs and Murtagh shoot the villain Joshua together.

The buddy movie is a genre as diverse as its characters. Different combinations, be they based off the four temperaments, embodiments of Freudian ideas, or plain old opposites provide interesting dynamics that add an additional layer to the conflict and tension not usually found in other, single protagonist films.


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In Defense of Michael Bay

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 15 2014 · 175 views

Essays, Not Rants! 117: In Defense of Michael Bay

Michael Bay gets a bad rap. His movies are criticized as being low on plot and depth with anything worthwhile being substituted with mindless explosions. His characters are either terribly dull or more resemble caricatures than actual people. Also, sometimes they’re Megan Fox. Michael Bay makes movies that, when boiled down to it, are just excuses for big action set pieces that feel ripped from a lousy Saturday morning cartoon.

And, way I see it, most of those are reasons Michael Bay is excellent at what he does.

Some storytellers are known for having very particular styles. Joss Whedon is known for strong women and witty banter. Chris Nolan’s films are often told in a non-chronological fashion. M. Night Shymalan has his twists. If you watch one of their movies, you know what you’re in for. A Quentin Tarantino film is going to be ridiculously violent and have women’s bare feet. A Tarantino movie isn’t bad whether or not you like his over the top violence, rather it’s a vital part of what he does.

This goes for Michael Bay too. Transformers never claimed to be more than a story about giant robots beating up other giant robots, though some humans got in the way. This issue was rectified in the third one where the human-to-robot-action ratio is much better and, way I see it, Transformers Dark of the Moon was all the better for it.

See, Michael Bay, like Whedon, Nolan, and the others, has his trademarks: explosions, ‘Murica, and butts. You know what you’re getting into when you watch one of his movies. Pain and Gain was a mess of storytelling. However, it had everything you’d expect from a Michael Bay film: things explode, there are American flags a plenty, and lots of poolside shots. Pain and Gain’s failure wasn’t inherently in any of those three things, it was in it trying to be more than what it was. It’s hard to fit a moral conundrum and a descent into darkness in a movie that feels plain goofy.

Most of Michael Bay’s movies — particularly the often derided Transformers series — never try to be more than what they were. The first Transformers was a typical coming-of-age film (which it pulled off alright) with giant robots (which it pulled off better). It had its off beats, but when it came time to do what it set out to do (giant robots) it excelled. Revenge of the Fallen had a ridiculous story, but great actions scenes. Dark of the Moon was overwrought but, again, I saw it because I wanted to see giant robots beating the stuffing out of other giant robots while laying waste to Chicago. That’s all I wanted.

I don’t go into a Michael Bay movie expecting a deep plot and to have something to stick with me afterwards. I go into a Michael Bay movie to turn off my brain and see flashy colors (which are often explosions and, lately, giant robots). If I want both, I’d watch Pacific Rim, which layers its Saturday-morning action with much deeper character and subtext. But, if I want to see Optimus Prime charging into battle on top of a robot dinosaur while brandishing a broadsword, well, Age of Extinction seems the right choice.

Some movies aim high and succeed (The Avengers), others aim high and fail horribly (Hereafter). Then there are some movies that have no idea what sort of movie they are (Need for Speed). Then there’s most of Michael Bay’s filmography: his films have no illusions about what kind of movie they are. His movies are big, dumb action movies. And all the better for it.


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Feels Like It

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 07 2014 · 213 views

Essays, Not Rants! 116: Feels Like It
 
Ever played Star Wars? No, not Force Unlesahed or Rogue Squadron, we’re talking the Star Wars game, the original 1983 arcade game from Atari. It’s not the most complex game out there. In lieu of sprites the game uses crude vector graphics to give you an outline of TIE Fighters (that shoot fireballs), laser turrets, and the classic trench run. Using the yoke you fly through space, attack TIE Fighters and dodge obstacles. Like the Millennium Falcon, the game may not look like much but it’s got it where it counts. Star Wars the game feels like Star Wars the movie. You get to fly a freaking X-Wing, zipping around the Death Star and firing lasers. It controls smooth and, yes, you can also fire a proton torpedo into the exhaust port.
 
This ‘feel,’ that an adaption must capture the spirit of whatever it’s adapting, is terribly important. A movie-from-a-book has to provoke the feeling of the book, as does a sequel. The Hunger Games needs to carry over the books’ feeling of desperate insurrection, Star Wars Episode VII has to have that sense of wonder and high adventure the Holy Trilogy had.
 
It’s equally important in video games, which adapt reality (or semi-reality, or fantasy, or abstract ideas) into an interactive medium. While developing Super Mario 64, Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to make sure that just controlling Mario was fun, regardless of the environment. Game feel, as this is called, is crucial to gaming. Pac-Man has to respond to quick changes in the joystick and the car you’re driving should move like one too. If it doesn’t, it breaks the connection between the player and the game. That’s game feel which, important as it is, isn’t quite what I’m talking about.
 
When you’re playing a game, particularly one adapting an established work, gameplay has to reflect that work. Like I said before, flying that X-Wing in the arcade feels like how you’d imagine flying an X-Wing would. If a game about flying an X-Wing wouldn’t let you fire proton torpedoes or make those wonderful sound effects, it wouldn’t be as good.
 
A game that does this really well is Spider-Man that came out for the PS1 in 2000. Sure, it’s not the most graphically advanced (or even feature rich) game by today’s standards, but it feels like Spider-Man. You can swing around levels, stick to the ceiling and climb along the walls. Spidey doles out wisecracks and quips along the way as you beat up thugs and villains like Mysterio and Rhino. For all intents and purposes, you are Spider-Man. And thus the game is an absolute joy to play. Newer Spider-Man games, for all their open world New Yorks, longer playtimes, and additional features, can get bogged down in trying to find a special gimmick when, really, being Spider-Man is the biggest feature the game needs, so long as it feels like a Spider-Man game through gameplay and story.
 
The game LEGO Marvel Super Heroes is another great example of a game that gets it right. There’s an open world New York City to explore between missions that, well, isn’t exactly accurate (the Empire State Building is not that close to the Brooklyn Bridge!), but hey, it seems like it well enough. More importantly, the super heroes feel like the super heroes.
 
Let’s start with Iron Man. In the Mark VI, Tony can fly around (and double tapping X speeds him up with a spiffy sonic boom effect). Fighting mooks has him firing repulsors or punching aided by his repulsors. Alternately he can fire a charged blast from his chest or aim at a bunch of targets and he’ll fire rockets (y’know, like in that scene). This wonderful. Playing as Iron Man feels like Iron Man. Just flying around New York and destroying street lamps with your rockets is a pleasure.
 
The team behind LEGO Marvel Superheroes show that they love the source material throughout the game. Fighting as Black Widow can trigger finishing moves ripped straight from the films. Playable characters include all of the Sinister Six, Ms Marvel, Deadpool, and even Howard the Duck. The game is interactive fanservice, and it is wonderful. Playing the game evokes the same sense that the movies, comics, or even the culture around the Marvel property does.
 
Games like this are great because they capture the escapism that makes the concept so great. The Arkham series lets you beat up thugs and supervillains with the smooth, restrained brutality you’d expect from Batman. Halo allows you to be an unstoppable supersoldier. Burnout Paradise gives you the thrill of racing through a city. Basically, what I’m saying is if a game’s gonna let you fly an X-Wing or be a superhero, it had darn well better let you.
 
Further Reading: Henry Jenkins’ article on Narrative Architecture, particularly the section Evocative Spaces beginning on page 5. I may not completely agree with him, but he makes valid points that had a bearing of influence on this essay.


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Merited Futility

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! May 31 2014 · 99 views

Essays, Not Rants! 115: Merited Futility
 
I like playing video games, I really do. I write about them a lot too. Gaming is great: it’s a great form of catharsis, sometimes carries unique stories, and it’s just plain fun.
 
Which then makes it odd when I say I have trouble justifying gaming. See, it sometimes feels like a waste of time. After all, outside of the magic circle in which gaming takes place, it has no effect on, well, anything. That’s what a game is, isn’t it?
 
This applies more so to digital games. Physical games, such as sports, have the benefit/excuse of being exercise. At least the guy playing soccer all day is getting a workout. Digital games don't have that. You've seen the gamer stereotype: overweight, friendless, hasn’t seen daylight in a while. Unless you're a championship DoTA/StarCraft player there's not much real world application to gaming.
 
Or is there? Digital gaming is all about problem solving, whether the problem being solved is how to take out that squad of Elites or what's the best way to use those portals to make that friendly cube land on a red button. It could be argued that these skills could be given real world applications. Everything I know about rocket science I learnt from Kerbal Space Program, for example. Studies have also been done that show that people who play a lot of FPS's are better at taking in lots of information at once and thus are better drivers, soldiers, and surgeons. Cool.
 
But this is all minutiae. Rocket science is hardly a useful everyday skill unless you’re a rocket scientist (compared to the running skills built by playing soccer). So where then is the merit of games? Graeme Kirkpatrick thinks that games are aesthetically pleasing. He figured that the movements of the player's hands translated onto the screen are a sort of dance. The way, for example, an adept player can make Pac-Man spin in place reflects skill and ability. It’s like what a ballerina does, only less feet and balance and more hands and reflex.
 
I like this argument. It makes gaming sound like it's, y'know, worthwhile. By this logic video games are like dancing. I can begin to justify spending all day playing a game like FTL because the way I decide how to utilize my ship’s power while ordering my crew about is a dance in and of itself. There’s value there, if only on an aesthetic level. I’m not wasting my time.
 
But what about a game like The Sims or Kerbal Space Program? There’s not much dancing going on there. Sims just has you clicking about and Kerbal is a lot of mathing than it is epic mid-flight space maneuvers. They lack the need for agility and reflexts that characterize Kirkpatrirck’s dancing. They aren’t dancing, so where’s there value? Kerbal gets the “it’s science!” justification (sometimes, anyway), but what about The Sims? Where’s the value in playing The Sims?
 
While discussing Kirkpatrick’s idea with a friend, he dismissed my rationale for liking it by point out that he didn’t need an excuse to play games. Games — video games — are their own activity and have their own merits. Sure, you’re usually indoors and most of the time you’re alone, but where’s the harm? They’re fun. Like derping around on the internet or watching TV, they’re just another way of fun. Not only that, but beating a game is a valid accomplishment. Spending a couple weekends collecting all the trophies in Uncharted 2 is something. It’s not fair to just write it off; to do it required not only skill but a great deal of patience. And if nothing else, the perseverance to do that is commendable.
 
So I’ve decided to play games for their own sake. I’m not ‘wasting my time,’ this is what I do. Sure, maybe I’m learning skills in tenacity, problem solving, or rocket science, but importantly it’s fun. I play games because they’re fun. And that’s enough.


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It's Topical!

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! May 24 2014 · 90 views

Essays, Not Rants! 114: It’s Topical!
 
Let’s talk about science fiction. Again. One of the things I’ve said I love about good science fiction is its way to address things without overtly addressing them. That is, science fiction can often be seen as a sort of allegory, or even to write out things that wouldn’t work otherwise. You can read the short stories in Olivia Butler’s Bloodchild and get a very real sense of alienation and the idea of The Other. Which makes sense, given that she was essentially the only African-American woman writing science fiction in the ‘70s. District 9 deals, rather bluntly, with Apartheid, fitting South African director Neill Blomkamp.
In Star Wars the good guys are under the threat of being obliterated in one fell swoop by the bad guys, courtesy of the Death Star. It seems nondescript, until you remember that Star Wars came out in 1977 — during the Cold War. Impending annihilation was a topical threat: to have the threat realized in space and ultimately destroyed was somewhere between propaganda and wish fulfillment. That the film and its successors are still enjoyable (and somewhat still topical) today is a testament to how science fiction can be timeless, Admiral Motti chiding Vader about the missing data tapes notwithstanding.
Which brings me to God\jira. Not the recent Godzilla (that comes later), the original Japanese 1954 one. I’ve heard it aptly described as ‘psychic national catharsis,’ since it came out only nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Gojira is a very real manifestation of the atomic bomb. When he finally makes landfall proper he unrelenting devastates Tokyo. The military tries in vain for much of the sequence, until he’s finally warded off by jets. Afterwards we get several shots of the aftermath, of survivors trying to, well, survive. There are far more of those than you see in a ‘normal’ disaster movie (think 2012); it’s almost as if the director is presenting a case.
The case being the killing of Gojira. The scientist Serizawa, while trying to create a new energy source, accidentally made a superweapon called the Oxygen Destroyer. A subplot of the film is him wrestling with whether to use it. Does Dr. Serizawa want to be remembered for making a superweapon? Is it worth becoming a monster to destroy another? Through it all, director Ishirō Honda is asking the audience a troubling question: If you could have stopped the atomic bombings at the cost of your collective soul, would you? There’s no easy answer, and though they do end up using the Oxygen Destroyer, it’s not without its own bittersweet moments: Serizawa sacrifices himself and the death of Gojira is not without a sense of loss.
It’s befitting, then, that Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is topical in its own way. Rather than dealing with nuclear fallout and such, Edwards and team instead looks a little at the folly of humanity and more at the power of nature. The destruction wreaked by the M.U.T.O. is a result of humanity’s mistakes, but what’s striking is that Edwards doesn’t ever condemn the scientists or military; rather, he treats them as people who, well, messed up. Godzilla, instead of an executioner, takes the role of cleaning crew. He’s a force of nature who resets the balance of the world upset by humanity and the M.U.T.O. Though Edwards lacks the punch of Honda, the topicality of it still shines through: nature was here before and it’ll still be here after. The Dr. Serizawa of this film, played by Ken Watanabe, puts it succinctly: “The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around.” In Godzilla, just as in his prior Monsters, Gareth Edwards is looking at the sublime: the awful majesty of nature manifested by Godzilla. The pursuit of the sublime is further enhanced by the human angle the film takes; we’re shown the kaiju and the destruction through the eyes of people. We’re powerless compared to them.
 
Science fiction can be a mirror and a lens. Warren Ellis addressed the growing interconnectivity of the world in Extremis, Gravity looked at what it means to be alive. Gojira and Godzilla both use the idea of an unstoppable monster to look at ideas that would be unfeasible otherwise. After all, this is what science fiction does.
 


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A Real Swell Guy

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! May 17 2014 · 130 views

Essays, Not Rants! 113: A Real Swell Guy
 
Let’s talk about Chuck, because it’s a fantastic show that you should watch if you haven’t. And not just ‘cuz Chuck and I are basically the same person, but because it’s a well put together show with a lot of fun stories and great characters.
 
But those characters are a big reason. You’ve got Chuck and his two spy handlers and their dynamic and interactions, but they’re not who this is post is about.
 
This post it about one of the supporting characters: Captain Awesome (or Devon Woodcomb as he’s actually named and sometimes called). Awesome is Chuck’s sisters’s boyfriend-then-husband who, in earlier seasons, lives with Chuck and his sister, Ellie). He’s a cardiothoracic surgeon who enjoys adventure sports, and flossing. He’s plain awesome.
 
Which makes for a great contrast with the protagonist, Chuck, especially at the top of the series. Chuck didn’t finish college, doesn’t have a girlfriend, and is stuck in a dead end job. His life is going nowhere. Awesome is everything Chuck is not.
 
Awesome, as a character, was conceived by the writers as “the worst possible person for Chuck to come home too.” And he is, in a way; he’s the one with his life together, he’s everything Chuck is not which accentuates just how much of a loser Chuck feels he is. So as a storytelling device, Awesome works well, perfectly.
 
It would be really easy for the show to just stop there. Leave Devon as a bit of a caricature who pops in to a scene as his awesome self and leaves shortly after. Alternately, Captain Awesome could be a major ######. He’s fully aware of how great he is, so the writers could really have pushed the Mister Perfect angle and made him utterly insufferable. If they did that Chuck would have had an antagonist whenever he came home: here’s this guy who not only has his life together but has everything going for him and he will remind you of it at any moment, especially if it helps bring you down. So bam, between tension at his day job, all the fun and games of being a spy, and Devon waiting at home; Chuck’s life is rife for conflict.
 
Yet, fortunately, Captain Awesome is not remotely like that.
 
Instead of being huge pain, Devon is instead one of the most genuinely nice guys, well, ever. For example, when asked by Jeff, one of Chuck’s deadbeat coworkers at the BuyMore, if Awesome’s ever had a dream that’s never come true, Devon thinks a beat before simply saying no. Again, this is one of those scenes where he could come off as conceited, but its the sincerity with which he says it that helps you love him. He’s just a good guy who, even though things have always gone right for him, is willing to help anyone else. Though he’s never had a dream not come true, Devon offers Jeff a (potentially disastrous) chance for his to come true. Devon’s written earnestly and is a wonderful character on the show. If the main characters of Chuck made Captain Planet, he’d have the Power of Heart.
 
I cannot stress enough how fine a line the characterization of Captain Awesome walks. He could have become someone we’d desperately want Chuck to punch in the face, or even just a total pushover who gets walked over by everyone else. It says a lot about the writing and Ryan McPartlin’s performance that he feels plain genuine. They could have deconstructed the character, or maybe given him a dark backstory (think Rich of Community’s “Beginner Pottery”), but instead they had him, well, as him; as someone too perfect to hate or be hated. Captain Awesome as a whole says a lot about the caliber of characterization on Chuck. They were able to take characters who, by all accounts, should have been one note but make them interesting. Devon is one of them and, man, he’s just a real swell guy.






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