Sunday, December 27, 2015

Obligatory post about The Force Awakens

I saw The Force Awakens. I was rather excited by it when I left the theatre, mostly because it had what the original trilogy lacked: A woman with a lightsaber. All I care about are lightsabers and tiny robots. Other things may have happened in Star Wars, but seriously, lightsabers. Tiny robots. What more do you need? (NOTHING.)

Now it's a few days later, and I don't really remember what happened in the movie. This is a problem I find with much of the films J.J. Abrams makes: They're so crammed full of stuff that the plot becomes incomprehensible. It's much harder to view them critically, because you have to dig through the layer of "and then they did this and then they did that and then and then and then" to find where the narrative structure got buried.

Most of what I can remember is: Rey lightsabered the shit out of stuff, there was a really cool temple, Poe didn't die, and I found Finn interesting.

Poe arrived prepackaged as a badass. He told us repeatedly he was badass. Showed up at the end to be a badass. Which makes sense because we see him the least. He's got no time for character development. (I thought so much emphasis had been placed on him being great because he was gonna die soon so they gave him an abbreviated character arc.)

Finn came coded as antagonist who will become a protagonist, because we see him as a stormtrooper for the opening of the movie. When he takes off his helmet and we see him as a person, that's very effective. That's the signal of what his arc will be. Again, it happens very early in the movie because he isn't the main protagonist. (He's the secondary protagonist.) We need to see him leave the Starkiller, because his leaving is the source of his enthusiasm. So much is new to Finn and he's secretly worried he'll be rejected because he used to be an antagonist. 

When Rey arrives on the scene, she's obviously our main protagonist. We spend some time with her scavenging. The movie establishes that she can defend herself (this will be important later), she's adaptable and works hard, and she has made herself a life. She has plans. BB8 goes out and finds her with the plot, but there is no doubt she is the hero. She's going to be a Jedi by the end of things.

The problem with J.J. Abrams is he loves the source material a little too much—he's not going to take any risk that's too big, because he always focuses on elbowing the audience and going DID YOU SEE WHAT I DID THERE? JUST LIKE IN [MOVIE]. YEAH. (I'm a little weary of it, because it's the same thing Joss Whedon and Steven Moffat do. I'd like to see more stories where the writers worked a little harder to hide where they filed off the serial numbers.)

So. Yeah. The Force Awakens. It's about as good as A New Hope. With some updates, because it's 2015.

About halfway through TFA, I found myself thinking "this is so EASY. Look at how Rey gets to be the protagonist and have the hero quest. We can all do this. Look at how easy it is." Why aren't there more movies like this, I wondered. Why do we keep getting told the hero has to be the guy? Because it's not like it took a lot of narrative effort to make it Rey instead of Poe or Finn. (Make your arguments about the back end production if you want, but it's possible. We keep seeing it's possible.)

I don't believe that the gender of the main character is what determines if a work is feminist or not, because that leads to the work getting a pass even if it's shit with consent or full of internalized misogyny. But I do believe that we need stories with women in the spotlight. All kinds of women.

I would've preferred to have seen more emphasis put on the relationship between Rey and Leia. Rey had women in the film who showed up to support her, but she was still really on her own with some dudes. When Han Solo and Chewbacca showed up, I felt like the movie forgot who the protagonist was. The Force Awakens is a little too in love with Han Solo.

I enjoyed Finn. I felt that turning away from the stormtrooper conditioning to pursue his own morals was equally interesting to Rey leaving her loner life to join up with the resistance. I also enjoyed how she was established as more competent and capable than Finn. So I can see the structural argument to take Rey aside for a moment and let Finn lead the mission to the Starkiller. She was busy searching within and rescuing herself.

Could've done without the nonconsensual Force mind-reading stuff, but it's always been a problem in Star Wars. The Force Awakens wasn't going to ditch that for the same reason it didn't ditch showing us C3PO and R2D2.

Also, I was relieved Poe didn't die because what a waste of character set up, and Finn needs a friend—in addition to Rey—to talk to about... I don't know jackets or something. Honestly, it was just a relief to see media where characters aren't adversarial for the sake of plot. That Poe was like sure, why not showed the Resistance as being accepting. It juxtaposed well against the rigidity of the First Order.

I think the movie was good about not working too hard to make Finn and Rey more than friends. It felt like watching a movie made to be enjoyed by my inner seven year old. It was pleasant and imperfect, but it tried to be better than what had come before it.

However, if someone had come to me with that script and said "What do we have to do to make this even better?" here is the treatment I would've given them:

Rey, our BAMF scavenger, and her tiny robot friend BB8 find the Falcon in the ruins. She tries fixing it up, holding back on the best parts and making due with lower rations (which she’s getting because misogyny) to do so. She is about halfway through when another scavenger named... uh... Laputa happens upon her camp. They decide to work together and pool their rations. Also Rey needs a co-pilot.

They get the Falcon operational and take off into the stars. Rey admits she is looking for her parents. Her friends are more than happy to help her find them. Along the way, they recruit a hotshot pilot who isn’t a dick and a former stormtrooper who questioned the morality of the society he'd been raised in. Everyone is friends and they all have adventures. No one kisses anyone, because who's got time for that when you're having so many adventures. (Save that kissing for the second movie!)
Then they land on a planet and go to this cool temple bar thing. Rey goes downstairs and fights a bunch of ghosts or something in the dungeon and finds the lightsaber and goes THIS IS GREAT. Because lightsabers are great. Period.
No one is surprised Rey can lightsaber the heck out of stuff because she has already been shown as more than capable of defending herself, and why would her friends doubt her abilities? She’s badass. A badass with a lightsaber.
The First Order wants the map. They try to capture Rey, but they only get Poe because he's too cocky. (His arc is learning not to be so cocky.) It’s fine because Rey and Laputa are completely capable of rescuing him, and Finn knows the schematics of the Starkiller. Laputa gets to fly an X-Wing and blast up shit. Rey lightsabers every creeper who gets in her way and learns the Force as she goes. Finn gets to face down his former commander with his new friends at his side.
After they save Poe, they follow the map to the Resistance. General Leia is like hey, I'm a general BAMF. Nice work on that Starkiller. She gives them the rest of the map. Rey is like cool, do you know who this lightsaber belongs to? I found it in a temple dungeon because that's how quests work. Leia is like I think it's my brother's. He went off to deal with his massive PTSD. Let's send him a message and see if he would like visitors and not stalk him across the universe and just show up.
Anyway so they call up Luke and he's like "well, ok, I guess you can come visit but now J.J. Abrams has to pay me more because I spoke onscreen." And they're like cool and they set off to visit him.

You see how easy this is? It took me fifteen minutes tops. Your move, Hollywood.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Notes from a year named Kindness: Winter Solstice

Here we are on the shortest day of the year, rain falling as it often does for the Solstice in Toronto, and what's trending on Twitter is a hashtag about the people who made 2015 great.

I've had a year-long conversation around the word kindness—giving it and receiving it, realizing that it does cost me something, and understanding that no one is entitled to it. In learning about agency over decisions and care, I've learned a lot about self-care and boundaries. Establishing them, defending them, respecting the ones others establish so they don't have to defend them against me.

I watched other people have this conversation—former colleagues and current friends—and it grew, it expanded into a cultural discussion of how kindness tangles up in privilege. In consent and agency. A lot of us spent this year recalculating the amount of damns we have to allot, and how we conserve them for when we need them most.

The best advice I got remains when someone told me in a job interview that first you take care of yourself, then your loved ones, and your job—whether it's marketing or non-profit or social media or publishing—comes last. Because you can't do it well if you aren't taking care of yourself.

I learned that lesson the hard way, and it meant I have firm boundaries regarding what I won't put up with—and that very little to do with whether or not I can endure it. It has to do with defending the choice not to have to endure it. Because each time one of us chooses, it makes room for the next person. I also learned when and what and whom I make exceptions for.

Life is full of well-meaning bullets and assholes who don't know—or just don't care—they're assholes. But the world is also full of brilliant, caring people—and self-aware assholes—who want to be and do better. What a bunch of hustlers we are; over-extended in our own ways, and all fighting our own battles.

Those are the people who made this year great. The warmest of wishes to those of you who showed up with a smile or a song or a joke, who lent an ear or a hand. To the ones made of swords and fire, and the ones made of feathers and light.

May you have things that fill you up, people who love you, and a safe place to rest when you are weary. It's been a long year, and it's going to a long night. Stay warm; remain bright.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Best Albums of 2015

Given what I was listening for this year, as it was a year heavily-focused on music for projects, I've likely missed some great albums. But here are the ones that I've been enjoying. (If you're wondering why Adele's 25 or the Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording aren't on here—well, you should've been able to find those on your own given the sheer amount of attention they're receiving.)

Of Monsters and Men's Beneath The Skin
I have a long-established love for OMAM's My Head is an Animal. And Beneath the Skin is better. The album is tighter with its lyrics, and more adventurous with its sound. There's a better balance to their sophomore effort, and more songs that share vocals. Also, all the little references within the lyrics create a unity to the album; it's like reading a well-edited anthology. (There's a sense of structural thought that didn't feel as well-developed on their first album.)
This is the album I've listened to the most this year. The one that I am always pleased to hear. The one that I never skip a track because they're all so great.
Recommended tracks: (All of them) Crystals, Hunger, Empire, I Of The Storm, We Sink.

Zella Day's Kicker
Her album opens with a murder ballad, contains a love song to a Clint Eastwood movie, and ends with a ballad that will steal the breath from your lungs to return it to them. You probably know Mustang Kids (Featuring Baby E) from it being featured prominently in a campaign for MTV's Teen Wolf.
But the truth of what makes Zella Day great, aside from her impressive talent, is that she composes story-songs and tries on different genres. (She has the most of the quintessential Bastille-ness of Bastille that I've found in another artist.) Zella Day is everything. And she's amazing live.
Recommended Tracks: (All of them) Jerome, High, East of Eden, Hypnotic, Compass.

CHVRCHES's Every Eye Open
With the first CHVRCHES album, I had about three favourite tracks that I could listen to forever... but I never felt compelled to listen to the album as a whole. It worked as one, but it wasn't an album for me at the time. When I got Every Eye Open, I was delighted by how it shimmers and glows. It may have been the right album, right time. However, it's one of those albums meant to be listened to in its entirety.
If OMAM's Beneath the Skin is an anthology, CHVRCHES's Every Eye Open is a novel. It's constructed and deliberate, and it will leave you feeling immensely satisfied. And it'll do all this without ever including a guitar solo.
Recommended tracks: (All of them) Leave a Trace, Make Them Gold, Empty Threat, Bury It, Get Away.

Florence + The Machine's How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
In the latest—and aptly titled album—Florence Welch and crew have created a soaring, big sound that reverberates with varied emotions. There's an expansive quality to the album, maybe best exemplified in the title track or Various Storms & Saints. It sounds distinctly like Florence + The Machine without sounding exactly like Ceremonials.
Recommended Tracks (all of them): Ship to Wreck, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Queen of Peace, Various Storms & Saints, St. Jude, Third Eye.

Carly Rae Jepsen's E*MO*TION
This album gets this year's Fine, Twitter, You Were Right About Taylor Swift's 1989 mention. As well-engineered 80's inspired synthpop, Jepsen's album is designed to listen to again and again—while walking, grocery shopping, driving, or whatever. It's not as structurally rewarding as CHVRCHES, but E*MO*TION knows what it is, and it does it well.
Recommended Tracks: Run Away With Me, E*mo*tion, Boy Problems, LA Hallucinations.

Metric's Pagans in Vegas
For this album, Metric does Metric songs but with a more techno sound. New sound, similar stories. While I'm not sold on the final two tracks (The Face Pt I and The Face Pt II), the rest of the album works well enough to make up for it.
Recommended tracks: Lie, Lie, Lie, Fortunes, The Shade, Too Bad So Sad, The Governess.

Oh Wonder (Self-Titled)
Driven by piano and vocals, Oh Wonder gained attention by releasing a song a month on soundcloud. It worked. There was no wondering if you'd enjoy their album, because you heard all of it. By the time it released, you were already a fan of this UK duo and their soulful sound.
Recommended Tracks: Livewire, Lose It, Landslide, Without You, Midnight Moon.

Indiepop EP bonus streaming round:

ASTR's Homecoming
Recommended Tracks: Bleeding Love, Part of Me.

Ji Nilsson's Blue is the Saddest Colour
Recommended Tracks: Nothing, Heartbreak Free, Belong To.

Rationale's Fuel to the Fire
Recommended Tracks: Fast Lane, Fuel to the Fire.

SLEEPLUST (Self-Titled)
Recommended Tracks: Deep Nights, Over It Now, Lone Black.

Micky Blue's Wild Things
Recommended: The Good The Bad The Ugly, Champagne Reign.