Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fantabulous Beasts and Where to Find Them

That's right! Fantabulous Beasts!  That will do wonders for my Search Engine Optimization.

I was working at Dreamscape Comics when the Phantom Menace was released in 1999, and in the run up to the release, everyone wanted to talk Star Wars. After the premiere, not so much.  There were one or two guys who half-heartedly defended it as not as bad as everyone was saying it was, but even they conceded the basic point that nobody would think twice about trashing it if it had been a generic sci-fi movie instead of the first Star Wars in decades.

The same thing is true for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but to a lesser extent. It’s not bad, but it’s not really very good, either. Take away the nostalgia the audience has for the Harry Potter franchise and you’re left with a thoroughly average movie that would probably not be able to stand on its own.

We open with spinning newspapers straight out of Batman informing us that future Magical Hitler Gellert Grindelwald is on the loose after his latest tomfoolery.  We then transition to Newt Scamander arriving in New York.

Eddie Redmayne is appealing as Newt Scamander.  He’s got a suitcase full of monsters, and one of them, some kind of greedy platypus (I know it’s called a Niffler, nerds. Put down your tweets) escapes into a bank. While trying to capture it, Scamander briefly crosses paths with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a man there to get a loan in order to open a bakery. Hijinks ensue! The Niffler makes its way into the vault and Newt and Kowalski are discovered there by the bank manager, who triggers the alarm. Scamander paralyzes the manager, and escapes with Kowalski.

I think the Harry Potter series peaked with Prisoner of Azkaban, and slowly declined from there, but I’m not going to argue that Rowling is anything other than a brilliant author. However, she is not a good screenwriter, because this is a very sloppy script. The manager is never Obliviated onscreen, and later events (such as the fact that twenty-four hours later, MACUSA had no idea that Scamander was in New York) imply that he never had his memory wiped, as that’s the kind of thing that would have been uncovered in the course of the investigation.  The manager knows who Kowalski is, and sees him apparently robbing the bank. You’d think that would be the kind of thing where he’d want to follow up on it?

Kowalski slips away before Newt can wipe his memory, and he and Newt accidentally swap briefcases, shocking those members of the audience who have never seen a sitcom. Before Newt can catch him, he is apprehended by Sam Waterston’s daughter, disgraced former Auror Tina Goldstein. (I’m surprised that magical law enforcement officers are still called Aurors in America, seeing as they have different names for almost everything else over here.)

She tries to bring him in the to the President of the Magical Congress, who holds important staff meetings in grungy back rooms, but is dismissed. Meanwhile, Kowalski opens Newt’s suitcase, but is attacked by one of the critters inside, allowing a bunch of them to escape. Goldstein and Newt find Kowalski and take him back to Goldstein’s apartment, where they meet her sister, Queenie.

Holy crap, Queenie is the best part of this movie! I just want a good parts version, which will be nothing but scenes of Queenie and Kowalski driving around in his Dodge Charger being cute.

Meanwhile, a newspaper magnate’s senator son is killed in full view of hundreds of credible witnesses by some obviously magical force.  Okay, then.  Maybe I missed some throwaway line about mass Obliviations in a later scene, but unless MACUSA got right on top of that immediately, it kind of looks like an irreparable breach of the Masquerade right there. (And seeing how the publisher recognizes the beast that killed his son in a different scene that takes place at least twenty-four hours later, this mass Obliviation doesn’t seem to have happened.)

Newt and Kowalski sneak out of the Goldstein’s apartment in order to attempt to recapture the escaped creatures.  There is a cute set piece where they break into a jewelry store because they see the Niffler grabbing stuff inside. It’s effectively the same scene as the Niffler stealing stuff from the bank, but better. But here’s the thing. We don’t need both of those scenes.  The movie has entirely too many set pieces like this that do nothing to drive the plot forward.

That said, I did like it, and I found it legitimately funny when Kowalski, bedecked in a jeweled tiara that fell on his head when they captured the Niffler, points down the street and tells the responding officers “He went that way.”

The officers are distracted by the arrival of a lion, which escaped when one of Newt’s critters broke into a nearby zoo in order to find a mate. Newt takes advantage of this to disapparate away with Kowalski. So, what happens next here? Either the lion mauls somebody or the cops shoot it. That’s kind of a shitty outcome for somebody.

More wacky slapstick farce in the zoo. Kowalski spills magical critter musk on himself and the critter wants to mate with him! Newt tries to save him, but a money steals his wand! (He can’t  seem to perform any wandless magic to get it back, but as he’s canonically a Hufflepuff I’m willing to let it slide.)

Kowalski and Newt get trapped in the case by Tina after they catch the critter and she takes them to her old job. Her boss, Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) is presiding over  a meeting that seems to include every one of the most powerful wizards in the world and they don’t even have a guard at the door. Tina walks right on it.

Ejogo looks like she’s cosplaying as a Young Eartha Kitt and the role comes directly out of the Useless Authority Figure from Harry Potter central casting.  She demands to know why Tina didn’t tell them about Newt and his creatures earlier, and Tina doesn’t even acknowledge that’s what she was trying to tell them earlier. It’s a bit baffling that she doesn’t even make the effort.

President Picquery turns them over the moustache-twirling Percival Graves. Colin Farrell plays him, and tend not to enjoy his work, but he gives a really entertaining performance in the film. Graves takes them to interrogation room, name drops Dumbledorf for the fans in the audience and then sends Tina and Newt off for execution in an acid bath.

Queenie has a flash of insight and she mounts a rescue operation where saves Kowalski, because Queenie is the best.  Newt breaks out of his restraints because nobody bothered to empty his pockets and our nebbishy Hufflepuff beats up a bunch of Aurors and rescues Tina. The two groups meet up in a garage and manage to defeat BOTH pairs of Aurors who try to stop them, in what was a remarkably easy escape. The MACUSA seems to have a serious manpower shortage. That hiring freeze must have hit them pretty hard.

Our heroes head to a speakeasy run by Ron-Pearlman-as-a-goblin. He’s basically playing Hannibal Chau from Pacific Rim, but not quite as understated.  It’s another interesting set piece, but it’s as unnecessary as many others. It seems like Rowling just wants to fit as many 1920s tropes as possible without worrying how the scenes come together to make a narrative.  Pearlman double-crosses them and the MACUSA Aurors apparate in, but Newt and company elude them by…crawling under the tables? That can’t be right.

I think it’s a mistake to graft what is for all intents and purposes a Harry Potter plot to a film with adults in the lead.  In Harry Potter, the kids were the heroes because they had information the adults didn’t and but the adults wouldn't act on it because they didn't take the kids seriously, so they had to save the day themselves. Rowling has preserved the same structure by making everyone but the protagonists thunderingly stupid and alarmingly incompetent. I think that’s a cheat.

There has been a secondary plot running throughout the movie. Calling it a B Plot is almost being too charitable, because it has almost nothing to with the main story. It’s almost like a second movie running parallel to the first. Only at the end do they intersect, and even then it’s almost incidental.

Samantha Morton plays Mary Lou Barebone, who runs an orphanage and an anti-magic activist group. The thing that killed the senator was a called an Obscurus, and such a creature is created when a young witch or wizard suppresses his or her magical powers. Is the Obscurus coming from the obvious red herring or Ezra Miller? (Spoiler, it's Ezra Miller)

So we have the big Captain Obvious reveal, Ezra transforms into the Obscurus and flees into the subway tunnels, pursued by Newt, Tina and Graves. They fight, but Tina succeeds in talking him down. Ezra starts transforming back into a human, whereupon President Picquery arrives with a couple dozen Aurors and they execute him right there.

Here's the most baffling part of the movie. Graves has it made. Tina and Newt were sentenced to death under apparently legitimate authority. As far as anyone knows, they're escaped fugitives. There is physical evidence, in the form of the Obscurus Newt had in his briefcase which supports Graves' narrative. If Graves had kept his mouth shut, no, if Graves has done anything short of OFFERING AN UNPROMPTED CONFESSION, it would have been "Well, back to the acid pits with you two."
I would have gotten away with it, if not for you meddling me!

Seriously, dude. Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, etc.

He rants, confesses and starts blasting dudes, but he's overpowered by a Hufflepuff, and it turns out that he's really a fat, blond Johnny Depp!

The President is like "Well, I guess we're boned. No way we're covering this up", but Newt is like "Not so, Madame President! I will seed the clouds with rohypnol, and those dumb muggles will forget everything!"

Ugh, listen. The Obliviate charm is problematic. Narratively, it's easy solution and Rowling overuses it. Morally, rewriting someone else's memories for your benefit is nothing short of abhorrent, but it's treated as a matter of course by almost everyone in the series. The hero's solution to the movie's final dilemma is to dose everyone in New York with a date rape drug and I find that...troubling.

The President tells our heroes that Kowalski is going to have to be brain-wiped too, but she lets them do it themselves. I figured this was going to be a "Yeah, we totally erased his memory" type situation, but everyone, including Kowalski feels like going ahead with it. Alright then. (Spoiler/Not Spoiler: He gets his memories back almost immediately. The last episode of Gravity Falls made us wait longer.)

It wasn't all bad.  It had plenty of Easter Eggs. The score sounded like John Williams composed it. I thought he had until I looked it up. It incorporates elements of the score from the original movies, and it's used to good effect throughout the film. The Harry Potter movies have a distinctive visual aesthetic and they draw on that to create a look that's both familiar and new. The individual set pieces are all neatly composed, but they lacked the connective tissue that would have tied them together into something meaningful. I watched Zootopia again in the time between when I watched Fantastic Beasts and when I completed the review, and I couldn't help but think how tightly written that movie was. The opening sequence is not only entertaining, but it gives us exposition AND it foreshadows the conclusion. We needed that kind of rigor here. There are too many scenes that do nothing to advance the plot.

Fantastic Beasts is not a bad movie. It’s fine if you don’t think too much about it. The thing is, it could have been so much better, but they didn’t even bother.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A visit to Derpycon

We attended Derpycon 2016 over the weekend. It was a bit small for what we paid to get in, but we had a really nice time. Lily and her friend went as Derpy and Dr. Hooves/Time Turner, Jen went as a Weeping Angel and I was the Seventh Doctor.

The Miyazaki panel by Charles Dunbar was outstanding. Lily particularly enjoyed it because we had front row seats and he answered all her questions and treated her like an adult, which is what every smart little kid wants. At one point he proclaimed her the "future of fandom".

The next best part was probably Super Table Flip.

It's a delightfully bonkers game. Here's a short video of a kind of chubby, but extremely sexy Doctor Who cosplayer playing it. It was brought to the con by a group called Tokyo Attack!

I'm somewhat divided about going again. It was nice, but they didn't have a lot of material, Unless they expand, I don't know if I can justify the expense next year. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

People are strange, when you're a Doctor (Strange)

I saw Doctor Strange last Saturday with Lily, and I generally liked it, aside from a few quibbles.

Big Quibble! Halfway through the movie, Rachel McAdams uses a defibrillator to shock Strange back to life when he was flatlining. That's just...not how they work. I can accept demonic pacts and mirror dimensions, but that totally ruined my suspension of disbelief.

Smaller Quibble: Sling Rings have a really dumb name. I'm not sure if it's canonical, and I don't care. If something is dumb in canon, you change it for an adaptation, which is a point I'll address momentarily.

I thought it well produced and visually distinctive. The cast was solid. Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, all great.

But mostly for Chiwetel

Cumberbatch, an actor with a face like a Mad Magazine parody sketch, who, if the once great Mary Sue had its druthers, would be cast Malcovich-like in every role in every movie, is good too, but he's eclipsed by both the effects and his costars. His American accent was decent.

 It was a fairly standard super-hero origin story, and that formula is starting to wear a bit thin at this point, but I think it's largely forgivable, in that Strange's origin is such an important component of his identity. However, the emphasis on his origin led to an abrupt third act resolution, because 85% of the movie is "Ehhh...I'm not sure I want to be a superhero" Joseph Campbell-seque refusal of the call. "Ooops, I guess we're at the end of the movie already. Time to wrap it up."

 I had some concerns about Tilda Swinton (a white woman) as the Ancient One (traditionally an Asian (specifically Tibetan, which is another thorny issue) man, but I think in casting her, they chose one of the better options.  I'm still not entirely comfortable with it, but the Ancient One, as a concept, is rooted in 1960s exoticism, and what might have seemed acceptable back then looks an awful lot like cultural appropriation today. The comics version of the character was unknown except to serious Doctor Strange fans, but millions of people are going to see the movie before it's through. None of the options were great, but I think they did the least bad thing by not perpetuating a damaging and dehumanizing stereotype.

I'm glad we saw it on the big screen, if only for the trippy visuals of the Inception city folding. The first one reminded me of nothing so much as Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling and the walls in Royal Wedding, 

but the second one was really impressive.

There was some nice details. I like how Strange first looks for a rational explanation, and when he asks the Ancient One if she's practicing in such an isolated location because there is no medical board to come down on her.

I liked Swinton's fidgety mannerisms and the fact that she had no master plan. I think my biggest complaint, other than the defibrillator, is that it didn't take a lot of risks with the narrative. It was a fairly standard super-hero origin story, and that formula is starting to wear a bit thin at this point, but I think it's largely forgivable, in that Strange's origin is such an important component of his identity. However, the emphasis on his origin led to an abrupt third act resolution, because 85% of the movie is "Ehhh...I'm not sure I want to be a superhero" Joseph Campbell-seque refusal of the call. "Ooops, I guess we're at the end of the movie already. Time to wrap it up."

I do like that he defeats Dormammu, through save scumming and I laughed at this

Kaecilius: You'll die defending this world, Mister...
Dr. Stephen Strange: Doctor!
Kaecilius: Mister Doctor?
Dr. Stephen Strange: It's Strange!
Kaecilius: Maybe, who am I to judge?

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Evaluating the Evil Overlord list, 91 - 100

91. I will not ignore the messenger that stumbles in exhausted and obviously agitated until my personal grooming or current entertainment is finished. It might actually be important.

Evaluation: Prudent

92. If I ever talk to the hero on the phone, I will not taunt him. Instead I will say this his dogged perseverance has given me new insight on the futility of my evil ways and that if he leaves me alone for a few months of quiet contemplation I will likely return to the path of righteousness. (Heroes are incredibly gullible in this regard.)

Evaluation: Unlikely

93. If I decide to hold a double execution of the hero and an underling who failed or betrayed me, I will see to it that the hero is scheduled to go first.

Evaluation: A good overlord is going to want to avoid public execution. Just use the lead pipe in the conservatory and stick his head on a pike afterward.

94. When arresting prisoners, my guards will not allow them to stop and grab a useless trinket of purely sentimental value.

Evaluation: Prudent

95. My dungeon will have its own qualified medical staff complete with bodyguards. That way if a prisoner becomes sick and his cellmate tells the guard it's an emergency, the guard will fetch a trauma team instead of opening up the cell for a look.

Evaluation: Prudent

96. My door mechanisms will be designed so that blasting the control panel on the outside seals the door and blasting the control panel on the inside opens the door, not vice versa.

Evaluation: Hello Star Wars tropes! It’s nice to see you again!

97. My dungeon cells will not be furnished with objects that contain reflective surfaces or anything that can be unravelled.

Evaluation: Prudent

98. If an attractive young couple enters my realm, I will carefully monitor their activities. If I find they are happy and affectionate, I will ignore them. However if circumstance have forced them together against their will and they spend all their time bickering and criticizing each other except during the intermittent occasions when they are saving each others' lives at which point there are hints of sexual tension, I will immediately order their execution.

Evaluation: Pardon me, your terribleness, you’re trying to run an evil empire, not critique a screwball comedy.

99. Any data file of crucial importance will be padded to 1.45Mb in size.

Evaluation: Obviously that specific file size is no longer a barrier, but the intent behind it is prudent.

100. Finally, to keep my subjects permanently locked in a mindless trance, I will provide each of them with free unlimited Internet access.

Evaluation: It was phrased as the cutting edge of 90s internet humor, but I do think this has merit. I even think there’s an interesting story in this. You’re going to want to want to have a filtered version of the internet, so give me a story of a day in the life of a low-level staffer at Mordor’s Pravda.

And that's the list! I'll probably post a recap in a couple days, where I break down the percentages of each answer.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

This is why we fight

The morning after the election, I thought about a lot of things.

I thought about James Comey and how my nation's law enforcement apparatus influenced the election.

I thought about Wikileaks (of course they're in Trump's corner, those sex predators gotta stick together, amirite?) and the media and stupid, glib talking heads who chuckled to themselves about what an "interesting" night this was for the Clinton campaign.

I thought about how a hostile foreign power exerted influence in selecting the next ruler of my country.

I thought about the voter suppression in North Carolina, and how the State GOP bragged about it on public media, suppression which was enabled by the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act three years ago.

I thought about a friend's brother on Facebook boasting about how Trump would renegotiate our debts with other countries, which is such a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation that it would have more sense if Trump had said we would pay our creditors in bologna.

I thought about the people who say the establishment needed a kick in the pants to wake up, and I thought about the people saying this wouldn't be the ones paying the price for it, and I thought about the people who said the same thing sixteen years ago, when we also won the popular vote but lost the presidency.

I thought about my wife and daughter crying and holding each other on the floor that morning.

But then I thought about how my daughter was inconsolable an hour after being told the news, and I told her that she had to go to school, because people like Trump want us to give up, and I thought about how she went upstairs and put on her "It's called GIRL POWER for a reason!" t-shirt and put on her game face and grabbed her backpack and went out the door to face the world.

I thought about how it's not over until we give up, and when I'm tempted to back down and let things go because I don't want to make waves, I will think about the girl power t-shirt and the bright and brittle fire in her eyes and I'll stand up and I'll fight back.

It's not over until we give up.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Evaluating the Evil Overlord list, 81 - 90

81. If I am fighting with the hero atop a moving platform, have disarmed him, and am about to finish him off and he glances behind me and drops flat, I too will drop flat instead of quizzically turning around to find out what he saw.

Evaluation: Prudent

82. I will not shoot at any of my enemies if they are standing in front of the crucial support beam to a heavy, dangerous, unbalanced structure.

Evaluation: Prudent

83. If I'm eating dinner with the hero, put poison in his goblet, then have to leave the table for any reason, I will order new drinks for both of us instead of trying to decide whether or not to switch with him.

Evaluation: Prudent, though it’s probably best to avoid the kind of situations that would give rise to such quandaries.

84. I will not have captives of one sex guarded by members of the opposite sex.

Evaluation: Let’s say “sexual preference” instead, and we’ll be fine.

85. I will not use any plan in which the final step is horribly complicated, e.g. "Align the 12 Stones of Power on the sacred altar then activate the medallion at the moment of total eclipse." Instead it will be more along the lines of "Push the button."

Evaluation: I’m not sure you get a choice. If aligning the stones of power, etc. is the only path to REAL ULTIMATE POWER!! then you align the stones of power.

86. I will make sure that my doomsday device is up to code and properly grounded.

Evaluation: Prudent, but fuses aren’t magic.  If the current exceeds their breaking capacity, it’s going to result in a short, and there probably isn’t a lot of documentation on the proper thresholds for doomsday devices. Yeah, take all reasonable precautions, but be aware that you’re in uncharted waters.

87. My vats of hazardous chemicals will be covered when not in use. Also, I will not construct walkways above them.

Evaluation: Oh, good lord yes. Also, this applies to bottomless pits. I’m looking at you, Emperor Palpatine.

88. If a group of henchmen fail miserably at a task, I will not berate them for incompetence then send the same group out to try the task again.

Evaluation: Prudent. Even Skeletor eventually caught on.

89. After I captures the hero's superweapon, I will not immediately disband my legions and relax my guard because I believe whoever holds the weapon is unstoppable. After all, the hero held the weapon and I took it from him.

Evaluation: Prudent.

90. I will not design my Main Control Room so that every workstation is facing away from the door.

Evaluation: Prudent.

Monday, November 7, 2016

American Writer Josh Wanisko

Looks like American Writer Josh Wanisko wrote a Doctor Who story. I hate his stupid American accent, and his stupid unpronounceable last name and his stupid punchable face! 

Heh heh.

I'm very proud of the story and you can read more about it here.