WandaVision Ep 5

Right, spoilers.

  • Episode 1 had a sort of surreal atmosphere and a 30 second or so part where things were really odd.
  • Episode 2 only slightly expanded on this, with some Twilight Zone type things taking place. Enough to show that there was more behind the curtain.
  • Episode 3 really dug into the concept that this was a simulation of sorts, and the end of it just went off the charts.
  • Episode 4 finally put us on the other side of the curtain, brought back some interesting characters, tied into the larger Marvel universe (at least time-wise), and gave a general frame to the what happened before.

Which brings us to episode 5. Framed as a Full House sitcom, it wastes little time to get into the surreal aspects of Wanda’s powers.

Tangent. In the comics, especially House of M, Wanda goes crazy, says “No More Mutants” and that becomes reality. She’s an Omega-level mutant, meaning one of the most powerful beings in existence. What we’ve seen in the movies so far doesn’t even come close to this – so perhaps this is just the start of that development.

Back on track. The episode introduces multiple important pieces.

  • Wanda is clearly suffering from PTSD, which is impacting her ability to make decisions.
  • Wanda’s power is not to warp perception but to change reality. She is re-writing people.
  • Vision is both dead and alive at the same time.
  • SWORD is really being set up as either incompetent or the bad guy. You’d think that there would be lessons learned here from Civil War.
  • The kids are resistant/immune to Wanda’s powers, and likely more powerful than her.
  • I have no idea of the mechanics behind Pietro/Quicksilver

Referencing Billy and Tommy, in the comics they are but vessels for Pandemonium. Which was a closed storyline, yet the loss of her children triggered a pile of major events. Tinfoil hat here – this is a prelude to Doctor Strange 2 and the Multiverse as it introduces things that have nothing to do with Earth. Also why this is SWORD instead of SHIELD, which in the comics the former deals with space-based issues and this has nothing to do with space so far.

I do want to give credit to the series makers in that the sitcom frame is really working as a great reference point from which the actors can launch. I think we’ve all felt that sitcoms in general were “off” and WandaVision really does a good job of exploring that aspects to great effect. Olsen and Bettany do a bang up job on this (all the more amazing as they have no chemistry), but the stand out here has to be Kathryn Hahn.

If you have Disney+, then you really should be keeping track of this show. If not, then consider waiting until end of season and subbing for a month.

WandaVision and D+ Content

My wife bought a year’s worth of Disney+ over the holidays. I am personally not a fan of annual subs for things that I am not actively using – I do have Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Spotify, since I use those nearly every day. D+ is different. We binged on the Mandalorian, watched Soul, some Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and a couple other films. And now we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of interest (for me). It’s not a lot of money for us, and we’re still miles away from the previous cable costs that we cut 10 years ago, but I guess it’s a principle thing.

D+ certainly has plans for content streaming, no questions. Investment in the Marvel world and a bajillion offshoots to the Star Wars world are on the way. Not tomorrow, or next month though. From a month to month basis, is there content that makes sense to pay a fee? There’s no ‘vault’ content that’s suddenly going to show up here.

I think Disney is aware of this challenge, and why they are taking the non-binge approach to release. Having week to week releases makes sense if you want to maintain engagement (hello Blizz!) and therefore subscriptions. Netflix pumps out insane content in large chunks to keep engagement.

Slight tangent on episodic vs serial content. Episodic is something like Star Trek TNG. You can watch it in pretty much any order and it makes sense. A serial is closer to LOST or GoT, where missing an episode is a problem as it has key pieces for the next one. It works in a positive sense, as it allows you to digest what occurred before the next episode. Which is one reason why I like The Boys more than Umbrella Academy.

Now for WandaVision. The pitch for this series does not do justice to the actual content. It’s weekly and serial, so there’s than concept of engagement or at least digestion between episode. Without spoiling, it’s set up as a spoof of a 50s romcom, like I Love Lucy. Which it does, but with a surreal tone, effectively breaking the 4th wall on a regular basis.

By the third episode it’s moved into the 70s, and we’re in Stranger Things / Twilight Zone territory now. The framing is consistent to the period, but the subject matter is clearly a different thread.

I won’t spoil anything, but state that the challenge with this particular format (30m serial) is that you need a really good hook (or frankly, hooks) to keep interest going. There is but one hook now, as it’s a 2 person show. That low risk approach makes the time space between episodes feel long rather than an opportunity to dig deeper. If it was an hour long, or if there were more story threads then it would be more engaging. Mandalorian is a great example of this, where it was borderline episodic, but had serial elements that you wanted to see through.

WandaVision is good. More than good, as compared to pretty much any 30min piece of entertainment out there. Is it worth paying 2-3 months of D+ until it reaches its end of arc? eh, not really.

We Can Be Heroes

Robert Rodriguez is like the kitschy version of Quentin Tarantino. He makes movies he wants to see, and if others are along for the ride, all the better.

Spy Kids was a solid movie. The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl is also quite good, though at the time suffered from some rather horrendous 3D effects. It’s a weird cult film now I guess.

We Can Be Heroes is his new film, a sort of stand-alone sequel to Sharkboy and Lavagirl. And I’m going to actually write that it’s a good movie, better than Wonder Woman!

Movies are complex beasts. The story, actors, music, shots and post-production are all super important. Editing, lighting, sound and a couple dozen more factors bring those main points to another level. Did you know that the direction an actor runs in a scene conveys intent? I geek out a bit too much on the director of photography in films, that’s a hell of an art.

WCBH looks like a kids movie, and a B one at that. It’s 2020, almost anyone can make some solid computer effects, so anything that looks like childish is done so with purpose (especially when you realize 80% of the film is on a green screen). The shots all make sense, and if you watch it a second time (cause with kids, who doesn’t?) you can see the subtleties in the shots that lead to the reveal at the end.

The actors are kids, and the film takes that over the top. What it does smartly in that regard is that each kid focuses on a specific characteristic, and then exaggerates it. Some are seen as weakness, but by the end everyone has a positive impact from their powers. Even the power of slow motion. They just do a great job of never taking themselves too seriously.

The soundtrack is delivered by a supporting character. I don’t know if this is insanity or brilliance, but it’s certainly the first time I’ve seen it work like this.

The story is the real highlight. It follows the traditional line for any band of misfits that needs to come together to succeed. The villains do a great job hamming it all up, and the punch of the film doesn’t feel like a cheat. Why? Because the story makes sense! Because the characters act according to their drivers, rather than the plot. There are no logic holes here. It’s delivered tightly, and every scene has some purpose to the larger story.

WCBH feels like the type of film that occurs when you take a comic book and transfer the spirit to film, rather than just the scenes. It’s the antithesis to Snyder’s films. And on many fronts (story, music, editing), it beats Wonder Woman.

I realize that this seems like comparing a hamburger to a steak. Your tastes dramatically impact the enjoyment. At the same time, I would think most people would better enjoy an amazing hamburger than a crappy steak.

And in a damn kids movie!

Pixar’s Soul

We picked up Disney+ so my wife could binge Mandalorian (with me being around too!). Soul recently released and my kids wanted to watch it. Review-ish herein – and you know, spoilers.

First off, this is not a kids movie. Not even remotely close. If you took Inside Out and made it more adult, you’d end up with this. The levels of depth on what it means to be alive are the deepest I’ve ever seen in an animated film. The concept of the “Great Before” is something adults will have trouble fully grasping. Self-determination theory is not a simple matter.

Second, it’s pretty clear that there are two voices behind this film, and that they do not align. The “traditional” Pixar stuff is here, tear jerkers, body swaps, realizations, sacrifices and whatnot. But there’s another important story here, one of being Black. The movie as marketed as the second story being the important one, but it really feels more like window dressing than purpose. Jamie Foxx plays his character for what seems like 20 minutes of the film, then he’s never in his body again.

I am rarely one to advocate for casting choices, actors can be actors and whatnot. In this case, the casting of Tina Fey, in this specific role, is a problem. She does a great job at it, that’s not the issue. It’s that the foundation of the film is that an experienced black person is replaced by an inexperienced white woman, and she succeeds in everything he did not. Casting almost anyone of color in that role (there are many), would have made a big difference in the overall tone of the film. There’s an irony that if this were a colorblind society, this wouldn’t even be something to discuss. Thinking about it more, there are high odds that in the dubbed versions of this film that the casting itself gets sorted out.

It’s a good movie all the same.

Blood of Zeus

I’m a tad convinced that Netflix has gamers on the board, otherwise it’s a hell of a coincidence that this anime series launched so darn close to the 1.0 launch of Hades.

I took ancient history in university, which had a solid chunk of time spent on Greek history. I’ve had a rather interesting passion for that topic for as long as I can remember. (Roman to some degree, but they were Greek gods transposed for the most part). I do get that there have been hundreds of takes on the Greek pantheon over the years, across all forms of media. They generally get along, in particular around the “main” actors, and their characteristics. Zeus is the leader, mega strong, smart, and sleeps around. Hera is his wife, always pissed at Zeus for his infidelity (this is the catholic lens applied.). Hermes is fast and a messenger, Ares is tough and focus on fighting, Poseidon is either quiet of full of rage (like the sea), and Hades is a mystery to everyone, keeping to himself. Almost exclusively, the gods fight among themselves and humans are just pawns.

Blood of Zeus maintains the broad strokes, but changes the whole Titans/Giants backstory to something significantly different. It attempts to keep arm’s length to the gods in daily lives, but the reality is that nearly all of the storyline is based on the outcomes of a set of poor decisions by Zeus. I won’t say it contradicts the general society’s understanding, but it’s much more fantastical than what we’ve seen in the past (no gorgons here).

That said, with 8 episodes lasting 30m each, the pace is fairly quick. The setup takes a tad longer than I would have liked, but every hero journey starts with reluctance I suppose. The villain of the series is more interesting than the main character, for reasons that would spoil most of the viewing. The bident alone sticks out like a sore thumbs, so there’s clearly a setup for future viewing.

The series does do service to more than just people walking around. There are the Greek staples throughout, such as Cerberus, centaurs, satyrs, manticores and whatnot. There are very BIG things. The 3 fates are there. The characters all have their own drivers, and for some reason, not a single god lies. That was weird to me, cause Greek gods lie all the time. All the characters make decisions that align with their beliefs – I can’t really stress how refreshing it is to watch something that is not plot driven. It does suck that MANY gods are there for a fraction of time and don’t really do anything (Poseidon has 2 scenes.)

The art style is well done, I certainly enjoyed it more than say Dragon Prince. It isn’t as fluid as a film, but then that’s not the point. The character designs are solid, colour choice is well though out, and there are more than a few winks to the viewer.

Of the large slew of Netflix-only anime I’ve seen, this is only the 2nd of which I’ve been able to watch an entire season’s worth. Oh, there are plenty of choices. Dragon Prince got 2 seasons out of me from pure hope of the writing team being able to slightly repeat the magic of Avatar (they did not). If it had not been set in Greek mythology, the story would still have worked, though I doubt my interest would have been as high.

At 30m per episode, this is a digestible anime with a plot that moves. That alone should be enough to warrant a watch.

Dune

Start with the trailer.

Like Bel, I consider the Dune book series to be in my top 10 all-time. There’s no possible spoilers for a book like that. Sort of how like everyone know King Kong is supposed to die at the end. The books cover an astounding level of complexity in terms of morals, and what it means to be human. The links to AI (which is from 1965!), religion, mortality, and destiny all come together in an amazing piece.

I think most people are familiar with the David Lynch version, what with Sting in a jockstrap and all. That movie really freaked me out when I was younger, which I guess is the point of all Lynch films. There are a few too many liberties taken here, so that when you read the books it seems quite odd. Netflix has a documentary on Jorodowsky’s Dune. It really seems like a massive acid trip, rather than the B-class movie that Lynch ended up with.

In 2003 there was a Sci-Fi miniseries that covered the first 3 books in the series. That was really well done, and you get to see a young James McAvoy too. It didn’t include the inner monologues, which was a nice change, and it kept the storyline clean rather than disturbing.

What interests me most about this interpretation is the director Denis Villeneuve. He makes incredibly movies and surrounds himself with an amazing team. I’m one of those weirdos who appreciates lighting, color choice, and can identify a director of photography. You look at something like Zach Snyder and his penchant for drawn out set pieces that are more like paintings, or the more signature quick dialogue cuts from Tarantino. You get to appreciate their methods and interpretations.

If you watch the trailer more than once, you’ll notice that most of it is filmed in contrast. It’s practically a black and white film. There are close ups of people’s faces as they live through a moment, or ponder a thought. There’s something about his approach to detail that really brings it to another level.

Really looking forward to it.

Warrior Nun

I knew that whatever I watched after Dark would hit me the wrong way.  It’s like having a 7 course meal then following it up with anything else… it just doesn’t work.

Warrior Nun is a Netflix series based on a Canadian comic book.  Maybe inspired is the better term.  Concept is interesting, there’s a single nun who’s given a halo which provide immortality, quick, healing, added strength, and some extra host-specific abilities.  The lead character here can levitate.  The kick here is that the person chosen for this is more happenstance, and they are reluctant to take on the mantle.  Fish out of water I guess.

The challenges I have with this is that every trope you can think of is used here.  And the first 6 episodes don’t actually do anything.  Sorry, they do, but it’s the same story beats – girl avoids her role and runs away.  At 45m per episode, it’s a massive waste of time.

Episode 7 actually has progress, and feels more like the Flash series by then, at least in terms of team/story building.  Episode 8 somehow has an epiphany moment – a moment which seems like the only reasonable approach.  It isn’t egregious here.  Game of Thrones is a recent example of just mind blowingly poor character decisions.  That’s refreshing.

The lore/world building has a tad too much Dan Brown for me.  Where there’s exposition for the sake of exposition.  It doesn’t appear to serve a purpose.  There are exceptions – in particular one see that advances the persecution of individuals deemed different.   It also, very briefly, touches on the curse of immortality.

There’s no reading between the lines, every card is on the table and you can see the chain of events well before they occur.  You may be impatient waiting for it to occur, but it will.

In that sense, Warrior Nun’s major challenge is managing pace of story.  Once things get moving, it’s good.  One of those shows you can put on while you’re doing something else.

Dark Season 3

Credit where due.  Dark is one of the best shows I have ever watched.  I had put up a post about Season 1 a while back, and it launched pretty close to Stranger Things – so most of the air was taken away.  They share similar first episodes, with a child disappearance.  By episode’s end, Dark decides to just go for it and drop time travel on the table.  I remember thinking that it was risky, given that normally only works well in comedies (Back to the Future, Bill and Ted) and that most sci-fi stories get stuck in the mud (Lost).

Oh boy was I wrong.

It instead spends 3 jam-packed seasons, meticulously playing out card after card of a deck of amazing storytelling, in what often appears to be a random order.  Each and every twist and action has a reason.  Some know more than others based on where they are in the overall timeline, and sometimes, they are just a few minutes apart.  The thing I enjoyed the most was that the series respects the viewer, if the viewer respects the series.  You can’t watch it out the corner of your eye, you’ll miss too much.

I should also mention that the penultimate episode manages to close off nearly every single question posed.  The finale wonderfully closes the entire story, making the arcs feel worthwhile.  I cannot recall the last time any show did that.

Some Spoilers Ahead

The comparison’s to Lost are apt.  Both are sci-fi stories where character decisions have to be taken on faith of the underlying story.  There’s the mystery box (literally in both), and the character motivations/allegiances seem to shift over time.  But Lost stopped thinking before writing in Season 3 (the cages) and went full reactive mode from then on.  Dark never strays.

There’s an old idea about time travel that asks what would happen if you went back in time and killed your grandparents.  In most cases, that means you die, multi-verse be damned.  Dark doesn’t actually let you do it, instead it shows the repercussions of you trying.  Helge’s disfigurement is the present is caused by someone going back in time trying to kill him, to prevent his future self.  But it just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy at that point. Time is immutable.

In practice, that means that the series covers nearly every action and consequence, just not in a linear fashion.  People end up being their own fathers, or grandparents.  It feels more like a close ecosystem of cause/effect.  At the end of Season 1 you get to see part of the larger picture with Adam providing a more menacing viewpoint.  Season 2 is a marvel to watch through, and ends with a twist that is evident when you look back.  Season 3 deals with the duality /  mirror effect of all this time travel impacts.  Close to what Fringe delivered, but a better execution.

Interesting bit is the way season 3 is filmed.  The mirror effect is practically applied – stairs that went left go right, right handed people use their left hand.  Scars change.  It’s like an uncanny valley, where you know something is wrong but not quite sure what.  The story takes center stage, and you get the perception that the characters are but characters in a play – or pieces on a chessboard.  That would be accurate, given the themes of determinization.

I also want to give a massive shoutout to the music in this series.  I listen to the opening credits everytime.  And each episode carries some poignant song that reflects the themes of that episode.  I often found myself finding that song outside of the series, just to get some time to reflect.

The series gets so complex that Netflix has an accompanying webapp to help out.  Really well done, as you can set the spoilers to only apply to the episodes you’ve watched.  It comes with a  timetravel timeline too, which makes a world of difference in understanding how everything fits together.

I’d be remiss not to mention that the series is filmed in German.  There are English voiceovers, or subtitles, to your leisure.  Both are of great quality.  Given the visual aspects are important to the story, I prefer the voiceovers.

I am setting expectations a tad high, but to me this is the new gold standard in sci-fi story telling.  Heck, just story telling in a visual medium.

 

Miyazaki on Netflix

If you don’t know who Miyazaki is, then let me introduce you to one of the best animated film directors of all time.  Where Christopher Nolan & Quentin Tarantino are today’s “pure film” masters, in the animated world it’s Miyazaki all the way.

On Thursday, the larger collection of his works was released on Netflix here in Canada, eh?  I’m like a kid in a candy shop.

Miyazaki tends to follow a set of themes in his stories, which I guess go counter to most mainstream media.

  • Feminism is a consistent theme.  Most of the films have female protagonists and focus on their complexity.
  • Love is throughout, but in the esoteric/family sense.  The major plot points are resolved through empathy and sacrifice.
  • Environmentalism is key where the world is a goal, not the individual.
  • Peace and pacifism.  The protagonists rarely use any violence, and any death’s are mourned rather than celebrated.
  • Magic/mysticism are facts of life.  “Normal” worlds are seen as strange.
  • Grey antagonists pervade.  It’s frankly amazing how complex these folks are – Lady Eboshi / Princess Mononoke in particular.

What you end up with are films that package a moral journey of resolving conflict through dialogue and sacrifice.  How many films play in North America work that don’t have a gun in them, or violence as the core of the story?  The stories come in tight, and with multiple layers.  There’s a whole lot of show, don’t tell throughout.

Which leads me to the actual animation.  It’s still hand-made today, and the cells are all overseen to perfection.  Miyazaki is a micro-manager / perfectionist in this regard, so that the characters all feel natural.  Tiny scenes that don’t move the plot, but move the character are throughout.  Some scenes focus on silence, just to prove that point.

So last night I watched Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Other films came before then, but the general consensus is that this is the real starting point of his major work.  For a film from ’84, you can see the ripples across other forms of media.  Chocobos come from here.  Metal Slug copied a ton of the art.  If you’ve seen a post-apocalyptic movie, odds are there are scenes pulled from here.  The tapestry scene in the opening credits gives all the background you need to know in about 15 seconds of still, abstract images.  Even the Ohm changed the way creatures in sci-fi were displayed forward.

If you have the time, pick a Ghibli/Miyazaki film, sit back, and enjoy.  It’s going to a better choice than 95% of the rest of stuff that’s streaming.

Tales from the Loop

You may have seen Simon Stålenhag‘s art in the past.  It’s post-modern, where technology is disused and strewn about, but technology we don’t yet have access to.  I think it looks really neat.  The artist has a foundational world he builds from, where a company called the Loop has driven most of this.

Amazon picked on the idea and built a series from it.

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What follows next will include some spoilers, and as with most sci-fi, it’s a good idea to avoid it.  tldr; it’s closer to golden age sci-fi, with a slow burn, self-reflection, and not a whole lot of answers.

*spoilers ahoy*

The first episode wastes little time in taking advantage of the sci-fi setting.  Mysterious object + little girl = cool adventure.  If you’re following along, then you see the twist before it happens, but it still resonates.  The framing of this episode keeps in that “weird things are normal” for the rest of the series, and gives a Loretta the anchor position.

Second episode tracks an old trope of body switching and goes to the logical conclusion.  Which is distressing, quite frankly.  More like Black Mirror than what people are used to.  It leaves some giant unanswered questions.

The third one takes a familiar short story trope and teens into it.  But not teens in the stereotypical sense, more so in the sense of lack of experience.  Everyone can identify with this story, as we all go through our own growth, and how it seems completely isolated from the rest of the world.

Fourth explores our ability to cope with death at different states of our life.  I rewatched this episode, because it felt like too much to absorb in one sitting.  The premise of a bound lifespan and knowing this, is a freaky concept.

Fifth loses steam compared to the others, as it relates to episode two and the lengths a grieving father/husband will go to protect his family.  This is a hard concept to pull off, since many people can’t empathize quickly enough with the situation, and the actions taken rely more on sci-fi knowledge than human instinct.  Since the setup is weak, the follow-through doesn’t hit.

Yeah, I didn’t like this one either.  The idea is really cool, what if you travel to a parallel dimension and meet yourself.  Would you get along at all?  Where did the dimensions split to make another you?  Could you fit in?  All great questions, but the writing and acting here isn’t very good.

Every series needs a flashback episode to contextualize a given character, and this is the one that does it for one-armed George.  The story tried to hit a few too many beats at the start, making for a muddy middle.  The final act opens up a whole different set of questions for the world.

The final episode tries to close up as many of the questions as possible.  Where every other episode is more of an anthology, it’s not possible to watch this one without having watched all the other ones.  As a parent, this one hit me like a damn truck.  The series went full circle, going back to its tenet that time is a curse.  I reminded me a lot of the intro for Up, where in a seemingly simple montage, an entire life story is told, and you get to feel every bit of it.  The thing that really hits, is that no one questions why or tries to correct it, they just accept the fate and try to make the best of it.

Which is a general character theme throughout.  When people try to fix a problem, they generally make it worse.  Those that accept that life has given them a bad hand and move forward all seem to get better.  It’s not a world of regrets, it’s a world of growth.  Even if that growth is not what people wanted or planned.

 

Tales from the Loop is a solid series.  It’s not for everyone because it doesn’t fit the mold of sci-fi in 2020, with Michael Bay blowing everything up.  It’s a story about people, dealing with people, and making the best of a bad hand.  Optimistic in the tragedy.  I could use more of that.