18 November 2016

Fantastic Worlds and Where to Build Them

The only thing this site really still does, besides post long explanations of America, is an attempt to assess the critical, commercial, and most importantly, cultural potential of every big release to hit the cinema, and there's a kind of significant one today, so let's get at it. Coming off the heels of Harry Potter, but not really is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), a magnificently soft title that ought to go through some improvements through its mind-boggling four sequels. I had next to no anticipation of this flick, despite being a big fan of the HP movies, although that's grown in the last few weeks as I've appreciated what's being done here. Let's dive into what this flick means and the effects it will have on our culture.
Also known as Pokemon GO: The Movie (2016)

I'm really torn when looking at this thing. It originates from a 128-page book by J.K. Rowling that spun off of Harry Potter, which ostensibly exists in the Harry Potter universe itself. That is, the book, as published, purported to be Harry's actual copy of the book by Newt Scamander. Rowling also wrote the screenplay herself, so any fear of credibility or world-shaking ought to be assuaged. Nice to know she's keeping busy. This makes it come across as not so much a grab at some existing property, but an extension derived from the creator herself. Of course, that always works out for prequels.

At first this seems wholly unnecessary. If the Hobbit series seemed like it was stretching its material a little thin, how in fuck is this 128-page kids' book going to become a five-film series? Also, why are five films our standard now? Remember when we had all these nice, triptych trilogies? It's maddening. Still, I've grown to be into this for a few reasons, the chief of which is that this is a champion of world-building.

I wish film series would do this more often, but this is also a simple indication of how difficult it is to set up the commonly recognized rules of a universe. Star Wars is really JUST doing this with Rogue One (2016), but it probably also has some of the most widely dispersed recognizable ephemera. The Harry Potter universe is so rich and thriving, it's actual a masterful relief to not have to focus on HP, Hermione, and all the other jackasses at Hogwarts. In fact, it's a huge breath of fresh air to journey to the New World and check out what American Wizards are like. Considering its popularity over here, it's about damn time.

The ability to take all the rules of the universe and place it in another location, another time, with different characters is kind of awesome, especially to stay consistent with a universe as full of magic as Harry Potter. It's cool to see things from another angle, especially with a cast as ripe as this. I could take or leave Eddie Redmayne, but he seems appropriate for the twitchy Scamander here, and Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, and whatever Johnny Depp is doing is an exciting prospect. Plus, monsters!

So from a meta-narrative standpoint I'm actually pretty jazzed up. But how will it do otherwise? Commercially I think the path is paved pretty clear. It's main competition is Doctor Strange (2016), which has had three weeks to burn off any demand it had (which was significant). Will people show up for another magic show? I think the brands are different enough that it won't be much of an issue. It's surprisingly been five whole years since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II (2011), and its popularity hasn't really ceased in that time. It runs into Moana (2016) next week, but that's also a slightly younger skewing demographic. I bet it can make some serious bank, especially because it looks fresh, without the hang-ups of school or Voldemort or stupid candy frogs and shit. The one trip-up I can see is if the series tries too hard to tie into the original...uh...octilogy? If it's allowed to stand and be its own thing, it'll do great.

The critical response so far has been mixed to positive, which is about what you can expect from all the lesser Potter films. Consensus seems to be that there's a lot of story and mythology packed in here, it gets a bit dark and bleaky at times and tackles some big themes of bigotry and intolerance. Like a grimdark Zootopia (2016)! Just what the family needs this holiday season. I'm none too worried about any of this, as long as it's average to slightly-above average, it'll be setting a high bar for 2016 blockbusters. That's a horrible, pathetic standard, but hey, this is 2016 - everything sucks.

Lastly, let's talk culture. I think there is a bit of a hole right now, and to be fair, in our long-term memory this goes against Rogue One pretty hard. It'll really depend on how good that one is, or if it does anywhere near the business of The Force Awakens (2015), or if it's treated more as a side-note kind of film, which is what it seems. Still, it'll be interesting of Potter and Star Wars enact a holiday duel for the next few years. Considering how gargantuan both properties are, I don't really see that working out for our cultural memory. Fantastic Beasts has enough distinctive imagery already to be culturally significant, but it'll really depend on whether or not people show up, buy in, and reminisce. So much iconography has already been established in Harry Potter, it'll really depend on if it can stand on its own, which again hearkens back to the idea that the more this tries NOT to be Harry Potter, the better it'll do. It's a hard lesson to learn, but fresh tends to trump re-dos every time. That's not pretty or safe or easy, but it's the truth.

So what do you think? Are you on board or brushing this off until we get Moana and Rogue One and every other Disney movie that has dominated 2016? How come Disney blockbusters are the only ones that are good anymore? This is crazy.

15 November 2016

Let's Get Back on Track. A Strange Doctor Track

So after all that, let's start talking about what doesn't matter again - superhero movies. Now, I haven't seen Doctor Strange (2016) yet, although considering I threw down cash to see Suicide Squad (2016), I feel like I owe it to see a superhero film that isn't completely awful. Then again, despite largely straying from the advertising (as much as possible), and not really being tantalized by spoilers or clickbait-y articles, I don't have a huge pressing need to see it.

That realization gave me the impetus for this post, which is a bit different than usual. All summer long, and throughout all the big movies of the year (although it'd behoove the nature of this site to one day acknowledge and thoroughly discuss all the non-franchise non-blockbuster films coming out. Of course, I'm not sure what words I'd have for Sully [2016]. Actually - Tom Hanks is a brand to himself, even if David S. Pumpkins may turn out to be his most endearing character, I could do it), I'll try to forecast the potential for critical, commercial, and most importantly, cultural success, but since we're already knee-deep in Strange (even if the 2016 Election has overshadowed everything else in our lives), that seems kind of off, now.

The other day I watched this video, which lead to this post, which really got to me. Maybe it's just the super-contrarian in me that goes against everything I read, since a few years ago I was posting this exact sort of thing all the time, although I've kind of bucked against that recently. That's mostly because more and more it seems like Marvel is playing with that formula and creating things like Guardians of the Galaxy (2016), Winter Soldier (2014), and CIVIL WAR (2016) that don't flirt at all with that origin prototype. Even Ant-Man (2015) ended up being pretty likable. In fact, I'd argue more coherently that Marvel had a second movie problem more than a first movie problem, where nothing quite worked.
"I am fire. I am death!"

Of course, I'm not completely naïve. Origin stories in general tend to be a little stifled. Superhero films tend to work best when we get right into it. There is enough of a collective understanding that whatever the reason folks got their powers doesn't really matter. We're never strung up watching The Incredibles (2004) or Megamind (2010) stumbling over why anyone is doing what they're doing. Instead it's a focus on story, which is where a lot of the MCU is now. That's perhaps why people have been hesitant over Doctor Strange, because after we really hit a groove in seeing some of these these other characters four or five times now, it's like we're struggling going back to the basics. That's one reason I'm excited for Black Panther (2018) because we've seemed to not give a shit about where this guy got his panther powers in CIVIL WAR. As it should be. We never really re-hash origin stories in comic books. Well, mostly.

But let's take this video apart a bit, because a lot of that criticism is outdated. First, I think that Marvel films actually often hit their humour pretty well, mostly due to the charisma of their principal actors. Now, there is certainly a streak here starting from the endless charm and perfect casting of Robert Downey, Jr wherein every other new star needs to be goofy and jokey (see Chris Pratt and [non-Disney] Ryan Reynolds), which cuts through some of the inherent self-seriousness. I also have less of an issue with the MacGuffins, because they're a time-tested film trope and in the better films like the ones mentioned above, don't overtake character development. It would be cool to see more stories based around their abilities instead of them all doing sort of the same thing, but it's setting up Infinity War (2018) to be a mash-up of MacGuffins in addition to characters, which is kind of tantalizing.

I'd also agree with their villain problem in the sense that Marvel always really loves its evil Doppelganger villains. From Abomination to Whiplash to Yellowjacket, the big baddies is almost always some kind of evil version of the hero. Loki works because he's so different, and has strengths where Thor is weak and vice versa. The Winter Soldier is certainly a doppelganger, but there's so much more heart, character development, and emotional investment there that it becomes rewarding. Again, though, they've lately done really well in the villain department. Aldrich Killian worked because his powers could directly destroy Stark-made tech (That's another reason why the magic-based Mandarin was always an effective foe, although he's endlessly problematic in these non-racist times). I've also always said Ronan worked in Guardians because he's the most self-serious of any villain ever, which makes him work in direct opposite of the irreverent space-team. His big final monologue is cut off with a dance-off challenge for fuck's sake. I also generally liked Zemo because his final plan was distinctive and simple rather than something more obvious in a Marvel film.

All this is a suggestion that Marvel seems vaguely aware that they're continuously repeating themselves and so actively seeks to mix up its universe constantly. Once S.H.I.E.L.D. seems like the stable rallying point, they blow it up. Once the Avengers are set, they tear them down. And once we're all in in a world of technology and aliens, they add a bunch of magic. Comic universes are always crazy because the rules are very fluid. There's not a lot of other fictional universes that have aliens, magic, technology, mutants, ancient gods, and mutant sewer dwellers. Imagine if a bunch of aliens invaded Harry Potter or Indiana Jones! Wait...fuck that.

After all this, the issue with Strange becomes that step back. After we've finally reached a point where zero fucks are given for bizarre characters (uhhh...Vision anyone?), it feels like we're reaching back to the well with what's essentially an Iron Man (2008) with magic. There are also plenty of problems, from the weird attempt to diversify the Ancient One by making him a woman, yet losing his Asian-ness and the throwaway treatment of Rachel McAdams, who suddenly has an awful career. These are all problems indicative of a culture worse than a single film can remedy (hint: it's part of a culture that just elected a pussy-grabbing reality star its 45th President). This is not to absolve Doctor Strange, but to put its inclusive casting, story structure, and script problems into an accurate perspective.

I'll see Doctor Strange sometime because I am a fan of that mystical universe for all its weirdness, especially Dark Dimension / Astral Plane stuff, especially once they get into the evil demonic magic parts of the Marvel Universe, like Dormammu, Umar, Zom, the Vishanti, all these crazy blokes. I can only hope we get to more Kirby-esque weirdness instead of pseudo-inception weirdness. But for now, that's as best I can sum up where we are in the MCU, and how some popular criticism is justified, some is no longer relevant, and some could certainly be attributed to their attempts to launch new heroes using a lot of the tropes that are now a bit outdated as we become more comfortable with weirdness. You know what did a great job, actually, was that Doctor Strange: The Sorceror Supreme (2007) animated movie that used to be on Netflix. Check that out if you're looking for a quick fix that doesn't care as much about continuity as live action.

So what do you think about Marvel? Still better than DC? Well, from a pure filmic standpoint that's got to be true so far. Did you see Doc Strange? Leave one below.

10 November 2016

An Attempt to Rationally Discuss What Just Happened

I will extremely rarely discuss politics on this site. I don't really think it's ever appropriate for a site with Norwegian Morning Wood's core direction and mantra, not to mention that it tends to get people up in arms in ways that I've never been a fan of. Still, I was pretty invested in this election (although I was probably more into 2012 - for reasons I'll get to), and with all this crazy foreboding shit I just didn't really feel like whipping up something about Doctor Strange (2016). Who cares about Doctor Strange when the future of the nation is at stake?! I might get to something in a few days or next week, but that seemed so petty and ephemeral right now. Alright, pop culture is always petty and ephemeral, but that's all we know around here.

The last thing I'll say before we begin is that my goal here, again without the desire to really stir up a crazy pot of political shit, is to have a calm, reasoned, and rational discussion of the 2016 Election. Such words have never been typed or read on the Internet, I know. Judging from the general mood of liberal sadness yesterday, and the typical "shut up, pussy losers!" mood of the world today, my guess is that some of my opinions here won't really be popular on either side, but that's a big part of what I'd like to get into: the simple fact that neither side understands each other.

So let's start off here with some background on myself so you can decide how to judge me right off the bat. I lean decidedly liberal, ISideWith.com always pits me at like 96% Green Party. I'm extremely environmentally and socially progressive, which are my two biggest drives. Pacifist, although I believe in the United States' role in global aid and leadership. I'm pro-gun control, pro-choice, and pro-fiscal regulation. These aren't random beliefs, I just generally try to make everything work the most for the most people. Generally, when any of these issues is out of control or ignored, people get shot, the ice caps melt, and everyone who can't afford it buys a house.

Despite this, I always find myself angry at big government. I do think that we should reign in spending, decrease bureaucracy, and deregulate certain industries that the government has no business being in. I struggle with the Affordable Care Act - it seems like an incredible idea that never seemed to execute properly, and I think that's mostly a transparency issue, like the new regulations hit too fast and it hurt small businesses who suddenly couldn't afford it. At the same time, though, wealthy corporations are completely hypocritical without paying their share in just about anything.

So that's hopefully established me as a pinko liberal pussy, to wit I constantly argue - why is caring about other people's feelings, rights, and freedoms a pussy thing to do? I've never understood how the conservative section of the country became synonymous with the patriotic to the point of jingoism side of things. Because above all - I believe in America. My view of this country is so hardline freedom that it makes room from whatever you want to do. I don't consider it anyone's place to tell anyone else what to do. I have never fired a gun and I see no reason to ever do so. That doesn't mean I'm going to take away your right to own a gun. That also means, however, that other people shouldn't be able to take away LBGT marriage rights, especially since Gay Marriage doesn't really affect any of your neighbors at all, and having fifteen loaded guns next door is certainly nerve-wracking. Jim Jeffires is still the authority here, but besides the point for this argument. The disagreement I have with you and whatever your opinion is on whatever doesn't matter. This is America. We can all believe whatever it is we want to believe about anything.

This is a big reason why I believe in transgender rights and cautious, "politically correct" language, and all sorts of other stuff that conservatives tend to freak out over. I'm all about Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the National Anthem since that freedom of expression is what America is all about. Even someone like Edward Snowden I applaud for speaking up when he saw something shady about our government. Our right to dissent, to mistrust, to call for transparency, an urge for privacy and freedom over security and fear is of tantamount importance and the true meaning of this great country.

And of course, this is all just my opinion and you don't have to read it, you can hate it, you can hate me, and you can go write whatever you want, and block Norwegian Morning Wood forever, but none of that matters because I'll applaud your right to do that. So this is about where the results of the 2016 Election come into play, since it would seem like the victor would put into place an effort to undo that freedom, ironically while running on a platform of making America great again.

Regardless of the flaws in his slogan (chief among them the fact that America was never great for many people, and to be honest, by the tail end of the Obama Era it was pretty great), there is a lot of reason for non-straight white wealthy males to fear the next four years. This is the first of two major points I'd like to make:

1) Neither side of the country understands the other

This comes down to a big reason why there was a lot of feeling of shock in this country this week. This is based on both the polling leading up the Election and the polarization of the country that has caused many like-minded political people to group around each other and ignore or downplay the power of the other side. So let's break these two big concepts down:

Bill Burr has one of the best stances on polling - namely the fact that it probably doesn't actually exist. This is hyperbole for sure, but there's surely an issue with only asking the kind of people who would stop and take time out of their day to answer the phone or fill out a survey. Now, I have done my share of legitimate academic survey work during my time as both a fulfillment of my Master's degree in Communication and time spent as a research coordinator for a market research company. There are polling measures that are a little beefier than just asking random people, but almost assuredly the pollsters could not find the true Trump supporters.

And you can easily stereotype from there - you can't picture the prototypical rural, anti-government, anti-intrusion Trump supporter stooping to answer every poll that comes along. Especially in the rural midwest this seemed dramatically off and at its core an underestimation of both Trump, his rhetoric, and his movement.

Lastly and more importantly, we have become increasingly isolated amongst our own people. I don't think this is a technological thing, but it's more of a radicalization thing. Both sides have become so entrenched in their viewpoints that there is little toleration for discussion of the other, to the point that they are completely blocked out. As I watched talk show hosts and other East (and West) coast people cry over shock at how this is possible, it brings me back to an age old battle between rural and urban, which has been a conflict of ideology and lifestyle ever since urban was a thing.

Urban dwellers don't understand how mistreated the rural side has felt since forever. A lot of original Republican 1850s ideology was crafted in an effort to earn the rural frontier vote and likewise each side has been vying for that blue collar-working-farmer vote for decades, often forming the basis for big party shifts as platforms shift to nab votes. In recent years both the Republicans and Democrats have all but ignored flyover country, and if you don't believe that, well, there was a little election this week that just proved that.

More importantly, though, there is a bunch of stuff that liberals have thought that everyone thinks are important. These should have prevented a Trump Presidency - things like common decency, humility, magnanimous compassion, and political tact. There is a certain way the President is supposed to look, act, and carry himself (clearly, always HIMself), which Trump really doesn't embody. This was a big deal for East Coast liberals, which just isn't a thing for most people who want someone like them to lead, instead of an educated elite.

Of course the other big irony is that Trump is probably the farthest candidate in history from the actual background of low income rural America. That Trump was able to rally this section of the country has got to be one of the great cons of all time, but that likely also has to do with another big thing that cities don't understand about rural areas, which is also the scariest thing about a Trump Presidency: Acceptance of the Other.

Whether it's the Black Other, the Latino Other, the Woman Other, the Muslim Other, the Woman Other (you'd think they'd have those in Michigan), or the Gay Other, the Other is scary to Middle America because they don't really interact with it. They also can't really relate to their oppression as a problem that directly affects them. It's amazing to me that there could be this massive lack of general human empathy, but that's where they're coming from. Trump's appeal to their sense of disenfranchisement outdid his obvious character, leadership, and inclusion flaws. It may seem inexcusable, but it's not to millions of people in this country.

Likewise, the right doesn't understand us poor liberal elites. The major fears associated with Trump in addition to his taint of the honor of the Presidency, to me at least, is the threat of severe government deregulation, from Wall Street to organizations ranging from NASA, NIH, EPA, and ACA. All face the possible chopping block. No President before has had such an outward antipathy towards science, the environment, civil rights, and immigration. These are all things that immediately and dramatically affect non-white, non-straight lives, which is something that a lot of Trump-heavy regions just don't seem to care about, for either legitimate geographic and demographic reasons or because of a very innate sense of otherism, entitlement, and frankly, the outright lie of the American dream. Capitalism tends to appeal the most to those who in reality suffer most from it. Poor whites have also always relished in the mongrolization of blacks, since that's about the only leg up they have when the rest of their lives are shit. Trump gave all of this a voice, but to go back again to the truest version of America - where everyone is entitled to opportunity and freedom. This threat, even to expression and criticism, is a terrifying affront to what America is all about.

Say that Trump dismantles the EPA and Dodd-Frank. These alone combine to form a solid death sentence for the planet. Beyond these political maneuverings, the general feeling of the country is that hatespeech, discrimination, and intolerance is not only accepted, but it'll get you elected President. After riding a sincere wave of inclusive progressive reforms, this reactionary transition of power is devastating.

Yet, compassion seems to be a lost pussy art. Again, while a lot of this is deep-seeded, yet misplaced blame for the problems of low income, low education whites, this is also a mantra of the Republican Party. Now, although Republicans seem to fear Democrats as much as it goes the other way around, and the vitriol and entrenchment on either side is probably equal, the hateful refusal to compromise on any issue ever, while filling the world with angry speech seems like the conservative way. And maybe that's just because I'm polarized to be on the other side. I'd be curious if anyone out there has ever been verbally assaulted by a liberal or if there's any basis for that gut reaction of hatred. Both sides have an inability to understand the fear of the other side, but I also feel like the conservatives need to concede and show compassion if both sides are to ever work together. Maybe that just my own twisted perspective, but I know that I am willing to reach across the aisle on many things, except for the environment, which will actually destroy the planet, and social justice, which is simply American. So, in all this, what the fuck happened with Hillary?

2) Hillary was never actually electable.

I'd rather not tread over well-resolved territory like the email thing or the Clinton Foundation thing, which have all been either repudiated or overhyped, none of which stand to any of Trump's scandals. Both were given pretty equal weight and reporting, so that's not really it. Simply put, Hillary didn't run a very likable, sticky campaign.

By sticky, I mean something that sticks in your head. Something memorable, meme-able, and a pop culture phenomenon. Trump has been THE news story for over a year now. The more the media covered his antics as if to degrade them, the more the resolve of his supporters grew, both in genuine support of his behavior and as a reaction to that public revulsion which has been all too common for them. And again, I would consider this to be more perception than anything, or at least an unfulfillment of perceived entitlement. Nevertheless, that's what at least 59 million people in the country feel.

Hillary never put together something as good as "Make America Great Again." As false as it is, that's a good slogan that appealed to a lot of people. "I'm with her" feels inherently selfish, focusing on the plight of one, while Trump tended to focus on America. Trump did this consitently throughout his entire campaign - he had a natural ability to create these fantastic memorable sentences while it always seemed like a struggle for Hillary.

And I'd hope that even Trump supporters would agree that based on credentials alone, Hillary came out on top. Maybe. I mean, this was the ultimate election between someone with no experience versus someone with the most experience of any candidate in history (except for probably like...Martin Van Buren). And not belabour this point, but that's another one of the very things that galvanized Trump supporters. See, this was never a fair fight because what one half of the country thought mattered was working in the opposite way for the other half. Trump voters voted for someone who wasn't entrenched in the system (although there's a decent argument that his lifetime of luxury shouldn't make him relatable at all, but whatever), and all of Clinton's preparation and experience came off as power hungry and privileged.

This is of course a fallacy, but perception and reality are always different. For instance, Trump's whole campaign and career shift is a huge meaningless grab for power. There's no genuine desire to help people in Trump - if there was he wouldn't have ran so many crooked charities and raped so many underage girls over the years. The priorities of Trump voters were on a different level than that of Clinton.

Hillary did little to mitigate these hurdles. This is possibly because she, like us, probably didn't think she'd have to. Wasn't it enough that Trump nuked his own campaign through an unprecedented series of gaffes, scandals, and a complete lack of integrity and decency? The response I typically hear from conservatives to this accusation is that Clinton was worse, which 1) isn't really true and 2) dodges rather than confronts Trump's own shortcomings.

While Clinton probably would have made an excellent President, she could never jump the hurdle of her own likability. The one thing that politicians can get by with more than anything else is charisma, and she just didn't really exhibit any. To some extent, this is just her being a woman seeking power, which has been frowned upon for all of history (actually, really just in the US. For some reason plenty of other countries have no problem with female leadership). The blatant and unrepentant misogyny on display in this campaign and revealed in this country (both in men and women - more women voted for Trump than voted for Romney) is one of the more cataclysmic revelations from the 2016 Election. So I'll try to say this hopefully as feminist as possible - Hill-dawg didn't really have charisma. Ghostbusters (2016) wasn't a good movie. Elizabeth Warren has charisma. Bridesmaids (2011) is a fantastic movie. Don't hate me.

The last thing I'll note here is that for all of our blind love of this country we ought to remember all the pain this was founded on. Literally since Columbus first landed here it's been built on lies, including the one that Columbus was the first one here, which simultaneously discounts early Norse settlers, and supposes that even though they were actually living here, the American Indian doesn't count as people. Our proudest founding fathers were all slave-owners, and that intrinsic inequality has been this country's primary issue for the past two centuries, which is completely insane, because it has no actual basis in reality. This country has a tendency to judge each other, limit each other, hate each other, and for some reason, get completely hot and bothered by what everyone else is doing all the time.

Yet those crazy, rebellious, slave-owning motherfuckers who created us and systematically killed the original owners of this land gave us one great thing - a Constitution that gave me the right to write this and you the right to hate this. It gave you the right to vote (eventually, unless you're a landowning white male, then you'd have a great time voting for James Monroe!) for whoever you wanted, and with a bit of luck, and probably quite a bit of money, an opportunity to do whatever you want. This nation's not perfect, but that's only because of the racism. Everything else is pretty solid, and we ought to be grateful that people are getting their voice heard, even if it's anti-government, anti-immigrant, anti-woman, and anti-LBGT (shit don't even get me started on Mike Pence). It's a tough call to say our voice is the right one or "their" voice is the right one, or whose voice has been heard more, although like I said, I form my beliefs based on a desire for as many people to be happy and have opportunity as possible, because without that, America's pretty rough.

I'd be curious to hear conservative opinions that again, aren't hateful or slanderous, and some liberal opinions that aren't completely idealist and impractical. I'm probably not right in all of this because I don't have all the answers, but this is about where I'm at and the best way I can explain the national tragedy that happened for many on November 8th.
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