Unordered List

Saturday 26 December 2015

The new heroes of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The Force Awakens aims straight for the nostalgic hindbrain of Star Wars fandom, but my favourite moments were invariably the ones where we saw something new.

The looming wreckage of a Star Destroyer on Jakku, hinting at three decades of history without a word of exposition. Kylo Ren's desperation to forge a new identity outside the established rivalry between Jedi and Sith. Rey's wordless introduction, focusing on her surroundings and her evocative theme music. And in a more general sense, the diversity of the cast, which may be the most significant innovation J.J. Abrams brought to the franchise. It's hard to articulate how important and exciting it feels to see actors like John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac at the helm of a story like this, except to say: oh my god I'm so in love.

You can easily map various aspects of the original trio onto Rey, Poe and Finn. In the foreground, Rey continues the Skywalker legacy as a Force-sensitive prodigy with a natural affinity for machines, trapped in an isolated desert settlement but dreaming of the stars. Then Finn and Poe share attributes from both Han and Leia: the pilot, the icon of the rebellion, the outlaw, the reluctant hero who is motivated more by love than by political ideals. Poe's arc in the first half of the film even follows Leia's role in A New Hope, as he passes important information to a droid before being kidnapped and interrogated by the enemy, only to be rescued by a stormtrooper.

This melting pot of familiar motifs is reminiscent of the way J.J. Abrams remixed Spock's death scene for Star Trek Into Darkness, but this time it was far more effective. While Into Darkness offered an unsatisfying copy of an already iconic moment, The Force Awakens had more in common with the way long-running superhero comics get updated for modern audiences. It extracted the most compelling ideas at the heart of Star Wars, pulled them apart, and rearranged them to make something fresh. This didn't always work (in particular, the Starkiller Base attack was unnecessarily derivative), but the three new leads were a phenomenal success.

Saturday 25 July 2015

Ant-Man: Fun, but still a waste of $130 million.

Following this film's much-discussed behind-the-scenes meltdown, my expectations were low. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Ant-Man is a decent movie, if not a particularly interesting one. At the very least, it was more coherent than Age of Ultron.

Both movies were the product of embarrassingly public disputes between their directors and Marvel Studios, but Ant-Man managed to resolve itself into an entertaining (if lightweight) heist movie while AoU was a mess of conflicting subplots and franchise tie-ins: Joss Whedon's weird Black Widow issues and inconsistent characterization vs. Marvel's obsession with clumsy sequel foreshadowing. You could pick out certain scenes in Ant-Man that felt like Edgar Wright's work, but it didn't feel patchy like Thor's bizarre cave-swimming subplot did in Age of Ultron.

Ant-Man and the Marvel Cinematic Universe

More than any other MCU movie so far, Ant-Man captured the tone of a solo comic in a larger fictional universe: casually acknowledging the existence of other superheroes without going for an actual team-up. We've now reached the point where the MCU is big enough to support cameos from familiar side-characters without it seeming forced, which is great for worldbuilding purposes. It's just too bad this only happened after the departure of Edgar Wright, who wanted to make a standalone movie with (presumably) a more esoteric tone.

Ideally, Marvel should find a happy medium between franchise crossover moments and allowing filmmakers more freedom to make a personal mark. That's why comics like Ms Marvel and Hawkeye are so popular: they have a memorable sense of personality.

Monday 1 June 2015

INTERVIEW: "Mad Max: Fury Road" costume designer Jenny Beavan

Previously: My review of Mad Max: Fury Road

The Mad Max series boasts some of the most influential costumes in sc-if/fantasy cinema, kick-starting a trend for post-apocalyptic fetish punk that inspired numerous movies, music videos and outlandish outfits at Burning Man.

Oscar winning costume designer Jenny Beavan was brought in to develop the look of Fury Road, a far cry from her best-known work on historical dramas like The King's Speech and Sense and Sensibility. The result was a fresh new aesthetic that blends grimy realism with the kind of memorable extremes we've come to expect from a Mad Max movie.

Just as director George Miller's attention to detail led to the most exciting movie in the franchise, Jenny Beavan's costumes were the most technically ambitious and character-driven so far. Happily for me, she agreed to an interview about her experiences on the film, discussing the vision behind Fury Road's costumes.

HelloTailor: One of the fascinating things about Fury Road is the way George Miller worked from a 3,500 panel storyboard instead of a traditional script. Did you collaborate with [concept artist] Brendan McCarthy on the character designs, or did you get started after his storyboard was complete?

Jenny Beavan: No, I didn’t have any collaboration with Brendan McCarthy - but I did meet him when he visited Namibia, which was exciting. I came on board relatively late in the proceedings, considering the project had been prepping for some 12 years I think!

The earlier Mad Max movies have a really iconic post-apocalyptic look. How did you balance the references to Norma Moriceau's Mad Max costumes with the new aesthetic for Fury Road?

Mad Max: Fury Road was absolutely a continuation of the Mad Max genre and at the same time completely different - if that makes sense. We are in the same and a completely different wasteland, and with a lot of new characters. Because George Miller is the genius behind all the films there will always be a certain continuity, as it is his vision we were all creating.

Saturday 23 May 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

I saw John Wick recently, a movie I'd heartily recommend to any fan of the action genre. With inventive fight scenes and skillful cinematography, it was the definitive "badass man goes on a revenge killing spree" movie. Thankfully, this means we can now retire that trope forever. We're done. It's over. After its millionth retelling, this story can cede its spotlight to things like Mad Max: Fury Road, which displayed a far broader understanding of human nature.

[Also, before I go any further into this Very Serious Review: THROW ME IN THE TRASH, FURY ROAD IS AN EXPLODING MUTANT MASTERPIECE OF LIZARD-CHOMPING, FLAMING GUITAR-PLAYING GENIUS. I spent the first third having heart palpitations over Max's mask and blood tube, the second third thinking, "WHAT THE FUCK!? DUDES ON POLES WITH CHAINSAWS!?" and the final third having some kind of religious experience where I wanted to cry because Tom Hardy made a quizzical grunting noise or the Motorcycle Matriarchy had shown up to save the day, or simply because We Are Not Things, dammit!

And then I went home and read a metric fuckload of behind-the-scenes coverage, because this was a rare instance where that shit is legitimately interesting. Did you know they shot 480 hours of footage? And yet the editor, Margaret Sixel, pulled it all together into one of the most comprehensible and dynamic action narratives I've ever seen! Give that woman an Oscar.]

In every regard, Fury Road was made for me. It took my favourite genre (wildly over-stylized apocalyptic fantasy) and imbued it with emotional and political themes I understood on a personal level. For too long, I've had to watch Hollywood blockbusters with part of my brain switched off, attempting to ignore their obsession with cops and soldiers and steroid-inflated machismo. BUT NO LONGER, MY FRIENDS. No longer.

Obviously I do appreciate characters like Captain America and James Bond, but the fact is that they are not my heroes. What personal connection can I possibly have to Bruce Wayne? None, even as a power fantasy. Whereas with Fury Road, I can really feel this shit. It fulfills my desire to see women work together to protect each other, and for people to overthrow their destructive and abusive leaders. It works on a fundamental level because I know what it's like to live in a world ruined by centuries of pollution, controlled by a cruel patriarchal culture that disregards the souls and bodies of women.

You can hardly describe Fury Road as realistic, but its story felt real to me in every way that counts.

Friday 1 May 2015

Age of Ultron: The Empire of Tony Stark

Previously: My reviews of The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier
"What the was up with that Black Widow scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron?"
My unspoilery review of Age of Ultron over at the Daily Dot.


When you write a negative review for a summer blockbuster, the response usually goes something like this: Why Do You Hate Fun? To get this out of the way, I'm not judging Age of Ultron from a tower of joyless snobbery. Rather, I think it failed in two pretty basic ways: As an "event" sequel to the Avengers franchise, and as a Joss Whedon movie.

I didn't have high expectations for Age of Ultron, but I generally trust Whedon to deliver an entertaining story with a solid emotional core. The Avengers still holds up as a fun, well-paced movie with an unusually engaging villain, making Age of Ultron all the more disappointing because it didn't live up to these three specific standards. It had all the big-budget action setpieces you'd expect, but overall it was incoherent and riddled with lazy storytelling and self-contradictory characterization. Even Whedon's trademark witty dialogue often fell flat for me, with too many jokes either interrupting the action or feeling like they'd been written for other characters.

Ultimately, I don't think Whedon had any interest in maintaining continuity within the franchise. To a certain extent this was fine, because Age of Ultron had to be accessible to a wider audience. They couldn't include detailed callbacks to earlier movies. But AoU didn't just sidestep recent installments in the franchise, it contradicted them. For example:
  • How did the team get together? AoU opens with the Avengers storming a castle to retrieve Loki's scepter, strongly implying that they've been based out of Stark Tower for some time. However, CA:TWS ends with Cap and Falcon going off to find Bucky (which admittedly gets a throwaway mention in AoU) and Natasha dropping her Black Widow identity to go travelling and "find herself." How did Natasha come to rejoin the Avengers, and when did her not-very-plausible romance with Bruce begin?
  • Tony Stark destroyed his Iron Man suits at the end of Iron Man 3. Obviously we all KNEW he'd go back to being Iron Man, but AoU doesn't mention how this happened. Instead we launch straight in with him using a private army of Iron Man drones to invade/protect Sokovia. Pepper Potts was offscreen throughout, which felt especially odd compared to Erik Selvig's pointless cameo.
  • Steve Rogers' characterization veered back to its Whedon state in The Avengers: stuffy and priggish, with no real impact on the plot. Bizarrely, Steve's "worst nightmare" hallucination was little more than a simplistic flashback to WWII, telling us nothing further about the character. Then there's the running joke where Steve (a frontline soldier who grew up in 1930s NYC), scolds Tony for cursing. In what universe does that make any sense, other than to fabricate some LOLs for the Robert Downey Jr quip machine?

While some of AoU's narrative flaws can be blamed on editorial demands from Marvel (ie, too many characters and overly long action sequences, or the needless Infinity Stone foreshadowing), the most glaring problems were often in areas where Joss Whedon usually excels. Let's start with our villain, Ultron.

Thursday 23 April 2015

What was up with that Black Widow scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron?

I was going to post an Age of Ultron review today, but since the movie isn't out in the U.S. until next week, I've decided to stick with one specific topic: that bizarre conversation between Bruce Banner and Black Widow.

SPOILER WARNING: This post (obviously) contains spoilers, but only for one scene between Bruce Banner and Black Widow.

If you've seen the movie, you may already know what I'm talking about. It's the scene where Natasha tells Bruce she was sterilized during her childhood spy training, and how this makes her a "monster" like the Hulk. "It makes everything easier," she says. "Even killing."

This conversation was so terrible that I actually double-checked with several friends to see if they interpreted it the same way. They did. So: let's unpack what the hell was going on in the mind of acclaimed feminist Joss Whedon when he crafted this masterpiece. (By the way, Scarlett Johansson was pregnant while filming this movie.)

Bruce and Natasha begin the movie in the early stages of a tentative romance. He mentions that he can't have children, and she says that she can't either: she was forcibly sterilized as a teenager.

This backstory is horrifying, but it gels with what we already know about Natasha. She was trained (or brainwashed) as a child by a Russian spy agency, where girls were taught to be perfect assassins. From their perspective, it was "expedient" to sterilize their students, preventing unwanted pregnancies and cutting off another potential family tie. But instead of being handled sensitively, this backstory concluded with Natasha describing herself as a "monster" because she couldn't have biological children. Sterilization made it easier for her and her colleagues to kill people.

So, either the movie is dehumanizing Natasha because she can't get pregnant, or she thinks of herself as a monster as a result of abuse she suffered as a child. Here are my top three explanations for what was going on in this scene.

Friday 10 April 2015

Marvel's Daredevil: Episodes 1-5

"I feel like I'm on a date with Vincent D'Onofrio and he's about to murder me and drown my family in the Hudson River." -- an email from myself to a friend, while watching Daredevil. This was a compliment to Vincent D'Onofrio, by the way.

This review only covers the first 5 episodes and is relatively spoiler-free, so don't worry if you're one of those sensible people who hasn't binge-watched the entire season yet. For my ~professional (and even less spoilery) review over at the Daily Dot, click here.

As a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, my feelings on Daredevil are decidedly mixed. On the one hand:

  • This show is just really damn good. The dialogue and characterization are strong, and it's way ahead of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in terms of things like fight choreography and sound design.
  • The plot is complex but neatly organized, and the Netflix format allows things to unspool gradually rather than leaping between episodic subplots. I hate exposition and am sick of formulaic TV writing, so this was great for me.
  • Matt, Foggy and Karen are charming and adorable, and Wilson Fisk is an unusually compelling villain. Congratulations to whoever cast this show, because they knocked it out of the park.
  • I'm enraptured by the romance between Wilson Fisk and Vanessa the art dealer!! (More on that later.)
  • It's satisfying to see an "adult" comicbook adaptation that isn't gratuitous or exploitative. Daredevil doesn't sanitize the visceral impact of violence, but it doesn't revel in it either. To me this is an ideal balance, because usually there's a strict divide between movies like Sin City or Watchmen, which strive to be ~gritty and ~dark, and PG-rated movies like Spider-Man, where people have constructive relationships and friendly banter. Daredevil has both. I had to cover my eyes during a few of the more violent scenes, but in some ways I prefer that to when Thor or Captain America dispatches an enemy bloodlessly and with no obvious moral impact.

Wednesday 28 January 2015

Hugo Award eligibility & 2014 masterlist

It's Hugo Award nomination season, and I'm eligible in the Fan Writer category!

If you enjoy this blog, then please consider me on your Hugo ballot! To nominate for the 2015 awards, you need to tick one of these three boxes:
  • You attended the 2014 Worldcon, Loncon3.
  • You are going to the 2015 Worldcon (Spokane) or 2016 Worldcon (Kansas City), and bought a ticket before January 31st, 2015.
  • You have a "supporting membership" for this year Worldcon. This is a lot cheaper than a convention ticket and consists of the ability to vote in the Hugos (obviously), plus various goodies like ebook versions of nominated books/short stories.
You can learn more about the Hugo Awards and the nomination process here. Nominations close on March 10, but if you didn't attend the 2014 con and haven't bought your membership to the 2015 con before January 31st, then you cannot nominate.

Highlights from HelloTailor in 2014

My epic seven-part analysis of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, obvs:

Some thoughts on Doctor Who companions, the Twelfth Doctor, and costume design.

Weekly recaps of NBC's Constantine.

And, less sci-fi/fantasy but definitely still in the category of fan writing:

Sunday 18 January 2015

Interview: Agent Carter costume designer Gigi Melton

Previously: A guide to the 1940s costume design of Agent Carter

Agent Carter combines so many of my favorite things: comicbook adventures, a complex female protagonist, 1940s spy hijinks and, of course, beautiful costumes and set design. The post-war setting is a fascinating period to explore from a fashion history perspective, and I was happy to see that all of the costumes have a strong characterization element as well.

Costume designer Giovanna "Gigi" Melton caught my attention on Twitter with her many behind-the-scenes posts about her work on Agent Carter, and she was kind enough to grant me an interview. Read on for more background on the amazing costumes in this show, plus a selection of Melton's original design sketches.

HelloTailor: How did you go about researching and designing the overall look for the show? Were you influenced by any of the comics, or was it more a matter of exploring the 1940s aesthetic?

Gigi Melton: A combination of much research.  For Peggy the influences were Lauren Bacall, Katherine Hepburn, Hedy Lamarr. The smart, strong, fashionable and beautiful women of the era.

For SSR [Strategic Scientific Reserve] agents Dooley, Thompson, Sousa, and Krzmenski I researched government and detective looks. For eccentric Stark it was Howard Hughes and for Jarvis it was a British nod to tweeds. Coupled with comic book research, I took all of my inspiration and tailored it to create the individual looks for the scripted characters.

Friday 16 January 2015

Behind the seams of the Oscars' costume design category

The Oscar nominees were announced yesterday, and of course I was compelled to write about the costume design category. Specifically, my frustration regarding the kind of films that are routinely ignored, year after year.

Do all of the designers on this list deserve to be nominated? Well, yes. They're all brilliant, and did great work on the films in question. But the selection process for this category is still deeply flawed, and fails to represent the range of talent on offer.

As Roger Ebert pointed out in his unwritten rules of the Oscars, the Academy rarely gives out awards for subtlety. "It never hurts to ask yourself," he wrote, "Who did the 'most' acting? Most editing? Most noticeable cinematography or music?"
In the costume category, this is truer than ever. The award invariably goes to the film with the most impressive and noticeable costumes, whether this means creating a selection of historically accurate crinolines or outfitting an army of elves.
Two ingredients are required for an Oscar nomination in costume design. First, it's helpful to be a familiar face who has been nominated several times before. Secondly, you need to have worked on a historical drama (preferably starring Keira Knightley), a sci-fi/fantasy epic, or a musical—the three genres that produce the most showy and memorable costumes.
Judging by these two criteria, this year's nominees are comfortably predictable.

Tuesday 6 January 2015

A guide to 1940s costume design in Marvel's Agent Carter

Marvel's Agent Carter begins tonight, and I wrote this Daily Dot article to coincide with the first episode. It's a spoiler-free background for Peggy Carter's costumes, and why the show is set during such an interesting period in fashion history.

Set in 1946, Agent Carter's seven-part espionage story is rooted in postwar culture. And like the first Captain America movie, one of its defining features is its 1940s aesthetic, immediately setting it apart from Marvel's other TV show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
The biggest influence on Western fashion in 1946 was, obviously, World War II. Fabric rationing led to a trend for simpler clothes, and women's fashions suddenly became more practical due to the influx of women joining the workforce—like Peggy Carter, whose career began in the Strategic Scientific Reserve during the war. These factors added up to women wearing low heels and plain, knee-length skirts without pleats or frills, and men wearing suits without cuffs or flaps on the pockets. 
Agent Carter takes place during a dynamic period in fashion history, the transition from wartime austerity to the postwar styles that would define the 1950s. By 1947 the French fashion industry was up and running again, and Christian Dior introduced the so-called "New Look" of nipped-in waists and flouncy calf-length skirts.