Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

In my previous post I talked about how lovely it feels when the CGI introduced into a film is imbued with a specific narrative value. This is true of Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) as well.

Most reviews online readily point out that this is a film that tries to embody the look and feel of the 1960s by making it not just the film’s subject matter but by infusing the form of the film with recognisable signs of film stock used in the 1960s – i.e. the use of “cigarette burns” in the top right hand corner of the cell that indicate the end of a reel of film; and the use of the old Universal logo.

But what I found most satisfying about the film was that the seemingly run-of-the-mill use of CGI to lengthen the creepy little girl’s jaw and turn her eyes a milky white in the trailer was not run-of-the-mill at all. These specific effects were chosen because of the specific nature of the ghosts in Ouija.

maxresdefault1

The other thing that I really liked and appreciated about the film was the use of the ear as the point of entry for evil. It’s a very classical choice of body orifice to use.

zpage311

“Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment” (Act I Sc V, 59-64)

It is how Claudius poisons Hamlet’s father, the king, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is also a very gender neutral body orifice to use, and one that is grossly under utilised in horror films.

Most possession horror films, you will find, feature possessed women, girls or girls on the cusp of womanhood. Regan from The Exorcist (1973), Rosemary from Rosemary’s Baby (1968), little Carol Anne Freeling in Poltergeist (1982), and even Carrie from Stephen King’s Carrie (1976), whose mother believed her telekinesis came from her being possessed by satan.

In more recent films you have Angela Vidal from [REC] (2007), Mia from the Evil Dead (2013), Jennifer from Jennifer’s Body (2009). The filmmakers of the The Exorcist even made a production choice to change the gender of the possessed child which was based on a true story about the possession of a boy, Roland Doe (a pseudonym given to the victim by the Catholic church to protect the boy’s identity).

The reason why females are the preferred possessed is because of the fluid nature of their gender. This is especially so in the case of the classics. Carrie and Regan were both female protagonists on the cusp of womanhood. Their adolescent natures and the fact that they are both menarcheal women makes their identity especially fluid and impossible to think of them and their bodies as closed vessels. In the case of Rosemary, she is in the unique position of being with child and again this is a time of great change in a woman and a state that suggests an openness to her identity because where does mother end and child begin in a pregnant body?

In the case of Ouija, however, even though the three main protagonists are women, the use of the ear as the orifice through which evil is spread seems to raise the stakes as we see male characters falling prey to possession and the insidious forces at work.

In addition to this, the spread of evil is not from some messy exchange of fluid that we’ve come to expect in horror films (no projectile pea soup vomit or gushing fountains of blood). Instead, evil is spread through these sibilant whispers poured into the ears of ambushed victims.

We never hear what these words are, but one would assume that they are some kind of language. And I thought this was so interesting because language exists in the realm of the Symbolic, the most codified and rational of the three phases of Lacanian psychoanalysis (Imaginary, Symbolic, and the Real).

However, the forceful removal of words, language, and a means of communication from the souls of the victims of torture that have been forced to live out all eternity in the walled off cellar of the house, forced the re-emergence of language to perform an inverted role of giving form to the Real. The Real, according to Lacan’s translator, Alan Sheridan, can be thought of as “the ineliminable residue of all articulation, the foreclosed element, which may be approached, but never grasped: the umbilical cord of the symbolic.” In other words, that which escapes language.

This violation of the order of the Symbolic through the return of the Real represented through a kind of reverse language that the spirits speak then represents a different kind of abject that comes to the fore in the film.

The words, the whispers, the spirits, the shameful history that America gave asylum to many a war criminal fleeing from Germany after WWII to find safe haven amongst its masses becomes the effluvia, the abjected bits that the characters are forced to confront, and for the audience where the horror resides.

1

I suppose it’s customary to end off a film review with a conclusive statement about whether I liked the film or not. So in case that wasn’t clear in how I waxed theoretical about it, YES, I LIKED IT! It’s a good horror film. It manages its share of jump scares pretty well too, but towards the end the film felt like it was trying to overcompensate a little for the lack of jump scares at the start. So consider yourself warned.

Advertisements

Marvel’s Doctor Strange

The absolute best thing that Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016) got right is a satisfying ending.

Two problems that have been wearing superhero franchises especially thin for me is firstly, the use of extremely poorly characterised megalomaniacs with an inexplicable obsession with world domination as the ultimate villain.

My list of non-character megalomaniacs, in no particular order, include:

  1. Ultron from Age of Ultron (2015)
  2. Thanos from The Avengers MCU (2012- )
  3. Malekith from Thor: The Dark World (2013)
  4. Ronan & his boss, Thanos, from Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
  5. Kaecilius’ & his boss, Dormammu, from Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016)
  6. Apocalypse from X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
  7. Mandarin from Iron Man 3 (2013)
  8. Enchantress from Suicide Squad (2016)
  9. Talia al Ghul (Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter) from The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
  10. Galactus from Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)

… I’m sure there are others I’ve missed…

The list of things I do not like about these antagonists is extensive. They are just so poorly characterised in that they are flat characters lacking in nuance making them very unsympathetic and way too easy to dislike, and worst of all, their motivations are oftentimes unclear. They do things because it is in their nature or because of some prophecy.

Incidentally, I have to mention, this is also why I liked Civil War (2016) so much, precisely because it did not feature some CGI giant villain with a world-domination complex. It was on a smaller scale, and featured a very personal apocalypse – a collapse of friendships between some really powerful individuals. I think the personal nature of the conflict made the whole film so much more relatable.

Anyway, the second problem for me with a lot of these superhero films is that when the villains are so comically (hur hur… no pun intended) overpowered, protagonists tend to experience sudden and inexplicable power-ups. These excessively convenient power-ups often stem from the triggering of some hidden ability just so they can defeat these overpowered world-gobbling villains.

For example, from the above list, in Suicide Squad, how did Diablo’s pyrokinesis suddenly transform him into some Aztec/Mayan fire god? They probably thought it was so clever misleading and misdirecting the audience with phrases like “it’s a curse” to make us all think that Diablo was just being melodramatic when it was a literal curse he carried around that gave him his powers. To the unsuspecting audience, it’s like someone flipped a literal “God-mode On” switch with a cheat code in the final confrontation that allowed Diablo to incinerate Enchantress’ brother, another ancient god.

The reason why this didn’t work for me is because the basis of the conceit is the exclusion of the audience. The effect of the reveal is that it then makes the audience feel like the joke is on them for not getting it. But the thing is, at the end of the day, you don’t want to alienate your audience, you want to bring them into the fold and get them intimately acquainted with your characters so they want to know more.

In another example from the above list, how about when Jean Grey could suddenly control her Phoenix power to defeat Apocalypse? Anyone who did not watch the cartoon or read the comic books would be left horribly confused and wondering what the flash of fire bird in the middle of the throw down with Apocalypse was all about… Again, the audience is being alienated.

The thing I appreciated most about Marvel’s Doctor Strange is that there was no convenient solution at the end of the film. The answer to defeating the over-powered CGI intergalactic being, Dormammu, was carefully woven very early on into the plot through the use of visual motif (repeated shots of Strange’s broken watch), parallel fight scenes between Strange and Kaecilius, and later on Strange and Dormammu, and some fairly consistent characterisation of Stephen Strange (Strange’s ego as his sole motivation to win and his eventual acceptance of having to lose to win). It was also especially pleasurable to see a villain being defeated with cool logic instead of a CGI fest of flashing colours (not that there was any lack of this in Doctor Strange…)

The thing about using rules that have been clearly established in the movie/narrative universe is that the viewer feels like s/he has been rewarded for having invested time and energy paying attention to the twists and turns of the plot. Consequently, the audience feels like s/he is being treated like an intelligent being rather than a pair of eyeballs to flash some CGI colours at. And therein lies the pleasure in a process-driven, tightly plotted storyline.

I appreciated even more that the logical coherence of the film did not stop at the level of plot but stretched to a visual coherence in the CGI as well. In the trailer, a lot of the special effects didn’t just remind me of Inception (2010) but also of someone turning a kaleidoscope. But as I watched the film and paid attention to its rhetoric about study and enlightenment, spirituality, religion, and math (programming) and magic (spells), I began to think of how in Islamic art, because the face of god cannot be represented, the presence of the divine is indicated through the perfect alignment of repeated patterns of different geometric shapes without any gaps or overlaps. This sort of art is called tessellation. And the CGI effects the film chose to go with bore a strong resemblance to it. Personally, I thought this was a good choice and a good fit between the visuals and the narrative/thematic thrust of the film.

Some examples of Islamic tessellation in mosques:

As a final note on Doctor Strange, did anyone else get the feeling that when the Ancient One was giving Strange a run down of what’s what this must have been what Loki’s early magic lessons were like? Cuz all that talk about spells and programmes and the multiverse reminded me of the bifrost and how magic is just undiscovered science, but also of Loki’s ability to world walk using pathways along the branches of yggdrasil.

2016092025452204

The Accountant (2016)

Solomon Grundy,

Born on a Monday,

Christened on Tuesday,

Married on Wednesday,

Took ill on Thursday,

Worse on Friday,

Died on Saturday,

Buried on Sunday.

This is the end

Of Solomon Grundy.

I caught The Accountant today which was listed in June as one of the top 10 most anticipated films for the  second half of 2016. I’ve also been reading around to see what reviewers have been saying about it and I’d like to address some of it and chip in on the discussion as well.

Plot and Structure in The Accountant (2016)

Yes, it moves back and forth between the present and some extended flashback sequences. The flashbacks help to reveal bits of the plot from “Christian Wolff’s” (Ben Affleck) childhood and recent past that lead up to the current moment. But, No, this is not overly confusing the way some of the reviewers have been complaining.

I did feel, however, that the film lost its own narrative train of thought in certain parts that resulted in some distracting holes in the story-telling.

So here is my list of questions that would probably make more sense to you after you’ve watched the film:

  1. What happened between Wolff and Braxton (Jon Bernthal)?
  2. What’s so special about Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) that prompts Wolff to help her?
  3. I’m still unclear on how Dana’s prom dress story relates to anything Wolff is trying to do
  4. What is it about watching Dana sleep on the couch that reminds him of the “blood first” flashback?
  5. What is this “moral code” The Accountant supposedly lives by? The film certainly gives you examples of this code in action but never actually explains what it is.
  6. And if his dad is the source of this code, what’s so moral about siccing his military combat-trained sons on a bunch of young teenage hooligans hanging out under a bridge minding their own business?
  7. Other than the one tensely shot sequence, why did Wolff’s inability to complete the BioRobotics job not affect him in a more sustained manner?

Autism in The Accountant 

There were a number of reviews that complained that the film tried to do too much by being a John Wick (2014) styled action-flick – slick action sequences, small/contained plot, with  a healthy dose of humour – while trying to push a public service announcement message about neurodiversity. Some claimed that the film failed to do this.

I actually beg to differ.

My ability to feel differently is in part, I think, from watching the film on a weekday afternoon, in an all but empty neighbourhood theatre. This means, I wasn’t swayed or influenced by audience laughter which most of the reviewers also pointed out seemed to occur at awkward moments in the film. Awkward moments that sometimes made it feel like audiences were being encouraged to laugh at Wolff’s expense.

The scene that often gets blamed for this is the awkward lunch break that Dana and Wolff share. Sitting in the dark, mostly by myself in a fairly quiet cinema, I actually found myself thinking that Affleck’s character was much less awkward than I expected him to be compared to Kendrick’s. In this scene,

  1. He neatly deflects Kendrick’s unintentionally accurate quip about how hard one has to hit a thermos in order to dent it by saying, “it’s just old” which is a surprisingly naturalistic explanation seeing as how he has been caught red-handed, sort of… I mean, I find it kind of remarkable that as an audience member I bought that explanation until it was revealed otherwise later in the film (sorry… *SPOILER*)
  2. He provides a surprisingly nuanced interpretation of the “Dogs Playing Poker” series of paintings that is actually pretty consistent with the scientific literature on Autism and art appreciation:
    • “Another distinctive trait one finds in some autistic children is a rare maturity of taste in art. Normal children have no time for more sophisticated art. Their taste is usually for the pretty picture, with kitschy rose pink and sky blue… Autistic children, on the other hand, can have a surprisingly sophisticated understanding, being able to distinguish between art and kitsch with great confidence. They may have a special understanding of works of art which are difficult even for many adults, for instance Romanesque sculpture or paintings by Rembrandt. Autistic individuals can judge accurately the events represented in the picture, as well as what lies behind them, including the character of the people represented and the mood that pervades a painting. Consider that many normal adults never reach this mature degree of art appreciation.”
      • Taken from Autism and Asperger Syndrome edited by Uta Frith, published in 1991 by Cambridge University Press
  3. All in all, the humour in the scene felt like it came more from Dana’s over-sharing than anything Wolff did or said

Instead the scenes in which I did find myself smiling at oftentimes came after moments of triumph for the character:

  1. The two times he proves his incredible military prowess to the farm couple
  2. That one time he nails John Lithgow ← This is not a spoiler. You KNEW John Lithgow was the villain the moment you saw his name on the starring list. I blame Raising Cain (1992) for this eternal impression I have of the guy…

And the scenes that dealt directly with how Wolff’s autism affected him were handled very somberly. Like the claustrophobic framing used in the scene where he sits down to eat alone (seen in the trailer), and quick cuts and lighting used to create the extreme tension in the scene where he deals with his inability to complete the BioRobotics contract.

Watching this film, unlike most reviewers who immediately sought to compare it to John Wick, I actually thought of Tropic Thunder (2008), this scene in particular:

And I suddenly realised how demeaning and presumptuous Hollywood films can be when it comes to making films about people with mental disorders, and what a fine line it is to walk to bring those stories to the screen in a respectful manner.

I guess it’s safe to say that this film made the right choice in running in the complete opposite direction of trying to imbue Wolff with any overtly lovable characteristics associated with his mental disorder for fear of looking patronising. Instead, it made a concerted effort for Wolff to appear wholly and completely normal or even super-human when he interacts with others in order to further its empowering message on neurodiversity.

At the end of the day, The Accountant was not the film I expected it to be but it wasn’t all that bad either. It had some good things to say about some important issues which it handled pretty conscientiously. It’s just unfortunate that its positive message was let down by some problematic story-telling.

The Girl on the Train (2016) *Spoilers*

I watched The Girl on the Train (2016) today and found myself very perturbed by how my personal reaction to the film didn’t square with the reception it’s been receiving so far, so I thought I’d write a few of my thoughts down to see if I can’t clarify things for myself.

I found that despite the central position given to the three main female characters, the film came off sounding ultra-conservative in terms of its treatment of gender. While trying to rationalise this sentiment I, of course, went to look up the Bechdel Test to see how the film stacks up against the 3 main parameters of the test:

  1. Are there at least 2 named female characters?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. Do they talk about anything other than men?

Yes, there are more than 2 named female characters. In fact, there are 3 main female characters  – Rachel (Emily Blunt), Megan (Haley Bennett), and Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). And there are also 2 key side characters – Rachel’s friend, Cathy (Laura Prepon), and lead female detective on the missing-person-turned-murder case, Detective Riley (Allison Janney).

Yes, some of them do talk to each other. Rachel converses with Cathy, Det. Riley, and Anna.

Yes, they talk about things other than men:

  • Rachel and Cathy discuss her alcoholism
  • Rachel and Det. Riley discuss Megan’s disappearance

By all accounts, it does pass the Bechdel Test. Actually, BechdelTest.Com itself clearly states that Girl on the Train passes the test.

But anyone who uses the Bechdel Test will be quick to tell you that this test first came about as the punchline to a comic strip that came out in 1985, and when used, must be used with a pinch of salt (Garcia et al. 2014; Balasubramanian et al. 2015, 830-831).

So let me suggest how I would modify these parameters to account for my overwhelming sense of how ultra conservative the film is when it comes to its treatment of gender issues. I think whether or not a film such as Girl on the Train fulfills the Bechdel Test needs to be weighted against whether the female characters that fulfill these requirements are main characters or supporting cast. Once you throw that monkey wrench into the works, everything starts to shift.

  1. Yes, all 3 main female characters are named
  2. Actually, only 2 of the 3 female characters talk to each other
  3. And when Rachel and Anna finally have a substantial exchange of words with each other, it is about the cheating man they share between themselves

The second modification I would make to the Bechdel Test is with regards to the content of an exchange. When looking at content, we must bear in mind that the English language is such that you can’t treat it like mathematics and count by pronouns whether or not these female characters are talking about a man. Words exist in a web of semantic context. Thus, to my eyes and ears, it felt as if the bulk of the essential concerns that drive the film, boil down to these central characters’ relationships with men.

Before going further… READER BEWARE, SPOILER ALERT

Ok. Let me explain my abovementioned claim:

  • Rachel’s defining characteristic is her alcoholism. As the narrative progresses, we are made privy to the fact that the main reason for this stemmed from her inability to conceive. Her barrenness fueled her alcoholism which she believed caused her to lose her husband, Tom (Justin Theroux).
  • Anna’s defining characteristic is that she is a mother. And later we learn that she is the third party that came between Rachel and her ex-husband, Tom. The presence of the baby now becomes simultaneously the wedge driving Tom and Anna apart because she is too exhausted being the perfect mother to play the wife, and that which keeps Tom bound to her despite his numerous extramarital affairs.
  • And the main thing about Megan is that she refuses to have a baby with her husband, Scott (Luke Evans). Later, we find out this is because she lost her baby in a tragic accident when she was 17 which resulted in her baby’s father, Matt, leaving her.

Thus, the main concern that seems to possess these women is the idea of motherhood, but motherhood as the essential bedrock of a functioning nuclear family, motherhood as a means to hold on to their man. Not motherhood in and of itself. (And personally, even if it was all about motherhood, that’s still a pretty narrow definition of what it means to be woman.)

This notion is further seconded by how Rachel’s primary impression of both Anna and Megan is that they are “whores” and interchangeably whorish given the similarity in their appearance and behaviour. This is seen in how, as mentioned above, the main exchange between Rachel and Anna is about how Tom is cheating on Anna with Megan. And Rachel’s only direct interaction with Megan is when she calls her a whore while in a drunken stupor that causes her to mistake Megan for Anna.

Here ends my take on how the Bechdel Test can be applied to to The Girl on the Train in a more nuanced manner which shows how poorly it stacks up in terms of representing females as strong independent characters.

I do have some follow up points about the narrative too. The word that kept coming to me over and over again as I stepped out of the theatre earlier today is how incredibly convenient everything is.

I think it’s clear from the trailers that one of the main sources of tension in the film is the unreliable first person narrator because of her alcoholism and how that plays into the whodunit murder case.

What I didn’t expect though is the cheap 180 degree about-turn in the narrative that transformed Tom from a beleaguered man stuck in an unhappy marriage to a raging alcoholic wife, into a maniacal, false-memory implanting, abusive douche. I would have much preferred a nuanced characterisation of men and women stuck in bad situations to the simplistic split between the sexes that had all the men playing physically and emotionally abusive@$$hole$, and the women playing pitiful victims.

Yup. That’s it. Thoughts? Comments? Think I’m talking nonsense? Feel free to comment in the comments section below. Thaaaaanks.