Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

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David Yates’ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) starring Eddie Redmayne, Catherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Ferrell, and Ezra Miller is another highly anticipated film for this year-end moving-going season. This film has already been so well covered by journalists and other movie reviewers that I really don’t have much else to add except my own personal thoughts on it. So this post is just going to be a very simple list of things I liked about the film

  1. Key characters being used as foils for each other: I liked the contrast between Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as a Beastmaster type character and Joe Kowalski’s (Dan Fogler) canning factory worker suffocating under the increased mechanisation of the industry, people and society. The bank representative’s complete failure to show empathy for Kowalski’s suit for a bank loan to start his own bakery becomes a direct foil for Scamander’s uncanny ability to communicate with and understand exotic and dangerous magical animals.
  2. Scamander’s menagerie of magical beasts felt to me like real characters and should not be dismissed as just a showy use of CGI. The sneaky platypus-looking Niffler was absolutely adorable! (I totally want a plushie now…) Just because this is a non-verbal character does not mean that it lacks value. The personality/character-driven CGI animation of the character means that someone had to sit down and compose that lovely shot of the Niffler chilling in the busted open bank vault, half buried in diamonds and wads of cash; and someone had to storyboard and draw up that slow-motion shot of the Niffler’s forlorn expression as he gets accio-ed past the jewellery shop.
  3. Even more about the CGI, I personally found the violent expansion and contraction and frenetic movement of the obscurial over the streets of New York apt and reflective of the character’s struggle – both his/her desperate attempt to keep the magic suppressed for fear of discovery, and subsequent total loss of control. It felt as though the breadth and scope of the character’s anguish and inner turmoil which had been suppressed for so long suddenly found expression in this amorphous ball of swirling black smoke.
  4. I also think the film did a good job in keeping the audience guessing just who the obscurial is.
  5. I agree with what the reviewers have been saying about how this film is darker. I really appreciated the film’s creepy treatment of execution. The depiction of an innocent/wrongly accused man or woman being emotionally manipulated into walking to their deaths without putting up any kind of fight, is a frightening and unsettling one. The incongruity between the kindly expression on their executioners’ faces and the act they are about to commit is also kinda chilling.
  6. I appreciate that this is NOT an adaptation. There is no novel to follow, to cramp the film’s style. There are no preset notes/scenes the film is expected to hit or recreate to please fans. And this lack of encumbrance makes itself known in a more coherent plot that is much better paced than any of the previous Harry Potter films, that rests on scenes that add meaningful density to the text. Unlike in the previous films in the franchise where CGI fests came across as mere fanservice, the worlds we are treated to inside Scamander’s case are breathtakingly detailed, with its creatures lovingly rendered in CGI brush and paint. The rousing score and the interaction between live-actors and CGI creatures speaks volumes and adds to the filmic experience.                                                                      beasts
  7. Finally, I sort of like what I’ve seen of Grindelwald as a villain so far because he reminds me of Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto from X-Men: First Class (2011). He looks like a more sympathetic villain but there are a few disturbing slips that the character makes in the film that make me doubt how sympathetic they’ll make him in future films in this new franchise. If we end up with another half-crazed, unreasoning megalomaniac like Voldemort I’m going to be so disappointed.
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Anime Book Review

I’ve never done a book review before but I thought I’d just pen a few thoughts about these two anime-themed books I’m currently reading.

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I’ve just finished Susan Napier’s Anime: From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle. The book is published in 2006, so it unfortunately does not contain the most updated view of anime, however, it is a second edition of the book that previously stopped at an analysis of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997). The book is published by Palgrave, which I find is a publisher I’m very comfortable going to for academic books with high quality insight, argument, thought and readability.

Napier’s academic writing style is thus highly readable even to non-academics and effortlessly deep. The conclusions she arrives at and her analysis of various animated texts are not only insightful and well-argued, but also very naturalistic. There are no jarring leaps in logic and her argumentation style flows from one logical conclusion to the next. Her writing is well substantiated and often reads like a blockbuster list of who’s who of the academic world. The theorists she chooses to quote and the actual quotations she picks are appropriate and fit seamlessly into the argument she is trying to make. If one were to level one critique at her choice of critical writing and academics to reference it would be that perhaps there are too few Asian critical perspectives being referenced.

She identifies 3 big overarching types in the genre as a whole – the apocalyptic, festival and elegiac modes. However, she is fair enough of a writer to acknowledge that even these 3 trends or themes are not exhaustive. She even throws in the occasional exception to the rule whenever appropriate. The surety of her stance coupled with her self-reflexivity about the limitations of her argumentative framework leads to a very balanced writing style that put me as a reader, at ease. It helped me to take on her conclusions in the comfort of the knowledge that this is a trustworthy writer who is not trying to push for a specific reading or agenda, who is just trying to share her view on the subject.

Her observations about anime were presented in a forceful writing style that was ever conscious of the reader. Mindful of his/her possible doubts, rejections, questions and other reactions that may arise in the reading of the views being presented. Every chapter was poised to address an obvious question about the genre and had a clear claim that was supported with in-depth textual analysis of 3-4 anime series or OVAs to support that claim. Her efforts to make meaning of the genre were also very well seasoned with historical readings and a socio-cultural understanding of the other arts originating from Japan. This caused an unusual pleasure to bloom within me even as I read the very objectively written chapter Napier had on anime porn.

Perhaps one other critique that one could level at the way the book, if at all,  is with regards to its use of examples. Each chapter of Napier’s book is organised such that it can accommodate about 3-4 examples before it starts to feel over-long. Due to this, there is a slight sense of the author cherry-picking examples that best prove the claims made in the chapters.

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Conversely, I am currently trying to struggle my way through Ian Condry’s The Soul of Anime. The book is a much more recent work of academic writing about anime published in 2013, but a far less fulfilling read. It is published by Duke University Press and the reason why I picked it up is because it had a 3.7/5 rating on Goodreads.com, the same rating that Susan Napier’s abovementioned academic book got.

Silly me, I should have checked the number of reviewers. Napier’s book was reviewed by 405 readers, while Condry’s was reviewed by only 62. And if that didn’t give it away, I should have looked really hard at the book’s subtitle which reads, “Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story.”

Not to say that that’s not an interesting area of focus or that it’s not a worthwhile area of study or that this comparative book review is even a fair one (because it’s like comparing apples and oranges in terms the books’ foci). I just really wasn’t expecting the writing to be so wishy washy. I’m two and a half chapters in and all I’ve gotten from the book is that the author is trying to make the argument that the soul of anime IS the collaborative framework that surrounds it from source material mangas/mangakas, light novels to producers/studio houses, and fan communities. And that it is these interconnected networks that have led to the success of the genre.

These are not new findings or new arguments, and as a whole, it just seems that every chapter he is repeating this same conclusion. If the books starts out in the intro chapter saying that this is what the book wants to prove and then repeats this claim at the end of every chapter with no nuance to the argument presented in the introduction it just comes off sounding tautological and repetitious.

I’m sorry if I come off sounding too harsh but it’s really, really boring. There are a lot of references to Henry Jenkins and this leads me to think that the big chapters where the book’s premise is supposed to really take off is chapter 6 (Dark Energy: What Overseas Fans Reveal about the Copyright Wars) & 7 (Love Revolution: Otaku Fans in Japan), because they are devoted to fan culture. But other than that, the interviews he cites from his field work and close observations of various recent anime OVA productions, which really should be more interesting, come off sounding a little incoherent and pointless. The incoherence comes in part from the short, stuttering quotations he inserts into his writing which seem to defeat the purpose of using a quotation. You don’t want to quote someone just to prove that they said it. You quote someone because they’ve said something about something in the best possible way that something could have been said.

All I can say is that so far the book presents a very interesting argument that seems to have a lot of potential. And I would like nothing more than to see more depth in the analysis and use of the raw data gathered from such close on-the-ground work with animators and studio houses, but right now it’s just that, a potential argument that hasn’t actually been made. Even after almost 3 chapters. Ergh. So tedious.

Sabotage (2014)

Today I wanna talk about David Ayer’s Sabotage (2014), a film that I stumbled across a couple of nights ago on demand TV. So, David Ayer has been in the news a fair bit lately because he directed one of this year’s highest anticipated blockbusters, Suicide Squad (2016). His writing chops includes Training Day (2001) for which Denzel Washington won an Academy Award for Best Actor, and whose film, Fury (2014), is getting a lot of attention now with critics reversing their previously low opinion to hold it in higher regard.

When Sabotage came out in 2014, it was also on the receiving end of a lot of vitriol from film reviewers that gave it a 20% score on Rotten Tomatoes and only 1.5 stars on the Roger Ebert website.

But when I watched it, I found myself captivated not just by the amount of blood and gore onscreen but the interesting editing choices, the multiple intersecting plots, the refreshing female roles and candid dialogue.

Film Summary

Sabotage is about a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Task Force unit led by John ‘Breacher’ Wharton (Arnold Schwarzenegger). The film starts with the team bringing down a cartel and skimming $10million off the top of the cartel’s drug money for themselves. When they return later to collect the cash they stashed for themselves, they find it missing. To add insult to injury, not only is the cash never recovered, the whole team undergoes an 8-month investigation where they are taken out of active duty and Team Leader Wharton is slapped with a boring desk job.

Where things start to get interesting is after internal affairs pulls the investigation. Before the team can get their skills up to scratch again, members start getting taken out one by one in the most gruesomely creative cartel fashions ever that involve being nailed to the ceiling, disembowelment, and some chicken wire.

Reactions

While the blood and gore kept my attention on a superficial level, some of the things that really stood out to me was the constant tension that came from trying to figure out who was killing these highly trained, hyper-violent individuals. I was pleasantly surprised when I was reading up on the film to find out that the original title of the film was supposed to be Ten after Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, also known as, Ten Little Indians. While David Rooney from The Hollywood Reporter felt the film lost its way, I thought the film stayed pretty true to form.

At one point, the idea was floated that given the unusually gruesome nature of the murders, perhaps the team is being targeted for revenge by one of the many cartels they’ve brought down previously. Before long, the question is raised about whether this is over the $10million that went missing and maybe it is specifically this last cartel they took down 8months ago coming back to get their money.

However, because of the amount of narrative attention devoted to developing the characters in the DEA Task Force, it becomes clear to the audience that the threat is internal. More than that, we’re led to believe that the prime suspect is Wharton. This red herring is set up in various ways:

  1. With the unexplained grainy footage that Wharton watches that opens the film of a woman being tortured
  2. Wharton is also singled out by internal affairs as the ring-leader/prime suspect for having taken the money
  3. Wharton’s willingness to help Det. Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams), lead detective on the DEA agents’ deaths, investigate the deaths of his team members. Cuz the perps always try and insert themselves into the investigation, right?
  4. The edititing, specifically the intercuts used when Wharton accompanies Det. Brentwood to call on Bryce ‘Tripod’ McNeely (Kevin Vance). The intercuts used in the sequence where Wharton explains the booby traps around McNeely’s trailer to scenes where the traps have been triggered in an earlier attack on McNeely, seemed to suggest that Wharton had an unusual amount of foreknowledge, as if he was there when the attack happened.

All of this successfully set Wharton up as the red herring, except, we find out at the end, that Wharton really took the money! What he isn’t doing is killing his own teammates. This conflation and uncoupling of the two crimes – the theft of the $10million and the murders – leaves audiences feeling oddly bereft because the $10mil was supposed to be the motive for the gruesome murders. Without this motive, the murders double up as not just gruesome to look at but meaningless as well. My guess is that this unsatisfying ending is what leaves a lot of critics floundering and crying foul.

Is it weird that instead of this reveal making me feel unsatisfied and angry at David Ayer and Skip Wood (the scriptwriters), it just made me think of The Maltese Falcon (1941)?

Listen. This isn’t a damned bit of good. You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more… When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad for business to let the killer get away with it… Third, I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing… Fourth, no matter what I wanted to do now it would be absolutely impossible for me to let you go without having myself dragged to the gallows with the others. Next, I’ve no reason in God’s world to think I can trust you and if I did this and got away with it you’d have something on me that you could use whenever you happened to want to… Sixth… since I’ve got something on you, I couldn’t be sure you wouldn’t decide to shoot a hole in me some day… it’s easy to be nuts about you… but I don’t know what that amounts to. Does anybody ever? But suppose I do? What of it? Maybe next month I won’t… Well, if I send you over I’ll be sorry as hell – I’ll have some rotten nights – but that’ll pass… If that doesn’t mean anything to you forget it and we’ll make it this: I won’t because all of me wants to – wants to say to hell with the consequences and do it – and because – God damn you – you’ve counted on that with me the same as you counted that with the others… I won’t play the sap for you.

Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon

It’s that sort of grappling to find a reason that Sam Spade exhibits at the climax of The Maltese Falcon that came back to me as I watched Sabotage. Maybe this is just because of my weirdly associative mind, but this is also a way to think about the writing of the film not as bad or confused but as deliberately meaningless to highlight a hollowness, a loss, an absence at the centre of the human condition by emptying the most gruesome of crimes of motive and meaning.

What you then have is that even after the big reveal, there is a lack of closure and this is reflected in other aspects of the film, like in the DEA Task Force itself. A supposedly government sanctioned operation and task force, created with the express purpose of protecting the public and upholding law and order, filled with individuals whom by ordinary standards are more villainous than heroic. Their hyperviolence, loose morals, thieving, drinking, substance abusing, hypersexed mannerisms make them highly unlikeable and unsuited for the role of heroes. Instead, they seem to embody more the Friedrich Nietzsche quotation,

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” – Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146

The DEA Task Force, that cracks down on cartels, is filled with individuals who themselves behave more like drug lords than anyone would like to admit. This set up points towards the slippages in moral standards, and explodes the essentialist notion of “hero” and “villain” being fundamentally different. Instead, this group of characters draw attention to the fact that these dichotomies are false and that there is no hard divide or insurmountable gulf between them. By recognising that “hero” and “villain” are but poles along a continuum, the film forces audiences to reassess the definition of both hero and villain thereby turning terms we were once sure of into open-ended concepts up for debate.

As a final note on characters, I did thoroughly enjoy the female characters in this film. They were tough, rugged, not particularly sexy but clearly having sex, flawed, and damaged but in ways completely unrelated to which man they were fucking. And that is fucking refreshing.

I especially liked that Lizzy Murray (Mireille Enos), was a real tough woman. She was all sharp angles, freckled skin, frizzy hair, and lean muscle – and this is one of the things I really appreciated about the actress because she looked like she worked out. Kinda like the way Linda Hamilton looked when she played Sarah Conner in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). And exactly like a woman in this line of work should look. I liked that she could have passed as one of the guys in terms of how the character carried herself and how she spoke (equally potty-mouthed and equally comfortable with the sexual banter the team engaged in amongst themselves) and that the only marker of her gender was that she was married to someone else on the team, James ‘Monster’ Murray (Sam Worthington).

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Likewise with Det. Caroline Brentwood. Her unflappability in the face of sexual slurs, dangling entrails and a faceful of blood was admirable. The fact that she sleeps with Wharton and it’s a throwaway event in the plot, casually inserted without any romance tied to it made me think of the scripting as very progressive in terms of its very equitable treatment of male and female characters’ view of sex.

Yup, that’s it from me about Sabotage. Tell me if you liked my take on it, agreed or disagreed with it or if you want me to write for you because I’m still trawling for a paying writing gig. Thanks.