The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

The ultimate movie of the year so far is, without a doubt,  The Lego Batman Movie.

In order to appreciate the magic of The Lego Batman Movie, one must first talk about The Lego Movie (2014). When The Lego Movie came out, everyone thought it was just a cash grab and no one expected how enjoyable and how intelligent the film would be.

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(But it’s totally still a cash grab!)

The Lego Movie, took a good long look at user patterns and behaviours and wove that into a compelling narrative about conforming, following instructions versus being a rule-breaker and using the basic Lego piece as a building block for creating entirely new narratives and universes.

The other aspect of the film that gave fans an extra kick was the ease with which the film brought together characters from different narrative universes like characters from the Justice League and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and George Lucas’ Star Wars and many many more. For this to take place in a time when IP rights is a constant source of conflict between studios whether it’s about who owns the rights to the X-Men franchise or the Fantastic Four, or whether we’ll ever see any of these characters interact with other Marvel characters like Spiderman, and the Avengers, is the icing on the cake.

And on top of all this, you have that kickass song – Everything is Awesome! An earworm sure to possess your headspace after you hear it.

So when it came to The Lego Batman Movie, I was so sure they would not be able to top that. Boy, was I sorely mistaken. This movie is ALL the Batman you could ever want. From Adam West onward, the film lovingly pokes fun at all the incarnations of Batman including the 1990s Warner Brothers animated series and the godawful Joel Schumacher Batmans.

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And all the Batman villains you could ever want too >_<

A huge part of the success of the film stems from the long history that Batman as an IP has had. Coming out of the theatre I had a really strong urge to tell people that there is no story. Instead the metanarrative of the Batman franchise has been brought down to the level of narrative.

I’m not sure if I’m overreaching with theory here but it almost feels like the Lego movies have become another layer of the carnivalesque. The Lego movies exist very much in the same strata as fanfiction and other fanworks where the narrative space of the movies (and the toy actually) become this alternate space to experiment with canon narratives very much like how all fictional spaces function as a carnivalesque spaces to experiment with the status quo of reality. The best part is that all of this is only possible with Lego. It’s almost as if the toy is a medium all of its own that’s different from that of CGI or stop-motion because of the business-end of how the IPs are distributed and understood between the toy company and the owners of the original superhero/fantasy IPs like Marvel/Disney/etc.

I love everything about this film. Everything about this film is amazing. From the Batman-Joker reverse love story, to the homoerotic undertones of Robin’s underpants. I couldn’t stop laughing from the moment Batman started talking, all the way to the end. And I very much want to watch this film in theatres again.

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Elle (2016)

My interest in Elle was sparked by a review I read previously by someone else that was written a while ago. It described Elle as a “rape-revenge comedy.” These are genres you just never expect to see together. The fact that the film was nominated for the Oscars and Golden Globes and a variety of other awards, suggests that somehow, Paul Verhoeven has managed to make this weird genre mesh-up work.

In preparation to write a review and some decent commentary on Elle I actually decided to do some prep work by reading up on the Rape-Revenge genre in Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws (Chapter 3: Getting Even). While it was a good read and really enlightening, I was disappointed to find that the critical view she espouses is a little dated. While Clover focused on Rape-Revenge film texts like Last House on the Left (1972), Deliverance (1972), I Spit on Your Grave (1977), etc., that made use of a city-country dynamic to underscore the onscreen conflicts, this was never the case in Elle.

Instead I found myself thinking that filmic representations of psychopaths as a way of reading Elle would be more relevant to the narrative Verhoeven was telling.

In a typical rape-revenge narrative, the film starts with the rape that is filmed in disconcerting detail with the camera’s gaze either lingering on the sexual violence or the act being edited into violent choppy cuts and then inserted into the narrative as sudden flashbacks that are as much an assault on the victim as it is on the audience because both are made to flinch and cringe every time they are ambushed with the rapist.

This is followed up by a planning or training period where the female character transforms herself from victim into avenging angel seeking vengeance for herself and/or for other female characters who’ve been similarly assaulted.

The narrative then culminates in a grisly conclusion where the bloodletting onscreen is orchestrated to reach the same bloody intensity as the psychic and physical violence of the rape.

Elle seems to have successfully flipped this narrative. There is no bloody conclusion, and very little preparation for vengeance. This is because there seems to be no victim. Or rather that the victim is so sociopathic that she doesn’t behave like one and doesn’t seem to see herself as a victim. And if she doesn’t think of herself as a victim, what right do we, the audience, have to think of her as one?

Instead, Verhoeven’s film seems to be very emphatically suggesting that despite all the syntactic elements of a rape-revenge narrative (including the rape, the purchase of the hatchet and the pepper spray, and the death-by-blugeoning of the rapist), Elle, semantically, is not about the same concerns. It is not about a woman rising up to avenge herself because she is not the disempowered individual in this narrative.

We see this in her day job where she is both an accomplished former publisher of literary works and current owner of a gaming company. We see this in her personal life where she is financially secure and the sole provider for her dependents (mother and son). And we see this in her deviant sexual preferences (for married men and willingness to enter into an S&M relationship with her rapist).

Furthermore, she doesn’t need to get her hands dirty to exact her revenge, by unmasking her rapist, stripping him of the anonymity that empowers him, naming him, and refusing to be the victim in violent sexual encounters, she unmans him almost literally by depriving him of his turn-on and his erection.

Thus, despite the backlash against this film based on claims that it trivialises or dismisses rape with its comedic undertones, the film can be read as a more progressive rape-revenge narrative instead.

This is based on two reasons firstly rape has been said to be more a crime of power rather than a sexual crime, and secondly, the rape-revenge narrative itself suffers from an undercurrent of victim-blaming that often slides under the radar given all the attention focused on the empowered female character who saves herself.

For revenge fantasies to work, there must be something worth avenging – something egregious enough to justify hideous retaliation. In the case of rape-revenge films, that something has to do not only with the rape, but with the power dynamic between men and women that makes rape happen in the first place, and in the second, that makes it so eminently avengeable.

-Carol J. Clover taken from “Getting Even” from Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, p144

In other words, the source of pleasure in the genre comes in part from the fact that the victim has been doubly raped. Firstly, by the fact that she is a victim everyday in various small ways as part of a society that privileges the patriarch and secondly, by the rape in the film. However, as Verhoeven so clearly sets up in Elle, Michele Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is never in a position of lower power except in the moment of the rape.

The other way in which Elle is a progressive rape-revenge narrative, is that embedded in the genre is an element of victim-blaming:

[It] must surely be the case that there is some ethical relief in the idea that if women would just toughen up and take karate or buy a gun, the issue of male-on-female violence would evaporate. It is a way of shifting responsibility from the perpetrator to the victim: if a woman fails to get tough, fails to buy a guy or take karate, she is, in an updated sense of the cliche, asking for it.

Carol J. Clover taken from “Getting Even” from Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, p143

Thus in the case of Elle, the rape is an assault and an act of violence, yes, but it is an act between individuals of equal standing in society. Furthermore, the rape acts as a moment that pierces the veil that Michele has drawn over herself to mask her sociopathy.

In the narrative following the incident, we see her destroy her ex-husband’s car bumper with her car by backing into it repeatedly; leave a toothpick in her ex-husband’s new squeeze’s appetizer; come on to her neighbour who is a married man; deliberately destroy her best friend’s marriage by telling her that she has been sleeping with her husband just as they look like they’re getting back together; and various other small incidents like that. Thus the rape causes a rupture in the symbolic realm of Michele’s existence, forcing her to confront her past with her father who murdered 27 people, and get to grips with the reality of her character.

(Although… my fiance pointed out that all these little behaviours could be status quo for her and have nothing to do with the rape at all. I maintain that given the medium and where the narrative chose to start and where it ends, the rape is meant to give an additional layer of meaning to all her following behaviours.)

Thus, at the end of the day, despite all the trappings of the rape-revenge genre, this is not a rape revenge film. It’s more about two sociopaths going at one another.

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Hell or High Water (2016)

Hell or High Water. Actually, my appreciation of Elle and Hell or High Water is roughly the same. The reason why I’m looking at Hell or High Water first is simply a matter of personal taste. The Wild West/Western aesthetic of Hell or High Water just appeals to me less compared to the Rape-Revenge generic conventions used in Elle. Both films are Oscar nominated films and both deliciously dense and multi-layered. But in my opinion, they’re also not films you’d watch just for fun, which is why I’m saving The Lego Batman Movie for last 😉

Hell or High Water is a David Mackenzie film about two brothers, Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby Howard (Chris Pine), who commit a series of bank robberies in order to get back at Texas Midlands Bank which is threatening to foreclose on their family farm.

The lasting impression I had of the film is that it is a cross-generational film about the evolving hierarchy of peoples and characters in a Western. I say this because on one hand it is a heist film, but on the other hand, it also has all the trappings of a Western, all the syntactic elements of the genre, if you will.

For instance, the element of the wild is represented by the bank-robbing outlaw brothers. Civilisation is represented by the law in the form of Jeff Bridges’ lawman, Marcus Hamilton, a racial epithet spouting senior on the cusp of retirement who spends most of his dialogue verbally abusing his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Bermingham), a Catholic of Comanche descent. This cop duo unabashedly represent the old guard of Western films. The way Hamilton continuously harangues Parker despite his respect and camaraderie with him speaks to the complicated relationship between the cowboy and the red indian in old Westerns.

Speaking of cowboys, the film also makes it a point to dot the landscape with real cowboys trying to drive cattle and being chased to the edge of the plain by a brush fire. The hard work and the tough living of the lifestyle is captured in Hamilton’s line about how it’s no wonder being a cowboy is a dying trade amongst the younger generation.

Finally, apart from the sweeping shots of a sprawling landscape that somehow manages to look more barren that rich with opportunity for one to venture further west to reinvent oneself, the film also ends with a gun fight. However, this gunfight is not a one-on-one draw. This gunfight uses high-powered rifles with scopes and semi-automatic weapons.

Watching this film, the line that stood out the most to me was when Tanner Howard gets into a confrontation with a Comanche at a poker table:

Bear: I am a Comanche. Do you know what it means? It means ‘Enemy to everyone’.

Tanner Howard: Do you know what that makes me? A Comanche.

This reminded me of something else I’d read recently about how the “redneck” has been rewritten as the “redskin”:

[It] is not just the demonizing mechanism that the city-revenge films have inherited from the western. It is the redskin himself – now rewritten as the redneck. If “redneck” once denoted a real and particular group, it has achieved the status of a kind of universal blame figure, the “someone else” held responsible for all manner of American social ills. The great success of the redneck in that capacity suggests that anxieties no longer expressible in ethnic of racial terms have become projected onto a safe target – safe not only because it is (nominally) white, but because it is infinitely displaceable onto someone from the deeper South or the higher mountains or the further desert (one man’s redneck is another man’s neighbour, and so on).

– Carol J. Clover taken from “Getting Even” from Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film

Except that this narrative has changed. In Trump’s American, the blame can no longer be endlessly displaced onto some generic group of people on the fringes of society. The disenfranchised low-income whites in America have been pushed so far out into the margins that they have had nowhere else to go but start an inward trek into the centre of politics by any means necessary, even if it means backing a megalomaniac that’s more likely to dismantle the system than save them because what’s the point of supporting a system that has ousted them to the furthest reaches of society?

And in Hell or High Water, we see how this group of people are humanised and made sympathetic through the Howard brothers. So instead of simply being the wild, and the disruptive element in a civilised landscape, they are the characters you root for. We see this time and time again in how the locals simply can’t be bothered to help the authorities. What more, the law/legal authorities have become ciphers – displaced and men out of time – henchmen of the banks and a corrupt financial system that continues to rob and bankrupt a people.

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Blitz Reviews (& Spoilers): A Cure for Wellness (2017); Split (2017)

I’ve watched a number of films in the last couple of weeks and I’d like to use this blogpost to say a few things about them.

Firstly, these are the films I’ve watched:

  1. A Cure for Wellness (2017)
  2. The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
  3. Split (2017)
  4. Elle (2016)
  5. Hell or High Water (2016)

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So in the tradition of keeping the best for last, let’s start with A Cure for Wellness. Till now I have yet to puzzle out what the main message of the film is in part because it was trying to do so many things that I left the theatre with just a series of questions:

What does the secret lake under the sanitorium and the incestuous backstory of the Baron have to do with the first half of the film about the corporate rat race? Why did the film have such a compelling marriage of word and image in the line about humans being the only species capable of self-reflection when the second half of the film is more mystery than self-reflection? How is the Cure for Wellness actually made? Does one have to ingest the 300-year old magical eels? Is this necessary if there is already something small and moving and alive in the water already? How is it converted into the mysterious orangey-brown liquid? Why do the patients at the sanitorium not know that they’re being used as a purification system to create said cure? Why is Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) the only one who realises that there’s something odd with the place if everyone receives the same treatment? Is there hypnosis involved (I’m guessing… there was no mention of hypnosis)? Why did leaving the sanitorium to grab a beer with Lockhart help Hannah (Mia Goth) enter into womanhood? Is the magic locale bound? Is physical innocence also a mental state?

And finally, and most importantly, in a film that showed us  worms, then eels, why did we not graduate to snakes or giant snake monsters by the end of the film? I found this to be the most disappointing thing about the film. No. Giant. Snake. Monsters.

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Next, Split. With Split, it’s not so much that it’s not a good movie, rather it’s more about how the film has been grossly overhyped. Split is a nice, neat little film with a clear premise. The believability about the premise regarding Split Personality Disorder gives the film just the right amount of creep factor that when the film carries this premise to its logical conclusion, the film ends in a satisfactorily manner.

James McAvoy’s performance in this little thriller is impressive too. Although my one gripe is that I wished there was more of an explanation of why Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) failed to see that Kevin Wendall Crumb, who already has 23 personalities, couldn’t have a 24th.

The easter egg at the end that puts Split in the same cinematic universe as Unbreakable (2000) was a nice touch for fans familiar with M. Night Shyamalan’s oeuvre, but at the end of the day, also a little superfluous.

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OMG. Such fantastic fanart O_O