What have I been up to?

This is more of a personal update than anything else really and a way to put down random stray thoughts about the things I’ve read and watched in the last couple of months.

As I’ve said repeatedly, I’ve been watching an embarrassing amount of K-drama but there are comments about one in particular that keep knocking around my noggin and I can’t seem to let go of it.

Joseon Gunman (2014, 22 episodes)

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Immediately, the thing that charmed me about this series is how much it’s like Rurouni Kenshin (1994-1999, manga run; 1996-1998, anime run; & 3 films 2012-2014). Set at the turn of an era, Joseon Gunman is about the influx of foreign influence into olden day Korea. What I liked about the series was the consistency with which this plot point/ thematic thrust about the changing times was infused into various elements of the series.

  1. While it’s a totally common and overused trope in K-drama to have the character undergo a makeover when they become badass, that move in this drama seems totally justified. Forced to flee the country due to trumped up charges against his family, Park Yoon-Kang (Lee Joon-Gi) returns later, after leveling up, as a Japanese man dressed in Western clothes. The image itself of the main character returning and looking so different compresses all the geopolitical tensions of the time into the look of his character – Western colonial powers forcing East Asian countries to open their borders to unfair trade with them; aggression from fellow East Asian countries, etc.
  2. The female lead, Jung Soo-In (Nam Sang-Mi), is a fairly respectable character. Learned for a female character, she often shown running rings around the main character in the first third of the series. She knows science, she knows geography, she deals with gunpowder. And later on in the series she becomes a spy within the palace grounds. I suppose I should’ve said spoilers… oh well.
  3. The villain, Choi Won-Shin (Yu Oh-Seong), is a merchant. But the villain and his daughter, Choi Hye-Won (Jeon Hye-Bin), are fairly sympathetic characters. They struggle with their past as slaves and try and make a future for themselves by becoming astute, entrepreneurial, if a little corrupt, business people. They join the rising merchant class that in the histories of all countries at the time presented a real challenge and threat to the traditional class structures.
  4. I’m not sure if this one was deliberate, but in the first half of the series at least, there was a lot of scenes set at harbours and piers. These settings represented the liminal spaces and the porous borders of countries through which ideologies, cultures, and other foreign elements enter and permeate the body politic.

What else have I watched lately?

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I guess I haven’t had a chance to think about it more deeply but I watched A Boy and His Dog (1975). It’s vision of the post-nuclear apocalypse wasteland is a very effectively rendered one with psychic dogs, roving bands of human cannibals and unseen mutants called screamers that emit a green light. It’s also highly effective in affecting a disconcerting tone with its alternate visions of rape – the normalisation of it, and the industrialisation of it in the name of population control. It’s really a lot of food for thought. Very watchable with a lot to digest.

I also liked how there’s a very clear tonal link/echo in the successful game series Fallout (1997-2015). There’s this jaunty, lively, buddy-comedy type banter in the foreground between the boy and his dog but in the background and punctuating every scene are things like dead bodies (literally everywhere!), and the ruins of human civilisation. So that jarring quality between the dialogue and the setting is very similar to what we see in the Fallout game series. The creators of the series, if I’m not wrong, have actually credited the film as part of the game’s inspiration.

Here are some fun videos from the game to give you a sense of just how disconcerting and discomfiting both the film and game can be:

The last thing I watched and rather liked and just wanted to share with you guys here is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017).

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This year has truly been a year of sequels so far… er… with the exception of Alien: Covenant (2017) from what I hear… I haven’t caught it yet. But will soon.

In 2017, we’ve had John Wick 2, The Lego Batman Movie, Split and Logan. Not all of the above are technically sequels but they’ve all sprung from pre-existing franchises and so does this next installment of Guardians.

This film was super fun to watch. A lot of the more serious critics haven’t been really kind to it calling it a CGI-fest, which it is, but this film I felt was really enjoyable because it knew what NOT to dwell on.

Right from the start, the big monster fight was sidelined in in favour of watching baby Groot dance around to the soundtrack. And in the culminating fight at the end, the big fight was again repeatedly pushed to the side in favour of more character-centred moments like Rocket (Bradley Cooper) trying to get baby Groot familiarised with his detonator and people shouting in the background about tape.

Furthermore, while the centrepiece of the film was obviously an address of the question the previous film left us with – Peter Quill’s a.k.a. Starlord’s (Christ Pratt) parentage – the bulk of the narrative actually focused on the side characters and their understanding of parents and family. This narrative direction paralleled the film’s opening that moved away from the big, colourful boss fight to focus on the little guy – the supporting cast.

There was some pretty disturbing revelations about the relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Thanos. A huge chunk of the film also went towards developing Yondu (Michael Rooker), a side character in the first film, as a foster father figure to Quill. And there was also the introduction of a new orphan character, Mantis (Pom Klementieff) who finds a new family with the Guardian’s crew.

So what I’m trying to point out here is that family was a central theme and the film was able to really keep a focus on that instead of giving the audience yet another retina searing light show at the end in the form of a climactic boss fight.

That being said I can also sort of see where serious critics are coming from when they call the film as a CGI-fest. I thought the Ravagers story line was particularly weak.

Sylvester Stallone joined the cast this time round as Starhawk – some kind of ravager boss? (I’m not familiar with the comic book franchise but I hear from my fiance that he and his friends featured at the end were the Original Guardians of the Galaxy.) So the guy already has poor articulation, yet they gave him some of the most incomprehensible lines filled with a bunch of space mumbo-jumbo… I have to admit I was frowning pretty hard trying to figure out what he was saying, but then I gave up and spaced out. There was also some pretty heavy-handed cinematic manipulation going on in the ravagers funeral scene in an attempt to make the audiences feel something for a ritual that doesn’t actually exist outside of the film. That actually snapped me out of my suspension of disbelief… cuz they were just trying too hard.

But that being said, the best part of the film is the unending series of running jokes. People coming out of the film will repeat lines like, “You’re beautiful. On the inside.” and crack up! Much to the chagrin of an unsuspecting crowd that hasn’t seen the film. It’s really great fun and full of laughs. It’s not high art or anything but I enjoyed myself thoroughly.

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I think that’s it for this post! See you guys soon!

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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.

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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.

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The Hyperreal of Digital Cinema

I went spelunking through my notes from my National University of Singapore days when I wrote an essay on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and the point about the hyperreal and the mechanical robin at the end of the film came from this citation in case anyone’s interested or is using the film for a final paper or something:

Rhombes, Nicholas. “Blue Velvet Underground: David Lynch’s Post-Punk Poetics.” The Cinema of David Lynch: American Dreams, Nightmare Visions. Eds. Erica Sheen & Annette Davison. London: Wallflower Press, 2005. 61-76.

In addition to the point made in class though, I wanted to just share that I really liked this idea of the “change from inside out” when it comes to digital cinema that Lev Manovich proposes and Elsaesser and Hagener reference because of this idea of the unbroken skin of digital cinema that parallels the way in which virtual reality is discussed as a truth onto itself because of its all encompassing nature that doesn’t even put it in competition with “realism” in cinema.

I liked the idea of the “inside out change” that cinema is undergoing because it helps me understand and rationalize how when it comes to the change and improvement in computer generated images over the years, we’ve evolved so much more and so much further beyond the ‘morph’ (that theorists seem to have become hung up over as if it’s some film technique to be fetishised and theorized over ad nauseum) to the point where it’s sometimes hard to tell if the image is CGI or not.

However, as much as I like the idea, I can’t say that I agree that virtual reality is not in direct competition with realism in cinema. Instead, I find that the concept of the hyperreal is a more apt way of describing the relationship or the progression between realist cinematic modes and the virtual realities created using the skin of digital cinema.

According to Jean Baudrillard in his publication Simulacra and Simulation (1981), and please correct me if I’m wrong, but the hyperreal is something we arrive at at the end of a 3-stage progression. There is the Real, there is the simulation of the Real in models or Simulacra, and there is the Hyperreal, defined as “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality” (Baudrillard). My personal take on this concept is that even though there is no reality to the Hyperreal, there seems to be a lineage of realism embedded within it given its reliance on models of the Real, once removed; and the nomenclature that continues to make reference to a’real’ even if it is a missing one.

This lineage of realism is clearly seen in the nature and functions of the (other less discussed) computer imaging softwares used in film today. For instance, algorithms that deal with ray-tracing and caustics, otherwise known as the movement of light across smooth and curved surfaces, and through refracting material, all contribute to the realism of a generated image.

Or how about the study and use of Subsurface Scattering software in the generation of computer images, particularly that of skin that gives it its translucent, life-like quality rather than the absolute plasticky fail that we saw in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001).

Or how about Forward Kinetics and Inverse Kinetics software that move joints on models of monsters and creatures, unreal as they are, based on the parent-child relationship joints on an actual skeletal structure will have.

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Or how about just how all the great special effects people emphasizing the need to have a solid understanding of anatomy and musculature in order to make good, believable looking monsters? Here, I’m talking about the advice Willis O’Brien, who created and animated through stop-motion the eponymous ape from King Kong (1933), gave to Ray Harryhausen who went on to give us such fantasy classics as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and The Clash of the Titans (1981).

I guess at the end of the day I’m trying to say two things:

  1. there’s a tonne of interesting software used in CGI and they deserve some attention and people should stop focusing on the morph like it’s the holy grail of CGI software
  2. while all questions of realism are at the end of the day period specific, there is a lineage of realism that impacts the kinds of images we create in digital cinema and we shouldn’t just jettison the whole debate over realism in cinema and virtual reality just because virtual reality “is no longer understood as index, trace, and reference of an elsewhere, but as a total environment” onto itself (Elsaesser and Hagener 199). I get the impression that if we take a more “apparatus” centred approach in our examination of the software of CGI, we’ll find many more traces of the real than we thought we would.