The Film is the Answer

This is going to be a pretty experiential post borne of the felicitous combination of media that I have been exposed to over the last couple of weeks. So if you’re expecting some kind of high-minded analysis of film style and what not… er… you probably won’t find that so much in this post. This one’s gonna be more stream of consciousness as I drift from one title to the next.

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So last week I finished watching Man to Man (Apr-Jun 2017, 16 episodes) starring Park Hae-jin, Park Sung-woong, and Kim Min-jung. The series is written by Kim Won-suk of Descendants of the Sun (Feb-Apr 2016, 16 episodes) fame, and directed by Lee Chang-min. First off, it’s definitely got the same black-ops military guy falling in love with a plain Jane trope going on that we last saw in Descendants. But personally, I felt it was a little more coherent and consistent in the character development.

I never said this out loud but I thought Descendants had some trouble balancing the plot and the romance halves of the series. I enjoyed the two-episode story arcs but I found the romance in Descendants tedious. Conversely, I think Man to Man is more fun because it’s more plot heavy. It has the established TV series plot structure that one is more familiar with in American dramas that typically features the “interplay between the demands of episodic and serial storytelling” (Mittell 19). This involves the “interweaving [of] long-term story arcs within the frameworks of clearly defined episodic parameters” (Mittell 20).

To give you a bit of context, Man to Man has a larger story arc that involves the main character, Ghost Agent K (Park Hae-jin), covertly investigating how his predecessor was killed and tracking down the wooden statues which hold the key to his final message. But the episodes themselves are broken up into various “missions” that bring him closer to resolving the main narrative arc. Then peppered throughout these smaller “mission” story arcs, there’s a bit of romance sprinkled in on the side. Conversely, Descendants always struck me more as smaller episodic arcs that are hung on the main narrative which IS the romance plot between the two leads.

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I’m probably going to sound like I’m contradicting myself here, but the next thing I really liked about Man to Man is that it doesn’t take itself so seriously. It’s filled with McGuffins that provide just enough forward momentum for the plot from episode to episode but the bulk of the entertainment comes from some very amusing character relationships that thankfully did not all centre on the romance between the male and female lead. I particularly enjoyed the bromance between Ghost K/Kim Sul-woo and Hallyu superstar Park Woon-gwang (Park Sung-woong). And I thought the Undercover Agent-Handler relationship between Ghost K and Lee Dong-hyun (Jeong Man-sik) was portrayed very feelingly.

I think a lot of the enjoyment I got out of this series also stemmed from how Park Hae-jin seemed to be self-reflexively playing against type. Let me explain. If every Hallyu star got reduced down to a specific, signature quality they had, Park Hae-jin’s would be his dead eyes. Those dead staring eyes have landed him a whole slew of psychopathic/sociopathic characters, so much so that he has been typecast.

[Seriously, he was a sympathetic secondary villain in Doctor Stranger (May-Jul 2014, 20 episodes), a very believable “psychopath” in Bad Guys (Oct-Dec 2014, 11 episodes), and a possibly sociopathic male lead in Cheese in the Trap (Jan-Mar 2016, 16 episodes).]

Man, it’s high time that guy caught a break cuz Mmm! He looks good enough to eat! And while the first couple of episodes really foreground him as a lie-detector defeating cool customer who works in the National Intelligence Service’s (NIS) Ghost programme (the NIS’ version of Treadstone/Blackbriar), the rest of the series sees him playing a standard Kdrama romantic lead.

Anyway, the thing about this Kdrama that really caught my attention is how for the longest time in the second half of the series, I thought the series was moving towards a Coen Brothers-esque conclusion. By this I mean I thought it was going to conclude with a self-reflexive, genre-breaking twist where the stymied production of a romance flick for Hallyu star, Park Woon-gwang, becomes the answer to the systemic corruption within the NIS.

The kind of generic twist I’m thinking about would put the Kdrama in the company of Hollywood films like The Nice Guys (2016), Argo (2012), Inglourious Basterds (2009) (the irony that none of these films are written or directed by the Coen Brothers does not escape me… -_-“). But in these three films, the films featured within the films are literally the answer to resisting oppression, corruption, and saving the day.

Just a quick run down of what I mean by the film being the answer in the three films I reference above:

  • the porn film in the canister everyone is chasing in The Nice Guys is spliced with  damning footage about the corruption within the car and gas industry
  • in Argo the film production is the pretext used to disguise the extraction of six Americans held hostage in Iran by militants in 1979
  • and in a historical revisionist, wish-fulfilment sequence in Inglourious Basterds, a Jewish woman splices a film with footage of herself mocking Hitler and his high-ranking Nazis into a special screening for said people. She mocks them from the screen, they come to the realisation that they are trapped in a theatre and destined to burned to death.

The level of self-reflexivity, if Man to Man had used the Romance film to dismantle the corruption, would have really hit the sweet spot for me because that level of self-reflexivity would have transformed Man to Man into a non-representational drama capable of abstracting, fragmenting, and foregrounding the materials and processes of the genre (Stam 151). In so doing, it would have carried out the Brechtian function of self-reflexivity of “laying bare society’s causal network” (qtd. in Stam 153), to expose a culturally and historically determinate set of conventions to do with romance. Because, make no mistake, Romance in Kdrama is a key export from S. Korea.

Instead, the series opted for a slight shift in genre by using a live television broadcast to entrap the villains. While it’s a very slight shift in TV genre (because I mean whether it’s a film, a talkshow, a drama, it’s all still media), I felt this made the series somewhat less satisfying because the plot did not quite return full circle to comment on the formalistic elements of the controlling TV genre that the Kdrama itself takes.

To continue with this theme of the film being the answer, it so happened that upon finishing Man to Man, I was looking for something else to watch and I stumbled upon Silenced (2011). This film is also known as Do-ga-ni and The Crucible.

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Now here’s a film in which the film is literally the answer. Dogani is based on a book of the same title published in 2009 about the egregious abuse of students between 2000-2005 that went on in Gwangju Inhwa School, a school set up for the hearing-impaired.

The horror behind this event is two-fold. After the actual physical and sexual abuse nine (but many suspect more) students of the school were repeatedly subjected to over the course of five years, when a human rights group finally managed to bring the case to court, the guilty parties were given sentences so embarrassingly light that it boggles the mind that there was not more of a public outcry when the initial news broke. Even the publication of the whistleblower’s account of ongoings in the school in 2009 barely caused a ripple.

Instead, it was only after the wide release of Dogani in local theaters in 2011, and after it was watched by more than 4 million S. Koreans, that there was any reaction to this horrifying tale. Shortly after the film, a bill dubbed the ‘Dogani bill’ was passed unanimously into law. The bill got rid of the statute of limitations on cases of rape involving minors and the handicapped, and increased the sentences for those convicted of such a crime. More on the Dogani Law.

In the case of Dogani, the film became the answer because it is a socially responsible narrative told well. While not perfect, there are a few sequences in the film that, formalistically, really stand out.

The first time one of the girls gives her account of what happened to her, the film shifts into an internally focalised representation of her experience in a very subtle and effective manner. Initially, as Yeon-Doo (Kim Hyun-soo) gives her account, the main character, Kang In-ho (Gong Yoo) has to translate her sign language and speak on her behalf. This scene is dense with meaning because as she delivers her account, In-ho’s voice fades out and the visual narrative takes over. This is as if her version of events take precedence, and the audience is made privy to her words and her thoughts are made concrete and no longer filtered through a male voice. A male voice that is made additionally problematic because her assailant is male and her close encounter in a  prior scene was only interrupted but not averted by In-ho who almost walks in on them.

In other internally focalised sequences with minors recounting what happened to them, the film very effectively plays with sound. For example, when a hearing-impaired child walks inexorably towards the sickening source of the sound of the wet slap of flesh on flesh – the drawn out use of dramatic irony is enough to make audiences squirm in their seats.

Perhaps the best achievement of the film was the way it foregrounded cultural and social reasons for the lack of initial response to these heinous crimes. The small town mindset, the ways in which bureaucracy effaces the individual and numbs a person, the social pressures faced by some of the characters just trying to survive made everyone into easy prey, and made everyone complicit in letting the rich and powerful have free reign. A lot of these come across most convincingly in Kang In-ho’s struggle to do the right thing. As a recently widowed man, with a sick child, he needed this job at the school. Needed it enough that he wavered on whether he too should turn a blind eye to these crimes.

There is one particular shot of the character being crushed into a small corner of the frame during a memorial service for his late wife. The double framing drastically shrinks the space within the frame of the shot. Then in the foreground, taking up most of the space, is the table laden with offerings for his late wife. In the background is In-ho’s child coughing up a lung while being soothed by her grandmother. And In-ho sits, freshly weighted down with this new knowledge about the school and its odious administrators, spine bent almost double. In a single frame is all his troubles crowded around him.

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Also in this film, I witnessed one of the more effective uses of slow motion in a Korean film or television series. After being berated by his mother for trying to save others when he can’t even save himself, there is a shot of In-ho walking in slow-motion to the corrupt principal’s office carrying an office plant. The door opens and the occupants are physically abusing a young boy in plain view. There was something about the shot where In-ho gets beckoned into the principal’s office in slow motion, himself a good-looking young man, that makes him look like a potential rape victim too. It is the sad story of reality, where no matter how much older or more adult you get, you’re still getting raped by the system and those with more power than you.

The parting shot of the film was also particularly well done, bearing in mind of course that at the time of the making of the film, the Dogani Law had not even been written yet. The film closes on a poignant shot of a travel ad for the city of Mujin with the tagline “a city of fog.”

If you haven’t seen it before, the film is definitely worth a watch. It’s thoughtfully made and doesn’t let its subject matter down. It was also great to read about how it resulted in social change as well.

Works Cited:

Mittell, Jason. “Complexity in Context.” Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. New York: NYU Press, 2015. 17-54.

Stam, Robert. Introduction to Film Theory. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2000.

 

 

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The Two Endings of Wonder Woman (2017)

When I was watching Wonder Woman (2017) last Sunday evening, I couldn’t help but think about Linda Williams’ essay on melodrama to rationalise what happened at the end. From what I hear it is the ending that tripped up an otherwise well-plotted, well-paced film about a female superhero that “little girls” all around the world have been eagerly anticipating.

Spoilers ahead.

If we examine the ending of the film, Diana (Gal Gadot) actually kills Ares twice. The first time she kills a pseudo-Ares and expects the entire weapons facility to stop loading up Dr. Poison’s (Elena Anaya) deadly mustard-gas-on-steroids bombs into the plane. Except they don’t.

Then the real Ares reveals himself to her and they fight. As she fights him, she suddenly hears Steve Trevor’s (Chris Pine) last words to her and draws strength from them. She defeats Ares in an amazing light show of flying fists charged with lightning and the German soldiers are freed of Ares’ influence.

The second ending didn’t go over well with critics. The question is why?

Linda Williams, in her essay “Melodrama Revised,” built on arguments made by Peter Brooks and Christine Gledhill that melodrama is more than just another genre. Melodrama is a kind of base mode that undergirds all genres. Evidence of the imbrication of melodrama across various genre is seen in the 5 characteristics of melodrama she delineates in her essay. I summarised them in a previous post and if you’re curious, you can go here and here.

With regards to Wonder Woman though, I want to concentrate on how at its core, melodrama is a search for and a desperate attempt to recoup a space of innocence. And in order to achieve this, the film will oftentimes overreach in order to achieve this. In the words of Linda Williams, “One of the key features of melodrama… is its compulsion to ‘reconcile the irreconcilable’ – that is, its tendency to find solutions to problems that cannot really be solved” (Williams 37).

At this point, the realism, or the filmic representation of the real that the film tries to pass off as THE REAL, breaks down.

Granted that Wonder Woman, as a superhero, is an element that is already in excess of the Real, within the construction of the film, there is a baseline of realism that the film, its plots, and its characters all come together to simulate. This can be in the form of emotional and psychological realism of the characters. For instance, Charles (Ewen Bremmer), the sniper from their merry band of fighters, is clearly established as someone who has been broken by the war.

Add to this that the film is a fictional revisioning of a key part of history, and Wonder Woman becomes a film with a specific register of realism. And it needs to adhere to this in order to be believable, in order for audiences to continue to suspend their disbelief. Unfortunately, in the second ending, the film overreaches. Quite drastically.

When a film overreaches in pursuit of the reconciliation of irreconcilable elements, it deploys all of its formalistic elements to this end. This includes:

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  1. The sudden powering up of Diana accompanied by the over the top lightning show of CGI capabilities, a formalistic element that calls unnecessary attention to itself
  2. Suddenly hearing Steve Trevor’s voice, which the HISHE reviewer (see below) points out she couldn’t possibly have because she was still suffering the after effects of the bomb blast
  3. The swelling music
  4. The idyllic scenery/pathetic fallacy – the rising sun, the breaking of dawn, the dawning of the new day – these are settings we have been taught to associate with a fresh start, a dispelling of evil
  5. The minor characters’ reactions – the German soldiers are released from Ares’ influence. They take off their gas masks and we see their smiling faces

…in short, whatever it took to save the day. The end result is that the space of innocence is recuperated. Diana’s world view is confirmed and the war ends because Ares has been defeated.

Compare this to the first ending in which she mistakenly thinks she’s vanquished Ares. This is the point where Diana comes to a number of key realisations, all of which ring more true to the viewer that the ending we actually got…

  1. Killing one key figure in a war may do nothing to stop it
  2. The true extent of the mechanisation of war in WWI
    1. a precursor to Nazi compartmentalisation in the concentration camps in WWII that made it possible for ordinary people to do evil things – Excerpt from The Banality of Evil by Edward S. Herman
  3. Mankind is inherently predisposed towards violence

The point at which melodrama overtakes realism in Wonder Woman is also marked by two other aspects in the film.

When she first encounters Ares, she sees him through a glass window. When she rushes inside the guard tower to confront him, he reappears outside. I choose to see this as a nod to the weepies of the 1930s & 40s – like Stella Dallas (1937), Mildred Pierce (1945) – a genre that was said to be a woman’s genre. It was also a genre that was full of women either looking out of windows wishing to be free, or looking into rooms through windows hoping to be part of something.

The other aspect that read as melodrama was the trite suggestion that love conquers all. The recourse to emotion, especially when there wasn’t very much of it in the film other than the romantic love shared by Steve Trevor and Diana, felt a little lightweight. The film didn’t establish any sort of love for all humanity, or pity for one’s enemy in its earlier scenes. Quite the contrary, the Amazonians had a fairly harsh attitude towards humanity, and Diana trashes a bunch of Germans without mercy in no man’s land. So the 180 she does at the end comes across as a little superficial.

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After comparing the two possible endings, it’s time to ask which is the real ending.

I was kinda taken by the observation made in the HISHE review that Diana may not have actually heard Steve Trevor’s voice at all and all she did was believe she did. This would either make her really idealistic, or delusional… If emotional and psychological realism have been established in the film, would this mean that Diana’s experience in WWI has left her with some kind of PTSD? I think I would prefer this darker ending because how can you deal with death and destruction on such a scale and walk away untouched by it?

However, having said all of this, Wonder Woman is a fantastic film. Great cast, great pacing, fantastic music, wonderfully shot action sequences. Go catch it!

And can I just say that Chris Pine is a fine actor. People shouldn’t have been surprised. Anyone who’s seen him in Hell or High Water (2016) would know this.

Works Cited:

Williams, Linda. “Melodrama Revised.” Refiguring American Film Genres, 42-88.

Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

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My most immediate impression of this film is how luscious all the practical effects look. Everything is wet and fleshy and there’s a great sense of tactility that always seems to be missing when one watches a CGIed film.

The film has an 87% score on Rotten Tomatoes that’s really left me scratching my head because it’s such a neat little horror film, so much so that I’m not quite sure what else critics could ask for. It’s at times like this when you really question the value in giving everything a rating.

Sure, the second half/third act of the film falls into some pretty tried and tested horror tropes. But not every film needs to be ground-breaking! C’mon!

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Anyway, very briefly, Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) is about a small town, family-owned morgue and crematorium outfit that receives a Jane Doe (Olwen Catherine Kelly) one night and has been tasked with identifying Cause of Death. The whole film takes place in the span of one night and over the length of time it takes the father-son team to complete the autopsy.

The workaday treatment of the horror of conducting an autopsy is very much in line with André Øvredal’s other critically acclaimed offering Troll Hunter (2011). Troll Hunter is a mockumentary that follows a troll hunter on his hunt for trolls in the dark woods. The matter-of-fact way in which trolls and the hunt for them by a professional troll hunter are presented in the mock documentary effectively normalises their existence – even their more supernatural attributes like being able to sniff out Christians (as if Christian blood gave off a different scent).

Similarly, Autopsy very quickly normalises the idea of working in a morgue cum crematorium and conducting autopsies. This setting on the outset of the film makes it very easy for Autopsy to turn tensions up to eleven-ty when the supernatural shit really hits the fan.

Autopsy feels to me like it’s part of a tradition of foreign horror films. Very much like the original Ringu (1998) and Ju-On (2000) there’s a great atmosphere of dread and an attempt to explain what’s going on but at the end of the day there’s no real explanation and the horror or the curse lives on and gets passed on to the next unsuspecting soul.

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What tickled me even more is that the film flirts with the idea of offering an explanation only to undercut this at the end. The police-procedural format and the fact-finding dive into the innards of Jane Doe does everything to ramp up the supernatural tension in the film. Each unusual, logic-defying discovery leads to more confusion and more confirmation that there is something not right with this body. But when it comes to supplying characters and audiences with an explanation, there is none.

This refusal to offer any kind of working explanation for what the curse is or how to undo it is a smart move because all too often, horror films fall flat when they try and tell you why the supernatural happens. Oftentimes it’ll involve calling in an expert academic who will pull out some dusty tome with step-by-step instructions on how to vanquish the evil. In the case of Autopsy, the film sidesteps all of that unbelievable logic.

Instead, the processes that so often bring rationality to a situation, like an autopsy and forensic findings that help to provide evidence to solve a murder, only reveal these quaint, antiquated traditional/ herbal practices meant to subdue evil. They only confirm the body’s supernatural state, but say nothing about the source of its power.

We’re led to believe at first that each new layer that the forensic father-son team peel back and discover is releasing some kind of evil that, till that point, had been bound by the moon flower, and the shroud with the roman numerals, and the tattoos, but then we remember that the blood drenched murder scene that opens the film was also caused by the body with all its ritualistic trappings still intact.

Then we’re led to believe that maybe the piercing analysis offered by forensic science might suggest some kind of solution to this 17th century mystery. Nope. No dice. The body of Jane Doe just continues to fuck with everyone right till the very end.

I read some reviews that tried to rationalise the signs left on the body as marks of misogyny and that the trail of dead bodies is some kind of revenge for this. I suppose the signs of corsetry, Jane Doe’s backstory, and the deaths of the two male protagonists might lend themselves to this theory. But it doesn’t account for the female characters who die, and there’s also nothing to prove that the evidence of violence on the body was inflicted by men only.

The way in which critics and characters try to explain the body of Jane Doe really reflect the etymology of the word “autopsy” – Autos meaning “self”, and optos meaning “seen”. There’s a suggestive layering of self and other in the etymology of the word that is exemplified by Tommy Tilden (Brian Fox), the father, who puts his cat, Stanley, that has been gravely injured, out of its misery and believes he can do the same for Jane Doe. But really, it seems that he is the one who wants to be put out of the lingering misery of surviving his wife.

The open-endedness of this text (and the body as text) really leaves it up to the viewer to conduct their own autopsy to discover the meaning of the film. The lack of an explanation for what caused/created Jane Doe, what she wants or why she does what she does gives the audience a lot to work with. The film also frustrates the traditional horror narrative ending which is a return to the status quo and a reassertion of the norm – of logic and rationality. Instead, just like with what we’ve seen of Asian horror films, the inexplicable horror just gets passed on.

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!

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

 

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

What is it with sequel titles this year? John Wick: Chapter 2, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2… it’s like there are just too many sequels to name. That being said 2017 seems to be the year of good sequels. Split (2017) which is positioned in the same universe as M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (2000) got great reviews, The Lego Batman Movie which is a follow up to 2014’s surprise success The Lego Movie seems to be getting rave reviews, and of course, there’s John Wick: Chapter 2.

When analysing a film, one of the things I try to look out for is the scene that is included in excess of what is absolutely necessary for narrative development and progress. And the opening shot of the John Wick sequel provided just such a filmic moment. A black and white clip of a scooter stunt projected on the side of a building apropos of nothing preceding a pan downwards to a motorcycle skidding on a road. The two sequences obviously mirrored each other and spelled out the film’s thesis and lineage in one fell swoop.

The black and white clip recalls the era of early films from the 1900s before even Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, where vaudeville danger acts were the source of most of the silver screen’s inspiration. What John Wick: Chapter 2 tries to remind the viewer then is that these spectacle-intensive single reel films are the precursor to the modern day action film. The fact that the film opens with a car chase scene further supports this claim because, you know that saying, “cut to the chase”? That came from roughly the same film era. People just wanted to cut to the chase, the meat of the film, the part where all the action was – the most intense scene, and the most exciting one that would keep the audiences hooked and on the edge of their seats.

Thus, the sequel serves to remind us that when watching a John Wick film, one is well and truly a spectator spectating a series of spectacles. The structure of both films are fairly similar and could almost be called episodic with simple motivations moving characters from one action-packed sequence to the next. This is not unlike how George Melies used to make his trick films and early feature length films:

As for the scenario, the ‘fable,’ of the ‘tale,’ I only consider it at the end. I can state that the scenario constructed in this manner has no importance, since I use it merely as a pretext for the ‘stage effects,’ the ‘tricks,’ for a nicely arranged tableau.

– George Melies qtd. in Tom Gunning’s “Cinema of Attraction”

When seen in this light, it would explain a little bit why the momentum of the opening act in the John Wick sequel seemed to stutter a little when they tried to insert a recap of the first film.

That being said, the opening act was surely a homage to the action film genre and the franchise’s first installment that was the sleeper hit of 2014 that has since been hailed as one of the best action films in recent years. This is clearly felt from the range of shots and filming techniques presented in the opening sequence to remind the viewer of how far film has progressed in its strategies and effects used to capture and present spectacle.

In the early days of film, stunts and performers’ skill could only be captured through the use of long shots and long takes. But proceeding from the long shot in the black and white projection, we see that the camera is moved closer and closer to the action where audiences are no longer positioned on the outside as spectators but on the inside as participants.For instance, the placement of the camera alongside John Wick’s Dodge Charger as it races along as part of the car chase sequence allows audiences to participate in the thrill and the exhilaration of moving  alongside a speeding car.

The long shots and long takes are still present, but are reserved for complicated auto stunts and when John Wick (Keanu Reeves) kicks ass. The mobile camera is used to accentuate action sequences and follow along the trajectory of a punch, like when Wick delivers a finishing blow, to capture the impact of the hit. And if I’m not wrong, there was a scene where a bike flips towards the camera that looked like it was a CGI shot.

And just like that, the opening sequence becomes a catalogue of action film camera techniques. But because of the ascension of the narrative film and the banishment of the cinema of attractions that was forced to go to ground and coexist as an embedded component of certain genres of the narrative film (eg. musical, horror, fantasy, science fiction, action), the opening spectacle also had to give way to more narrative impulses. In a neat segue from spectacle to narrative, character psychology is reinjected once again into the film using the car and the contents of its glove compartment.

Thus Wick’s Dodge Charger becomes both the vehicle for action and narrative drive. And by the end of the opening act, you feel like you’ve been issued an invitation to come along for one hell of a ride.

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Gunning, Tom. “Cinema of Attractions.” Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative. Eds. Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker. London: British Film Institute, 1990. 56-62.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Ok, folks, here’s my verdict: There is nothing wrong with he new Star Wars movie, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). But that being said the war/action film nearly lost me a couple of times with its rebel war council meetings and ensemble cast of characters with futuristic sounding names that sounded like someone got funky with a dart and board full of consonants and vowels.

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The bit of the writing I loved best though is the consistency with which they handled the themes of faith and fate.

In the film, the words “dream,” “faith,” and “hope” are used interchangeably to build a link between this film and Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977). At the start of the film characters talk about how rebels are, if nothing, a band of people who hold on to the dream of a different, better future. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) mentions this to Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones); and Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) dies telling them to keep the dream alive.

The rebels are then immediately confronted with a problem that could devastate their faith in their vision for a better tomorrow – the Death Star’s complete planetary destruction of Jedha. But also the fact that the one concrete article of proof that Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) is a fellow rebel – his holographic communication to his daughter Jyn explaining how to destroy the Death Star – is left on Jedah and destroyed together with Saw Gerrera’s rebel extremist base of operations. It is now Jyn who has to remind Andor to have faith in her, a faithless cynic, who has said before that she has no qualms about living under the Imperial flag because she won’t see it anyway as long as she keeps her head down.

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Her plea for patience is successful when we see that Andor, a saboteur and an assassin for the rebel alliance, chooses to defy his orders and let go of an opportunity to assassinate Galen wherein his act of defiance siginfies a sense of renewed faith in the dream of a successful rebellion against the Empire.

His personal act of faith becomes a precursor for the band of rebels who choose to rebel against the rebel alliances’ decision to disband by following him, Jyn, Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), Bhodi Rook (Riz Ahmed), and K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) into Scarif, an imperial base, to get the plans for the Death Star.

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Embarrassing side note, but I kind of teared up at this point because these initial 10 or so rebels who choose to follow them into battle are the very people that for all intents and purposes should have been the group most likely to have had their faith in the cause broken because as Andor explains, they are the saboteurs and the assassins, the people whose humanity have been put on the line and shaken by all the dirty work they have had to do for the rebel alliance. It is the moment where I felt most acutely the fragility of the faith, because to take on these roles they must have been among some of the most faithful to the cause and simultaneously some of the most disillusioned. This was clearly demonstrated in the first part of the film when Cassian Andor has to kill his informant in order to preserve the covert nature of his reconnaissance mission.

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(Diego Luna)

Ph: Film Frame

©Lucasfilm LFL

This idea of the dream of a successful rebellion that graduates into a faith is further underscored by the setting – the numerous long shots and establishing shots of the rebel alliance base which looks like an old Mayan temple and is actually described as an ancient Massassi temple on the jungle moon of Yavin 4.

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This theme of faith and fate, or fatalism, culminates in the climactic set piece at the end of the film. A lot of people complained about why there were so many moving parts to the final sequence and how that got a little confusing. But while you’re absorbed in the details of the scene don’t forget to zoom out to appreciate the pattern the filmmakers are weaving. They all die. They all die just as they complete exactly what they had to in order for the rebels to get the Death Star plans.

The deliberate repetitions and the exactitude with which each death occurs lends the whole sequence a fatalistic quality that can render the whole film really dark and gritty or really hopeful in the sense that their faith pays off. So that last sequence is where “dream” and “faith” finally transition into “hope“. And more than just the airy fairy notion of hoping against hope that something will change for the better, this is a literal concrete piece of hope in the form of the data disk with the Death Star plans that is finally relayed to Princess Leia at the end.

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I feel like because of the consistency of the thematic development in this film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the superior film when compared to The Force Awakens (2015) that came out around the same time last year. TFA was an exercise in repeating old story beats – orphan child in the dessert with a surprising amount of midichlorians, another Darth Vader-esque dude kills his father, another Death Star (a bigger one), and another Star Wars canteena scene.

Whereas this film is a tightly plotted piece of writing with very little excess that tries to do things differently – it has no Jedis, the Death Star now has a proper explanation for why it is simultaneously the most dangerous piece of machinery owned by the Imperial army and the stupidest, and the actual ultimate Darth guy returns but only as a side character.

I like this film about as much as I can like any Star Wars film I guess. Never having really been a Star Wars fan, I don’t understand the fanatical following behind the original trilogy in the series that I only watched once when I was like 7 or 8 years old, … but I understand the definition of hope that the film tries so hard to put forward. And I appreciate it’s efforts.

As a side-note, I thoroughly enjoyed Donnie Yen’s character and his adorable chant (“I’m one with the force and the force is with me”) that is played really well for poignancy and melodrama throughout the film and especially at the end.

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And I totally agree with my fiance who pointed out that Alan Tudyk’s [Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil (2010) FTW!!!] K-2SO is like Marvin (voiced by the late Alan Rickman) from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005).

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