Sunday, June 11, 2017

Review - Wonder Woman/The Mummy (2017)

Warning: Spoilers ahead!!!

           I am once again compelled to action. Even before I finished my review of Alien: Covenant, I found myself wondering what my next blog entry would be after it. I will admit that it was my intention to refrain from doing a film review for several weeks in order to make some progress on a philosophy project I am working on, but I obviously abandoned this plan when I wrote a quick piece about my experiences at the Seattle International Film Festival. After SIFF, however, I again resolved myself to not commit to other projects until I had finished my larger philosophy piece. And alas, I again find myself putting this larger project on pause in order to take another detour down the long, winding road of Film Review Lane. Like my previous blog post, this review will be somewhat impromptu as I wasn't initially planning on saying anything about Wonder Woman (or even seeing it for that matter). As such, it follows that, if I wasn't even planning on seeing Wonder Woman, I certainly wasn't planning on doing one of these "dual reviews". I might also point out that, up until just a few days ago, I was very ambivalent about whether or not I even wanted to see this remake of The Mummy, as my intuition, given the recent spat of horrible remakes, was telling me that this remake was going to be a disaster.
          But alas, I have a reputation to upkeep, so, as someone who was critical of Batman vs Superman, and has been vocal about the way Warner Bros. has been handling the DC Universe (particularly in comparison to how Disney is handling Marvel), I felt that I had an obligation to see what all the fuss surrounding Wonder Woman was about and report my findings. And, as someone who grew up watching black and white horror movies and includes Vincent Price on his list of favorite actors, it would seem slightly out of character of me to pass on a remake of what many would consider to be a horror movie classic. What makes this endeavor exciting for me is that I have never actually done one of these "dual reviews" before, so I at least get to try my hand with a slightly tweaked writing style. As a result, for the sake of length, I will cut out some of the normal filler I usually put in my film reviews (such as a brief plot overview), and instead jump straight into the pros and cons of each (mentioning plot points only when necessary). Rest assured, however, that I intend for this blog entry to be a little more in-depth than the piece I wrote for SIFF 2017, so without further ado...

WONDER WOMAN

          When it comes to anything in the DC Universe these days, Warner Bros. has a tendency to make me feel as if I am a clairvoyant, as Wonder Woman was everything that I expected it to be - in other words, not very good. Again, I wasn't initially planning on seeing it. However, Wonder Woman currently holds a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes [1], and has apparently broken several records for a female-directed film [2]. Indeed, it spent a considerable amount of time trending in the top 10 hashtag searches on Twitter for its first weekend of release, with A.O. Scott of the New York Times even claiming that Wonder Woman "briskly shakes off blockbuster branding imperatives and allows itself to be something relatively rare in the modern superhero cosmos" and that it even "resists the reflexive power-worship that drags so many superhero movies - from the Marvel as well as the DC Universes - into the mire of pseudo-Nietzschean adolescent posturing" [3]. "Surely", I thought, "with so much praise and acclaim, and the New York Times actually invoking such bizarre, yet deep statements as 'pseudo-Nietzschean adolescent posturing' in its clamor, there must be something worthwhile in Wonder Woman". Thus, I ventured to see it. Unfortunately, my faith in the views of the mainstream media, and society in general, was rewarded with disappointment as I found very little redeeming in Wonder Woman.
          As I first expressed to my sister in a text message after walking out of the theater, Wonder Woman has what I call "Superman Syndrome": she is just too overpowered, to the point of being boring and uninteresting. I previously leveled this same kind of criticism at Superman after seeing Batman vs Superman, and it's also the primary reason why, to this day, I still have not seen Man of Steel. I have argued in previous reviews that one of goals of good character development in fiction is to make a character relatable to an audience, to make a reader sympathize with a character's trials and tribulations, to make those experiencing the work of art actually have feelings towards that character. Unfortunately, this is something that DC seems to consistently miss the mark on. As I said in my Batman vs Superman review, there is nothing relatable or interesting about a character that can fly faster than a speeding bullet and shoot lasers out of his eyes. Likewise, there is nothing particularly intriguing about a character that can charge headfirst into No Man's Land and deflect machine gun fire with her bracers, or can suddenly work up the power to fire cosmic energy blasts and destroy Ancient Greek gods simply by getting angry.
          Of course, diehard Superman fans may argue that the complexity of Superman's character is actually interwoven into the inherent dichotomy and juxtaposition of the Man of Steel with his more mundane alter-ego Clark Kent, and there may certainly be something to be said of this perspective. But Wonder Woman doesn't even have this luxury (and, if I may point out, I have a suspicion that this is also not the aspect of Superman that most people focus on). Wonder Woman literally walks (or, in this case, sails) out of the aether and proceeds to just march towards the front lines of World War I, with no subtlety, depth, or complexity at all. The argument could be made that Dianna actually reveals her true character in her interactions with Chris Pine's Steve Trevor, simultaneously presenting us with a battle-hardened warrior and a clumsy, "comic-relief" style character who innocently shirks the social norms of early 20th century England. In one sense, I would be willing to agree with this assessment, but, at the same time, it's also not a very strong assessment. Wonder Woman's few moments of social interaction didn't really strike me as strong character development as they did a mere series of awkward moments, strung together in the same way a child would connect the dots in a coloring book. To perhaps further clarify my point, let's examine another recent superhero movie that I thought had much better character development: Marvel's Ant-Man. Ant-Man presented us with the narrative of an average guy with an unfortunate police record, down on his luck, trying to make ends meet while still wanting to be a good family man. It is through a wild twist of fate that he meets scientist Hank Pym and comes across the Ant Suit. This is in stark contrast to a character that literally pops out of nowhere and starts blasting Ancient Greek gods while fighting Germans during World War I (and for the love of god, can we pick a plot less tiring than the heavily cliche "stop the evil Germans during WWI/WWII" scenario?), all while wearing body armor that covers merely half her body. Only one of these characters is compelling, and it's not the latter.
          Speaking of other superheroes, I'd like to examine that statement from the New York Times a little further. Here's the full quote:

"'Wonder Woman, though, resists the reflexive power-worship that drags so many superhero movies — from the Marvel as well as the DC universes — into the mire of pseudo-Nietzschean adolescent posturing. Unlike most of her male counterparts, its heroine is not trying to exorcise inner demons or work out messiah issues. She wants to function freely in the world, to help out when needed and to be respected for her abilities. No wonder she encounters so much resistance."

This statement strikes me as reminiscent of Voltaire's characterization of the philosopher Pangloss in Candide as a professor of "metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigology". What A.O. Scott seems to be referring to when he says "pseudo-Nietzschean adolescent posturing" is the tendency of other male superheroes to display a degree of psychological nuance or complexity ("exorcising inner demons or working out messiah issues", to use his words), as evidenced by Bruce Wayne's struggle with the death of his parents or Tony Stark trying to reconcile how the manufacturing of advanced weaponry actually keeps the world safe from death and destruction, a kind of psychological complexity that Scott seems to decry. However, such an assessment is strikingly odd, as such psychological complexity is reflective of the way people actually are in the world, and, as I suggested with my comparison to Ant-Man, one of the aims of good character development is to try and be a reflection of the way people actually are in the world. People in the real world, for better or for worse, don't have the luxury of being able to sail out of the aether and just drop untainted into the quagmire of daily human struggles - people are psychologically complex creatures that, depending on who you talk to, are either a blessing or a curse on the face of the planet. The "pseudo-Nietzschean adolescent posturing" of other male superheroes then becomes a virtue, and is something that some heroes, like Wonder Woman or Superman, seem to grossly miss the mark on - it's what makes them relatable to an audience.
          Scott also makes the observations that Wonder Woman "is a glamorous and funny fish out of water" and that the world's "capacity for cruelty is a perpetual shock to her, though she herself is a prodigy of violence". These observations start to hint at what I thought was a really promising theme throughout the film, a theme that turned out to be poorly executed: the "perfect character in an imperfect world" narrative. While, as Scott points out, there is a sense in which Dianna is not quite perfect (this would require further discussion on whether or not violence can ever be justified), the case can also be made that we are at least made to believe that she is. Wonder Woman's exemplary virtues are constantly shoved before our eyes, from her constant desire to help the weak and hopeless on the battlefield, to her flagrant disregard of the very insular gender roles that women adopted in early 20th century England, to her steadfast determination to vanquish evil in whatever form it takes, like the cartoonish cape-wearing hero on the side of a cereal box. Indeed, one may be forgiven for actually being shocked at just how perfect (or near-perfect) Dianna actually is, and for feeling bad at just how inadequate us lowly mortals are in comparison. It is here that I faintly find a brief parallel to Candide, for Candide also presented us with a story about a character sheltered from, and untainted by, the corruption of the world around him, a corruption that he is quickly forced to interact with it. However, such a parallel to Candide is fleeting - one of the key differences between Wonder Woman's use of the "perfect character in an imperfect world" narrative and that of Candide is that Voltaire actually knew how to do it well. The point of the "perfect character in an imperfect world" narrative is to highlight just how imperfect the world actually is, and the interactions that particular characters have with that imperfect world, which is what Candide does. The point is NOT to sing the praises of the so-called perfect character, which is what Wonder Woman does. Human perfection is a poorly defined concept, and, as Nietzsche would tell us, our traditional notions of good and evil are nothing more than mere dogma. As such, taking a character that conforms to this dogma and putting her on a pedestal for audiences to admire and look up to in the face of the harsh reality of the world that we willingly create and, dare I say, desire for ourselves does nothing more than inculcate that dogma further in an insidious cycle. One of the aims of the "perfect character in an imperfect world" narrative is to help the audience develop the insight to break such dogmas, and it is in this regard that Warner Bros.' attempted use of this narrative structure flounders - it actually makes them worse. It is also in this regard that claiming that Wonder Woman "resists the reflexive power-worship that drags many superhero movies into the mire of pseudo-Nietzschean adolescent posturing" is akin to Pangloss professing "metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigology" - both statements are both utter nonsense.
          Overall, do I regret seeing Wonder Woman? I actually don't. For all of its glaring drawbacks, it was still, at the very least, entertaining, even if it was in a cliche and cringe-worthy way. And I won't deny that Wonder Woman, as a character, may be motivational to young, even adolescent girls (though this is arguably undermined when the film sends the message for girls to aspire to be like a high-heel wearing, scantily clad, outrageous superhero and to shame the disfigured chemical genius who also happens to be a woman with a questionable moral compass). It was certainly better than much of the trash that came out in 2016 (the Ghostbusters reboot seems like an appropriate example here), and may even perhaps surpass its predecessors in the DC Universe, Batman vs Superman and Suicide Squad. But does it really merit a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and all of the acclaim that it is getting? No.

THE MUMMY

           As mentioned at the outset, my expectations going into this iteration of The Mummy weren't particularly high, and I didn't even need to see previous reviews or ratings to come to that conclusion. However, in case you were wondering, here are some numbers: it currently holds a meager 18% on Rotten Tomatoes [4], a not-much-better 34% on Metacritic [5], and is expected to rake in roughly $40 million during its opening weekend, which is still below the roughly $50 million that Wonder Woman is expected to take in during its second weekend [6]. All of that said, I honestly didn't think The Mummy was that bad. At least, it wasn't any worse than Wonder Woman. Don't misconstrue this as a complete acquittal, though - it also certainly wasn't any better than Wonder Woman.
          Perhaps my biggest grievance with The Mummy centers around the overall motivation for its creation. Nobody asked for this remake, or any of the supposed forthcoming remakes of classic Universal horror movies for that matter, especially since there had already been a remake of The Mummy which actually wasn't half bad. If I were a detective, the next logical step in the investigation would then be to uncover the true motive behind The Mummy's creation. Fortunately, it would take only a little bit of research to find a reason that seems highly suspect: the development of Universal's so-called "Dark Universe". It would appear that Universal Studios is not content with being outdone when it comes to bad ideas and, seeing the (questionable) success of the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes, felt inclined to jump on the bandwagon as well and attempt to cash in on a cinematic universe of its own. As such, Universal has endeavored to remake all of the classic horror movies that it produced during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, but, this time around, "Frankenstein" them together into a creation that will likely be just as abominable as the mad scientist's monster itself, with The Bride of Frankenstein lined up next for the chopping block.
          We have already been given a taste of the fruits of this labor in The Mummy - and it tastes very goofy. When Henry Jekyll (Russel Crowe) suddenly heads a secret agency that is tasked with finding and confronting the very nebulous and generic "evil" in the world, a secret agency whose name essentially amounts to "Totally-Not-the-Illuminati", we have stepped beyond the realm of genuine supernatural horror and into the realm of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, a flick that took many great literary figures and brought them together into a kind of dysfunctional international supergroup. The Mummy's attempts at tying the Dark Universe together is akin to Captain Nemo karate chopping machine-gun wielding British henchman and Dorian Gray getting into a knife fight with Mina Harker in a vaguely romanticized steampunk Victorian England, something that cannot be taken seriously (at least, from the point of view of someone looking for a horror film, which is what The Mummy is supposed to be). Again, nobody asked for this, so now the reputation and prestige of these classic horror movies will forever be tainted by the Dark Universe in the same way that the reputation of James Moriarty has been tarnished by The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
          In addition to the silliness that it eventually devolved into, The Mummy also struck a nerve with its sheer number of inaccuracies and plot holes. One of the most incessantly annoying things that The Mummy did was consistently refer to Set as the God of Death. While I am not a professional Egyptologist, I actually do have something of a background in Classical Antiquity, and I can tell you that many Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom usually refer to Set as the God of Chaos or Storms, and not as a "God of Death". And while Set is indeed typically not considered a benevolent deity, the title of "God of Death" is usually conferred on his brother, Osiris (also sometimes on Anubis, for those that do not see the distinction between "God of Death/Resurrection" and "God of Embalming/Mummification"). Beyond this inaccuracy, there were a number of glaring plot holes. Early on in the film, Ahmanet strategically lures Nick and Jenny to a small abbey on the outskirts of London where the Dagger of Set is conveniently hidden in a reliquary right next to a sacrificial alter. It's not clear, however, how Ahmanet knew that. It's also not clear how that reliquary with the dagger was strategically placed right next to the alter or why. Perhaps more perplexing, it's also a mystery how Ahmanet was somehow able to know the dagger was in that particular reliquary, but didn't know that a crucial piece of the dagger was missing. Even before this dagger conundrum, there were the curious circumstances surrounding the excavation of Ahmanet's tomb. Specifically, there was one point where archaeologist Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) notices the chains coming from the ceiling of the cavern that connect to Ahmanet's sarcophagus submerged in a pool of Mercury and immediately deduces that the chains are there to keep the sarcophagus chained down. Perhaps I am just grossly misunderstanding the intricacies of the engineering that went into designing Ahmanet's tomb, but the physics here doesn't make sense. If you want something to be chained down, you chain it to the floor, not the ceiling. On the contrary, one would chain something to ceiling in order to keep it suspended in the air. I also find it highly suspicious that Jenny can correctly deduce every bit of information about the tomb, including that fact that it was intended as a prison, simply by taking a quick lap around the room, without actually closely examining any artifacts or contraptions in there at all. She's like a detective that shows up at the scene of a crime in order to look for clues, walks into the room where the murder took place, looks around for a second, and then concludes there are no clues there and leaves.
          Beyond these grievances, was there anything I actually liked about The Mummy? Well, it did actually did have a couple redeeming qualities. For example, its use of color contrast reminded me of that in Alien: Covenant, which I thought was very effective and enjoyable. There was a constant shift between the bright, illustrious, gold tones of Ancient Egypt or the Middle East and the dark, grey, ominous tones of a mummified Ahmanet, haunting the stone alleys of London. In many ways, I took this as kind of a throwback to the black and white presentation of the original 1932 film. There is something to be said of telling a story with only black, white, and shades of grey - it adds an eerie emptiness to a work of art that highlights just how alone or otherworldly some of the characters may be, overshadowing a larger conflict simply by contrasting the shimmering gold sands of Egypt with clouds of dark ash and dust. I also enjoyed the fact that Universal seemed to emphasize the zombie aspect of The Mummy. Every other stock horror movie monster or horror villain had an archetypal predecessor that more or less defined them: vampires had Dracula, mad scientists could point to Victor Frankenstein, werewolves had the Wolf-Man, etc. (I will confess that I'm not quite sure what ghosts had - maybe Casper?) Zombies, however, have always been this kind of faceless mob, where their terror factor was at least partially contingent on their raw numbers - they never had a prima donna figure to shape them. However, this iteration of The Mummy seems to step into that role, as we constantly see Ahmanet reanimate the lifeless corpses of her victims, who slowly shamble to do her bidding, while we even get to see Ahmanet herself as an erratic shambler immediately following her liberation from her sarcophagus. Viewing The Mummy as a sort of zombie icon adds a slight level of depth to zombie fiction that has the potential to be taken in a number of directions.


          Lastly, allow me to make a quick observation about that thing that both films have in common. It should be obvious to even the casual movie-goer that both of these films have not-so-subtle feminist undertones to them, attempting to present us with both a strong female protagonist and a strong female antagonist. In theory, this is indeed something to be desired. I have long advocated for a stronger female presence in science fiction and horror films, and have written in the past about the value of the feminist movement in 21st century America. That said, in practice, both of these films stumble in the way they go about realizing this goal. The below quote that Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins provided to Entertainment Weekly highlights the problem with the attempt at a feminist statement in Wonder Woman:

"How would I want to live that's badass? [...] To me, [the Amazons and Wonder Woman] shouldn't be dressed in armor like men [...] It should be different. It should be authentic and real – and appealing to women [...] It's total wish-fulfillment [...] I, as a woman, want Wonder Woman to be hot as hell, fight badass, and look great at the same time – the same way men want Superman to have huge pecs and an impractically big body. That makes them feel like the hero they want to be. And my hero, in my head, has really long legs." [7]

This is the same kind of mentality that underlies Star Wars self-insert fan fiction, with Jenkins unironically advocating for what essentially amounts to "Wonder Woman Barbie". Don't get me wrong - there is nothing wrong with a woman wanting to be both feminine and badass, and I think there are many inspiring examples of women doing this in film, music, and literature. But I'm also inclined to say that the task of reconciling a woman's desire to be feminine with the desire to transcend pre-established gender dogma is a little more complicated than juxtaposing a babe in high-heels and a tiara with a blood-soaked World War I battlefield. It's almost like a Banksy painting where Sailor Moon leads the operation against militants in the Middle East. Wonder Woman's feminist slant further loses credibility when we also examine the fact that the other major female character in the film, mad scientist Doctor Maru, turns out to out be a disfigured villainess whose character is very little developed and contrasted with the "hot as hell", "wish-fulfillment", perfectly virtuous Wonder Woman. Doctor Maru doesn't even have the honor of being the primary villain in the film - she's the sidekick to a guy who also isn't even the primary villain.
          The Mummy's blunder when it comes to the handling of its feminist statement is a lot more egregious: it retcons a classic. I have a love/hate relationship with the notion of retconning a fictional universe - if a fictional universe is decidedly bad, by all means, an artist certainly has grounds to retcon it and make it better. Likewise, it approaches the level of cardinal sin to retcon a work of fiction that might as well be considered a priceless artifact. Hence, when The Mummy 2017 rewrites Boris Karloff's 1932 Mummy as a woman for no reason other than to cash in on a cinematic universe that is on a trajectory to take us to the furthest regions of silliness, we have essentially tried to re-sculpt the Venus de Milo as a man. Again, I am very much in accord that Hollywood is severely lacking a solid, sinister female villain, but it's pretty obvious that putting one in The Mummy is forced. The most surprising thing is that, out of all production studios, Universal certainly has the intellectual bandwidth to produce a film with a feminist statement that is both organic and profound (we saw this a little bit with 2015's Jurassic World) - I don't see what would be stopping them from writing an original script for a fresh new film with a female villain.
          If I may close with some suggestions for a solid female protagonist and a solid female antagonist to take cues from, a couple examples come to mind. 1979's Alien presented us with a woman who is scientifically-savvy enough to take part in a space mining operation, and, before long, is forced to confront an intergalactic walking nightmare with grappling hooks, flamethrowers, attrition, and a fair amount of blood, sweat, and tears. Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley was a genuine example of a strong female protagonist - a character incidentally caught up in the dramatic events that took place aboard the Nostromo who was forced to resort to any and all means to survive while remaining level-headed, independent of the fact that she was a woman. Now, if we are looking for a solid female antagonist, Lena Headey gave us a great example in 2012's Dredd. Headey portrayed Madeline "Ma-Ma" Madrigal, a former prostitute turned sadistic drug queenpin. Ma-Ma had no reservations, skinning alive anybody that crossed her and throwing the bloody carcasses from the 200th floor of a futuristic apartment building. There was nothing "Barbie" about her - her outfit consisted of nothing more than a minimalist tank top and black pants, a far cry from the sexualized body armor that Patty Jenkins believes women need to be wearing in World War I, and she was heavily tattooed and scarred. Oftentimes displaying far more intelligence than her male thugs, Ma-Ma was an intimidating force that only Judge Dredd was able to stop. Again, I don't doubt that a character like Wonder Woman can be inspirational to many a young woman. However, if we want to see solid female characters that are much more relatable, or representative of the way the world may actually be, then we would be better served by looking to Ripley or Ma-Ma for examples.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Review - 2017 Seattle International Film Festival

          I have lived in the Puget Sound area for just under two years now, but have never really had the opportunity to enjoy the Seattle International Film Festival, which usually takes place every summer from May until June. However, this year, now that I have a higher income and more flexible free time, I was actually able to get out and see what the rest of the world has to offer in the way of film. This will be a kind of impromptu piece as I initially wasn't planning on writing anything for SIFF at all, but suddenly felt the urge to do so as many of the pieces I publish on my blog are about film, so it struck me as kind of odd that I would remain silent when a film festival rolls into town. Besides, it's a quick exercise for me to keep my writing chops fresh while I decide whether or not I am going to do a review for The Mummy remake. The exciting part for me is that, while many of my previous film reviews were for big-budget Hollywood films, many of the films displayed at SIFF are independent, or produced by a studio that is not part of Hollywood at all, which gives me an opportunity to experience how the artists approach film without being tied down by Hollywood bureaucracy. Perhaps even more exciting, it gives me an opportunity to experience how other cultures around the world interpret each genre and add their own perspective to it.
          I only managed to see three films for SIFF this year. While I wanted to see more (there were apparently a number of notably popular entries), these were the three that both my schedule and my budget would permit me to see: The Osiris Child: Science Fiction Volume One, Napping Princess (sometimes translated as Ancien and the Magic Tablet in English), and Without Name. Below I provide my overall impression of each of these films with some general observations I had of each. Note that these reviews will be not nearly as elaborate as the ones I usually post to my blog - again, my decision to write this was something I felt in the moment rather than something I had planned out, though I nonetheless aim to build at least a brief case for ratings I give each film. Needless to say, for low-budget or independent films, they were all very good, much better than many titles that have come out of Hollywood these days, although some were notably better than others.

The Osiris Child: Science Fiction Volume One

          My first outing at SIFF this year was the Australian sci-fi/dystopian action flick The Osiris Child. Unfortunately, it also turned out to be the least memorable of the three films I saw. Don't get me wrong, The Osiris Child was still very much palatable, and remains light-years ahead of much of the rubbish that came out of 2016 (i.e. The 5th Wave). In that sense, my dissatisfaction with it should not be construed as a criticism of its failures so much as an acknowledgement of just how good Napping Princess and Without Name are in comparison.
          I found the plot to be particularly engaging: a hard science fiction story about a military pilot stationed in a base floating above a colonized planet who must defect from the military in order to rescue his daughter on the planet below after his superiors plot to destroy said planet in order to cover up an illegal weapons research project. However, beyond the plot, The Osiris Child didn't have much going for it. The visual effects weren't anything special or hypnotizing - if anything, they were comparable to the industry standard for a science fiction film with a somewhat large budget. The characters were rather stock and generic, with none of them being particularly memorable or relatable. Neither the landscapes nor dialogue were very imaginative, with most of the film taking place in a bleak and barren desert landscape (which looked suspiciously like either the Australian Outback or the Southwestern United States), and many of the interactions between the characters being painfully predictable. Overall, The Osiris Child very much had a vibe of being geared towards the adolescent audience, or perhaps those who have little experience with science fiction, the same kind of audience that would perhaps go see a movie like The 5th Wave. However, the big difference between The 5th Wave and The Osiris Child is that The Osiris Child is actually somewhat good.

Napping Princess (Ancien and the Magic Tablet)

         In contrast to my experience with The Osiris Child, Napping Princess is easily the best film out of the three that I saw at SIFF. Written and directed by Kenji Kamiyama, the same director behind Jin-Roh and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Napping Princess is an anime film that doesn't fail to showcase the depth of imagination that Japanese anime is all-too-famous for.
          Napping Princess juxtaposes what many would consider to be two very disparate fictional settings: a modern Japanese society trying to grapple with the unfettered progress of technological innovation, and a whimsical kingdom, full of magic and sorcery, that is constantly under threat of destruction by a fiery behemoth, blending them together into a narrative that at times takes playful swipes at those who are stuck in the conservative mindset of trying preserve outdated technologies and energy sources, while simultaneously admonishing us of the risks of mindless innovation. The characters are memorable and the dialogue is entertaining, at times making us laugh, at times making us cry, and at other times leaving us on the edge of our seats asking what will happen next. The plot flows seamlessly from the primary protagonist's dreams of pirates, enchanted dolls, and evil wizards to her waking experiences of cell phones, tablets, software code, and her mission to rescue her father from the clutches of a corrupt corporation, all while paying passive homage to the Kaiju and Mecha genres of Japanese science fiction. Overall, Napping Princess was an anime experience that I had not seen in a very long time, and easily got the highest rating of any film I saw at SIFF.

Without Name

          Without Name presented a radical shift in tone from The Osiris Child and Napping Princess. Without Name is an Irish thriller production, directed by Lorcan Finnegan and filmed on location in Dublin with a fully Irish cast. Billed as an "eco-horror" film (I've never actually heard of "eco-horror" before), the film follows a professional land surveyor, Eric, as he is tasked with mapping out and collecting data on a heavily wooded patch of land for an enigmatic client. However, something about the woods is not quite right...
          I will confess myself ambivalent with regard to my reception of the plot. It's not clear whether or not the woods are actually haunted, or if the events of the film are all in Eric's head, developing from a small case of paranoia and depression, which itself stems from his shoddy relationship with his wife and son, to full-blown psychosis, brought on by his increasing use of hallucinogens and his reading of a madman's ravings throughout the course of the film. In one sense, this may be a directorial oversight: there seems to be a push in the film towards the idea that the woods are actually haunted, but other events in the film don't quite seem to agree with this prospect. In another sense, this is part of the beauty of the plot - part of the detective work of trying to figure out what is actually happening is left up to the audience, provoking them to actually reflect on what they are seeing instead of just mindlessly absorbing it, which is a good thing. Aside from the plot, there isn't much to judge. The acting was standard, perhaps more emotional and dramatic than The Osiris Child, though not as memorable as Napping Princess. What little special effects the film had were nice, if only slightly seizure-inducing with so many scenes of stroboscopic lights. Overall, I would rate Without Name as a very interesting experience, perhaps more so than The Osiris Child. However, it's very slow pacing makes it such that very little actually happens in the movie, and, as such, it doesn't appear to have the same kind of energy or emotional appeal as Napping Princess.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Review - Alien: Covenant

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

          It is a clear day in Seattle - those darkened rain clouds that this city is so famous for have, for the time being, ceased to blanket the sky with grey and instead have left us with a bright and pale azure. As I casually walk down the bustling avenues in this sprawling metropolis, a crisp breeze rustles through the tree-lined streets, and I am once again reminded why this place is sometimes called "The Emerald City" as I look up at the shivering leaves, fully grown and lush on this weekend afternoon. Alas, such a picturesque scene is my indication that summer has begun to creep into the Puget Sound area. And with the onset of summer come all of those traditional activities that Americans are apt to partake in this time of year. Hiking in the Cascade Mountains. Having a picnic with friends and family on the 4th of July along the shores of Lake Washington at sunset, anxiously awaiting the firework extravaganza. Navigating one's way through the hustle and bustle of Downtown trying to take advantage of this year's summer sales in Seattle's cosmopolitan shopping districts. Preparing brisket and ribs on a charcoal grill or in a smoker, and serving them with a side of cornbread and coleslaw on checkered plates at the neighborhood barbecue. Windsurfing or sailing out on the shimmering waves of Lake Union with the sun looming gleefully overhead. Friends sharing stories with a couple of beers around the fire pit at dusk. Indeed, many Americans have a lot to look forward to this summer. Meanwhile, while all of this is happening...I will be sitting in a darkened theater watching people getting their faces ripped off by Xenomorphs in Alien: Covenant.
          Yes, the 2017 summer movie season is finally upon us! And I underscore the "finally" in that previous statement - cinematically speaking, 2017 has been off to a sluggish start, with very little in the way of movies being released in January and February (at least, very little of anything that looked remotely interesting), and only a small handful of decent titles being released in March. Now, however, we have arrived at that time of year where film studios will try to capitalize on the extra free time families have, now that the children are out of school and adults tend to take advantage of their employer's PTO, and release a number of what are often billed as this year's "blockbuster" films between the months of May and August. Naturally, leading into this year's summer movie season, I reflect on previous years. I distinctly recall declaring 2015 one of the best years for film that I have seen in a long time, with the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, Spectre, Crimson Peak, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens leading the charge into the future, handing off the banner to 2016 to continue down the path of innovation. Unfortunately, in stark contrast to its decorated predecessor, 2016's dramatic charge was cut short when its fearless steed stumbled right out of the gates and fell face-first into a pit of quicksand and died, as 2016 was an absolutely abominable year for film. The 5th Wave, my first cinematic outing of 2016, remains one of the worst films I have ever seen, with the likes of Gods of Egypt, Batman v Superman, Ghostbusters (2016), and Suicide Squad serving as additional dead weight to make sure that no part of the sinking horse is left sticking out above the sand. It wasn't until the closing months of 2016, when we were served Doctor Strange and Rogue One, were we offered any glimmer of redemption (I will grant Deadpool honorable mention as well). What is reassuring, however, is that, unlike last year, where my Spidey-senses allowed me to intuit that 2016's summer offerings were going to crash and burn before they even took off, I cannot sense such an omen hanging over 2017. My optimism is further reinforced by the fact that my summer kicks off with an entry in the Alien series, a series that I have long been a fan of.
          Now, having seen Covenant, I can say that my faith has been rewarded. Alien: Covenant is the sixth installment in Ridley Scott's acclaimed Alien series, a series that dared to blend science fiction with elements of the most shocking and atmospheric horror, the first of entry of which, 1979's Alien, has become the standard-bearer for the "lost in space" sub-genre of science fiction. Serving as a follow-up to 2012's thought-provoking Prometheus, Covenant continues what has been dubbed the "prequel" series of the Alien brand, serving as a kind of origin story for the Xenomorphs (the eponymous aliens). And Covenant certainly has some colossal shoes to fill. Alien and Aliens (1986) featured so many elements that have since come to define the series, allowing it to stand out from what can be considered your other "run of the mill" science fiction films: a strong female protagonist (this was virtually unheard of in science fiction before Sigourney Weaver's portrayal of Ellen Ripley), a successful blend of the slow, heavy atmospheric pacing of horror with the otherwise worn-out science fiction blueprints of the time (exemplified by the darkened, dangerous corridors of the ship where the mysterious Xenomorph could be lurking around every corner), and an approach to art design that pushed the limits of imagination (H.R. Giger's designs for the Xenomorphs and alien technology were famously both laughed at and deemed too spooky for audiences by Fox Studios). While reception of Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection has been mixed, Prometheus again renewed interest in the series, juxtaposing the verdant hills and flowing rivers of intergalactic landscapes with the dark, bio-mechanical, psycho-sexual demeanor of the Xenomorphs, presenting a yet-unseen artistic contrast in the Alien series. Prometheus also introduced a new layer of philosophical abstraction to the series by introducing the "Engineers", an advanced race of humanoid aliens, as a much more civilized foil to the primal Xenomorphs, and asking the question of where both the Xenomorphs and humans come from, the answer to which supposedly centers on the mysterious Engineers. Covenant continues this story of evolution where Prometheus left off.
          Alien: Covenant opens up in a bright, white, and semi-rotund room, with a grand piano tucked off to the side, a replica of Michelangelo's statue of David in the rear, and a soft, high-backed chair in the front, facing a large, panoramic window overlooking a green mountain landscape outside. Megalomanic Peter Weyland activates a new android (referred to as "synthetics" in the series), who quickly adopts the name of "David" after looking at the statue, to serve as his new companion in his quest to answer the ultimate question of where humans came from, refusing to accept that human genesis was a mere accident of nature.
          Fast forward several decades. In an effort to propagate the human species, the colonization vessel "Covenant" has charted a course for the uninhabited planet Origae-6, carrying roughly 1000 human embryos and 2000 colonists, including about 10 crew members suspended in a stasis sleep. Synthetic Walter, along with an AI simply known as "Mother", oversee the operations of the ship while it embarks on its journey to Origae-6, scheduled to take another 7 years. During its voyage, a nearby neutrino burst rocks the ship, damaging its power structures and the hibernation capsules of several of the colonists, including the ship's captain, Jake Branson, who perishes when his capsule bursts into flames with him inside it. The remaining crew are awakened from stasis just in time for terraforming expert Daniels "Dany" Branson to see her husband get cooked inside his capsule. Chris Oram, man-of-faith and first mate of the Covenant, assumes command of the remaining crew and they set out to repair the ship before continuing their voyage.
          While repairing the exterior power structures of the ship, chief pilot Tennessee's communication signal with the rest of the crew is interrupted by a rogue transmission broadcast into deep space. Back inside the ship, Tennessee shares a replay of the transmission with the rest of the crew, which is very distorted and fuzzy, but complete enough for them to make out that it appears to be a human signal. Mother is able to trace the signal to a nearby planet, which the crew is shocked to find is both uncharted and merely weeks away. Despite some passionate protest from Dany, Oram makes the executive decision to reset the Covenant's course for this new planet.
          Upon arriving above the planet's stratosphere, a portion of the crew descend from the Covenant to survey its surface. After struggling through a bit of turbulence descending through the clouds of an ion storm, the crew land on the planet's surface, which is covered with high mountains, thick vegetation, and crystal-clear lakes. While marching through the surrounding woods, a member of the expedition team, Ledward, ingests a thick, black, airborne spore spurted by a bizarre grey fungus while Dany makes the observation that there don't appear to be any native fauna on this planet - just native flora. Ecologist Karine and Ledward break away from the rest of group before the expedition comes across what appears to be a crashed alien ship. While exploring this inside of this mysterious vessel, another member of the team, Hallett, ingests the same black spore while Dany discovers the identification card of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, a member of the science vessel "Prometheus", which disappeared some 10 years earlier. As the team finds the source of the rogue transmission inside the ship, both Ledward and Hallett begin exhibiting symptoms of some kind of severe illness. Karine escorts Ledward back to the landing ship while the rest of the expedition team begin their trek back with Hallett.
          After the landing pilot and Tennessee's wife, Faris, fearfully quarantines Ledward inside a medical cabin aboard the landing ship, inadvertently locking Karine inside as well, a small, albinoid creature, erupts from Ledward's back, killing him. The creature proceeds to maul Karine before breaking through a window in the locked door of the medical cabin. Faris attempts to hunt down and kill the pale Neomorph using one of the military-grade rifles aboard the ship, but ends up blasting the very large canisters that read "EXPLOSIVE MATERIAL" in big, bold letters, ultimately blowing herself away while destroying the landing ship and their primary communication channel to the Covenant. The rest of the crew makes it back to the landing ship in time to witness it being engulfed in flames while, at the same time, Hallett violently coughs up another pale Neomorph, which scurries away into the tall grass as Hallett dies. While attempting to radio a distress call to the Covenant, the two Neomorphs return and attack the crew, killing a crew member by the name of Ankor and eating Walter's left hand. The crew manager to kill one of the Neomorphs, but the other proves difficult to hit. Before long, however, a bright flare explodes overhead and the remaining Neomorph disappears, and a mysterious figure emerges from the light and beckons what remains of the crew to follow him.
          This mysterious figure leads the crew to a dark and derelict city, populated only by himself and thousands of petrified, humanoid statues. He reveals himself to be the Synthetic David, the sole surviving member of the Prometheus, who had crash-landed on this planet in an Engineer ship with Dr. Shaw. During the crash, says David, Dr. Shaw perished and the black spore was released on the planet, killing all the natural fauna. At this point, Rosenthal, a member of the expedition's security unit splits from the group. Unfortunately for her, she encounters the remaining Neomorph, which decapitates her. Later, David finds the Neomorph hovering over the pieces of Rosenthal's body and tries to befriend it just before Oram arrives and kills it. Demanding answers, Oram pressures David into revealing what he has been up to these past 10 years: David has been secretly incubating the black spore and aiding in its evolution process, and that, contrary to the previous account of Dr. Shaw being killed in the ship crash, David had actually killed her and subjected her carcass to experimentation. Oram is then escorted down into a cellar-like chamber and shown a number of large egg pods by David, who claims they are the apex of his experiments. While peering into the top of one of the egg pods, a Facehugger erupts and latches onto Oram's face, implanting him with an embryo. Meanwhile, the few remaining members of the crew manage to re-establish communication with the Covenant and indicate they need an immediate evacuation. David stumbles across Dany who also learns of David's deceit, having found the mutated body of Dr. Shaw. Walter arrives to save Dany from David and a fight between the two synthetics ensues, all while a newly evolved Xenomorph erupts from Oram and begins hunting what remains of the crew, killing security operative Cole and injuring another security operative, Lope.
          Tennessee arrives on the surface in a small mining vessel to try and evacuate Dany, Lope, and Walter, who appears to have survived his fight with David. The Xenomorph also manages to hop on to the ship as it is trying to take off, causing Dany to go full Ellen Ripley and take on the Xenomorph outside on the ships mining deck. Dany manages to eventually crush the Xenomorph using the ships crane and the team is able to return to the Covenant. Not too long after arriving back on board, however, Lope dies as another Xenomorph erupts from his body, presumably from an embryo that was implanted in his injury. With the help of Walter, Dany and Tennessee manage to lead the Xenomorph into a large hangar, where, once again, Dany works up the courage to antagonize it, this time culminating in the Xenomorph getting impaled by a giant truck and knocked into space through the open hangar door. At the end of the day, Tennessee and Dany return to stasis to continue their journey to Origae-6. Just before Walter hits the button to force her to sleep, Dany asks Walter about a plan she had with Jake to build a cabin on Origae-6, a plan she had revealed to him earlier. Noticing Walter's lack of knowledge about this, Dany realizes that she is actually talking to David, not Walter, who then forces her to sleep. Alien: Covenant ends with David putting two Facehugger embryos in the refrigerator with the human embryos and asking Mother to continue the voyage to Origae-6.
          Despite my reverence for the Alien series, Covenant is not exempt from my normal modus operandi of weighing the pros and cons of a film in order to determine whether or not it is actually good. Fortunately for Covenant, however, its pros do indeed outweigh its cons. In particular, Michael Fassbender delivers what may very well be the best performance I have seen from him yet, and the art direction and design of Covenant remain faithful to the precedent set by Prometheus. This is not to say, however, that there aren't any questionable moments in Covenant. The overall plot seemed rather stock and generic, with the only real depth in the story centering around the motives of David. As a side effect of the comparatively shallow plot, Covenant doesn't seem to ask the same kind of thought-provoking questions as Prometheus, which I thought was one of the highlights of its predecessor.
          Michael Fassbender's performance in Covenant may very well be one of his best. Fassbender had the unusual task of portraying two characters, both synthetics David and Walter. The challenge in such a task is to portray them as two wholly distinct characters in the same film, which may not seem like a large hurdle for an actor, but the twist here is that they also have to be similar enough as to preserve those characteristics that mark them as synthetics. Fassbender, however, seemed to be able to do this with relative ease. Both Walter and David, for example, approach the world around them with the calm, calculated, and semi-indifferent demeanor that you would expect from an android - as soon David is activated, he seems to acquiesce to Weyland's commands without any kind of emotion or preponderance, much in the same way that Walter is able to calmly and coolly strut down the decks of the Covenant as the neutrino burst rocks the ship and the colonist capsules are damaged. Of course, all of this changes for David by the time of the events of Covenant, as his relationship with Weyland and the events of Prometheus have caused him to seemingly develop human traits and emotion, as demonstrated by his admiration for Shaw, an aspect of David that Fassbender is able to capture flawlessly. Even Fassbender's decision to create a contrast between Walter's and David's speech (Walter has an American accent, while David has a British one) helps to establish the distinction between the two significantly (I may also point out that I recently watched another film, The Circle, in which a noteworthy British actress, Emma Watson, attempted to do an American accent...let's just say that Fassbender's accent for Walter was more convincing). It is not too often that actors are tasked with portraying two different characters in the same film with virtually no change in their physical appearance, leaving it solely up to the behavior and mannerisms of the actor to mark the difference. As such, Fassbender's success in doing this adds a layer of depth to Covenant unseen in any recent science fiction entry.
          The aesthetics and art direction of Covenant also live up to the expectations set by previous installments of the Alien series. There is a principle in art known as contrast - the idea that human perception better notices those areas where colors and tones differ from each other markedly, as opposed to those areas where colors blend in or are harder to detect, subliminally resulting in the psychological side-effect of humans tending to remember those areas or events more. It is a very primitive and rudimentary principle, a principle that Covenant takes advantage of and utilizes to its maximum potential. I think both Prometheus and Covenant can be considered a "clash of tones" - on the one hand, we have the peaceful, verdant landscapes and natural beauty of the planets explored in both films, on the other, we have the advanced, white, pure, and digital beauty of human technology, as exemplified by Mother and the Covenant's computer systems, as well as the technology of the Engineers, and in a third hand, we have the dark, sweaty, distorted countenance of the Xenomorphs and their bio-mechanical domain, serving as a kind of chaotic virus infecting the perfect order of the other two. All three of these tones contrast in Covenant in the same way that white text contrasts with a black background, or red stars stand out against a backdrop of blue, a very simple yet profound contrast. And, as a further testament to the lasting impression of H.R. Giger, Covenant remains faithful to his works, presenting us again with the images of humanoid beings tainted with an appearance sometimes Lovecraftian (the Engineers' space suits come to mind), sometimes Freudian (many have pointed to the phallic shape of the Xenomorph's head as an example of the psycho-sexual undertones of Giger's work).
          Of course, Covenant is not without its flaws. Particularly, the plot this time around struck me as much more lackluster than its predecessor. Prometheus presented us with a very provocative narrative, asking the right kinds of questions and, at times, asking the audience to piece together events. A megalomaniac who refuses to believe that humans evolved from a primordial soup by mere chance sends an expedition into space to try and find the origins of life on Earth, an expedition that learns of the existence of a race of highly advanced humanoid aliens that have the ability to manipulate biological and genetic structures, even at a microscopic level. Wrapped in layers of religious allegory, these "Engineers" eventually become angry at humans and develop a biological weapon to exterminate them, but, much to the horror of both humans and the Engineers, they lose control of this "sin virus", a pestilence which brings about a destruction that actually constitutes the evolutionary steps of something more sinister. Indeed, reflecting back on Prometheus, I may be audacious enough to say that it may have had one of the better narratives we have seen in recent years. In Covenant, however, it wouldn't be too disingenuous of me to summarize the plot by saying that a team of human colonists land on a planet where a crazy android cultivated the evolution of the black spore and that "something more sinister" came along and wiped out most of the humans (i.e. they all get killed by a monster created by a crazy guy). There is just no depth to Covenant's story, save for maybe the mystery surrounding David's true intentions, but even this plot point is not enough to bring Covenant up to the level of Prometheus. Granted, Covenant's story is already leagues ahead of almost anything that came before it in 2016, and is not any more or any less engaging than Ghost in the Shell from earlier this year, which I enjoyed. However, I must refer back to those "colossal shoes" that I mentioned several paragraphs back - if a film is going to serve as an installment of the Alien series, and directly follow in the footsteps of Prometheus, it has to have a plot that does justice to its roots, lest it inadvertently undermine those roots and ruin all that was captivating about its predecessor.
          Overall, Alien: Covenant gets a recommendation. While the depth of its narrative may not live up that of Prometheus, all of the very basic things that you would expect of the Alien series are there: slow, atmospheric horror, vivid landscapes and imaginative technology, solid acting, and a faithfulness to Giger's art design. These things alone are already enough to make Covenant stand out from the rest of the sci-fi lot in recent years, and put it on par with most other big films that came before it in 2017, such as Logan and Ghost in the Shell. This leaves me optimistic for the rest of the summer movie season, and really gives me a good point of comparison as I expect the rest of the summer's offerings to be very eclectic and diverse, from the international indie films I will be seeing at the Seattle International Film Festival to the remake of The Mummy.

Monday, May 1, 2017

In the Field - May Day 2017, Seattle

          It's that time of year again: May Day. Yes, May 1st, that day where members of the working class and disillusioned activists organize themselves in protest against those societal institutions from which they believe injustice, inequality, and oppression spawn, from capitalist economic systems to gender discrimination. Dating back to the 19th Century, May Day protests and celebrations have become an international phenomenon, with demonstrations having taken place in locations as far apart as Minneapolis and Moscow, from Canada to the Middle East. As such, given their revolutionary message, many May Day events are very politically charged, and are oftentimes at odds with the status-quo.
          It's no secret that, in the United States and Canada, May Day protests tend to tilt towards the left side of political spectrum, with many activists advocating for policies ranging from the rather innocuous expansion of social welfare programs to the more extreme implementation of socialist or communist economic systems. That said, May Day is not an exclusive event, having been frequented by anarchists in the past and even used as an excuse for those whose ideals tend toward the right side of the political spectrum to organize.
          In recent years, May Day protests have become a topic of controversy as they have become increasingly violent, and have put many American cities on edge. Video from May Day 2016 shows that police in Seattle utilized flash bang grenades, tear gas, and pepper spray to keep marchers corralled in a shopping center in Downtown Seattle [1]. Meanwhile, as calls from Seattle councilwoman Kshama Sawant to push the envelope of civil disobedience for May Day 2017 intensified, some critics have pegged the councilwoman as "dangerous" [2]. In 2012, May Day protesters in Portland marched through a mall downtown while simultaneously trying to keep the mainstream media out, claiming that the media is "bought" by "the corporations" [3]. Also in 2012, activists in Oakland were greeted by riot police with tear gas and zip-tie handcuffs [4]. A splinter group of protesters stormed a GAP store while white supremacists lined up for a confrontation with activists in Washington D.C. for May Day 2013 [5][6]. Indeed, there hardly seem to be a May Day that goes by without some kind of chaos somewhere.
          And at the end of the whole mess, there are always questions about who the martyrs were and who the antagonists were amidst the maelstrom. Were police displaying excessive force when apprehending protesters and stifling their 1st Amendment rights? Did protesters devolve from organized activists into an unruly and violent mob? Were activist groups responsible for the vandalism that occurred, or was it a lone-wolf who decided to take advantage of the situation and frame the protesters? In order to uncover the truth behind the answers to these questions, I decided to witness these events for myself first-hand. Seattle has a reputation for vibrant social activism, and has arguably had some of the most...exciting...May Day events in recent history. As such, I left my apartment this morning on May 1st, 2017, and ventured out into the city. Here is what I found:



My journey began at the University of Washington, where small groups of students were scattered throughout the university's Red Square in protest of unfair labor practices.


Squads of police were stationed around Red Square in the event that student demonstrations got out of hand, but...


Events at UW were so peaceful that many police ended up just relaxing inside, drinking coffee and playing with their phones.


I next made my way over to Judkins Park, just as the largest event of the day, the Immigration and Labor March, was emptying out of the park and making its way toward Downtown...


While still at Judkins, I caught a glimpse of this anarchist slogan on the side of a building.


While following the march, I sometimes had to cut several side streets in order to get ahead of police barricades. At one point, I came across these really curious characters...


The march eventually made its way into Downtown Seattle.



Even Antifa activists took part in the larger event (this image catches only some of them sprinkled throughout the larger group).


Speaking of Antifa, one of them had created this very intriguing sign, seen here at Judkins Park.

          By the end of the day, I had been following these events from about 10:30am to 6:00pm and had walked halfway throughout the city, from Judkins Park to Queen Anne. And, despite the reputation that May Day has in Seattle, May Day 2017 was much more mellow than previous years. There were no instances of violence during the time that I was running around the streets, but there were several tense moments when pro-Trump/pro-government activists led a counter-rally that crossed paths with the larger event, but these moments took place much later in the evening and were quickly handled by police, resulting in only 5 arrests [7]. That said, reports indicate that events in Portland, Oregon, and Olympia, Washington, were not as peaceful, and were in fact more in line with what one might have expected based on previous years, with protests in both cities being declared a "riot" [8]. As such, since events in Seattle were, well, uneventful, I still don't know what to make of the May Day protests, and the questions I had at the outset of my inquiry still remain.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6WOvaT_IB-c
[2] http://mynorthwest.com/613988/dagerous-kshama-sawant-may-day/
[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHtwNdV6mmo
[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3iB01IrA10
[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQ5Q8-1yfyI
[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_anCrs65930
[7] http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/live-updates-from-may-day-in-seattle-thousands-expected-for-marches-rallies-in-seattle/
[8] https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/oregon/articles/2017-05-01/big-may-day-crowds-expected-in-seattle-portland

Friday, April 7, 2017

Review - Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!!!

          It has been a very interesting three months of radio silence since my last blog entry, my review of Rogue One. Perhaps the biggest reason for my absence is that fact that I have actually spent the past few months researching and writing what will likely be my next entry in the "Philosophy" category, a project that is turning out to be much more ambitious than any of my previous philosophical endeavors (save my master's thesis), even slightly overwhelming. I will not reveal it here, as I don't like to make promises and not deliver, in the event that I end up dissatisfied with the final product and scrap it. Fear not, however, for, if it turns out to be to my liking, it will be revealed in due time. The other important reason for my radio silence has to do with the fact that I had a series of medical episodes throughout the month of March, one of which resulted in an injury to both my hands that, in turn, severely inhibited my ability to write for a brief period of time. Also fear not, though, for I have more less recovered from these medical complications and am now finally able to return to my normal routine in life. Lastly, the reason that I hadn't even ventured to write a film review for the past few months is merely a result of the fact that fuck all for movies actually came out before the first couple weeks of March.
          I cannot recall any title throughout the entirety of either January or February that even remotely interested me, except for perhaps The Great Wall, a film that only grabbed my attention insofar as it was a Chinese produced and directed film, and I was interested in seeing how the film production capabilities of the second largest film consuming nation have evolved in light of such progress. But, alas, I didn't end up seeing it and, according to most other critics, I didn't miss anything special. It is in March, however, that the 2017 film season really started to take off. We were served Logan in the early days of March, the latest entry in the X-Men film franchise and Hugh Jackman's last outing as Wolverine. This one I actually did manage to see, and I must say that I was rather impressed. Logan actually managed to break away from the senseless action sequences that tend to characterize superhero movies these days, instead presenting us with actual drama and character development, and approached the superhero formula from a different perspective. After Logan, the Power Rangers reboot was released around the middle of the month. I will admit that there was a part of me that was interested in actually going to see Power Rangers, not because I was expecting it to be a great expression of cinematic art, but rather because I was hoping it would be a mindless throwback to the original series from the 90s, complete with all of the cheesy and colorful action that makes films like 80s Arnold Schwarzenegger movies entertaining. However, also according to other critics, the new Power Rangers reboot doesn't even do that, with one review calling it "sadistic, ugly, and incompetent" [1]. So, instead, I actually saw Life, that movie where Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds are astronauts among a larger team of astronauts in the very near future who get trapped aboard the International Space Station after their team stumbles across a dormant alien life form and reawakens it. That one was palatable, if very mediocre - it was a very "by the book" entry in the "trapped in space" genre of science fiction, and was nowhere near as innovative as, say, Alien was in 1979. That brings us to March 31st, the closing day of what I would call a very cinematically active month, and the release of the remake of Ghost in the Shell.
          Ghost in the Shell (2017) is directed by Rupert Sanders and stars Scarlett Johansson, and is billed as a live-action remake of the Ghost in the Shell anime film from 1995, widely considered to be one of the most innovative anime films of all time, as well as a visionary entry in the science fiction genre. In the anime, Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg whose body is virtually all machine, save her brain, is part of an elite government public security force, known as Section 9, and is tasked with finding an enigmatic hacker referred to simply as the "Puppet Master" in a distant-future Japan. In Sanders' remake, Johansson portrays Major Mira Killian, a woman whose body was irreparably damaged in a terrorist attack, thus leading to her brain being recycled in a new prosthetic body, her memory corrupted, and her new persona being enrolled in the Section 9 anti-terrorist project to hunt for a terrorist hacker known as Kuze. I will admit to not being the most familiar with the original anime, having seen it once when I was much younger. However, its reputation proceeds it well, so, when word had reached my ears that there was going to be a live action remake, I, of course, felt inclined to develop an adequate background on the series and attempted to watch the original film as a refresher. It turns out, however, that the original anime proved extremely difficult to find, with only bits and pieces appearing on YouTube and little in the way of Netflix. Ultimately, I had to settle for Ghost in the Shell: Arise, an OVA that debuted in 2015 and served as a reboot of the series, attempting to keep all of the same themes as the original, but presenting it using the current trends in anime production. From Arise, I was able to parse out the general nature of the series and develop a foundation on the kinds of questions the series asks. I suppose the concern would be whether or not the Arise OVA is genuinely faithful to the original anime, but, reasonably enough, I can't address this concern without the original anime to compare it to. Still, some background is better than no background, so even if there is some dissent among Ghost in the Shell purists as to whether or not Arise does justice to the original, approaching Ghost 2017 from Arise is better than not being familiar with the series at all.
          My expectations going into an early afternoon matinee on release day I think were reasonable enough, and, coming out of it, my final verdict on Ghost in the Shell 2017 is a positive one. Ghost in the Shell 2017 excelled where I thought it would excel and was lackluster in those areas where my expectations weren't particularly high to begin with. I believe it goes without saying that it doesn't quite live up to the precedent set by Ghost in the Shell 1995 (I'm still deciding whether or not it even lives up to Arise), but I also think that those who expected it to were perhaps a little too optimistic in their preliminary appraisal. Particularly, the level of attention given to the aesthetics of the film merits praise, as the film was a visually stunning experience, and did an adequate job of sucking the audience into a semi-utopian cyberpunk future, where a city of seemingly perfect order teeters on the brink of dystopian chaos, and the people are so drugged up on cybernetic enhancements that the line between man and machine is blurred. And, despite several cries of whitewashing and cultural appropriation, Ghost 2017 makes several very interesting production moves that hearken back to Ghost 1995, and serve as a subtle reminder that Ghost in the Shell is, first and foremost, a Japanese vision of the future. That said, the one important area where I wasn't expecting anything spectacular, and, sure enough, Ghost 2017 failed to deliver, was illustrating a story that really asks and explores those profound philosophical questions about identity, reality, the direction that humanity seems to be going, and what it means to be a person.
          Ghost in the Shell 2017 opens up with the first-person view of a woman on a stretcher and various doctors around her discussing whether or not her brain should be salvaged. Predictably, they go through with it, and the woman's brain is then harvested and inserted into a fully mechanical prosthetic body in the image of Scarlett Johansson. During the birth and awakening of this new cyborg, the scientist spearheading the operation, Dr. Ouelet, praises the feat as the first successful brain transplant into a fully-functional mechanical body. However, her pride is quickly cut down as the CEO of Hanka Robotics, the group that designed the body and envisioned the project, a man simply known as Cutter, declares that the body was specifically designed to be part of a covert counter-terrorism cell, Section 9. Fast-forward one year. Major Mira Killian stands vigilant on the rooftops of skyscrapers that seem to phase in and out of reality, port scanning all open communications frequencies for any malicious cyber activities, quickly uncovering a developing terrorist attack on Dr. Osmund, a scientist formerly involved in a Hanka research project, who also happens to be hosting the President of the African Union. (If I may also point out, I immediately noticed that Dr. Osmund was portrayed by Michael Wincott, the same grisly voiced actor who portrayed Top Dollar in The Crow.) Section 9 springs into action, with The Major showcasing her ability to cloak and diving head first from the roof of a skyscraper into the thick of things, guns blazing, eliminating several terrorists, but not before Osmund is killed by a hacked Geisha robot. The hacked Geisha is disabled, with Section 9 suspecting the enigmatic hacker known as Kuze to be behind the attack. The Major and her comrade, Batou, then take up the responsibility of investigating Kuze further under the guidance of the head of Section 9, Chief Daisuke Aramaki. Their search leads The Major to "dive" into the digital memory of the hacked Geisha by connecting her brain to its A.I. The experience provides her with clues as to Kuze's whereabouts, but also leaves her memories corrupted, causing her to have mysterious hallucinations that get progressively worse as the film goes on.
          Section 9 eventually manages to track down Kuze, where they learn that he has an extensive cybernetwork that connects his mind to all sorts of nodes and endpoints, including the minds of other individuals that have been cybernetically enhanced. Momentarily isolated from the rest of her team, there is a brief showdown between The Major and Kuze where The Major learns that Kuze is also mostly cyborg, and that he is targeting Hanka researchers that were involved in a project known as "2571". Noticing several of her hallucinated images tattooed on Kuze's body, The Major realizes that, while she may have been the first successful full brain transplant into a cybernetic body, she was not the first attempt, when Kuze then reveals that he was rejected by Hanka as a failure. The Major lets Kuze escape as the rest of Section 9 shows up, and The Major herself then flees, now confused as to how she truly came to be. She eventually meets with Dr. Ouelet, who reveals that Project 2571 was a project commissioned by Hanka to try and augment a fully optimized robotic body with a human brain, and that The Major's original body was not actually damaged in a terrorist attack as she initially believed. Noting that The Major was the first success after 97 failures, Ouelet is unable to reveal who The Major actually was before the operation, as this information was not provided to her by Hanka. Now fearing that The Major knows too much, Cutter orders her captured and for Ouelet to terminate her. Before injecting The Major's brain with a destructive serum, Ouelet has a change of heart, and instead lets The Major escape after giving her the key to a mysterious apartment, just before Cutter kills Ouelet. The key leads her to an apartment in the slums of the city, inhabited by an elderly Japanese woman. The woman gives The Major a brief tour of the apartment, where she points out her daughter's old room, noting that her daughter had run away and never came back, now presumed to be dead. Noticing that many of the trinkets in this room correspond to images from her hallucinations, and the elderly woman revealing that her daughter was an anti-augmentation radical named Motoko, The Major starts to see the full picture. She communicates with Aramaki to reveal that Hanka had kidnapped runaways in order to harvest their brains for Project 2571, erasing their memories in the process, a project of which both her and Kuze were a part, and that her real name is Motoko. At the same time, both Kuze and Cutter overhear her conversation with Aramaki. Kuze meets with The Major at the location where they were kidnapped from while Cutter orders an assassination attempt on Aramaki, which fails, and orchestrates an attack on The Major and Kuze. Kuze's body is killed in the process, though it is implied that he lives on in his network, while the rest of Section 9 arrives to help The Major thwart the rest of the attack. Aramaki reveals Hanka's operations and Project 2571 to the Prime Minister and is authorized to execute Cutter, with The Major's permission. Ghost in the Shell 2017 ends with The Major embracing her identity as Motoko Kusanagi, and her mother in the slums, before returning to work with Section 9.
          As mentioned, there are a number of things Ghost in the Shell 2017 does well. The consensus seems to be that Ghost 2017 delivers aesthetically, with visuals unparalleled in any recent science fiction entry, a sentiment that I will quickly second. What is perhaps one of the most interesting things about the Ghost in the Shell series is that it is built on elements of the cyberpunk sub-genre of sci-fi, a sub-genre that, when compared to many other recent sci-fi films (see Life), gets very little cinematic representation. There is a sense in which this may be considered a virtue - cyberpunk, by its very nature, explores the relationship between computers, technology, and humanity, and the deep philosophical questions that arise therein, which, expectedly, requires the audience to have at least some interest in computers, technology, or these related philosophical questions in order for them to find it palatable. Accordingly, cyberpunk is great as a literary genre, but is very difficult to represent cinematically, with only Bladerunner and The Matrix coming to mind as the only two successful presentations of cyberpunk in film. Ghost in the Shell 2017, however, manages to succeed in at least capturing the cyberpunk visuals that defined the 1995 anime. Newport City (the city where the film takes place) blurs the line between reality and the digital world, where pixelated holograms of individuals walk casually amongst the metropolitan crowds of the early morning hustle and bustle, occasionally phasing in and out of existence in brief clouds of white static as if they were suddenly disconnected from the server of reality. Fully animated and interactive advertisements have replaced the traditional billboards that adorn the summits of monolithic skyscrapers, metallic and chrome. Human brains have achieved (or, depending on how you want to look at it, have been demoted to) a status equal to that of a hard drive, where one's thoughts can be erased with a mere press of the DEL button and one's memories manipulated by simply altering their mental source code. Children can be taught French or Japanese by simply downloading the language to that same cerebral storage unit (Ghost in Shell had introduced the "mental download" concept well before Trinity learned how to fly a helicopter by way of file transfer in The Matrix). All of this is presented visually, and presented well, in Ghost 2017, preserving some of the original aesthetic of the anime and giving us a refreshing presentation of cyberpunk in a mainstream film entry.
          Speaking of its roots in a Japanese anime, Ghost 2017 actually did a fairly good job of acknowledging them and expanding on Ghost 1995, contrary to the assessment of several other critics. Early on in its production, there was a noticeably loud outcry over Johansson's casting as The Major, with some arguing that, since Ghost in the Shell is a quintessentially Japanese work of science fiction, a Japanese actress should actually be cast in the role, and others going so far as to accuse Dreamworks of attempting to "whitewash" the series [2]. While I agree that it would have been very interesting to see an Asian actress lead a large Hollywood project, I also agree with a particular statement made by Marc Bernardin of the Los Angeles Times, that "the only race that Hollywood cares about is the box office race" [3]. For better or for worse, it should come as no surprise to anyone that a major Hollywood studio would cast Scarlett Johansson, an actress whose filmography includes a number of highly successful sci-fi roles (such as Black Widow in Marvel's Avengers and the titular character in Lucy), and whose name alone will undoubtedly lure in thousands of otherwise skeptical casual movie-goers. Again, it would have been quite a statement to cast an Asian actress in the lead role, a statement I would readily get behind, but I don't think Dreamworks' decision to cast Johansson in the role is so much a testament to some kind of sub-conscious racism on the part of Dreamworks as it is an insight into the one-dimensional minds of American movie-goers - instead of being intrigued by the story of a woman whose identity is transplanted into a machine in a future city that eerily parallels our own, regardless of whether or not that woman is white or Asian, American movie-goers are instead drawn to the mere presence of Scarlett Johansson, like a child distracted by a squirrel or a shiny object. Perhaps the lack of an Asian actress in the lead role would be more egregious if there were absolutely no references to the Asian culture that gave rise to the Ghost in the Shell series to begin with, but this is also not the case. Despite the casting of Johansson in the lead role, there are still a number of Asian actors in the film. Takeshi Kitano (a popular filmmaker in Japan) portrays Chief Daisuke Aramaki, The Major's commander, while we see Chin Han in the role of Togusa, one of The Major's cohorts in the Section 9 task force (most Americans would recognize Chin Han as Lau in Chris Nolan's Dark Knight series) and Kaori Momoi (another popular Japanese actress) in the role of Motoko's mother, first introduced in the mysterious apartment. Speaking of Aramaki and Motoko's mother, one of the most notable aspects of the film is that a large chuck of it is in Japanese, and not solely in English, particularly when it comes to Aramaki's dialogue, which serves both as a clear throwback to the original anime as well as a suggestion that the various themes and dilemmas presented in the film are not unique to the insular demographic of the English-speaking white American movie-goer, but all of mankind (something that, given Americans' near-sightedness with regard to the important aspects of a film, such as the plot as opposed to its casting, we apparently needed a reminder of). Lastly, it should also be noted that, contrary to the forecasted "whitewashing" of The Major's character from Japanese Motoko Kusanagi in the original anime to American Mira Killian in Ghost 2017, we actually have a regress by the end of the film, where The Major abandons the name of Killian and now responds to the name of Motoko while embracing her mother.
          All of that said, I can't completely defend Ghost in the Shell 2017 in every regard. My biggest criticism of it is one that I have also leveled at many other recent entries in the science fiction genre: if a film is going to explore very deep philosophical themes and questions, which Ghost in the Shell aims to do, those themes have to be presented and explored organically, and flow from the drama and the interactions of the characters. A film cannot simply tell us about these issues - it has to show us, to illustrate these ideas in palpable scenarios and make the audience do the brainwork. I posed this same kind of criticism of the character development of Jyn Erso in Rogue One. Rogue One simply told us that Jyn was an orphan hardened by the mean streets of whatever societal underbelly she grew up in, but we never actually saw that. We never got to see Jyn Erso make the questionable decisions in ambiguous moral dilemmas that we would expect from that type of character. Instead, we got a generic heroine archetype who we were lead to believe was the unquestionable protagonist throughout the film. A similar phenomenon happens with Ghost 2017. Very little is left up to the imagination or interpretation of the audience when Dr. Ouelet and Cutter are literally referring to The Major's brain transplant as like "putting her ghost in a shell" within the first five minutes of the movie. It's also very superficial to introduce the idea of "a ghost in a shell", teasing a potential discussion of the extent to which The Major is still a person, only to not actually have that discussion, or even address that point again, throughout the rest of the film. The Arise OVA at least touches on this question as a sub-plot, pitting The Major against that segment of the powers that be that consider her to be more of a machine than a person, thus rendering her as property of the state as opposed to an autonomous individual. It's a pity because there was the potential to explore a number of scenarios that really test this idea of personhood, and what we consider to be a person, scenarios that the original anime explored, that we just don't get in Ghost 2017, like when Batou transfers The Major's head to a completely different body at the end of Ghost 1995.
          In the end, Ghost in the Shell 2017 still gets a recommendation. What the film lacks in story and plot development, it makes up for in stunning visuals and it's treatment of the Japanese source material, which I think it acknowledges well, contrary to what several critics have claimed. One of the advantages of film as an artistic outlet over a piece of literature or poetry is that, like a painting or drawing, it is a visual medium. Dreamworks at least understood this much, providing us with a film in which virtually each frame carried with it an aesthetic virtually unseen in many other recent science fiction films. And again, the claims of "whitewashing" that have been thrown around are unfounded, as Ghost in the Shell 2017 in not an English-only production with some ensemble cast of American all-stars that I am sure many in the American public would have preferred to see, but rather an (attempted) exploration of some very important and very provocative philosophical themes, through both the English and Japanese languages, with a cast that, despite the casting of an American in the lead role, remains true to the Asian origins of the original Ghost in the Shell anime.

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/power-rangers-review-sadistic-ugly-incompetent-reboot-even-worse/
[2] http://herocomplex.latimes.com/movies/ghost-in-the-shell-scarlett-johansson-casting-a-blow-to-diversity/
[3] http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-racial-erasure-essay-20160418-story.html