Tag Archives: analysis

Brutal, Disturbing, Vicious & Poignant — “The Gift”

Rebecca Hall in The Gift
Understated performances never get their due.

The big story of the weekend is that you should avoid the Fantastic Four reboot at all costs, but what should you see instead? Consider psychological thriller The Gift.

Its premise seems familiar on the surface. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move to California, close to where he grew up. An awkward former classmate of Simon’s, named Gordo (Joel Edgerton), thrusts himself into their lives with a cloying and creepy attachment. One thing leads to another, and pretty soon Simon and Robyn are terrified by Gordo. Yet The Gift holds more secrets than your average Cape Fear knockoff. It’s a tightly wound thriller of well-paced deceptions and reveals that holds moments of real fright and disturbing vengeance.

The Gift works so very well because control over its plot evolves from one act to the next. Doing this in a spoiler-free way, during the first act, Simon is making the decisions. He’s the one who guides the direction of the story. The most important element is also the most subtle: Robyn acts out of a need to fill many of the expected roles of a wife to Simon. Yet the viewer can catch blink-and-you’ll-miss-them instances that point toward Simon bullying her. He feeds her those expectations and controls her through them. She’s restless, but she doesn’t know why.

The second act is entirely Robyn’s, and it’s the most compelling. She’s paranoid and trapped in her own home, but it’s not just because of Gordo – it’s also because of the subtle pressures Simon exerts over her life. She confronts her own doubts and begins to uncover hidden truths about Simon as well.

I’ll refrain from divulging anything about the third act except to say it’s all about Gordo realizing his control. This makes for a disturbing ending that doesn’t play to any familiar expectations. The final twist is not one that you’ll guess. That’s a rare feat in cinema.

Jason Bateman in The Gift
Jason Bateman plays a subtler form of toxic masculinity.

Its twist is clever because it’s right in front of you the whole time, but it’s also a jolt. Suddenly, the film is making the viewer do the work, hiding answers and forcing the viewer to create their own from whichever truth they decide to put faith in. Since most of the film is about revealing truth and getting closer to being whole, the film gives you an option of what to believe in the end. Is it a story of physical brutality, or psychological manipulation, or of discovering freedom? Only Ex Machina this year has created such a complex and challenging ending, although Ex Machina was much clearer on what homework exactly it wants the audience to take home.

Here’s where the audience will split. For those expecting a more traditional horror movie, a deliberate slow burner might not possess the right kind of big events. There’s creep factor to The Gift, and two of the most effective jump scares I’ve experienced, but this is squarely in psychological thriller territory, not pure horror.

For those wanting a psychological suspense piece with a lot of character, this is your film. It gets inside your head very well, and it keeps you guessing throughout. Its ideas are disturbing and play off the paranoid inferences our own minds start creating everywhere.

All three leads deliver superb performances. Bateman is most famous for Arrested Development, but he shows a skill for subtlety and misdirection here I didn’t expect. He has a scene two-thirds through the film that is perhaps the best moment of his career. Rebecca Hall (The Town) powers through films and has a knack for characters who feel real and accessible. Her role is quieter yet more demanding than the two men. Edgerton (Ramses in Exodus: Gods and Kings) also wrote and directed the film. You can see why he cast himself as Gordo. He’s note perfect, making a small role cast a large and toxic shadow across the rest of the film.

The three fuse and play off each other exceedingly well. Explaining the talent each actor displays on their own doesn’t quite express the devious synergy at play between them. It’s a perfect trio for this kind of film, each one charming, guarded, and needy in turn, one pulling for something the minute another pushes.

One day, The Gift will make a vicious double-feature with Gone Girl. Re-watching the trailer, I’m also impressed that half the things you’re about to see are red herrings:

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section uses the Bechdel Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film. Read why I’m including this section here.

Does The Gift have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Rebecca Hall plays Robyn. Allison Tolman plays Lucy. The awesomely named Busy Philipps plays Duffy. Mirrah Foulkes plays Wendy Dale. Katie Aselton plays Joan. Melinda Allen plays a real estate agent, although she remains unnamed.

Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

About something other than a man?

Yes.

This clearly and easily passes the Bechdel Test. It’s also interesting because so much of what Robyn speaks to her friends about results from the subtle pressures Simon puts on her to fulfill the stereotypical role of a wife. Robyn says she wants to have a family, and she feels it in a removed way, but you never get the idea that she’s made the decision about it. It’s what she wants because Simon puts pressure on her to want it.

The movie’s acts are broken up by scenes of Robyn jogging, yet this seems less for her than it does as a way of releasing something she can’t understand or deal with herself. In fact, the only times she seems to be herself are when she’s around Gordo. She objects to Simon shutting Gordo out of their lives completely, but she allows Simon to bully both her and Gordo into acquiescing to his desires.

It creates a dynamic where Robyn is concerned with stereotypical gender roles not as a self-fulfilling desire, but rather as one that fulfills Simon. Part of the reason why the ending is troublesome on the surface is because Robyn is turned into something to be possessed in the third act. Of course, this isn’t the movie’s commentary on women – it’s a commentary on how Simon views the world and how Gordo can punish Simon. It’s a commentary on men. That doesn’t change the fact that women might suffer in order to make that commentary.

It’s difficult and something of a slippery slope that will inspire a wide range of opinion, but I will say that The Gift finds a way to make many perceived realities into conjectures on the parts of different characters. You really can’t be sure walking out what does or doesn’t happen, or the degree to which someone did or didn’t suffer. In this way, The Gift has its cake and eats it, too.

The implications of all this are right there on-screen, so even if it’s cruel, it’s cruel in order to call out the toxic masculinity that Jason Bateman’s Simon exhibits. Counter-programming Bateman and Edgerton into roles that might make more sense with the casting reversed also serves to exhibit how that toxic masculinity can hide itself in many forms, not just the obvious mustache-twirling, evil villain, film versions. In many ways, The Gift lets you decide just how cruel you want its truth to be, and it forces you into a place where deciding either way is a form of cruelty on the part of the viewer. Do you want to believe in violent, paranoid cruelty or everyday, mundane cruelty?

For that, it relies on Rebecca Hall to thread a needle in a performance that will not be praised as much as Bateman’s and Edgerton’s skilled-yet-showier roles. Hall’s performance offers a third argument: the rejection of both forms of cruelty. In the end, what you walk out of the theater believing may belie your own presumptions and those presumptions that are reinforced by storytelling themes that are repeated in other media ad nauseum. That’s where the genius of The Gift lies, in all senses of the term.

Most will walk out seeing it from Simon’s or Gordo’s perspective, believing in one or the other’s presented truths. To believe in either is to put your faith in victimizers who simply operate on flip-sides of the same coin. Some will walk out recognizing a third route in Robyn’s, a conclusion that must rely on one or the other of the male truths, yet that still exists as its own reality going forward.

The Gift doesn’t say all this or handle it as perfectly as it could – it’s a clear notch below movies like Ex Machina and Gone Girl in how expertly it throws the audience between different perspectives. Yet it does have its own unique way of forcing the audience into a corner, of making us take the homework of thinking and thinking and thinking about it home with us in a way few movies do. That rarity is something special, and it’s unique in many ways to, as David Fincher once put it, “Movies that scar.”

The Gift is very unfair, and that’s the point. It’s left to the audience to decide just how fair its reality is, and how fair everything is after the credits roll, both in the movie’s world and in our own.

Where did we get our awesome images? The featured image is from Entertainment Weekly’s brief review. The 2 in-article images are from Vanity Fair’s interview with Rebecca Hall.

Birdman: Or (The Expected Virtue of Forgiveness)

by Kyle Price-Livingston

My favorite film of the year? Birdman. And not because I love Michael Keaton (though I do), or because I love superheroes (though I REALLY do), but because of Sam Thomson (Emma Stone).

Sam is the fiery, brittle daughter of Michael Keaton’s titular hemidemisemi-hero. She is angry, self-destructive and in pain. She is torn between a desire for her absentee father’s attention and a need to punish him for the years of suffering his selfishness has caused her. Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is vaguely aware of this, but can’t quite tear his focus away from himself long enough to help, so instead Sam watches impotently (Ed Norton pun intended) and angrily rolls herself a joint as her dad spirals toward a complete meltdown. And yet Sam gives me hope.

I’m writing this piece on a tiny pocket notepad which has the words “Foxy Lady” emblazoned on the cover along with a neat sketch of a fox. It was by far the coolest notepad available at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. I’m sitting on a cement bench along a nature trail maintained by the facility. I am resisting the urge to poke cacti. I am hoping to see a roadrunner. I am trying and failing to ignore how much I miss weed.

My mother is inside receiving another of her weekly chemo treatments. I am outside because I would much rather be listening to bird song than sitting in a hospital waiting room, and because I’m too angry at my mom to stay in one place for more than a few minutes. It’s not that she did anything specific today, but being at the clinic with her brings up a lot of things I normally try not to think about. Well, I’m thinking about them now, and I’m about to make all of you do the same. Sorry.

My mother and I have seen each other twice in the last 4 months, once in December, a few weeks after her diagnosis, and now this week because my aunt is out of town and somebody needs to drive my mom to the doctors and to her AA meetings. This is the most frequently we have visited in years.

Mom’s inability to drive herself to these things has nothing to do with her cancer. A combination of psychological disorders, drug and alcohol abuse have stripped her of her coordination and of her ability to care for herself. Over the last 2 years she lost her job (subsequently granted disability retirement, thankfully) her car, her pets, her home, and also surrendered control of her finances. It’s actually a testament to her (now decayed) support system that she held on to those things as long as she did.

About a year ago I flew back to the Northeast to help her move the few of her possessions not covered in vomit or animal feces to sunny Phoenix, AZ, where her saintly sister, a psychologist and nurse practitioner, had agreed to take her in and help her get clean. Mom wasn’t thrilled about this plan, but another looming eviction and a sudden hospitalization due to an “accidental” overdose left her without much choice.

The trouble started long before I was born, of course, but I don’t remember being aware of it until I was about 12. I think it was my dad’s concern that first drew my attention to it. Unlike me, Dad was aware of her psychological problems, and of her long tradition of treating them with hard drugs in her youth (crystal meth mostly; young mom didn’t screw around) and booze as an adult (she would later begin to abuse prescription psychiatric medications as well). It’s not as though I hadn’t been to other kids’ houses and seen how their parents acted, I had just always accepted that my mom was…well…kinda weird.

Please don’t think I’m ascribing her weirdness to drug use (kinda the opposite, in fact) but I, in the selfish way kids have, could not comprehend that she even had problems, let alone that she was so miserable in her day-to-day life that she felt there was no recourse but to numb herself insensible. I mean, in my mind, my brother and I were supposed to be the central features in her existence. How could she be miserable with such great kids?

That’s the kind of insidious thought that leads a young mind down a long rabbit hole, ending in the painful conclusion that if she was miserable I must have made her that way, and that I, then, was definitely not as great as I had always assumed.

Realizing you aren’t the world’s foremost genius and artistic talent is part of growing up, I know, but I don’t think you’re immediately supposed to shift your beliefs to the opposite pole. But that’s what happens when your self-image is challenged before you have a fully developed self. My perception of my own value was still very much wrapped up in what I thought she thought of me. This isn’t supposed to be a long piece (hah!) so I’ll spare you the gory details of my formative years, but suffice it to say it took me a long time to untangle my identity from hers. In some ways, I don’t think I’m done with that yet.

I don’t totally buy into the 12 Step Program. Even at the best of times I am leery of organized religion (or organized anything) and the idea that something as intricate as mastering addiction can be broken up into stages is contrary to the way I think most people work. Our brains just aren’t that tidy. Still, when my mother announced, shortly after her arrival in Arizona, that she was rededicating herself to the AA system, I had to work pretty hard to fight off a glimmer of hope. She’d said this before, after all, and never even earned the 1 month coin.

Were Riggan in Alcoholics Anonymous (or Acclaim Seekers Anonymous or what have you) he’d be somewhere pre-Step 1. He might agree to attend a meeting, might chat with people at the punch bowl, but he wouldn’t share, and he definitely wouldn’t agree that he needs to be there. He, like all addicts, is convinced that if he can just hold out long enough, the universe will rearrange itself to fit his needs, and he’ll get everything he ever wanted or deserved. He doesn’t have a problem, the world has a problem. Unfortunately for Sam, “the world” includes her, whether Riggan would ever admit it or not.

To my surprise, Mom has stuck with the process. She has spent the last 8 months slowly working her way up the ladder, rung by rung, until I actually began to wonder if we might reach Step 9 after all. Step 9 is the amends-making stage, where you apologize to all the people you harmed with your addiction. To be clear, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to forgive her, or even if I wanted to forgive her, but I definitely wanted her to bring us to that bridge, and for me to decide if I wanted to cross it. But that was a long way off. And then she fell.

Last November, seemingly out of nowhere, mom tripped and fractured her left hand. She’d been losing weight over the previous few weeks but that wasn’t uncommon, as her eating habits tend to fluctuate with her depression. The fall itself wasn’t that far outside the norm, either. Mom broke her spine when she was a child and now has fused vertebrae in her lower back. Coordination has never been her strong suit, and drugs and alcohol haven’t helped. Over the last 15 years she’s broken her foot, her ankle, her wrist and her arm along with a host of lesser injuries she hasn’t bothered to mention to me, but which I have seen in her fading scars and bruises. Still, this was her first fall since sobering up, and the injury was pretty severe.

A trip to the hospital yielded blood work with alarming results, and 5 days later we received a diagnosis: Stage 5 pancreatic cancer with metastasis to several other organs. Life expectancy: 1 year with chemo, 6 months without. Mom opted for the chemo, primarily, she says, because she wanted time to work her way up to complete Step 9. I learned all of this in the same conversation. I wish I could tell you what I felt, but I’m pretty sure my brain short circuited for a while there, and I have a hard time remembering it clearly. Sounds healthy, right?

3 weeks later I flew to Phoenix again, ostensibly to do the same thing I’m doing on this trip, but really to give her a chance to have the Step 9 conversation with me. There are a bunch of people on her list, but I was the first person outside of this house to be asked to make the trip, primarily, I think, because Mom thought ours would be the easiest of those talks. In some ways, I was a trial run. A low risk gamble. And that makes me angry. Probably unfairly so.

What is definitely unfair is how angry I am at her for waiting until she’s dying to apologize. It’s unfair because this is not something anyone planned. It’s fucking cancer. It doesn’t give a shit what anybody wants. But I feel like a key facet of Stage 9 has been denied to me. I no longer have a choice about whether or not to tell her I forgive her.

Obviously, forgiveness doesn’t work that way, and I clearly am not yet ready to accept her apology, but I can’t exactly tell her that, can I? And that’s the point. I spent YEARS walking on egg shells around her for fear of upsetting her and setting off a chain reaction of self-destructive behaviors that would then be “my fault” and now I’m finally presented with a situation where she is literally asking me to express all the hurt of the last 20 years and I’m in the exact same boat I’m always in with her. Only more so.

Aside: Don’t worry, Mom won’t read this. She doesn’t read any of my writing. When I was 13 I brought her my first completed short story. She was drunk and depressed and, honest to god, put it down halfway through and told me it was “derivative.” She was probably right, but I haven’t showed her anything since.

I find myself torn, as I always am with her, between trying to make her happy and wanting to make her sad. I want her to feel pain and remorse, but I don’t want her to suffer. The idea that someone might use terminal cancer as a manipulative tool is so disgusting that I can barely bring myself to write it, but I can’t quite force the possibility out of my mind, and that colors our interactions no matter how much I try to ignore it.

So we had the talk. She said the right things. She really did. Her list of offenses was long and detailed, and her regret felt sincere…but it wasn’t enough. I really hoped it would be, but it wasn’t. Still, I did my best to say the right things back. She cried. I cried. We hugged. She moved on to the next person on her list, and I went back to being quietly angry.

It’s not that Sam doesn’t want Riggan’s play to succeed. It’s not that she doesn’t want him to be happy. It’s that Riggan continues to put his own desires ahead of his responsibilities as a parent. The thought that he might receive some validation for doing that without demonstrating true remorse is more than she can stand. He’s not actively trying to make her unhappy, he just cannot fathom why he would put her happiness ahead of his. For Sam, the whole thing is yet another in a lifetime of slaps to the face. (Sidenote: A Lifetime of Slaps To the Face should definitely be the title of a 3 Stooges retrospective)

The final scene in the film is…let’s just say it’s analytically problematic. So EITHER Riggan’s suicide attempt is unsuccessful and it fixes his professional life and relationship with his daughter and, oh yeah, his superpowers are real OR he kills himself and what we’re seeing is what happens to him as/after he dies. I’m not going to try to tell you which it is, because I don’t think we’re supposed to be sure.

It’s totally possible that the latter interpretation is correct. If that’s the case, then I take solace in the fact that by the end of the film, Sam is coming into her own as a person, and trying to think about what will actually make her happy. She hasn’t figured it out yet, but she’s moving in that direction.

My preference, though, is for interpretation 1, for a universe in which, confronted with the possibility of losing him forever, Sam is able to accept her father for the deeply flawed (super)human being he is. The pain of the past isn’t forgotten, but she is able to move past it and find happiness in a new chapter of their relationship. I’m not there yet with my mom. I don’t know if I’ll ever be. I don’t know if I’ll be able to look at her empty hospital bed and then stare up into the sky in wonder and joy because her pain is finally at an end, but I hope I can.

Mila Kunis vs. Space Vampires or: Bad Movie, Great Art — “Jupiter Ascending”

Jupiter Ascending antigrav boots chase

by Gabriel Valdez

Action movies are often criticized as being “color by numbers” and following the same, basic plot we’ve seen dozens of times before. What happens if you take all the color by numbers pages you have, crumple them together, and glue like a madman? Some parts might be recognizable, but the seams where the pages meet won’t make any sense.

It’ll be a surreal mess, but it might still be fun to look at. This is the approach Jupiter Ascending takes. It follows Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a young girl with a tragic past who works as a house cleaner, but is really the reincarnation of one of the universe’s most powerful CEOs. Before we get the chance to know her, she’s targeted by bounty hunters and saved by a hunky space wolf played by Channing Tatum. We take it on faith he’s a space wolf despite the only evidence being pointy ears and the occasional growl, but everyone in the movie keeps telling us he is, so why not? Oh, and he has anti-gravity boots that let him speed skate through the air at jet speed.

Have you seen Underworld, Stargate, Dune, The Fifth Element, or Star Wars? Read any Douglas Adams? Seen any Disney princess animation ever? Good, because they’re all smashed in here. Do you want a movie that makes a lot of sense? This isn’t the place. Do you want one that crazily shoves every sci-fi cliché into a blender and holds on for dear life? Welcome to Jupiter Ascending.

You can’t take the movie’s surface seriously. It’s thoroughly B-grade. There’s a sequence where Tatum fights aliens on earth, hops onto their frigate, rides a wormhole through space, and then raids an intergalactic thunder palace – all without putting on a shirt. The number of costume changes Kunis undergoes, from hospital gown to space jumpsuit to ever more extravagant and revealing evening gowns, becomes a running joke.

Jupiter Ascending space vampires

Jupiter Ascending is trolling science-fiction and our expectations of it, trying to get a rise by being like everything and nothing all at once. It’s more along the lines of directors The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer than The Matrix. Does that make it as good as either? That’s complicated. It’s constantly skirting the line between clever and disastrous. It’s a worse movie. It’s better art.

Kunis anchors the film by playing straight man to the film’s zany antics, and she’s better than expected. Tatum is too glum for the kind of chances the film is taking and Sean Bean nods and winks his way through a paper-thin mentor role. The biggest shortcoming is Eddie Redmayne, currently up for an Oscar for The Theory of Everything. It’s difficult to overact without being campy, but he finds a way, mumbling half his lines away.

The movie’s biggest problem is a lack of signifiers in the action scenes. We need to know where everyone is so we can marvel at the amazing visual effects and feats of heroism taking place. When our heroes hijack an alien fighter over Chicago, for instance, we’re treated to a few minutes of high-speed chase. The only problem is that all the fighters look exactly the same and have extra moving parts that distract the eye. This is Grade-A Transformers disease: which fighter are we rooting for in the mess of fantastic visual effects? Who knows? We’re rooting for the effects, I guess.

The solution is as simple as painting a red streak on the side of our heroes’ fighter, or lighting the cockpit a different color. Audiences thrive on context, and lacking it is a mistake Jupiter Ascending makes repeatedly. The movie gets a pass on being zany; it doesn’t get a pass on bad fundamentals.

Jupiter Ascending makeup

Characters, realizations, and scenes don’t emerge; they crash into the rest of the plot. The film’s latter half revolves around the intergalactic espionage surrounding who owns Earth: it’s Jupiter and her space wolf versus the infighting dynasty of space vampires. Think the shenanigans of Twilight meeting the corporate metaphors of Dune, if you can do so without your brain breaking. The movie starts becoming more solid as it becomes clearer just how big of a riff it all is.

Jupiter Ascending is a one star movie with a four star ability to keep your attention. I want to like it more than I actually do. In this case, that makes the difference. Maybe it’s Kunis’s charm, or the Wachowskis’ kitchen sink approach. It could be the costume drama antics or the blue collar message it trumpets throughout. The movie’s multi-layered anti-oligarchy conceit is brilliant, it’s just not as brilliantly fused together into a cogent whole. Right now, it’s a lot of really good ideas sprinkled around.

It’s just insane enough to make me applaud its ambition. It stands out not because it achieves what it sets out to accomplish, but because it wants to accomplish so much. Falling on its face makes me admire the movie a lot more than if it didn’t try at all. Is it a good film? Absolutely not, but it is relentlessly interesting. You have to know what happens next. It’s a fine line to walk, as if the Wachowskis took the “There is no spoon” line from The Matrix and applied it to a movie instead of silverware.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Jupiter Ascending have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Mila Kunis plays Jupiter. Tuppence Middleton plays space vampire extraordinaire Kalique Abrasax. Nikki Amuka-Bird plays Diomika Tsing, a capable captain in what amounts to the space police. Doona Bae plays bounty hunter Razo. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Famulus, Lieutenant to one of the space vampire sons. Jupiter’s own immigrant family may be patriarchal, but is dominated by women – her mother and aunt, especially.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yep.

3. About something other than a man?

They rarely talk about men. The film’s biggest accomplishment is that Jupiter is the same person whether she’s cleaning toilets and getting yelled at by her family, or deciding the fate of Earth. This is a strong female character who always seeks to sacrifice for the greater good, even at the expense of herself or her family. It doesn’t matter if she’s discussing financial woes or intergalactic economics.

On the whole, I oppose character development the way we use it now. We’ve taken an element of storytelling that is a tool and, in Western narratives, we’ve turned it into all but a requirement. It’s like asking we build our houses out of hammers and screwdrivers instead of wood and brick. Character development is a great tool when used in the correct circumstance. It is not the essence of narrative.

The few times when we are gifted with characters who don’t develop, it’s because they’re thrown into a world where their personal strengths are turned from uselessness into dominance: Mel Gibson’s Max in Mad Max, Christian Bale’s Batman in The Dark Knight trilogy, and the progenitor of all these steadfast characters in American film – Clint Eastwood in any Western or Dirty Harry movie.

These are stories where unhealthy traits are suddenly turned into heroic qualities because the nature of their world demands it. It’s no mistake that the unhealthy traits that are presented as heroic almost always belong to male characters.

Rarely, do we see a normal person on film whose world is turned upside down, yet who is healthy enough to end up the same on the other side regardless. Almost never is this character a woman.

When this happens in Jupiter Ascending, it’s not stressing the need for dominance or vengeance or violence as strengths. It’s stressing empathy and confidence, the courage to understand something wholly separate from your own experience and meet it on its own terms rather than trying to conquer it on yours.

Jupiter Ascending Mila Kunis

The ideas inside of Jupiter Ascending, especially as they pertain to gender dynamics, are some of the most exquisite and complex you’ll find on film. Does the film live up to those ideas? Enough to communicate them successfully if you’re willing to watch with an open mind, yes.

Our hunky space wolf does rescue Jupiter on more than one occasion. Sometimes it’s needed, but at least once he bursts in and impressively kills dozens for a rescue that’s completely useless. Jupiter’s perfectly fine. Whoops.

Later, he’ll burst in and rescue Jupiter when she’s already won the day. This isn’t to say she can claim what we think of as a classical movie victory – she’s made the decision to sacrifice herself and others in order to save billions of lives. She makes the right decision in a no-win scenario, and more to the point, she’s made the kind of decision people who clean toilets for a living already make every day, and not the one her aristocratic corporate space vampire opponents can even grasp as a viable option. So yeah, she does win, and in case you don’t get it, she’s given the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with the villain later on anyway.

So the hunky Channing Tatum space wolf (who she’s hitting on from first meeting rather than the other way around) does get to rescue her in classical movie form, often as she’s falling out of buildings, but it’s usually after she’s claimed the kind of victories we rarely get to see in movies, the kind that are far more impressive than all the speed skating anti-gravity boots in the galaxy.

Chris Braak writes more on this in an article that considers the feminism in Jupiter Ascending and how the film’s messages may reflect on co-director Lana Wachowski’s gender transition.

IN CONCLUSION

This is one of those films that the more I write about it, the more I think about it, the more I find in it. I can tell I’m not done writing about it by a long shot. Roger Ebert once said that you have to rate a film based on its own terms. Not is it good or is it bad. Does it succeed at what it’s trying to be?

It’s very difficult to tell what Jupiter Ascending wants to be. Earlier, I said it’s a one star movie with a four star ability to keep your attention. It’s five star performance art. It’s a six star discussion topic. It’s seven star feminism. It’s an eight star science-fiction conceit. It’s just very hard to get at those other things because it is a one star movie on the surface.

Where does that leave it?

As a box office flop (at least in the U.S.) that mainstream criticism will reject. And you can’t really blame them because their jobs are to rate movies as movies, not as discussion topics or meta commentary or performance art. That’s the critical industry dragging its heels on responding to the way movies are changing, and I’m not about to blame individual critics for rating movies as movies first.

As an inevitable cult classic a few critics will be championing for years, to either be remembered for how ambitious it was in reaching so far beyond the theater, or to be forgotten for how it failed to sell itself well enough inside the theater.

Where does that leave me?

See it. Be prepared to dislike it. Be prepared to love it. Go in with no expectations. Be prepared to not understand how a friend can feel the exact opposite of you after you watch it. Either way, you’ll be discussing it long afterwards. Be prepared to dislike it and love it in the same breath. Be prepared to see it and think I’m an idiot. Be prepared to see it and want to write 2,000 words on it. Be prepared to think it’s genius. Be prepared to think it’s trash.

In the end, do not try and rate the movie. That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.

What truth?

There is no movie.

There is no movie?

Then you’ll see, that it is not the movie that’s awesome, it is only yourself.

Or something like that.

Fight Scene Friday — “The Princess Bride”

by Gabriel Valdez

What makes the fight scene from The Princess Bride work so well? The most important bit is that we’re not supposed to take it seriously. Early in the film, Inigo Montoya faces off against…we’ll just call him the Dread Pirate Roberts for those who haven’t seen the movie yet. It’s not a battle of swords so much as it’s a battle of dialogue and movie cliches.

Fight scenes build tension by continuing to escalate. This is why the hero almost always loses the first half of the fight – to escalate the drama and remind us that the stakes aren’t victory and loss, but life and death. It’s why fist fights break into sword fights that end in gun fights, or why kickboxing matches result in entire bars being destroyed, or why a hero faces off against increasingly skilled opponents rather than fighting the toughest one first. Fight scenes tell their stories through escalation.

The Princess Bride is a comedy. How do you escalate the dramatic tension in a comedic fight scene? Death, blood, and destruction is tense, not funny, but if you don’t have increasing stakes, your scene lies flat.

As in any fight scene, you have to communicate to the audience the level of talent each fighter has at the beginning. The Spanish fighter Inigo (Mandy Patinkin) delivers an opening salvo. Then the masked pirate Roberts (Cary Elwes) delivers the same return salvo. Because it’s a comedy, they even switch staging and framing between the two salvos. They’re testing each other out, but visually, this tells us they’re at a fairly equal level.

The choreography at the beginning isn’t complicated. It’s deliberately made to feel rote and effortless. The combat isn’t in the swords at this point – the two men are still fighting each other with dialogue, each letting the other know just how knowledgeable a fencer he is.

What’s exceptionally clever here is that they quote historical fencing masters and their techniques. In a movie about a fantasy world, they’re trumpeting their real-world knowledge. As for how much they emulate those techniques as they quote them, I can’t say – I’m not a fencer.

The scene continues to escalate – it’s soon revealed that Inigo, fighting left-handed this entire time, isn’t really left-handed. He switches hands and bests Roberts for a moment. Then Roberts counters not with a move, but with a realization of his own – he’s not left-handed either.

Inigo loses his sword. He loses his balance when leaping off the staircase for it. Roberts throws his own sword down and performs a backflip to get it.

Roberts is winning, but his victory hasn’t had anything to do with swordplay for the last minute. He’s winning according to movie cliché and gymnastics. By the time the fight really begins in earnest and the moves start to matter, more than two minutes into the scene, we’re already aware who’s going to win. Writer William Goldman’s dialogue tells us:

Inigo: Who are you?

Roberts: No one of consequence.

Inigo: I must know.

Roberts: Get used to disappointment.

Inigo: ‘Kay.

The stunts tell us: even as Inigo clambers onto a rock, the scene’s lone wire-assisted stunt – Roberts leaping atop it – communicates who the superior combatant is. Blink and you’ll miss it – it’s a rock any of us could easily jump atop, but – like the gymnast’s move – the wire assist suggests to us that Roberts is just that much more talented.

By the time the fight climaxes, we already know who wins. In this way, the fight removes the biggest consequence at the point most fights would be pressing it as hard as they could. This lets the fight pull off sight gags and be goofy without ever feeling cheap. Anything at this point is extra: between-the-legs swordfighting, throwing a sword up and catching it seconds later, referencing an earlier moment with a sequence where both fighters quickly switch hands. The Princess Bride is trolling other fight scenes by this point.

The best of Bill Tomlinson’s choreography only starts once the fight’s already been decided. The excitement originates from escalation, like in any fight, but then The Princess Bride breaks that escalation. The audience’s enjoyment – like much of the film – comes from how fun it is to be in on the joke.

To communicate this through choreography is exceptionally difficult. There’s no Jackie Chan level stunt here and while the choreography is a bit underrated (especially in its ambidextrous elements), it’s hardly exceptional from a technical standpoint. But there are few fights that are this successful in timing their comedy elements inside a film and breaking the audience’s expectations outside of it. From writing and directing through to choreography and performance, it’s a great fight scene because it understands the rules well enough to continuously subvert them. And never forget the editor (in this case Robert Leighton), the unsung hero of nearly every fight scene and comedy. The timing is as much Leighton’s success here as it is Elwes’s and Patinkin’s.

And if you haven’t seen The Princess Bride, for god’s sake, go watch it.

Best K-Pop Quadratic Function of 2014

 

 

 

Deadly accidents, suicides, and nervous breakdowns. It was the year K-Pop turned into a Thomas Pynchon novel. Two women from Ladies’ Code died in a September car accident. A father hacked his 13 year-old daughter to death for listening to EXO. 16 concertgoers died when a grate collapsed at a 4Minute performance in October.

Tragedies like these paralleled the disasters of South Korea’s bureaucracy, the largest of which was May’s ferry capsizing that killed 295 passengers. The company that ran the MV Sewol ferry overloaded the cargo by 500 tons, spent a total of $2 on the crew’s safety training, and when the captain complained about it they threatened to fire him.

How does music fight that, least of all a pop band? The Korean pop industry manufactures sugary pop groups composed of young men and women trained by agencies from youth to the point of maladjustment to be singing, dancing fashion mannequins. (So it’s just like the American music industry.)

And yet…some groups become popular enough they begin to master their own message. That’s what happened with the album Red Light and your new favorite band named after a quadratic function: f(x).

f(x) is made of the function girls – f(Victoria), f(Amber), f(Luna), f(Sulli), and f(Krystal). That already speaks volumes about how K-Pop views its stars.

Like most pop music, K-Pop adheres to a formula that makes it difficult to match the inventiveness and creativity of the best independent music around the world, but f(x) had conquered South Korea and achieved rare crossover in the United States with their second album, Pink Tape. This allowed them the freedom to start on a darker path with this year’s Red Light.

 

 

The album’s flagship single, the eponymous “Red Light,” attacks the agency-driven K-Pop industry, misogynist expectations of young women in Korea, and a government paid for by companies that cut corners and put citizens’ lives at risk.

The song was recorded before the ferry disaster, but had a choice of other tragedies to choose from. Its music video, however, uses archetypes – an unanswered phone, a burning rulebook, crosses worn like blinders, men in gas masks, exploding houses – to create a statement of dissension. K-Pop cliches like basic isolation dancing and rap solos are still there, but all of its framework is turned on its head.

“Red Light” was as brave a roundhouse as K-Pop has ever delivered, but the album is not always so controversial. It’s easy to imagine “MILK” as the album’s lead single if the band hadn’t felt so bold. “MILK” combines K-Pop style with Bollywood percussion cues and American pop choruses.

And what about “All Night,” which sounds like a lost, 30 year-old Michael Jackson song?

There’s also “Boom Bang Boom,” which sounds like Doom’s original 8-bit soundtrack met a Jessie J. anthem.

 

Or how about “Spit It Out,” a hyperspeed electronic rave about a consuming, heartless boy who carelessly eats a girl’s heart? “Spit It Out,” they demand. Listen to the cute, charming lyrics once or twice, in contrast to its rave instrumentation, and it’s hard to avoid the metaphor for rape culture, as prevalent in Korea as it is in the U.S.

This is how f(x) does something bold and new. They take the K-Pop brand and use its intentionally designed kawaii (“cute” or “lolita”) elements to directly address the culture that gave them this voice.

American music magazines like Fyre and Fuse have praised f(x)’s addictive pop music, calling them “K-Pop’s top hipsters,” but their praise falls short by defining them so dismissively. This is a group that’s beginning to use its voice to take social stands for a generation of South Koreans viewed only as consumers in the present, not leaders in the future. Kawaii has been developing as a punk-parallel protest movement in Korea and elsewhere for the last few years. This split from mainstream kawaii is one of the most interesting counter-culture movements in the world. It is uniquely borderless and comes with a pre-developed language so far immune to political recourse. With Red Light, f(x) uses its mainstream access to further define and popularize the language of protest kawaii.

Red Light was widely praised, but controversial. The band was still one of the biggest girl groups in K-Pop this year. But they also saw a whiplash response, including critical controversies due to their more political subject matter and a weird temporary refusal to broadcast. Since the album’s release, f(Sulli) has taken a leave of absence due to exhaustion and stress from the reaction to Red Light. Does this put the group at risk? Did f(x) fly too close to the sun? Is there any other K-Pop group with the mind to take their music in this direction?

Welcome to K-Pop, a melodramatic music genre that – in its dying breath – f(x) sent a shockwave through in the space of an album. Will they survive? Will they still be as brave? Tune in next time.

– JJ Kim, Vanessa Tottle, & Gabriel Valdez

This article is part of our series on the top 35 albums of 2014. Here’s the list as we unveil it.

10 Things I Thought While Watching “Wizard Barristers”

Wizard Barristers title sequence

by Gabriel Valdez

1. Think of Wizard Barristers like you would a more serious version of Key & Peele’s Law and Order: Wizard City sketch, or the best version of The Dresden Files we’ll ever get on TV. I started watching it as a lark – we wanted to do some anime coverage and it was recommended by a friend. I wasn’t expecting much, but…Wizard Barristers is a pretty successful combination of social issues, well-paced writing, and, well, fanservice to 12 year-old boys.

It’s 2018 in an alternate-universe Tokyo. There are normal people just like you and me, as well as magic users…wizards. You’d think the power these wizards wield would dominate the ordinary people, but instead they’ve been relegated as a sort of second-class, complete with their own highly prejudiced court system. Hmmm…that doesn’t sound like anywhere I know.

They’re called “wuds” and ordinary people treat them with fear and revulsion. More on that in a bit.

2. The show centers on Cecil Sudou, the youngest wizard barrister in history at 17. She joins a slightly dysfunctional law firm, but her aggressive optimism means she saddles herself with tough cases before she completely knows what she’s doing. The character’s actually very winning, drawn and voiced charmingly. I’m a sucker for effective optimists on TV, the people who say, “What’s next?” after a victory in lieu of celebrating it. Yes, that’s a West Wing reference and, accommodating for genre, Cecil would fit in pretty well with the Bartlet administration.

Even as she’s kicking the asses of magical muggers, Cecil shouts, “Please turn yourselves in. I’ll represent you in court!”

That’s a hero I can root for.

Wizard Barristers scooter

3. There is, however, a creepy amount of fanservice centering around a 17 year-old girl. I try not to judge, because I don’t have the cultural context to view things like this – I’m reasonably versed in Japanese film, but that’s not enough to be able to start making claims about what should or should not be acceptable in someone else’s culture.

This is complicated by the fact that I have a number of friends who utilize kawaii (cute or “lolita” fashion) in their own careers and, as our own Vanessa Tottle wrote earlier this year (at the bottom of this article), kawaii itself has been co-opted into a borderless counter-culture movement akin to the 70s/80s punk movement in Western culture.

I have a theory as to what’s happening in the fanservice and why it’s actually used in a socially conscious way, but that doesn’t mean that I’m completely at peace with it. At least they’re fairly equal opportunity about it, featuring buff men as well as buxom women. I like seeing a professional setting dominated by women – that’s a plus – I just imagine that in the U.S. this law firm would have about a dozen well-deserved sexual harassment claims against it in its first day.

Wizard Barristers Erari Quinn

4. Wizard Barristers does do an excellent job of addressing cultural stigmas. There’s a repeated criticism of the justice system and its automatic assumption of guilt for those who are in any way different. I know this is an issue with the Japanese court system, but believe me, theirs is far from the only culture guilty of this.

While the first big case concerns a “wud” and self-defense (killing a robber at the bank he used to work for), it’s not just his being a magic user that’s put on trial, it’s his being a social outlier. He was forced to resign from the bank because he wasn’t socially accepted, and now his guilt is more easily presumed for the same reason. One of the pleasures of Wizard Barristers is that it’s pretty easy to underestimate, which means it surprises you pretty regularly.

Wizard Barristers Erari Quinn 2

5. One thing you have to appreciate about limited run anime (animes that run for 12 episodes like this one), is that the plot MOVES. By the third episode, we’ve already got a cleverly orchestrated terrorist attack on the magic court itself. It holds accountable a justice system that declares a homicide accidental while demanding the death sentence, yet turns around and lets another wizard live for clearly premeditated murder.

It suggests a court system of who you know and the quality of your defense, not a system of effective justice, and this is the through-line Wizard Barristers keeps revisiting.

6. Like I said, I meant to write about this as a lark…but the stories are good, the world-building is solid, the mysteries are just complex enough to bear out a 23 minutes-an-episode pace, and – most importantly – the characters are utterly fantastic. I am elitist as they get about animation – I don’t watch a lot of it, so I don’t like to waste my time – but Wizard Barristers is worth the investment. This show is much better than expected.

Wizard Barristers restaurant fight

7. Let’s pick an episode out to illustrate what I mean. “Six Nine” is the best of the bunch. It all focuses on investigating one case, trying to clear another wizard barrister of murder. There’s a cutaway to the overall series arc about how Cecil is some ubermagician foretold in blah-blah-blah, but it’s pretty inconsequential to the episode.

The more intense focus on Cecil and her frustrating working relationship with the office geezer is the real standout. He works at a snail’s pace, she’s gung ho – only later does she start to realize how observant and clever he is, and how he solves the case while she’s busy demanding a new partner. It’s an episode that relies only on character to tell its story and Cecil’s character is strong enough to hold it up.

8. Of course, the ubermagician blah blah blah starts to derail the “one case an episode” approach, but I can’t compliment a series for its fast pace and then complain it’s moving too fast, can I? In truth, this is a show that I feel is stronger in this more serialized approach, but it’s not as if it loses any quality by developing more overall arc. It just shifts direction, and ultimately, I’d rather a show do something well and move on than settle into doing nothing else.

Wizard Barristers cosplay

9. The sixth episode, “Hero Show,” might have the cleverest social commentary. Cecil and another barrister cosplay TV superheroes at a convention, ostensibly for yet more fanservice. The twist is that they’re kidnapped along with four young children. When they save the day, they do it dressed as heroes, and the children marvel at their magic.

This is the same magic those children will grow to hate and fear, and whose practitioners they’ll ostracize as adults. Their parents shy from the ‘wuds.’ It’s a clever way to hammer the message in – hate isn’t natural, it’s taught at home.

10. Food, and where I think the fanservice might be doing something interesting. The plot always seems to be taking place over food. Someone on the writing staff has clearly worked in an office before, and knows that nothing moves in one without food.

That may sound like it drags down the series but, to the contrary, it helps give the world a better sense of place (characters aren’t just doing things that are plot-relevant in every scene) and it speeds things up – there’s a great deal of motion and interaction to eating, and this can give an energy to exposition that’s missing in many shows.

It’s also the biggest reason I pause in criticizing the fanservice too much. It’s ALWAYS attached to food. I have to wonder if they’re using the expectation of fanservice in this kind of show as a commentary that, if there’s one thing sexy women all do, it’s not starving themselves – they eat. If you have to include fanservice, that’s an encouraging message to include with it.

This focuses on the first half of the season. I’ve watched more and will probably write more on it, as the show changes pretty considerably after this. Overall, though, I’d recommend it, which I didn’t think I would when I set in. It delivers a lot of social commentary in sly, smart ways that – like Cecil herself – you wouldn’t necessarily expect given its outward appearance.

You can watch Wizard Barristers in its entirety for free on Hulu.

Wizard Barristers Cecil

Have You Heard… “Au Revoir” by Chancellor Warhol?

Songs of 2014 – “Au Revoir” by Chancellor Warhol

by S.L. Fevre

If Jay-Z is the Catholic Church of rap gods, old, opulent, and claiming to be the one and only true choice, then Kanye is Jesus. Kanye sacrificed himself to redeem the rest of the gangsta rap gods’ sins – champagne, bitches, guns. He killed the image by burning down his own.

Now, rap is a post-apocalypse of movements trying to build from the ashes. That’s not a negative. Rap is the only genre looking at itself and not liking what it sees. Its soul is being freed from a withering body. This year, rap started believing it can change the world again.

Have everything you’ll ever want? That’s too bad. Today, extravagance is a maladjustment, and boasting only assures others how ashamed you are.

“Au Revoir” opens by boasting about Chancellor Warhol’s stuff, like the “Look at all my shit” moment in Spring Breakers, but it’s not long before he’s confessing his sins (“If you did the shit I did you’d pray for a son, too”) and denying himself via REM (“I’m losing all religion, I think that’s me in the corner”). He tries to justify his excess to God:

“Please Lord forgive me for being Lord of the Flies
But I remember the days I couldn’t afford to buy,
Couldn’t afford to drive, couldn’t afford a ride,
I couldn’t afford the bus or the time passing me by.
Is it too much to ask to chill with model faces?
Ass in high-waisted, feeling they highly wasted.
Know it sound shallow for avant garde,
But I’m from Les Miserables where they learning to rob.”

He admits to God that he’s making up for lost time, and trying to make his earlier struggle feel worthwhile by rewarding himself with excess. This is directly followed with:

“Take the Tokyo Sonatas play em over Sinatras,
I’m trying to take all my sins and turn em in to an opera.”

Tokyo Sonata is the award-winning Japanese film in which an unemployed father pretends to remain employed in front of his family. Similarly, Chancellor Warhol is chasing icons in order to be one, trying to fulfill a gangsta rap image that’s a lie. What’s worse, he’s created this from personal experiences both real and imagined.

Juhi’s beautifully sung chorus keeps returning to challenge him:

“Time is forever, momentary bliss
Now how can you last with a heart like this?”

The closing repetition,

“Who’s gonna save me now
Cause I’m so underwater now,”

reveals how lost he feels in a world made up of image and disposable things – guns, cars, people.

Casey Culver’s exceptional music video reflects this when Chancellor Warhol boasts about all his possessions in the middle of a desert. At the end, he and Juhi wander populated city streets without making any human connection.

The words “Au Revoir” themselves don’t just refer to a character’s contemplation of suicide at the end. They say goodbye to a certain image and way of life in rap. Chancellor Warhol recognizes not just how badly mainstream rap has taught young men, but how much achieving that rap god image can take away from the artist himself. It’s time to retake rap before it kills itself, he says. I agree.

Have You Heard… is a stream of song recommendations, many of which may be new to you. It’s also the kind of analysis that’s missing in a music industry obsessed with image and celebrity instead of the music itself.

Go Watch This: “Every Other Freckle” by Alt-J

Every Other Freckle boy

by Amanda Smith & Gabe Valdez

[NSFW warning for the videos.]

At the end of every week, we messily exchange a bunch of stuff we’ve watched, hoping our own passions will spark with another writer and we can gain some traction on article ideas. The most contentious topic is music videos, I’m guessing since we’re running a Best Of list of them every month.

There’s one we haven’t been able to stop talking about since it ran, and that’s Alt-J’s “Every Other Freckle.” It’s actually two music videos, a “Boy” and a “Girl” version, and the way they interplay is one of the boldest music video statements of the year.

Two videos, one centered on a man, one on a woman. Both attractive. Not very safe for work. The images in between their close-ups are the same – buffalo stampeding, seagulls soaring, a cat pouncing on things. Each video on its own is cute, well-filmed, and seems like a celebration of sex and the human body, no matter the gender. When paired together, though, the message becomes wholly different.

The storming caveman in the “Boy” video seems like something subconscious in the male ego, a drive toward violence. When viewed in the “Girl” video, that violence suddenly has a target. The seagull, seemingly a musical accompaniment in the “Boy” video, becomes a yearning to escape in the “Girl” version.

Watch the videos synched together, side-by-side, and each reacts to the images of the other, and to slight syncopations in the delivery of certain metaphors.

Violence that seems aimless in the “Boy” video becomes a direct confrontation, a male assertion of dominance. Images of gathering fruit in the “Boy” video that seem out of place suddenly become a disturbing metaphor in the “Girl” video – he looks determined, she looks fearful as the armful of apples falls from each of their grasps. The genius of the paired videos is that they shift the lyrics themselves from clever and funny in “Boy” to scary and harmful in “Girl.”

The metaphors in one video don’t hold complete meaning until you view its partner, and suddenly it all turns from contemplations of beauty to a portrayal of obsession, violence, and possession. It’s a brilliant statement. This isn’t a full analysis – if it were, we’d be talking about its Garden of Eden metaphors and how slick the editing is. This is a “We Can’t Wait Till the End of the Month to Tell You About This So Go Watch Now Because We’re Obsessed With It!”

Watch one and then the other, or synch them up to run side-by-side. But do watch them.