Who Gets A Chance In Hollywood?

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Blade Runner: 2049 (2017)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

30 years after the events of the first Blade Runner, replicants have been successfully integrated into society. Or, at least, the newest breed has. Older models–those seen in the first Blade Runner–are regarded as obsolete, and therefore still subject to “retirement.” And now, the government deploys other replicants to hunt their kin down. K (Ryan Gosling) is one such synthetic Blade Runner. One day, while out performing a “retirement,” he discovers the body of Rachel, Harrison Ford’s love interest from the first movie. At first glance, it seems that this is nothing more than a call-back to the original film. But, as is always the way with such things, it’s not that simple. Her remains reveal that she was pregnant at the time of her death, and that the child may have even survived. Which is a big deal, seeing as Rachel was a replicant, and replicants aren’t supposed to be able to have children. K’s superiors are horrified to hear this, and instantly order him to find the replicant baby and kill it. K agrees, but, as he goes about his investigation, he uncovers some details that lead him to question his purpose, as well as his own identity. No surprises there.

When I first heard they were making a sequel to Blade Runner, I really didn’t know what to think. Anytime a sequel comes out more than 10 years after the release of a particular film, the chances that it will be terrible increase 20 fold. On top of that, I wasn’t a huge fan of the first Blade Runner. Oh sure, it looks amazing, it’s themes and ideas are intriguing, and the influence that it’s had on the sci-fi genre cannot be overstated. At the same time, though, it’s extremely long, kind of boring, and there’s a scene in it where the protagonist more or less rapes his love interest. Anyone who’s actually seen the first Blade Runner will tell you that it has these flaws. So, going into Blade Runner: 2049, I had mixed feelings. And now, having seen it, I still have mixed feelings.

On the positive side, Blade Runner: 2049 is a superbly crafted audio-visual experience. If you want to see what film, as an art form, is capable of, you have to watch this movie. Everything about it, from the set design, to the cinematography, to the music, to the lighting and the CGI, is euphoric. Very few films can make a fictional world feel lived-in and real, and this one does that in spades. So, for that reason–for creating a world, and showing off the full potential of cinema–I say go out and see this movie. It is the kind of film that demands to be watched on a huge screen, with loud speakers.

On the other hand, Blade Runner: 2049 suffers from many of the same problems that plagued its predecessor, particularly with regards to pacing. There are an absurd number of long, silent sequences in this movie, where characters are just walking down hallways, staring at things, and reaching out and touching stuff. It really gets quite dull after a while. I’m not joking when I say that this movie could have been about 20 minutes shorter, and the story wouldn’t be effected in any way. On top of this, there are quite a few scenes that serve no purpose to the story other than as callbacks to the original film; like when Ryan Gosling talks to Edward James Olmos, or when Harrison Ford meets a clone of Sarah Young. Nothing important, plot-wise, happens in these scenes, and they are quickly forgotten, so they all come off as needless padding. Something else that kind of bugged me with this movie was something that also kind of bugged me with the original film. And that is the female characters. They all seem to exist for the pleasure of men. They’re either sex slaves, like the replicant prostitutes who seem to be on every corner, or scantily-clad enforcers, like Love, the main villain’s henchwoman. There are a ton of scenes where we see replicants–who, of course, are all beautiful young women–being born, or where the camera pans over to holographic billboards of naked ladies. Even Gosling’s boss, Robin Wright, who, for the most part, is a gruff, non-stereotypical figure, is put in a scene where the camera pans up her legs, and where she asks him if he’d like to sleep with her. It’s kind of disappointing, that, both in the future, and in 2017, we haven’t been able to get rid of the male gaze. For my part, I intend to go against this in my work. But I’m getting side-tracked.

Concerning Blade Runner: 2049, it is a superbly crafted audio-visual experience. If you want to see the best that film can offer in terms of sight and sound, go see this movie. It will not disappoint. But if you want a compelling story that moves quickly, and that doesn’t have stereotypical female characters, this might not be for you. Make of this what you will.

Battle Of The Sexes (2017)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

It’s 1973, and Billie Jean King is the reigning champ of women’s tennis. But she’s not just interested in titles. No, sir. She also wants to change the way the tennis federation treats women. So when she learns that the female winners of a particular tournament will be paid 8 times less than their male counterparts, she decides, “Screw it! I’m making my own all-women’s tennis league.” And that’s exactly what she does. Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs, a washed up former tennis champ, upset at how uppity King has gotten, challenges her to an exclusive, one-on-one match; a “battle of the sexes,” if you will. He even offers her a lot of money if she wins. King is reluctant at first, but, realizing that the league can only survive if it has the funds to do so, she agrees, and begins training for the big, end-all, be-all match. Will she win? Well, you’ll have to watch the movie, or read a history book, to find out.

Battle Of The Sexes is a well-acted, decently directed comedy, with a good message, and that’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less. Which, in a way, is kind of a problem. We’ve seen these kind of social issue movies before. Hell, they crop up every year around Oscar season. Some, like Blood Diamond, Dallas Buyers Club, and 12 Years A Slave, are great, and able to transcend their well-meaning, if predictable, formulas. Others, like Stonewall, Golden Gate, and J Edgar, are bad, precisely because of their refusal to take risks with their storytelling. Battle Of The Sexes isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but, for a movie that’s seeking to tackle the gross sexism that Billie Jean King had to come up against, and that sadly is still present to this day, it all seems kind of safe. Say what you like about GLOW’s dark humor, at least it went places it needed to go to. It wasn’t afraid to offend people when it came to making us understand that women did, and do, face a lot of terrible shit. Yes, sometimes it went over-the-top, but it at least made its point. In Battle Of The Sexes, the misogyny is oddly tame. Yes, it’s still terrible seeing men objectify women, pay them less, and talk down to them. But the language they use isn’t that provocative. And the film even goes out of its way to make the sexist guys, particularly Riggs, kind of likable. We see him playing with his kid, cracking jokes,and generally enjoying life. Yes, it’s better to employ an even-handed approach when it comes to portraying heroes and villains, but, in this case, I believe it would have been better if Riggs had been slightly less lovable. See, very often in fiction, sexism in male characters is shown as an annoying, but forgivable, quirk. If you don’t believe me, just look at the Big Bang Theory, Revenge Of The Nerds, and even Their Finest, a film I really admired. In each of these works, other people scoff and roll their eyes when the male characters say or do sexist things, but they never try to change their minds, or punish them for their behavior. In fact, we’re meant to sympathize with these men. Deep down, they’re not bad guys. They’re just misunderstood. And whatever misogynistic behavior they might display, it’s more than made up for by their positive qualities. This trend in media has seriously normalized misogyny in many people’s minds. And I’m quite convinced that it at least played a part in the election of Donald Trump. Even after the infamous Access Hollywood tape, people voted for him, and they did so because, to them, his sexism is just a harmless part of who he is. If Battle Of The Sexes really wanted to comment on sexism, it should have made Riggs as ugly and disgusting a character as possible. He shouldn’t have had any redeeming qualities, and the reason he shouldn’t have is to show audiences that men who act like this lose, and are pathetic, worthless human beings.

But if, somehow, you don’t care about making a strong enough statement against sexism–though, really, why would you go to see this movie if you didn’t–the film isn’t all that good. It’s not bad, mind you. It’s just not memorably great. THe dialogue is fine. The cinematography is fine, though they do tend to use way too many close ups. And the acting, as I said, is fine. No one really stands out as superb. Everyone is just serviceably good. So when you combine all this together–the serviceable production values, and rather safe tone–what you’re left with is a well-meaning, but honestly kind of forgettable biopic. Should you go see it? Well, that’s up to you. As for me, I have no desire to watch it again.

The Beguiled (2017)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

While out picking mushrooms, Amy, a student at an all girl’s school in Virginia, comes across a wounded Union soldier. Deciding she can’t just let him die, she brings him home, where the headmistress, Miss Farnsworth, and all the other students, take an instant shine to him. They bring him inside, clean his wounds, cook him food, and, as soon as they think no one else is looking, begin flirting with him. The Northerner, for his part, laps up their affection, flirting with each of them, and even requesting a permanent place in their midst. Things take a turn for the dark, however, when one of the women he’s been courting breaks his already damaged leg. This leads to Miss Farnsworth amputating the injured appendage, and to the Northerner, a previously kind and gentle man, becoming a violent drunk. Needless to say, tensions only rise from there.

The Beguiled is handsomely photographed, decently acted, and it boasts some absolutely stunning sets. And I don’t think I’ll ever watch it again. It’s not that I can’t recognize how well-made it is. It’s just not my kind of movie. It’s extremely slow, the characters aren’t particularly well-defined, and I’m not quite sure what it’s underlying message is. A remake of a 1971 film, starring Clint Eastwood, the movie never comes out as overtly pro, or anti, feminist. On the one hand, it could be read as an indictment of men, and how their lust, violence and selfishness ruin everything. And on the other hand, the film is also about a group of jealous, deceitful, and even murderous, women, who do nothing but talk about men, and fight over a man. So, yeah.

Granted, all this ambiguity was likely a deliberate choice. In the original film, the women are clearly the villains, and Clint Eastwood is clearly the one we’re meant to sympathize with. My guess is that Sofia Coppola, the director of this remake, wanted to tone down some of the older movie’s more misogynistic content. At the same time, however, there were certain aspects of the original–specifically, a disturbing bit of backstory concerning Miss Farnsworth’s love life–that were cut, and that I think would have added a little more depth, had they been included. As I mentioned earlier, none of the characters in this film really stand out. I couldn’t tell you what their personalities were if you asked. Had Coppola included some backstory from the original, I would have gotten a better sense for these women’s characters, and their motivations would have been a little more clear. As it stands, however, The Beguiled is a pretty, competently-crafted, but ultimately hollow and forgettable remake. I don’t see myself re-visiting it anytime soon. But if you’re a fan of Sofia Coppola, or the original, maybe you’ll get a kick out of it.

Empire Of Passion: Deconstructed

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, ANd Views Are My Game.

Returning to his hometown from a brief stint in the army, young Toyoji begins courting the much older, and married, Seki. Their romance is fairly innocent at first,  with  Toyoji doing nice things for her, like bringing over flowers and sweets. However, things quickly take a turn for the dark when Toyoji forces himself on Seki while she is caring for her infant son. Then, after extorting several, increasingly degrading sexual acts from her, Toyoji, who is extremely jealous, says that they must kill Seki’s husband. “I can’t stand the thought of you being with any other man,” he says. Seki reluctantly agrees, and, one night, after getting her husband good and drunk, she and Toyoji strangle him to death. They then dump his body down a well, and tell everyone in their village that her husband went off to Tokyo. But when the man’s ghost begins haunting the streets of their community, rumors begin circulating, and the authorities are brought in to investigate.

Empire Of Passion is a film I reviewed a while back. When I first saw it, it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. I admired the film’s look, with the use of light and smoke really creating a tense, otherworldly atmosphere. But just about everything else, from the over-the-top acting, to the idiotic character choices, to the repetitive scenes and questionable sexual politics, didn’t work for me. For that reason, I gave the movie a bad review, and put it out of my mind. Or I tried to, anyway. For even now, after all this time, I’ve been unable to forget it. Something about this picture has stuck with me. It’s clung to my consciousness like a stain to a shirt. For this reason, and the fact that I’ve now seen some more of the director, Nagisa Oshima’s, other works, I have decided to do an in-depth analysis of the film. Hopefully, in so doing, I will be able to make a better, more informed decision about whether or not the picture is any good. But to do that, I must answer a few questions; What kind of movie is this? What is its underlying message? And, most importantly, can it be read as pro or anti-feminist?

Starting with the obvious, what kind of film is this? What I mean when I say that is, what genre does this film fall into? Is it a horror film? Is it a drama? Is it an erotic romance? For as long as there has been fiction, writers, publishers and audiences have put different stories into different categories. Partly as a marketing tool, and partly as a way to help people understand the story and its themes better. Determining Empire Of Passion’s genre can, and will, clarify its messages and ideas. So, what genre is it? Well, on the surface, it would appear to be a horror movie. There’s a ghost. There’s eerie lighting. There’s creepy-sounding music. All this would seem to suggest that Empire of Passion is a horror movie. But that ignores one of, nay, the key, truths about horror films; that they are designed to frighten and panic. Empire Of Passion clearly is not made for that purpose. Nothing remotely scary, or supernatural, happens for the first hour or so. And when the ghost does show up, he doesn’t do anything remotely frightening. He sits by the fire, looking sad. He offers to give his wife a ride home. Never once does he try to attack her, or get her to confess her crime. He’s more annoying than terrifying. And just because a story has something supernatural in it doesn’t mean that it’s automatically horror. Hamlet, Macbeth, and 2017’s A Ghost Story, which I reviewed here recently, all have specters, but no one would even think of calling them horror. So, when you really think about it, Empire of Passion doesn’t actually qualify as a scary movie. But if it’s not horror, then what is it? Well, the genre that it actually shares the most similarities with is tragedy. Like a tragedy, the film tracks the downfall of two people, and, also like a tragedy, their destruction is brought on by a hamartia, or fatal flaw. For Macbeth, the flaw is greed. For Hamlet, it is indecisiveness. For Seki and Toyoji, it is their inability to leave one another. Both are given numerous chances to flee, and yet, every time, they choose to stay. Their lust for one another is simply too great. Their lives are destroyed by sexual desire. For this reason, it might be best to classify Empire of Passion as an Erotic Tragedy, with elements of Horror thrown in.

So, now that we know the film’s genre, we must ask ourselves two questions; one, what does this tell us about the film’s message? And two, what is the film’s message? All works of art, even those without overtly political agendas, have messages. That’s because just about every work made by man attempts to teach us things. Even if the lessons are as basic as “don’t lie,” or “be grateful for what you have,” they are still, in a way, political. They are upholding a particular world view, and politics, at its core, is the discourse between differing world views. The genre of tragedy is especially effective at conveying messages, since the characters’ flaws–their greed, their dishonesty, their bigotry, etc–oftentimes articulate the author’s political opinions. Don’t kill kings. Don’t take what isn’t yours. Otherwise bad stuff will happen. That’s usually how it works. Occasionally, though, it’s not the characters flaws that illustrate the storyteller’s views. It’s what happens to them. In some tragedies, like The Crucible, the protagonists are, ultimately, moral people, and their flaw is the fact that they remain moral in an immoral world. Knowing the director, Nagisa Oshima, it’s safe to assume he meant for Empire Of Passion to be the latter kind of tragedy. A staunch leftist, and former student radical, Oshima always used his work to critique Japanese culture. From the government’s discrimination against the Korean minority (Death By Hanging), to its wartime atrocities (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence), to its strict censorship of sex and sexuality (In The Realm Of The Senses), Oshima always had something to say about Japan in his work. His stories tended to revolve around characters who were disillusioned with their surroundings, and so rebelled against them, only to be brought down, and to have the status quo restored. That’s the case in Empire Of Passion, where he seems to be suggesting that life is cyclical, and that, in the end, nothing we do really matters, since, in just a few short years, everything we did will be forgotten. Seki and Toyoji “rebel” against their small, isolated community by having an affair, and killing the former’s husband. But, by the end of the film, they are caught, and hanged, and life moves on. The movie doesn’t even end with their execution, which would have given their deaths some degree of weight and pathos. Instead, the story concludes with a shot of Toyoji’s mentally-challenged brother running through the town, as he was shown doing earlier in the film, and a voice over saying, in a rather blasé tone, that Seki and Toyoji were hanged, and that the community quickly forgot about them. The theme of life being cyclical is reinforced by a recurring visual motif; a spinning wheel. The film opens with a shot of a spinning wheel, and there are several points in the movie where we see other circular objects rotating. One of the few genuinely frightening moments in this picture occurs when Seki is sitting at home, and, out of nowhere, the wheels of her dead husband’s rickshaw start spinning. Even the story itself is cyclical, since we see the four seasons pass several times, and many of the same scenes–Seki and Toyoji having sex, Seki telling Toyoji to run–occur over and over again. All this reinforces the idea that the wheel of life keeps on spinning, regardless of what we do and who we are, which is the film’s central thesis.

So it’s a tragedy, whose main message is that life is cyclical. But is it pro or anti Feminist? That is the last, and trickiest, question, and is the most important in determining whether or not this film is worth remembering.

Determining whether or not Empire Of Passion is Feminist is a very difficult task, mostly because there is evidence to support either side of the equation. On the one hand, the film could be read as an argument against the liberation of women, and in favor of traditional, patriarchal values. In the movie, a lustful, deceitful woman cheats on her husband, kills him, and even neglects to take care of her infant child, all because she wants to have sex with a younger man. In this interpretation, Seki is a warning for other women to not leave the house, and to obey their husbands and fathers. Otherwise, bad stuff will happen to them, as it does to Seki. Not only does she wind up getting executed for her husband’s murder, she is also blinded, and repeatedly beaten and harassed by the police. Evidence for the anti-Feminist reading is most prevalent in the scene where Toyoji forces himself on Seki. It begins with her napping while cradling her infant son. Toyoji enters, gropes her while she’s unconscious, and then, when she wakes up, covers her mouth and drags her into the bedroom. We hear her say “no,” “don’t,” and “stop,” several times, and yet, when we cut to the inside of the bedroom, we see her on her back, enjoying the sensation of Toyoji going down on her. And we know that she enjoys it, because she hears the baby crying in the other room, and covers her ears to drown it out. This one scene encapsulates every backward, reactionary view that men have about women; that they enjoy being raped; that if they are given too much freedom, they’ll neglect their true responsibilities, like motherhood, etc. And yet, as disgustingly misogynistic as Empire Of Passion can be, there’s also more than enough evidence to read it as a feminist tragedy about a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, finding the man of her dreams, and ultimately being punished by society for being happy. As mentioned earlier, Empire’s director, Nagisa Oshima, was a well-known leftist, renowned for despising both patriarchy and toxic masculinity. The sexual desires of women was something he was deeply interested in, actually going so far as to make a documentary on the subject for Japanese television. Knowing this, certain scenes that would otherwise feel like throwaways–Seki’s husband talking to their grown up daughter, Shin, some women from the village gossiping about Seki–take on greater significance. The former scene, especially, lends itself well to a feminist reading of the film. In it, Seki’s husband tells Shin that she shouldn’t bother with school, or with dreams. “Your mother had dreams once,” he says, “Eventually, she learned to leave them behind. And she’s much better now.” This brief exchange casts a whole new light on Seki and Toyoji’s relationship. Now, instead of being an innocent victim, her husband comes off as a smug patriarch, forcing his wife to adhere to his beliefs about what she should be. His death is infinitely less tragic, and Seki and Toyoji’s relationship is considerably less monstrous. And yet, even with this scene, even with the knowledge that the director was a liberal who despised patriarchal societies, I don’t think I can say this film is feminist in its portrayal of sex and relationships. The biggest reason is that rape scene I mentioned. If Oshima wanted to tell a story about a repressed woman’s sexual awakening, why did he have to show her getting assaulted? That fundamentally undercuts any feminist reading the story could have had, since rape is one-sided. It does not consider the needs of the victim, in this case, Seki. If the point of the story is to show Seki giving in to her urges, and finally being able to explore her sexuality, why not have her be the one to initiate things? As it is, Seki is an extremely passive player in this story. She gets assaulted by Toyoji. She gets blackmailed into killing her husband. Nowhere in the film do we see her exhibiting any kind of agency. On top of that, the picture never really shows her enjoying herself. Every time she and Toyoji have sex, it’s because Toyoji wants it, no matter how dangerous, or inconvenient, it might be for Seki. And there are several scenes where he asks her to do things in bed, like shave off her pubic hair, that she doesn’t want to. And we know she doesn’t want to because we see her crying and looking miserable. So when you really look at the film, at the shots and lines of dialogue, any potential Feminist angle it might have crumbles into dust. And that’s not even getting into the director’s views on sex. See, even though Oshima was a leftist, he had some startlingly questionable views on consent. Some of his most famous films–Cruel Story Of Youth, In The Realm Of The Senses, this–feature female characters falling in love with the men who rape them. And one of his most acclaimed movies, Death By Hanging, is based on a real life case wherein a Korean man, Ri Chin’U, admitted to raping and murdering two little girls. Oshima held Ri Chin’U in high regard, despite his crimes, describing him as the most “intelligent and sensitive youth produced by post-war Japan.” Not only that, he believed that Ri’s writings, wherein he detailed exactly how and why he raped and killed these girls, should be taught in schools. Yes, schools. This, in my opinion, seriously weakens his credibility when it comes to telling stories about women’s sex lives. Because, clearly, he didn’t understand some very basic things. So, in the end, I don’t believe Empire of Passion is a Feminist Feature. Though it could have been, in someone else’s hands.

Having gone back and re-evaluated Empire Of Passion, I find myself in much the same position as before. I don’t love it. I don’t hate it. I can appreciate some of its messages, and craftsmanship, more. But, at the same time, it’s narrative flaws, and highly unpleasant treatment of female characters, have become all the more striking to me. For this reason, I don’t believe I can recommend this to you, even as an example of strong visual craftsmanship. Perhaps others will disagree. As for me, though, I’m quite happy to put this out of my mind, and never think of it again.

Changeling (2009)

 

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

On March 10, 1928, Christine Collins came home from work, and found that her son, Walter, was not in the house. She looked in every room, scoured the entire neighborhood, but it was all to no avail. Walter had vanished. For five agonizing months, Christine waited for the authorities to find something, anything, that would indicate where her boy had gone. Then, finally, the police claimed that they’d located him, but when she was presented with the child in question, she realized that it wasn’t Walter. The boy was three inches shorter than her son, circumcised, and lacked certain knowledge that Walter would just instinctively have, like what his teacher’s name was, or which desk he’d sat at in school. But when Christine pointed this out to the police, and urged them to keep looking for her son, they refused, insisting she was mistaken. They hired doctors to explain away the physical discrepancies between Walter and this new boy, and got reporters to write articles smearing her as an incompetent, neglectful mother. Then, when all this failed, they locked her away in an insane asylum, claiming she was hysterical, and that she needed to be restrained, “for her own good.” It wasn’t until a detective, working on a completely unrelated case, uncovered a connection between her boy and the crimes of a serial killer that Christine got released, and people started listening to her.

This horrifying true story forms the basis of Changeling, a 2008 drama film, directed by Clint Eastwood, and starring Angelina Jolie. I’d never heard of it, or the events that inspired it, until I watched the movie this weekend, and now, with hindsight, I think that’s a shame. This is a well-made film, and it tells an incredible story from our past, which has far more relevance to the present than we might like to admit. The fact that a woman who spoke out against an authority figure was written off as hysterical, and even institutionalized, just so that she couldn’t threaten their position, is both terrifying, and not at all hard to believe. To this day, women around the world face huge amounts of backlash whenever they “rock the boat” by discussing mistreatment or abuse. That’s why so many rape cases go untried, the victims are too scared to speak out. For this reason, I highly urge everyone out there to watch Changeling. Because even though its set 89 years ago, what happens in it is still happening now. And if we want a better world, we need to learn from our past.

Now I realize that that statement will be enough to turn some of you off this film. After all, movies that are “important” aren’t always entertaining, or even well-crafted. I appreciate Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Dear White People for their messages, not because I’m gripped by their stories or performances. Likewise, Schindler’s List, City of Life and Death and 12 Years A Slave are so painful to watch, in spite of their craftsmanship, that most of us can’t bear to see them again. Changeling is neither of those things. It’s not so heavy handed that you can’t get invested in the story, and its not so painful that you feel tempted to look away. The movie is 2 and a half hours long, and I was never once bored while I was watching it. The acting in it is also very good, and, as with all Clint Eastwood films, it looks very nice, with the costumes and sets being downright exquisite. So if you’re afraid that Changeling will be a boring, or excessively brutal issue movie, don’t worry. This film does get you to think, but not without entertaining you all the while.