Friday, June 27, 2014

Consciousness-Raising in Film

Not all portrayals of minorities in film are equal, duh.

There are two broad ways where a minority can show up in a movie with a positive effect towards breaking down stereotypes. There is, of course, tons of bad ways (or maybe just one) where a minority might show up in film to negative effect, or to reinforce stereotypes. That is actually a much more complicated discussion compared to this one.

1) Just Showin Up
This is the worst way to portray a minority without having a strong negative effect. This is also what I think you might call the "Token" effect, where somehow it just reminds audiences that people different from themselves might exist. I hesitate to even call this a positive effect, but I suppose in the end it is, because it exposes audiences to those that might be different from themselves. And while that's not really the most beneficial way to use the medium of film for a mass audience, hey, it's better than nothing.

The character's difference is never really acknowledged throughout the show, and they are merely a replacement for the role that any actor could play. When this is done right, however, it can reinforce our lack of differences between ourselves. Take Tyrion Peter Dinklage's character in DOFP. While he is in there for his acting ability above all else, it is interesting (and beneficial) to see that absolutely no mention of his height is ever made, and nor does it matter.

But that was a character with depth and uniqueness. A sight sadly not seen often enough.

2) But, you're a girl!
I'm trying so hard to put a positive spin on all of these and it just gets harder and harder. The second way that a movie might raise the awareness levels of its audience is by bringing in a character to subvert a character's (and, by extension, an audience's) stereotypes about the group the minority belongs to. A few quick examples of this would be the "ass-kicking, tough-as-hell female" and the "prissy jock".

When this works poorly, it can be lame and obvious. Think about movie that come out now where the main character has to pretend to be gay, and that's meant to be funny. That maaaaaay have worked several decades ago, but we're at the point in American culture where unless you're out of your fucking mind, there's nothing weird about this.

It can also work to reinforce the stereotype it was supposedly trying to break down, whether inadvertently or...advertently. Think about a few romantic comedies where the main female lead starts out as an independent career oriented woman, and then regresses into a relationship-obsessed girl. Or perhaps if the movie draws so much attention the character's differences with the rest of the cast, it does more to segregate than anything else, not mention reinforcing how weird it is when minorities don't fit our preconceived notions.

For this to work well, the joke must be played on the audience. I think the best example of this is in Paranorman. Throughout the movie, the young teenager character is constantly throwing herself at the football star quarterback character and keeps getting shot down. At the very end of the movie, where it's revealed that the quarterback is gay, it is the audience's fault for never making that assumption. The evidence was there the entire time, you just chose not to see it.

Thursday, June 26, 2014


Do we really need to hate this so much?

In case you're unfamiliar with the term, voluntourism is the pejorative term for the practice of paying for a volunteer experience abroad, usually in a Latin American or Africa, and it's becoming fashionable to hate on this shit.

The argument goes that people going to these countries are usually not volunteering so much as they are taking pictures for their Facebook page. One of these things is ok, the other is not.

I help manage a small sponsorship organization in Ethiopia. I say this because I have some experience with taking people's sweet, delicious money. I'm also the type of guy that has a pretty simplistic view of ethics and morality. Just, fucking, do good things because you should do good things, and don't do bad things. Dumbass.

Sometimes we get people who want to donate money or sponsor a child because they want to show off that they are donating to charity, or because they think that their religion demands it or something. This used to bug me, and on some level, still does. Why not just donate money because it's the right thing to do, because you have a bunch of  it that you don't need and they have not enough?

One of the things I personally have had to learn how to do since starting at our organization is learning how to accept the fact that people give money to charity for lots of different reasons, some of which I may not agree with. But this is ok, solely because their reason for giving has nothing to do with the way we run the organization. If you gave some money because your religion demands it, that's great, but we're going to spend it the same way we would have if you were an atheist.

Which leads me back to voluntourism. Does it irritate me that some people volunteer just for the sake of making a cooler Facebook profile page? For sure. Do I think they're wrong in their reasons for giving their time? Absolutely. But do these reasons matter? Well, it depends.

The other half of this issue is people going abroad to volunteer in general, regardless of how many photos they take while they're there. On the one hand, this is an industry that is in constant need of resources. That much should be obvious. So, anytime that somebody wants to help out, it is generally a good thing. The problem though is that because resources are highly limited, the way we spend resources needs to be carefully controlled. Nothing should go to waste.

With that in mind, sending a twenty-something overseas to do menial labor is a huge waste of resources. Even assuming that the volunteer has skills that would be useful in the target country and stays there for long enough to justify the airfare, there is still the issue of housing and food, of which westerners have a different (higher) standard, which costs more money. Even under the best of circumstances, it is not only cheaper to hire local workers (skilled or unskilled) but better for the local economy as well. If we were to start hiring people to do the kind of work we normally make volunteers do, and pay them a decent wage, it will drive up competition, and people will begin training in those types of jobs. The training centers at this location would get more income, and slowly get better. There would be a competition among the training centers as well, to provide better education. These places would higher better people and so on and so forth and you get the point. I don't care what your motives are for getting involved in poor people's lives, but for god's sake, don't waste your money.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Waking Life

Wow did I hate this movie.

I spend a lot of time reading about film, and I spend probably an equal amount of time reading about film criticism. As such, one of the things that I've heard a lot is that when writing about movies, you shouldn't be too quick to judge it harshly, or you may just come off like a bitter, fun-hating film critic to your readers. Well, readers, I'm sorry but this shit sucked and I hated it. Not only that, but it's the worst kind of hate, where I feel like I'm going to hate hating it.

For the sake of appearing unbiased though, I'm going to tell you that the animation style is really unique in a good way. I'm not quite sure I can place how they made it either; It appears to subtly change styles throughout the entire movie, usually for reasons I can't explain. I really liked this.

The plot of the movie is that a guy gets stuck in a dream and can't quite get out of it, but, there's not really any plot to this thing. He starts out by hitching a ride with a guy who drives a boat-car, who harangues him with philosophy. I really liked this part too. The boat guy comes off as this quirky character who may or may not figure into the plot, but I enjoyed the time he was on screen. The movie then quickly reproduces this formula roughly 100 more times.

This gets old real quick. Our protagonist meets the next philosophy-talking quirky guy in a college classroom, where he listens to the lecture, and then afterwords listens to him some more. This is the last time that the movie even attempts to create a reason for talking to these people, as the protagonist just starts bumping into random intellectuals, listening to them talk for five minutes, and then leaving again.

And I'm sure you must have figured out by now that I'm the type of guy who digs a lot of talking in my movies. Had the movie stuck to this formula with some decent speeches by intellectuals, I would have loved it. It would have been a touch repetitive, for sure, but I would have liked. As it turns out, instead of saying anything interesting with these monologues, they opt for the most pretentious bullshit they can.

Half of the monologues are like, yeah man, fuck society, oppressing us! With its abundant food and medicine and convenient technology! It's hard to just, live, ya know? Half of the monologues are philosophical nonsense. When the movie told me that we need to be "dreaming with our hands and dreaming with our minds" I have never rolled my eyes so hard in my life. "The worst mistake that you can make is to think you're alive when really you're asleep in life's waiting room." That's fucking amazing. Let me write it on my tumblr and I'll be the coolest 13-year-old ever.

This whole thing made me frustrated. I'm a big fan of strange animated movies, lots of dialogue in movies and especially Richard Linklater. I should have been this movie's target audience. But instead I hate it. Now, remember when I said that I hate hating it? That's because I know that if I make my hatred for this movie public, somebody somewhere is going to tell me that I didn't "get it". If that was the case, then the movie must not have been made very well then, huh? But no, I did get. I got every mind-numbing pseudo-intellectual bullshit point these assholes were trying to make. There just wasn't anything interesting there to get.

1) Well made? - It's hard to mess up an animation movie, isn't it? The sound and colors came out, so I guess it was well-made?
2) Contributed?  - Definitely yes. This is a unique art and film style.
3) Good time? - Definitely no. I wanted to cut my ears off.
4) Watch again? - Never ever ever.
5) Worth it?  - Ugh. Maybe if you watch...twenty minutes? Just until you get the idea.
6) Who should watch this? - Philosophy majors, douchebags, douchebag philosophy majors

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sexism is Sexy

While studying diplomacy, we learned that one thing to always look for is what somebody is trying to gain. A lot of times, when people do something objectively bad or evil, it's not that they're trying to something bad or evil. it's that they have a problem they're trying to get rid or (much more commonly) they're trying to get richer.

Take Hitler (please). Yes, the guy definitely had some backwards ideas about genetics and race, and some pretty serious hatred, but this doesn't explain why the rest of the country followed along with this, does it? It helps to remember that Germany was poor as fuck at this time, and Hitler and everyone else was trying to survive. What would you do if you didn't have enough food? It makes sense to start a war, get the economy mobilized, and try to get your hands on some sweet, juicy Czech farmland. And, it also makes (COMPLETELY IMMORAL AND TOTALLY EVIL) sense to lower your population numbers a bit.

A lot of situations can be read this way. Paul Collier has taken some flak for suggesting that perhaps rebel fighters in countries during civil war are not noble defenders of the weak, but maybe they're just trying to improve their own economic standing. This happens a lot where countries have a "winner-take-all" type of economy or political system.

You can apply this principle of "Accidentally Being an Asshole" to little everyday things as well as big things. There are a lot of men who act like asshole towards women. Like, a lot, you guys. And they're awful, for sure. But I think the first step in opening up a dialogue and changing people's minds is to acknowledge that these assholes are not intentionally trying to be assholes.

Take a look at this ad from 1951, declaring it to be "a man's world" with a subservient blond offering breakfast in bed (to a guy wearing a tie when he wakes up? I don't understand this.) The idea here is not that they were intentionally trying to be sexist or demeaning to women, but flattering and ego-stroking to men. I should clarify here, even though it's not intentional doesn't mean that it is also not fucking awful.

If I'm being totally honest here and ignoring every single moral principle in my body, then yeah, having a hot blond serve me breakfast in bed would be nice. It doesn't mean that every women needs to do this; It doesn't mean I expect this from anybody; It doesn't mean that every woman needs to be an attractive blonde lady. If this was a robot butler and not a human being, it would be perfect. But it's not. It is a human, and it is bad to have this going on, even if the intention was just to stroke my ego.

And think about it, there are only certain types of people who need their egos desperately stroked. These people are called losers. People that, perhaps get rejected and then feel like the world has wronged them, somehow. Like a schoolyard nerd, people like this tend to want to escape into a fantasy world where they have more power than the real world. Only instead of dragons and swords, these guys want boobs and also more boobs.

Take a look at a sample google search of men's rights activists:

Not one of these assholes are good-looking. Don't believe me? Search for yourself.

And then, none of these assholes for being ugly. They are assholes because they have such tiny, fragile egos, and feel like their lives are threatened. They have been rejected and put down so often that they feel their lives are worthwhile. I'm not saying these guys are in any real danger or that women should jump into bed with them to make them happy, but they imagine that this is the case. Is it a stretch to compare these schmucks to the Germans in the 1940s. Oh god yes. But, I hope the comparison can offer a jumping off point for changing the way we deal with idiots -- They are not trying to be oppressive or disgusting; They are just trying to survive. The sooner we accept that people are being accidental assholes, the sooner we can implement this in conversation and hopefully start off on a better foot.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Others

I'm starting to wonder if talking about genres isn't becoming my pet project.

I mentioned before that our rigid adherence to genre definitions might be limiting how well we enjoy movies. If you didn't feel like clicking that link just now, the cliff notes are: movie genres should not be defined by their contents, but by their intended emotional effect on the audience. You can find examples all over the place of two movies in supposedly the same genre that have a completely different effect on the audience. If Only is not the same type of romance movie as, say, Casablanca or It Happened One Night. Aliens is a completely different kind of thing from Let the Right One In or Audition. You are expected to laugh at different things from Borat than you would at Dr. Strangelove. And yet despite all this, we still paint everything with strokes that are far too broad, occasionally to a movie's detriment.

 Inception is a decent example of this. What genre would you place this movie in? Is it science-fiction, a heist, a psychological thriller, an action flick? There are certainly elements of all of these things in Inception, but you can't really definitely call it just one genre can you? I have no way of proving this, but I suspect this hurt Inception at the box office when it first came out. When you talk to your friends about what movie you're going to see tonight, usually you describe it in terms of genre. "Should we see the horror movie or the romance movie?" Or, "Should we Inception? It's an action movie...I think?"

(Quick side note: Along with defining movies by their intended emotional affect on the audience, I don't think it's too off-base to suggest that movies might also be defined by their directors. You can see a fantasy movie or you can see a Tim Burton movie, for example. You can see an action movie, or you can see a Tarantino film.)

This leads me to The Others, which I think is a movie that is hurt by the genre it seems like it should be in.

Taking a look at this cover, you would easily assume that this is a horror movie. For the most part, you would be right, but not enough to really justify calling this a "horror film". For one, the thing is not very scary, which is ok, because I believe the intent of this movie was to make it more of a mystery.

The ending was spoiled for me, and I won't spoil it for you. This is the type of movie that makes it obvious as soon as it can that things are not what they seem, so if I inform you that there's a twist at the end, I don't think it will ruin your viewing experience. (Feel free to blame me if it does.) I say this because I watched it knowing how the thing would end, but I was still interested. I knew the end result, but I didn't know the details of how we would get there, and the twists on the road towards the ending were so winding that I was intrigued regardless. And yet...

And yet this movie was made to look like a horror film. There are definitely some elements meant to be creepy, but, I would argue (on admittedly shaky ground) that the intent was to thrown a sense of confusion on the audience rather than frighten them. You're supposed to ask, "How are these spooky noises being made? Where are they coming from?" Rather than, "Oh god, spooky noises. I know they're going to die now!" People's experiences watching this film would be greatly improved if they went into thinking it was a supernatural mystery, rather than something meant to keep them awake at night.

1) Well made? - Absolutely. The use of lighting alone is worth watching.
2) Contributed?  - Yeah, I think so. I like a movie that fills in the spaces between genres.
3) Good time? - Even knowing the ending, I had a great time watching it unfold
4) Watch again? - For sure. I was watching it with the ending in mind, and I imagined I noticed things that most people wouldn't see if they didn't know the ending.
5) Worth it?  - Oh yes
6) Who should watch this? - I think the only people who wouldn't enjoy this are those looking for a good scare. It just didn't really exist here.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

La Belle et la Bete (2014)

This is the most boringest review ever.

So on a whim I caught a film in the theater last night, and because I missed the showing for Wadjda, I went with the latest, Frenchest incarnation of Beauty and the Beast, La Belle et la Bete, direted by Christophe Gans.

I mention Gans because he did a somewhat well-known movie called Brotherhood of the Wolf or Pact of le Wolf, in French. The movie is about French Sherlock Holmes and Native American Kato unravelling a mystery about a...wolf, I guess? I honestly don't remember much except some badass scenery, some cool costume design and near-constant being fucking awesome from the sidekick character. Seriously, look at this guy.

Needless to say, I was expecting much of the same from La Belle et la Bete. I was not wrong. The costumes were meticulously designed and unique throughout the movie, and the sets were not only intricate, they were sometimes not CGI. Sadly, however, the Beast's costume just made his stupid fucking computer-animated face look even faker, and the real sets just made the fake sets look absolutely atrocious.

Brotherhood of the Wolf was known for having really well-shot action sequences and creating a creepy atmosphere. La Belle et la Bete does create a fantastical environment with the real sets, which I enjoyed. The Beast gets a few action sequences that were just flat-out cool. When the Beast pounces on someone or something, it's like Batman and a lion had a baby, and then they taught that baby how to be a ninja.

The spectacular failure of the film comes from its script, which is supposed to a romance, I guess? The movie starts with an unseen mother reading a story to her children. GEE I WONDER WHO SHE IS. I presume the children are awfully fucking bored of this story because nothing happens in it for a good long while. We start off by following Belle's father around for a while -- which is all well and good, I mean he's a nice guy -- but it comes at the expense of spending time with Belle, whom we're expected to care about for the rest of the movie. She wanders around the castle, doing nothing, before having dinner every night with the Beast, which also accomplishes nothing. I almost want to forgive this plot jogging in place, because I'm assuming this movie was made just to look pretty, and not really tell a story. So while Belle is doing nothing, we get to see her newest dress and check out the castle. Hey, gotta play to your strengths, right?

But you know, the prettiness in this movie cannot justify buying a ticket to see it in theaters, or even to have it clutter up your Netflix. Maybe wait a bit and look at some stills from the movie on Google.

1) Well made? - Write a good script, then design the sets. This is not rocket science.
2) Contributed?  - Pretty soon I'll be watching the 1940s version of Beauty and the Beast, and I suspect this 70-year-old version will be vastly superior.
3) Good time? - Nope
4) Watch again? - You shouldn't even watch it once
5) Worth it?  - Nope
6) Who should watch this? - If all the tickets for every other movie out in the theater now is sold out, and you have to hide from the CIA for 90 minutes, I give you permission to see this movie.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Game of Thrones Season Four Finale - Part Two

Yesterday, I gave a number of examples of the ways that characters in GoT get punished for doing the honorable or noble thing. Today I'm going to talk about why the Season Four Finale fucks with all that.

I don't think I'm crazy to assume that most narratives are working towards a point. More often than not, an audience can guess what the end result of a story is going to be, but the process of how they get there is how the story makes its point. There was never any doubt that Luke would defeat the dark side, but the question of how is what makes the movie. It is for this reason that the season one death of Ned Stark came as such as a shock to people. You may have guessed that King Robert was destined to die, and you knew that the Lannisters would be the antagonists to Ned from the very first episode, but the audience was operating under the assumption that Ned was the hero. And heroes don't die in stories unless it's a noble sacrifice.

That's when we began to realize that the "point" of GoT wasn't "being good and noble", but instead being practical. As I outlined yesterday, there were several events leading up this belief of pragmatism over honor that led me to believe that this was the point the show was making. (But, I mean, who knows? Maybe Ned's death will serve some greater purpose by the time the show closes. Maybe getting killed at the Red Wedding was somehow the best choice for Rob. There's still a few seasons left.)

Again, the finale brings all of this into doubt. Not only that, but there were a few times where I became genuinely concerned for some of our main characters due to the choices they made. Daenerys decides to stay in Essos to be a good ruler instead of attempting to become just a successful conqueror, not because it was a prudent decision, but because it was a noble one. At that moment I was convinced that Dani had sealed her own doom, and that somehow this would come back around on her someday. We haven't seen the results of that yet, so who knows? I had a similar thought with Tyrion. Even though he loved Shae and wanted to be around her, he sacrificed his own feelings to keep her safe. And we all know how that turned out.

But then we get to this fight scene between Brienne and the Hound. I don't think I've misinterpreted their characters by suggested that the Hound is prudence and selfishness personified, and Brienne is primarily defined by her duties. As soon as Brienne stumbles upon the two, I knew she was dead. I just knew it. And we are.

There's a few other choices done here that may also signal that the show is heading in a more helpful direction. Jon Snow's efforts to save Mans were less than self-serving, as well as the decision to keep Thormund alive. These two can be of little use to the Wall at this point, and are only an accident waiting to happen. But perhaps, after seeing Brienne survive a bout with The Hound, the point of the show is evolving in a more hopeful direction.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Game of Thrones Season Four Finale - Part One

I am no longer sure what the message of Game of Thrones is, and whether or not that's a good thing.

(This episode is nothing but spoilers for the Season 4 finale of Game of Thrones. Usually, I don't like to mention that spoilers even exist in something because if I know that if there's a big twist in a movie or TV show, I spend the entire time looking for and expecting that twist. If you tell me [spoiler alert] for something, I know there's going to be a twist and then no matter what it is, I wasn't really surprised, was I, asshole? But, since this is Game of Thrones, you already knew that spoilers existed, so I don't mind saying so now.)

Up until the fight with Brienne and the Hound, I was certain that the show was leading up to a point, and that point was that pragmatism beats idealism. Take a look at some of the tragic downfalls in GoT and a trend emerges. Ned Stark's adherence to honor and loyalty to his dead friend not only costs him his head, but arguably the lives of many, many others. Robb Stark's marriage for love instead of consolidating military power costs him his life, his wife's, his unborn child's, his mother's and most importantly, his dog's. Just recently, Oberyn's desire to hear The Mountain confess cost him his life and almost Tyrion's. There was a couple times where Ygritte could've killed Jon Snow and she didn't, presumably out of love, which cost her life. Drogo wanted to please his wife, so he stopped the slaughter of the goat herder people and then listened to his wife's advice about being cured just to make her happy. In this situation too, Dani's desire to save her husband led her to black magic, which took the life of her baby.

There's also a few things less of a tragedy that occurred, but still put people in precarious situations. Robb Stark's decision to behead Kastark was a poor move politically and militarily, but still the right thing to do. I'll give Ser Rodrick's death partial credit here, because while he does uphold his honor by refusing to follow Greyjoy, this death is more about Theon's downfall than Rodrick's adherence to his honor. Also, every shocking or dishonorable thing done usually results in some sort of boon for the characters who performed it. The Red Wedding is a pretty good example of a devious undertaking that won a war and saved thousands of lives. The Purple Wedding was openly dishonorable and cowardly, leaving one man to die in place of the true murderer and saving thousands of lives. Using Reek as a trick to gain Moat Caitlin turned out pretty well for Ramsay. Killing his cousin got Jamie freed from Stark's holding cell.

Everywhere you turn in this series, people doing awful things gets them rewarded. Again, the lesson seems to be that being pragmatic keeps you alive and usually better off than being honorable or romantic, which gets you dead and sometimes shamed. Tomorrow we'll talk about why Season 4 is special.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

X-Men DOFP - Found Footage

Bryan Singer proves me right once again.

Usually whenever I write something here, the first thing that happens is that I see something and I think to myself, "Hey that was pretty cool," or "Wow, that was pretty terrible." (Usually the latter.) After that, I start thinking about why I loved or most likely, why I hated something, and I might end up with a coherent thought. If it is less than 95% stupid, it passes the standards for me posting something on this site.

With DOFP, I saw it three times in the theater, which is the most times I've seen a move on the big screen since The Dark Knight, which I saw so many times I stopped counting. (Like 5, I think?) Because of this I had a better chance to think and then combine something that I read recently about film theory. The result was that I talked about the theory first, and now I'm going to talk about the found footage scene in DOFP that inspired the whole thing. (Which I unfortunately couldn't find a picture or video of. Sorry)

So, Raven gets knocked out a window and when she hits the ground outside, the film switches to a handheld camera perspective. (I just realized, I'm not sure if this was done with an effect done in post-production or an actual, factual 8mm camera. I'd be interested to find out.) At first, this scene struck me as jarring and hackneyed. Found footage movies have been coming out quite a bit in recent years, and it's getting old. I knew that this movie was originally planned as Matthew Vaughn's straight (non-future X-Men) sequel to First Class, and I know he had intended to tie-in a lot of incidents from history into his plotline, the Kennedy assassination being one of them. I wondered then, as I do now, if this found footage scene wasn't just "left over" from Vaughn's original idea.

As the scene continues, the jarring effect not only doesn't reside, but intensifies. Seeing the mutants on this found footage, looking like it came from an actual camera from an actual event that happened and not a summer blockbuster movie, really drove the point home about mutants being different. A neat result of all the analogies regarding the X-Men -- with racism, homophobia and so on -- is that instead of being inconsequential like those other, real-world things, mutants are actually a threat. One might be ok with treating people of a different race with reverence, but treating someone who can shoot lasers out of their eyes and through your face is an entirely different matter.

This scene, while being a technical aspect of the film, emphasized the mutant's differences with the rest of humanity while showing humanity's fear of this "other". All of this reminds the audience that we're dealing with people that are actually dangerous, but the final point of the movie is that even if they're dangerous, they're still people. Good stuff.

1) Well made? - Yes. Great acting, character-driven story
2) Contributed?  - If you're even a passing fan of the X-Men series, this movie is something of the glue that ties the universe together. If I understand correctly, the only movies from here on out that matter are going to be First Class and this one.
3) Good time? - This movie could have screwed itself badly with a convoluted time travel plot and/or too many characters, but it didn't. Whereas people watch Avengers and think that it works despite having a lot of characters, this movie has way more superheroes, but wisely focuses on only three. This keeps the movie tight and enjoyable all the way through.
4) Watch again? - Already saw it three times
5) Worth it?  - For sure. Again, if you've seen the other movies, this ties everything together nicely.
6) Who should watch this? - I think a general audience would enjoy this. I saw this movie with a few friends who had either never seen an X-Men movie, never remembered an X-Men or just didn't care, but not one of them didn't enjoy the film.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

X-Men DOFP - Some Characters

Yesterday, I got into how the focus of the movie was not necessarily to draw comparisons to racism or homophobia, but instead how our status quo can be changed for the better. While I still believe that this is the focus of the film, that doesn't mean that there can't also be other messages within in the movie. DOFP makes a subtle, yet powerful message about racism and prejudice through its casting.

One of the things that I actually don't like about this movie is that it was so solid and well-made that there's actually not much to discuss about it. With Amazing Spider-Man 2, there was literally no end to the amount of hate I could spew on that movie. Walking out of DOFP, I said to my friends, "That was pretty good, yeah?" and they agreed. Then we started talking about how bad Amazing Spider-Man 2 was.

Not counting Nixon, there is ostensibly seven new characters in DOFP, but one of them is the younger version of a character previously introduced, so let's not count him. They are Quicksilver, Warpath, Blink, Bishop, Bolivar Trask and Sunspot. This is a pretty large new cast and aside from Trask, none of them get a lot of screen time. I understand this decision because there is not a lot of plot development taking place in the future, where the four new mutants appear, and the events in the past are focused on the characters already introduced -- Charles, Erik, Hank, Raven -- and giving Quicksilver any more screentime or character development than what he got would have taken away from the focus of the main plot. Needless to say, I approve of the method of introducing the new characters and how they were handled in the film.

The inclusion of Quicksilver was awesome. If you've talked to anybody that has seen this movie, you've already heard this. Listen to me too. It's awesome. There's not much more that needs to be said about it.

Warpath, Blink and Bishop were an excellent fit for the futuristic distopia, and considering that they never were too important or received much characterization in the books, they were used really well. (Same goes for Electro.) I actually like the versions of these characters better than those in the comics, but again, it would have been hard to make it worse. Sunspot was a bit worse, and I think a bad fit for the distopian future scenario. His powers in the comics look a bit more like this:
Not this:

His personality is also that of a rich, care-free womanizing playboy and there was none of that here.

But, anyway, my point is, with six new characters, you have a Chinese woman, a Native American man, a South American man, a black man, a little person, and a white teenaged boy. This movie doesn't make any overt statements about racism or prejudice, but it speaks loudly with its casting choices. That's pretty awesome.

People, specifically dumb people, like to argue that because the source material has a white person in it, or the story in question came from a place that is predominantly white, that the characters have to be white. This is batshit crazy, because it pretends that these are not mutable works of fiction goddammit and instead a documentary about Scandinavia or some shit.

This movie takes this bullshit and proves it wrong. Not once is it mentioned or even noticed that Bolivar Trask is a little person. It doesn't even factor into the storyline or character development at all. There was no point where Trask goes, "Mutants laughed at me because I'm short." No. This is not just saying, "Hey, let's treat people the same even if they look different," this is actually doing it and it fucking works. Most of the rest of the new cast are all persons of color and they kick ass.

The character of Blink was not an Asian woman in the comics, but she is in DOFP. What's great is that the character is fucking cool, and nobody had any problem with changing her ethnicity. Is this is a sign that perhaps we're progressing as a society? Oh, no, I bet white nerds love it when a random Asian girl enters into their nerd movie, but the casting changes to a black person...

...people lose their shit, I guess. Better luck next time, society.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

X-Men DOFP - Talking

The voiceovers at the beginning and end of X-Men: Days of Future Past are some of the best in film.

Part of the importance of having good voiceover narration is that more often than not, movies fail at this. I'm thinking about the types of voiceovers that require the main character to simply announce what it is that they're doing while they're doing it. The cinematic release of Blade Runner was guilty of this, where the two lead characters drive away, and the voiceover informs the audience that, yes, the two lead characters are indeed driving away. Riveting stuff.

Less offensive but still pretty bad is when voiceovers inform the audience about the world that they're just entered at the start of the movie. Sometimes this gets sidestepped a little bit and has instead the character talking to another character to explain to the audience by proxy. This is Narnia. There's an ice queen and she's bad, but we have a lion and he's like Jesus, but you're not supposed to mention how obvious that is.

So the DOFP voiceovers at the beginning and end of the movie avoid these pratfalls fairly well. The initial voiceover is Future Xavier saying (as in the trailer) "The future...a desolate place" and then some other stuff and then "but can the future be changed?" The ending voiceover is Past Xavier saying "The uncertain" something something.

First, this is kinda cool in that you have Future Charles as narrating, guiding the audience, in the future and Past Charles doing the same in the past. That is...cute, but it's not the reason that I like this voiceover so much. The X-Men movies have always been very versatile in what themes that they choose to emphasize. X2 for example really played into a lot of the persecution that mutants receive in the X-Men universe and drew a lot of ties to real-world repressed minorities. First Class emphasized more of an "us vs. them" narrative and the different ways to approach that. (Having Nightcrawler wish that he could look normal in X2 is one thing. Having Beast change his appearance out of shame for his big feet is another.) First Class also reminded us that X-Men is about teaching as much as it is fighting. Watching characters grow stronger and control their powers better exemplifies them growing as characters. Very few movies have a way to visually represent that to the audience.

With a few different themes floating around in the X-Universe, it's important to make it clear what the audience should take away from this specific movie. When I first saw DOFP, I was confused why MLK or Malcom X have not made an appearance or been mentioned in any of these movies set in the past, as the issue of prejudice against another group of people is in the forefront of my mind when I see an X-Men movie. But, I misunderstood the intent of Bryan Singer. The voiceovers, especially the last one that we hear, are about hope for change. It is on full-display in the way the characters are dealt with and the plot progresses, and the voiceovers simply clarify this even further.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Close is Long

The technical aspects of film are more important than anything else.

Sergei Eisenstein, the guy who was famous for doing this:

wrote in 1945 about three ways to view and criticism a film, and because the guy apparently had no sense of restraint, named these three views in the language of film, with "Close-up", "Medium-shot" and "Long-shot". "Long-shot" is looking at the film through the lens (ha!) of society. It's the political and social level of the film. "Medium-shot" is the one that focuses on the characters. You might even say that this is the "psychological" level of film criticism. The final view of criticism is "Close-up", which focuses on the elements of the film itself -- how the scene is shot, the sound, the colors and things like that.

When I write here, on this blog, I tend to focus more on Long and Medium than Close, that is mainly because I don't have enough technical knowledge of film to feel like I can write something and share it with the public and even pretend to know what I'm talking about. (I'm getting better! I'm just not there yet.) That doesn't mean, however, that when I talk with my friends I don't bring things like this up, and even occasionally when writing in Korean, I'll note a certain atmosphere or visual style that a film has created.

When I first read Eisenstein's assessment about these "three views", I felt that he had correctly identified two modes of criticizing movies (the Long and Medium) and then incorrectly categorized the technical aspects of film along with them. After all, the message that a movie sends, and the way the characters interact with each other and themselves is totally removed from simple questions of how the movie is technically made. Right?

Well, let's talk about Signs.

Yes I'm for real. Despite having a poorly-written, preachy script with a nonsensical twist at the end, there are a lot of good technical aspects, and to this day, I still admire how well some scenes are shot. Like this one:

Now, again, I don't know as much about movies as I pretend to and I know even less about psychology, but the way this scene travels from the long-distance, wide view of him standing in the open to the more claustrophobic view of him actually standing in the cornfield is a technical aspect (a "Close-up" element) but it shows the psychological effect of Mel Gibson's fear (a "Medium-shot" element). This is how Close becomes Medium, and is just one example of how "Close-Up" views are the most important in filmmaking.

Let's take another example from The Winter Soldier. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a clip for this one, so just use your imagination/memory. Fairly close to the start of the movie, Cap and Nick Fury are talking face-to-face in front of the huge-ass gunship at the core of the movie. The way they are situated has Cap on one side (on the left, incidentally), Fury on the other and the gunship looming in the background between them. As it happens, they're talking about the ethical issues in using something like the ship in preemptive strikes. The way the scene is shot shows their opposing viewpoints and the looming threat of the ships, while giving us insight into how they think problems should be dealt with. This, of course, is also a proxy conversation for current US military and intelligence strategies involving preemptive strikes. Again, the three views here are on the full display, but the technical aspects to this scene add so much more than if Cap and Fury were just walking down the hall or talking into the camera.