Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

A Recommendation for the Documentary Trophy (2017)

Saturday, September 23rd, 2017

I saw Trophy recently at Osio Theater in Monterey. I found it to be a must-watch film. I went into it expecting for it to be hard to watch, and it was. I did not expect for it to strongly shift my viewpoint about using hunting to subsidize conservation efforts and motivating conservation through greed and capitalism. I agonize over animals being killed to satisfy the thirst for adrenaline dumps and completionist tendencies of hunters. There is an extended sequence of a young elephant dying a slow and painful death after being shot that viscerally depicts how much pain the hunted animals’ individually experience. The kin of the slaughtered also certainly feel terrible emotional anguish and stress, as family structures are chaotically shifted and depleted with every murder. However, just as John Hume, owner of the private rhino farm, says at one point in the film that if humans could get the opinion of rhinos, rhinos would probably prioritize their individual survival over having their horns, I think that these animals would probably value the increased probability of preserving the existence and survival of their families over their terribly unfortunate murders.

I was strongly against hunting-subsidized conservation at the start of the film. After its conclusion, I still don’t unequivocally think it’s the right thing to do. Lots of these animals are caged up, and with the prevention of animal interaction, the private land habitats featured in this film aren’t really restored ecosystems. Also, a tunnel vision focus on breeding of species and security against poachers alone risks missing tackling the matters of land use change and human development onto ever-shrinking habitats that factors alongside poaching in the extinction of animals (and the film certainly touches on this, as well).

Billions of more people to add to this planet. Where do we go next?

Avatar: The Last Airbender — Belated Thoughts in 2015

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

In 2005, I watched a couple of episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and it couldn’t keep my interest.

A decade later, I liked the show enough to breeze through it in a week.
The humor and chibi-inspired shenanigans didn’t quite cut it for me, but I think this is a case for me where the cast dynamics and some incredible character arcs allowed me to forgive things that typically would induce facepalms, such as idealism, clear-cut morality, and preachy writing. (It amused me to no end by the way after I learned that Ann of Arrested Development was the voice actress for Katara.)

Zuko’s character arc is simply incredible. His decision to depart from his father was one of the finest payoffs I’ve felt from any show, up there with Stringer Bell’s demise in the third season of The Wire, Elizabeth telling Phillip to come home in the first season of The Americans, Jasper’s badassery in this most recent season of The 100. (I realize these names probably mean nothing to you, by the way.) Iroh was also a sweet supporting character.

The pacing in this show was also masterful. It helped that there were a lot of multi-part episodes, and I am wondering how they were able to schedule those because there were quite a few of them. I think many shows would benefit from having longer mid-season and season finale climaxes. The last episode did a wonderful job of tying together lose end and even bringing back bit episode characters.

I do have a major problem with how this show handled death, genocide, and collateral damage, and I’m guessing that a lot of that was just the writers trying to figure out how to get the show to meet a Y7 rating. But come on man, all the protagonists on the show are basically made to have completely clean hands, but even if they did not kill directly, you know that some of the usages of the bending had to have resulted in deaths for the cannon fodder. Throwing people off cliffs, exploding entire vehicles/ships with people still inside — it made it seem like the characters were in a state of cognitive dissonance sometimes.

When Aang was going, “Wah, I don’t kill people. Don’t want to start now with Fire Lord Ozai!” I wanted another character to say something like, “Dude — it’s ok. Remember, when we dropped that twenty ton boulder on the group of Fire Nation grunts without bending abilities or plot armor last week and you were okay with that?”

Jet fucking died. Acknowledge it!

I also laughed when Hakota (father of Katara and Sokaa) told his children that they should flee and not worry about abandoning their Bay of Pigs invasion force because the Fire Nation would simply take them prisoners and that they would survive. Given the track record of the Fire Nation, how were they that confident that their captors would abide by the Geneva Conventions?

I think Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko (the showrunners) were also terrible at handling romantic relationships. They say they were setting up Katara and Aang the whole time, but the way they wrote it, it felt like Aang would inconsistently jolt out of the friend zone in spurts in between long stretches of receiving little romantic attention from Katara. Especially in the last few episodes, it felt like the showrunners were completely telegraphing Katara as Zuko’s eventual righthand woman at the throne. Feels like all around that would have made more sense. Symbolically unifying the nations, allowing Aang to keep on going on his own adventures or bang Toph (muscular blind girls need lovin too, man).

The failure of DiMartino and Konietzko to actualize Zutara, along with the failure of nation states to pass comprehensive climate and finance regulation will go down as one of the great lost opportunities of the 21st century. Hate to be a shipper, but man oh man, the setup was there for the taking! (On the note of Katara, I was disappointed that the focus on Zuko seemed to come at the cost of spotlight and action for her. She definitely deserved more than being a relief pitcher for Zuko during the climax.)

Finally, I found that the tendency to give all adult characters Asian accents while younger characters sounded more “white” to be puzzling.

******

Zuko just completely stole the third season, and by extension, the rest of the show. His development made the show a worthwhile time investment for me. Also, I found his lines to be the funniest. Him and Mai exchange their “I don’t hate you’s” was one of the few un-lame bits of humor in the show.

Appa is also one of the cutest fucking things ever conceived. The episode featuring the baby air bison almost killed me with its cuteness.

Praise Be to The CW

Monday, February 16th, 2015

During my grad school interviews, making fun of the CW was a go-to icebreaker for strangers as they got to know each other:

“LOL ARROW SO BAD. FLASH SO BAD. ACTORS AND ACTRESSES SO PRETTY. ADULTS PLAY TEENAGERS. THE 100 SO CHEESY. TERRIBLE WRITING. SO MANY LOOPHOLE.”

Meanwhile, people were using Marco Polo and House of Cards as a benchmark for good serials, which I think are actually quite unbearable.

Some smoke fanned up by Smallville and One Tree Hill snowballs into an easy joke. What CW shows are accused of, other channel lineups are guilty of as well though. People forget that The OC was a Fox show.

As of the last couple seasons though, I have to say that the quality of CW’s lineup matches up well with those of any other “prestige” outlet such as HBO or Netflix. For sure, I think it has a few better shows than Amazon’s Prime line (I vehemently disliked Transparent). The three CW shows I’m watching right now, Arrow, The Flash, and The 100 undeniably lack for production values. But for running more than 13 episode seasons which is incredibly tough on the writers, crew, and actors, those shows are doing a bangup job of staying consistent. Arrow‘s plotting has come down significantly from its season 2 highs from operatic comic-book fun to methodical mediocrity, but is still quite entertaining. I would describe it as a TV version of Nolan’s Batman. It shares the same showrunners as The Flash, so it looks like the creative team has just been spending more of their energy on that show instead. The Flash sits farther to the left on the goofy<->angsty spectrum and packs enough fun and pep to get you shadowboxing. It does an economic and sufficient job showing the absurd powers of its Metahumans on an apparently humble budget. Both The Arrow and The Flash have soaring, catchy soundtracks courtesy of Blake Neely, by the way.

The crown jewel of The CW for me is The 100. (Some argue that it is instead Jane The Virgin, but I have not seen that show.) Adapts a YA novel into Lord of the Attractive Mad Max Song of Ice and Fire Flies. I am still in disbelief that execs let a show this dark and gory get on The CW, but I am not complaining. Wooden first few episodes, but this show has had one of the most drastic improve curves I have seen. The three best parts of this show I find to be:

a) Its pacing. Nothing is allowed to drag on for too long. Things you think will last for a whole season instead get resolved in a couple of episodes. Confusions between characters typically get talked out and clarified very quickly, which is refreshing in a world where characters in fiction are frequently kept in the dark to keep up dramatic irony.

b) Speaking of the show’s characters, they are typically introduced off the bat as being morally ambiguous. This is sometimes obscured by overpowering musical cues, but even the people who are ostensibly dicks are immediately provided with rational reasons of acting the way they do to viewers. Characters are bothered by what happened to them in their pasts, but there is very little “faux-ambiguation” of otherwise one-note characters by the sudden introduction of childhood trauma. Complexity is not forced upon viewers but are instead added to characters as they make decisions between terrible options, react to ensuing consequences, and adapt (or die).

c) And then, this leads me to the plotting, which I personally separate from pacing. There is very little plot armor this show. There is plenty in the way of miraculous rescue and salvation, but the show kills recurring to main cast often enough that you do not take lives for granted. There is a jaw-dropping death during the second season that floored me in disbelief and relief that the writers had the balls to allow the characters to occasionally not find solutions. I also applaud the writers for not rewarding absolute pacifism as a simple, one-size-fits-all answer to diplomatic kerfuffles in their scripting.

It does appear that some of the unexpected deaths and disappearances were driven by actors’ scheduling conflicts and budgetary and negotiation issues. In the hands of a capable writer’s room, it does seem that professional inconveniences and disagreements can be utilitarian opportunities for shaking plots out of comfort zones. (Given that the characters have already been established. Kelly Hu’s disappearance after the pilot was disjointed.)

Song of the Sea Film Review

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

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Song of the Sea is the cutest movie I have seen in a long time. The cute seal designs alone are worth the price of admission and runtime.

This is a gorgeously animated film, both in terms of visual style and production values. The art had this textured feel that reminded me of the art design of Japanese animation studio Gonzo’s series from 2004, Gankutsuou.

The rounded, abstracted, shimmering, and high-contrast art style suited the plot’s whimsical and ethereal nature. Magic realism is not the right word to use, but it is the word that comes to mind at the moment when I think about the story. The revelation of the existence of fairies, mythical creatures, and legendary beings are not treated with much skepticism or surprise. The world is assumed to be filled with mystery beyond human understanding, mystery to be accepted, respected, and revered by us humble humans. It is a kind of story that I cannot imagine being told in anything other than a 2d animation medium. Sure, one could attempt with CGI, but with the reduced abstraction that three dimension polygons bring, I feel that some of the sense of mystery, unknowableness, and ethereality would be lost. Anyway, that is my pseudotheory — that 2d animation more suitable for fantastic stories because us having to engage our imagination more to fill in data reduces our threshold for suspension of disbelief. What may seem otherworldly and fantastic in a 2d rendering could seem creepy, ridiculous, and alien in live action or CGI.

A gateway to the unknowable mysteries of life and the universe, a celebration of the joie de vivre that merits the sadness we experience. This is what an all-ages film should be.

Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Two Days, One Night) Film Review

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

 

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‘Triumph’ and ‘understatedness.’ They are two unlikely verbal bedfellows. It is sensibly rare and uncanny that a film evokes both (I am less familiar with other mediums, so if this is a common thing elsewhere, do let me know.), so when one does, it is a fine piece by my books.

In the closing shot of Deux Jours, Une Nuit, directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Sandra (Marion Cotillard) walks away from the camera on a nondescript, if well maintained road. It is an unceremonious final shot, especially when compared with that of Tangerines, which I saw last week. No swelling music, soaring camera on a jib or helicopter. The last expression we see from Sandra is a delicate smile. It is certainly not a “happily ever after” ending — and Marion Cotillard does not play it as such. Her smile is not so wide as to show any teeth. She looks downward, figure looking encumbered by the bag she is carrying at her side. Nonetheless, it is made triumphant in comparison to the struggle and glumness displayed through the preceding runtime. Marion Cotillard’s face gives the film an uplifting ending without testing believability. Cinema, at its best — some finality for a particular chapter; life continues.

As suggested above, the film follows a character named Sandra who has been on leave from a job at a solar panel foundry because of depression. Her specific job is never mentioned, but with the talk of welding and fabrication, it is implied that she has a blue collar manufacturing job susceptible to economic and managerial pressure. That her specific position is never mentioned further sets her up as a representation of the modern, replaceable worker, a cheap cog in a machine.

At the start of the film, Sandra is notified by a friendly coworker, Juliette, that the employees at her company, Solwal, were forced to choose between allowing her to come back to the company or getting €1000 bonuses, That they voted for the bonuses, in part because of intimidation and prodding from the foreman, Jean-Marc. Sandra obviously reacts grimly to this news. She is still afflicted by symptoms of depression and does not appear to be ready to go back to work, but her family needs her salary and she has told her colleagues that she is ready to return. Juliette and Sandra’s husband, Manu, convinces Sandra to meet with the Solwal CEO, who decides to allow another vote because of the foreman’s tampering. Through the rest of the film, Sandra tracks down her colleagues over the course of a weekend to lobby them to vote to keep her in the coming Monday vote.

The scripting of this film was impeccable, not insulting to the cognitive faculties of its characters or the audience. It is biased toward Sandra’s cause, but is not a polemic on the evil and selfishness of all humans. Counterarguments are not shunned — Sandra frequently falters in her unconfident pitching and pleading, and members of the pro-bonus camp mostly justify their positions with simple, reasonable, and relatable defenses that are painful to argue against. (As is the case with reality though, some people are not reasonable though and some justifications sound better than others.) The writing anticipates concerns the audience may come up with by having characters cover a few angles in articulating their reluctance and unwillingness to vote to keep Sandra. Demonstrating a confluence of good direction, writing, and acting, many of the Solwal colleagues manage to exude contradiction, hypocrisy, and multifacetedness despite only getting minutes of screen time. There are not many outright caricatures.

Rather than lamenting human self-interest, the film is more an indictment against managers, executives, people in power, who force contrived and artificial decisions onto their constituents, employees, serfs. The CEO and foreman characters are the closest the film gets to caricatures and straw men. More than once, Sandra is accused of being an instigator and divider, but with his passive absence and the repeated highlighting of the false dichotomy set up by the vote, the filmmakers implicate the CEO as the wrongdoer. The notion of false dichotomies perpetuated by those in power reminded me all too much about the fractious political debates being waged in the United States and Europe.

The realistic, informed manner in which depression was portrayed was another standout aspect of this film. Sandra’s condition was consistently inconsistent throughout the film, swinging between anxious sobbing and despondent catatonia. I feel that many works of cinema do not acknowledge the inconsistent and lingering nature of mental illness. For example, in Silver Linings Playbook, whose calling card was all about its portrayal of mental illness, I recall the characters played by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (forgot their characters’ names) ostensibly being symptom free past a certain point in the film. They behaved steadily and regularly through their scenes, permanently improving after clearing checkpoints in their character development with little in the way of lapses or erraticness. This is not the case in Deux Jours, Une Nuit, where Sandra was prone to lapses and impulses, her momentum easily deflated by awry remarks from her colleagues. Capably transitioning from stupor to euphoria to anxiety and then back again in single scenes, Cotillard does some admirable physical acting with remarkable postural and facial control. (See Foxcatcher for more recent examples of dedicated and attentive physical acting.)

In regards to technical aspects of the production, I do not have much to say. I was glued to the plot of the film and did not pay too much attention to the editing or cinematography, which indicates competency. I do not remember anything in particular about the editing — Walter Murch and Edward Dmytryk would be proud. In terms of cinematography, the approach was minimal and workmanlike. Natural lighting, handheld photography. No spectacular compositions or how-the-heck-did-they-do-that?! tracking shots. Unlike the case for Tangerines (which again, I still enjoyed — just truthfully a less polished film), I can recall nothing odd and distracting from the camera movement. I do remember that the camera movement moving between character’s faces to capture their expressions as they reacted to dialog was sublimely timed, particularly for the in-car sequences.

“We put up a good fight,” Sandra says in the last shot. Indeed, the film mounts an effective, but not overbearing indictment against those who force false dichotomies onto their toilers and dependents. Deux Jours, Une Nuit is a work of heartfelt and respecting empathy. Up there with Nightcrawler and Force Majeure as one of my favorite films of the year.