Don’t look at me. It’s way too soon to see… The films of 2013

I buried myself in films this year, mostly in the form of marathons but I also scraped along to the cinema a few times.  It seems to have been a year for sequels and reboots, but I don’t know to what extent that’s been true for a while now rather than something specific to 2013.

Here’s the list of films that I saw in the cinema and wrote up a review.  There were a bunch of film festivals I attended but didn’t get around to writing them up, mostly because the films I saw were bafflingly awful.

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Disregarding every myth we write… Reassessing the Iron Man trilogy #reviews

Iron Man (video game)

Iron Man (video game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Between Batman and Iron Man, a lot of cultural commentary focused on the presentation of wealthy people (invariably straight, white men) as independent arbiters of justice.  They use their fabulous wealth to obtain technological advantages over people they perceive to be the ‘enemy’ and then confront this enemy outside the legal framework.  Following this analysis, it is argued that audiences never get an insight into how the same social, cultural, and economic processes which has privileged the heroes (to the point where they can afford crime-bashing gadgets) simultaneously disadvantaged the people now getting bashed, beaten, and bruised by the heroes.

Watching the Iron Man trilogy as a group, it’s not entirely clear that this is true.  Although the reading is still insightful and thought-provoking, the Iron Man trilogy defies the analysis somewhat.  In the first film, the playboy billionaire at the centre of the film, Tony Stark, comes to realise that his industry is the reason why America’s enemies are getting more powerful.  He wants his company to shift from weapons manufacturing to energy production in order to address global economic issues.

What we see instead is the internalisation and individualisation of military technology.  It’s this theme — the trials and tribulations of the transhuman world — that stitches the trilogy together.

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Maybe we’re looking for the same thing… Reassessing The Dark Crystal #reviews

The Dark Crystal

The Dark Crystal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s rare to find somebody my age who didn’t see The Dark Crystal as a child.  Produced by the Jim Henson Company, the film is markedly different from the majority of childhood films at the time — films which actively protected children from ever experiencing fear or distress.

The story is set on a fantasy planet called Thra which is home to several races of creatures.  The planet is dominated by a group of raptor-like creatures called Skeksis.  The Skeksis live in a castle, drape themselves in fine clothes, and are served extravagant feasts by a host of enslaved creatures.  They control an artefact of power — the Dark Crystal — which they use in various rituals.

In a valley far away from the castle live the Mystics (‘urRu’).  Where the Skeksis are reptilian, the Mystics are distinctively mammalian: big round noses, horse-like hair, gentle hands.  Although their culture is seeped in ritual, it’s the non-linguistic magic of song — similar to the concept of song in Tolkien’s Simarillion.

Between the urRu and the Skeksis live two races of minor sentient races.  The Podlings — a race of bubble-headed, Croatian-speaking imps — and the Gelflings — an all but extinct race of elves.  Although the Skeksis are depicted as cruel, they had the foresight to understand that the only good elf is a dead elf.  The Gelflings, formerly a highly structured, advanced society, have been all but wiped out.  The urRu adopt a young Gelfling, Jen, and protect him from the Skeksis’ attack.  According to a prophecy, Jen must complete a quest to prevent the Skeksis from ruling Thra forever.

The traditional interpretation of the film is that the Skeksis are evil and that the Mystics are good.  Jen represents the hero who has to walk a dangerous path between these two forces in order to bring harmony to the world.  A closer reading demonstrates that this reading is perhaps naif.

As the story progresses, we discover that Jen is not the only surviving Gelfling.  A female, Kira, has been raised by the Podlings and lives in hiding.  The Podlings have taught her how to talk to animals.  She is a skilled hunter (can take down bats with her bolas).  As a female Gelfling, she has wings and is capable of limited flight.  At one point in the film, Kira is captured by the Skeksis.  Using only her knowledge, self determination, and willpower, she frees herself.

Jen — the Gelfling chosen by the prophecy to save the world — plays a mean flute.  That’s about it.

Indeed, Jen is so incompetent that he dropped the all-important Crystal Shard moments before the big moment.  Kira has to fly down into a room full of Skeksis (where she is stabbed) in order to salvage it.  This wasn’t the first time Kira sacrificed her interests for Jen’s.  Earlier, Kira and Jen were captured by the disgraced chamberlain Skeksis.  Kira attacked the Chamberlain and was taken off to be tortured so that Jen could escape.  Even earlier, Kira abandons the Podlings to a Skeksis attack so she could smuggle Jen to safety.

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And you cannot run or ever, ever escape… Some notes on horror films

Cover of "Ju-on (The Grudge)"

Cover of Ju-on (The Grudge)

We love things that are unpleasant.  The pleasure of spicy food is in the pain it causes our mouths.  The pleasure of alcohol is the brain cells that it kills.  And we love horror films.

I’m sure there’s some pseudo-scientific reason why we love horror films — adrenaline rush, heightened emotions, &c. — but what is perhaps more interesting about movies is the way in which they scare us.  When we watch the films, we know that they’re up on a screen and that they are fiction.  There’s something about horror films which bypasses that cynical awareness of reality to make us embody the physical state of fear.

Curious and interested as I am, I watched RingJu-On: The Grudge, and Pan’s Labyrinth in order to understand what it was about the stories and the way they were told which makes me frightened.  A bit of a masochist project, I admit, as my already rubbish sleep schedule was plagued by nightmares that night.

Before I jump in to overthinking horror films, it’s probably worth noting that the films I chose are clearly from a particular style of horror film: the fantasy, absurd, surreal sort of horror.  I’ve never been a fan of slash/gore films and don’t find them particularly scary.  I imagine that the analysis of those films would be easier: we respond to the violence on the screen.  In two of the three films I chose, there’s very little violence.  Something else is going on with these films beyond mere response to the obvious physical threat of people who wish to smear our organs across walls.

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Came back like a slow voice on a wave of phase… #StarTrek Into Darkness is amazing #reviews

I went into Star Trek Into Darkness with extremely high expectations.  I was not disappointed.

But let’s go back to the start.

Science fiction is a weird, wonderful, and difficult genre.  It breaks off into two main schools: the hard science fiction, exploring the limits of known science, and the soft science fiction, exploring social ideas in alien environments.  Star Trek has often straddled the line between the two schools.  The first Star Trek film even had Isaac Asimov as a consultant and, as a result, the first Star Trek film is a ponderously dull affair — magnificent in scope and vision, but utterly, spectacularly dull.  It’s 132 minutes long, and each one of those minutes lasts about six years.  I quite enjoy it (I also enjoy the similar 2001: A Space Odyssey which is also spectacularly dull (I went to a costume party as HAL and nobody knew who I was; when I explained, the common response was that people had fallen asleep by that part of the film)).

2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968 while Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released in 1979.  I’m always startled to recall that Star Wars — which unabashedly pushes through soft science fiction into the realm of fantasy — was released two years prior to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Star Wars all but redefined cinema and science fiction for the mass market, yet Star Trek: The Motion Picture feels like it was released the fortnight after 2001.  Perhaps Kubrick was ahead of his time.  Perhaps Roddenberry was harking back to the 1960s.  Perhaps both.

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Phantom shadows on the floor… Wreck-It Ralph is utterly dreadful fun #reviews

I remember the first day I played Mario Kart 64.  I played as Donkey Kong because I was yet to discover that Wario was the better character.  It was less than ten minutes between my younger brother (it was his birthday present) opening the box and us racing around Luigi’s Circuit.  Ten minutes.

Thanks to Wreck-It Ralph, I can now imagine what it would have been like if that ten minutes instead lasted two hours.  Freak me sideways.

Wreck-It Ralph is a difficult movie to describe because it’s three mini-plots wrapped up into one film.

Ralph is a video game baddie.  In a moment of existential crisis, he attends a support group for other baddies where he learns the mantra that it’s good to be bad, being bad is okay, and it’s okay to be him.  For the film to end, Ralph must explore this mantra, whether he agrees with it, or whether there is another way for him to live.

Then there’s the story of Ralph trying to find acceptance within his society.  He is told that if he receives a MacGuffin called ‘A Hero’s Medal’, he will be rewarded with a penthouse and invited to live among the community.  For the film to end, Ralph must find this medal and return.

Then there’s the story of Vanellope.  Introduced about half way through the film, she steals the Ralph’s medal in order to enter a race in order to win the right to be considered a real person… or something.

In short, it’s a beautiful trainwreck of interviewing plots.  Vanellope enters the race, and then we explore Ralph’s story about coming to terms with his role in a programmed universe for about an hour or so.  Fortunately, there was enough time between registering for the race and the actual race.  They never would have had three quarters of this film if the logical thing (‘Okay, time to race!’) had occurred.  They even have to make a car for her.  For Jove’s sake.

Nothing about Sarah Silverman’s voice doesn’t annoy me.  For an hour, the audience has to endure her trying to sound even more infantile than she already does.  Why does Vanellope sound like her intellectual development was stunted?  Could it be due to the entire world in which she lives being made out of sugar?  You need to eat your eight serves of fruit and veggies, girl.

The film runs well and truly out of steam by the time a training montage appears.  Acknowledging this, characters end up acting in particularly strange ways in order to keep the plot moving along.  Oh, it turns out a bad guy did something that nobody can remember… but wouldn’t visitors from the other video games realise something was whack?  Oh, it turns out the King (who is excellent, by the way.  The voice actor — one of the non-events from Firefly — did an amazing job of impersonating Ed Wynn’s Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland — although more people would recognise him as Uncle Albert from Mary Poppins) can give Ralph what he wants without all this Mario Kart gibberish?

What makes the film tank?  It tries really, really hard to be clever and insightful but, like most Disney morals, makes for uncomfortable thinking.  We are the way that we’re programmed.  If there isn’t a princess ruling everything, the world is somehow immoral.  We need to accept our lot in life.

It’s also a film that really doesn’t know who the target audience is.  References don’t make sense to kids, and yet the pre-teen market appears to be the target audience.  The film doesn’t work — as some children’s film try — as having two messages: the big shiny distracting message for the kids, and the innuendo, implied message for the adults.  But the video game characters are all from my generation, so there’s no connection for the current generation of children.  Perhaps that says something (terrible) about modern gaming.

The film most like it is Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  At the heart of that film was an extremely clever trick: it associated Roger with well-known cartoons, making it feel like we were peering into a parallel universe a little bit like our own, except that Roger was just as famous as Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, and Droopy Dog.  The trick doesn’t quite work in Wreck-It Ralph, where Ralph’s game is presented to us alongside characters from Street Fighter, Super Mario BrosSonic the Hedgehog, Altered Beast, Pac-Man, &c., &c., &c.  But the emotions that we have towards those characters never rubs off on Ralph like it does with Roger.

Which is a shame, because without that key ingredient, the other particularly clever ingredients go to waste.  Despite being modelled in 3D, the characters in Ralph’s game move in Game and Watch style rhythm, for example.  There’s a post-apocalyptic glow to the gaming universe when the orange ‘Out of Order’ is posted by the human owner of the arcade.  And references.  Tonnes, and tonnes of references.

All of that being said, despite noting every single (and there are many) flaw in this film and the fact that the film is, ultimately, extremely stupid…

… it is also  fantastic fun.

There’s something absorbing about the world presented.  You’re overcome with nostalgia for the characters who make cameo appearances in the world-between-gaming-worlds that you forget that you’re watching a shitty film and start to think about those games instead.  Many of the jokes work as one-liners.  Action pieces are engaging fluff and don’t drag too much.  And, it must be said again, the Mad Hatter King is simply fantastic.

In conclusion, wait for it to come out on television.

I don’t want to be alone; is that out of the question?… Philosophy in Star Wars

I’m yet to read the Philosophy and Star Wars book which came out a few years ago.  In a very old post, I noted that I was a fan of thePhilosophy and … genre even though some of them have been quite awful.  I’ve been worried about reading the Star Wars edition because I’m worried that it will be terrible.

Quick side note: while trying to find a link to that book, I found this.  Holy frijoles.  Somebody has gone to the effort to write a book about the ‘real’ Jedi religion.

Anyhoo, after watching the latest After Hours episode on Cracked.com about how the Star Wars universe is unfriendly to women, I thought I’d have a bit of a crack at exploring whether or not it’s good to be a Jedi.  It’s 3.30am.  This is definitely a good idea.

In the original Star Wars film, A New Hope, the plot requires Luke to begin his Jedi path rather quickly and uncritically.  To recap the film:

  • Leia sends a message to Obi Wan in R2D2.
  • Luke intercepts R2D2.
  • R2D2 runs away and Luke chases after him.
  • Luke gets attacked by Sand People but is rescued by Obi Wan.
  • Luke says he can’t become a Jedi Knight like his father but has to get back to his uncle and aunt.  Fortunately, they were murdered by stormtroopers, so it’s totally cool for Luke to become a Jedi Knight now.
  • And he does.

But let us play an extremely nerdy game of ‘What if…?’  In our hypothetical, Luke has more time to consider the proposal to dedicate himself to Jedi teachings.

We could note that most of the Jedi in the Star Wars universe don’t get that option.  They’re abducted as children to join the Jedi Order.  There’s a whole bunch of Jedi whose job it is to go and fetch Force-sensitive children.  In other words, most Jedi were not people who chose to be Jedi.  Hell, even Anakin Skywalker (later Darth Vader) was abducted via a confusingly strange wager (the ‘winner’ cheated using his Jedi powers, btw).

We could also note that the Jedi Order is overwhelmingly male.  We could also note that to become a Jedi, you had to have the right parents (effectively making the Star Wars universe a caste-based world).

But let’s get back to our young adult Luke weighing up his decision to follow the way of the Jedi.

The first thing the audience learns about the Jedi is that they have a supercool weapon.

BEN: I have something here for you. Your father wanted you to have
this when you were old enough, but your uncle wouldn’t allow it. He
feared you might follow old Obi-Wan on some damned-fool idealistic
crusade like your father did.

[…]

Ben hands Luke the saber.

LUKE: What is it?

BEN: Your fathers [sic] lightsaber. This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not
as clumsy or as random as a blaster.  [Source: BlueHarvest.net]

It’s a pretty cool conversion tactic.  There would be a lot more Mormons around today if they went to high schools and said, ‘Hello!  We have magic ninja blades.  You can learn how to use them if you join our religion.’  More importantly, there’s nothing about the content of being a Jedi.  We don’t get that until The Empire Strikes Back, where Yoda explains:

A Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of
the dark side. Anger…fear…aggression. The dark side of the Force
are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you
start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny,
consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.

LUKE: Vader. Is the dark side stronger?

YODA: No…no…no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.

LUKE: But how am I to know the good side from the bad?

YODA: You will know. When you are calm, at peace. Passive. A Jedi uses
the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.  [Source: BlueHarvest.net]

Fleshed out further in the Prequels and Expanded Universe, the way of the Jedi is cool, detached, and dispassionate.  Emotional outbursts are considered ‘dark side’.  This less than flattering attitude towards emotions has a long ancestry in philosophy, particularly in ethics.

The complexity of emotions and their role in mental life is reflected in the unsettled place they have held in the history of ethics. Often they have been regarded as a dangerous threat to morality and rationality […] The view that emotions are irrational was eloquently defended by the Epicureans and Stoics. For this reason, these Hellenistic schools pose a particularly interesting challenge for the rest of the Western tradition. The Stoics adapted and made their own the Socratic hypothesis that virtue is nothing else than knowledge, adding the idea that emotions are essentially irrational beliefs. All vice and all suffering is then irrational, and the good life requires the rooting out of all desires and attachments. (As for the third of the major Hellenistic schools, the Skeptics, their view was that it is beliefs as such that were responsible for pain. Hence they recommend the repudiation of opinions of any sort.) All three schools stressed the overarching value of “ataraxia”, the absence of disturbance in the soul. Philosophy can then be viewed as therapy, the function of which is to purge emotions from the soul [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘Emotion‘]

In the Star Wars universe, it has often been affection which has been the emotion which turned people over to the dark side.  This was explored poorly in the prequels, but there are some good examples in the EU.  Basically, emotional attachments with other people can turn to jealousy, protectiveness, &c., can serve as the catalyst for revenge if somebody harms them, &c., or can ‘cloud the Jedi’s judgment’.

There’s even a style of lightsaber fighting which draws its energy from the passion of the practitioner: it’s considered dangerous because it leads nearly everybody to the dark side.

We could ask why there aren’t emotionally normal people in the Star Wars universe who are also Jedi.  It doesn’t seem that hard to believe that there could be people just like us except they have all the Jedi abilities and don’t go slaughtering children.

Is this the sort of religion we imagine Luke would follow, if given a choice?  After all, it’s his desire to know his father better and his desire to avenge his extended relatives which drive him to become a Jedi in the first place.

Most of us are people who experience emotions.  We form attachments to other people.  In most of those attachments, don’t we become stronger people?  Although we might become enraged, upset, or frightened, we can moderate our reactions appropriately.  Not so for the Jedi.  In the Star Wars universe, if you start to feel inappropriate attachments to others, it’s only a matter of time before you’re slaughtering children and shooting lightning from your fingertips.  In our universe, it is hard to understand how emotions necessarily entail evil.  Yoda’s comment about fear leading to anger, &c. doesn’t quite seal the deal.  It’s only by privileging the cold, dispassionate, and detached that we’re able to be disparaging about emotions.  As an aside, this is something that we do almost instinctively in our society: people who get emotional and flustered aren’t as evolved and mature as logical, cognitive types.  Self-control means rational, yo.

Let us imagine that, for some reason we cannot know, it’s not possible to be a Jedi Knight and have squelchy feelings towards another.  Divine mystery or something.  Jedi-God hates sex for some reason.  Whatever.

Does it hold that, given a choice between living a life of Jedi powers and a life of having deep interpersonal relations, we should think the former more valuable than the latter?  This is the question we should put to Luke in our slightly modified version of the A New Hope.  And it doesn’t seem that a person would jump into the Jedi robe, given the choice.

We’re not alive, we’re not alive… Story-telling and science fiction

I’ve been getting into the structure of stories lately, trying to work out why some movies are really gripping and interesting and why others are confused and dull.

It came to a head yesterday when I had a Superman marathon which went from the films to the television series, Smallville.

I think I got up to season five when I used to watch Smallville.

While I’m probably going to be derided for poor taste, I think I prefer Smallville to the films.  I think it’s because the television series is better constructed than the films.

The first film, for example, doesn’t get going until about 45 minutes into the film.  It opens with Jor-El conducting a trial of Zod.  It’s tense and interesting, then Zod is sealed in the Phantom Zone and shot off into space until Superman II.

Oh.

Then Jor-El has a massive fight with the Krypton Council and decided to send his only begotten son to Earth.  As you do.  There’s ten minutes of Clark Kent being a teenager and suffering identity crisis before he goes to spend 12 years off camera in the Arctic in his Fortress of Solitude. Continue reading

All of the boys and the girls here in Paris… also think there are objective moral wrongs

I endured Steven Spielberg’s A.I. last night (and if you’re morbidly curious what my running commentary was like, you can find it here).  One part in particular stuck out for me.  As you’re never going to watch this film, I’m sure a SPOILER ALERT isn’t needed, but here it is anyway:

SPOILER ALERT.

At one point, the nasty humans — or ‘Orgas’ as they’re known in the film — go hunting unregistered robots — a.k.a. ‘Mechas’ — and hold a circus where the Orgas torture the Mechas.  One Mecha pleads for its ‘life’ before it’s put into a cannon and shot.  The last we see is its burning face sliding down the cage wall while the crowd cheers.  A disturbingly attractive Mecha — played by Clara Bellar — has acid poured on her and the crowd cheers as she dissolves.

They draw the line with the protagonist because they mistakenly think it’s a real boy.

This neatly touches upon a broader problem in philosophy caused by the dominance of the rights discourse in modern applied ethics.  Most people are intuitionists: they can’t tell why what they’re doing is moral and correct, but they can generally spot the difference between good actions and wrong actions with bellyfeel.  It’s one of the roles of the philosopher to help people elucidate what they believe and how they can reason with others about what they believe. Continue reading

He seemed impressed by the way you came in… and then you ruined his childhood films

I have a somewhat private, neurotic hobby.  I like to watch films that I’ve watched a thousand times before but with a different set of eyes.

The Lion King, for example, is a quaint little tale about finding your identity and having the courage to live up to your destiny… until you watch it with the set of eyes which reveals it as pro-monarchist propaganda designed to teach the unprivileged that they are ruled by virtue of natural law (and there’d be a drought and famine if they ever got ideas above their station).

Basically, if you change the context of a film, it tells a remarkably different story.  In Buffy and Philosophy, for example, Neal King’s ‘Brown Skirts: Fascism, Christianity, and the Eternal Demon‘ explores Buffy as a fascist icon (promoting the superiority of the human race and the cleanliness of human blood) rather than as a liberal icon.

But there is another way I like to ruin my childhood: abandoning what I was taught to know about the film.  A recent example was The Wizard of Oz.  Dorothy is cute and, therefore, must be the good guy.  The Wicked Witch of the West is ugly, has ‘Wicked’ in her name, and, therefore, must be the bad guy.

But what actually happens in the film?

A house lands on the WWotW’s sister.  Dorothy steals the shoes (aided and abetted by the ‘Good’ Witch of the North).  Trying to find a way home, she’s told that she must assassinate the WWotW: a task she takes on willingly, noting only its difficulty.  When the WWotW defends herself, she is accidentally executed.  Dorothy and her friends are rewarded.

If somebody had given the WWotW a hug and said, ‘Shit, I’m really sorry about the untimely death of your sister.  Here, have her shoes,’ there’d have been no need to ritually execute her with a baptism of death.  The WWotW might have even given Dorothy a lift home on the broomstick.  We’ll never know.

In related news to this post, there are quite a number of [Insert franchise here] and Philosophy books.  Some of them are excellent.  Others are absolutely awful.  Here’s a quick run down on some that I have:

Buffy and Philosophy: rather good.  Some essays are a bit weak but others are imaginative and clever.  There’s a fine line between using philosophy to interpret Buffy and using Buffy to explore philosophy: I’m not always sure it works.

Superheroes and Philosophy: the difference between the good essays and the bad is even more marked than in BandP.  Deadpool as the zenith of existential characters (because he’s aware that he’s a character in a comic book) is superbly explored.

X-Men and Philosophy: the subject matter made this an easy triumph.  It’s impossible to discuss anything that goes on in the X-Men comics without bumping into several philosophically important topics.  The problem was therefore to choose interesting topics which would also make the book marketable.  Thus, there are a few shallow, pointless essays which blemish an otherwise excellent read.

House and Philosophy: utter dreck.  Complete and utter dreck.  House, on the whole, isn’t particularly interesting philosophically.  We might wonder why misogyny is hailed as a brilliant comedy device (also used in How I Met Your Mother) but it doesn’t really support and entire book.

Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: I’m only a few essays in and it’s not too bad.  There is an absolutely baffling essay on nuclear strategy…  Yeah, it’s like:  ‘Strategists are a lot like a Mad Tea Party.  Here are lots of quotes from the books.  I’m running late so here are some examples of nuclear strategy and quotes from Derrida.’  It’s pretty much a mess.  The others were of quite a high standard: Alice as a feminist icon was particularly interesting because it gives her an agency that I don’t think is in the books.  Alice seems to be pushed around by a particularly nasty world (it’s why Terry Pratchett doesn’t care for them).  The essay revises her as rejecting social norms demanded of her as a woman and does a fairly good job of it.

Also, new Doctor Who.  I’m not sure why it’s getting quite so much flak as it is.  More on this in a different entry.