Tomb Raider [a Film Review]

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Another video-game movie adaptation hits the theatres, and another bites the dust. Newly-rebooted and helmed by Academy Award-winner Alicia Vikander, the story and character design takes after the Lara Croft of the rebooted video-game franchise. While her backstory and attire are significantly more appropriate for an action-adventure film, the typical “lost parent(s)” and “westerner saves the world” tropes negates the modernised efforts to make Tomb Raider a successful transition from video game to film. Less ‘raiding’ and more ‘disturbing’ a tomb, all Lara accomplishes at the end of the day, is make the world worse than before.

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Red Sparrow [a Film Review]

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A psycho-thriller about deception and attraction between an American spy (Joel Edgerton) and a Russian ‘sparrow’ (Jennifer Lawrence), spies specialising in sexual seduction. Bland storyline and predictable twists aside, the commentary on power dynamics and the ownership of the body is poignant in today’s sociopolitical climate. This is not the erotic/action spy thriller you think you’re going to get, though.

P.S. This is not the “Black Widow movie we need”.

Lady Bird [a Film Review]

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A relatively-generic coming-of-age film about teenage angst and unquestionable parental love for their child. The film makes up for its unoriginal narrative with emotional authenticity, aesthetic direction by first-time director Greta Gerwig and outstanding performances by Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf.

Shape of Water [a Film Review]

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A truly heartwarming story set in the 60s about love beyond appearances and prejudices, that will sadly be remembered as “that movie where a woman f**ked a fish”. Directed by visionary director Guillermo del Toro, this might be the modern Creature from the Black Lagoon we have been waiting for.

P.S. Universal Pictures, step up your game.

Calivons, Moclans and Dorahl: The Orville’s Anthropological Satire [a Film Essay]

The Orville (2017) is a drama-comedy television series that follows the adventures of U.S.S Orville – an exploratory space vessel – and its crew in the 25th century. Drawing heavy inspiration from the Star Trek franchise in its look and tone, the weekly-episodic series features the familiar real-world social commentary, disguised within the topoi of the science-fiction genre, albeit with a comedic twist. Like Star Trek, The Orville prominently features the science-fiction topoi of space travel and alien life. These tropes distinguish the small screen universes as versions of a technocratic future of the real world. Invoking the dual definition of alien, The Orville comments on anthropological aspects of humanity – like speciesism, gender rights and religion – by superimposing them on alien cultures, illustrating the problematic discourse of the human condition in an unfamiliar environment. In this essay, I would refer to three episodes of The Orville – “Command Performance”, “About A Girl”, and “If the Stars Should Appear” – to illustrate the show’s continuation of the Star Trek tradition in satirising the human condition through non-Earth humanoids – Calivons, Moclans and inhabitants of a generation ship – featured in the show, providing an anthropological critique of the 21st century society.

“Command Performance” features the kidnap of U.S.S. Orville’s Captain Ed Mercer and Commander Kelly Grayson and their subsequent imprisonment in a Calivon zoo, run by an alien species that views all technologically behind civilisations as inferior, the same way “a sentient being might view an animal” (“Command Performance”). A critique on speciesism in modern society, the episode favours an ecocentric – or even, xenocentric – perspective over the typically anthropocentric view of humanity. Speciesism refers to the “discrimination in favour of one species, usually human species, over another” (Dictionary.com). While some believe that animals “do not and could not have rights” and animal pain does not have “as much moral weight” as human pain, others equate it with racism and sexism (Lafollette and Shanks 41). Hugh Lafollette and Niall Shanks believe that animal liberationists follow the latter to highlight the “human tendency to unreflectively accept contemporary moral standards” (41). They go on to describe humans as “fallible” and “while most were not evil people, [our ancestors] indisputably did evil things” (Lafollette and Shanks 41). Similarly, the show reflects on this moral error by relating back to the modern society, in which Grayson recalls when “humans imprisoned animals for entertainment”, feeling they “had the right” as the higher species (“Command Performance”). By showing the humans as the animal-equivalent to the Calivons, The Orville exposes the fragility of anthropocentrism in the presence of another higher species, while the alien topos subverts the satirical tone within an uncanny reminder of the real-world parallels.

It is noteworthy of how Alara Kitan, Orville’s Chief of Security, extracts Mercer and Grayson from the zoo. Seeing how the Calivons wanted a “human zoo”, Kitan traded a “very old, very obscure section of Earth’s cultural database” – thousands of hours of real-world reality television – for the kidnapped duo (“Command Performance”). In awe, the Calivon zookeeper regards this ‘reality television” as the best exhibit [they’ve] ever had” (“Command Performance). While largely self-reflective of television’s role as a cultural representation, this satire reveals how the constructed realities within shows like Duck Dynasty and The Bachelor serve as entertainment, like how humans view animals in a zoo. While both creatures in display remain as real as their viewers, their environments are unnatural and reconstructed. Much like how the Calivons mistaken the reality shows as an accurate representation of the human species, the metafictional reference of these shows illustrates the blind acceptance of animal exhibits in zoos to be accurate duplicates of those in the wild.

During the events of “Command Performance”, Orville’s second officer Bortus, a member of the Moclan species, requests for time-off to lay his egg. When his offspring turns out to be a female, it becomes problematic since the Moclans are a single-gendered – all male – species. “About A Girl” details the crew’s struggle against the Moclan culture of requiring all female babies to undergo sex reassignment surgeries to maintain their species’ single gender. When Mercer and Dr. Claire Finn, Orville’s Chief Medical Officer, refuses to authorise any medical procedures on his baby, Bortus points out the “unfairness” in judging his culture by “human standards” (“About A Girl”). Although the episode is obviously a concealed debate on real-world gender and abortion rights, the conflict between the humans and the Moclans reveals a dilemma between respecting or imposing moral standpoints between cultures too. Possibly allegorical of the debate over abortion, gay marriage, transgender and religious rights in modern USA, the clash between human and Moclan cultures raises questions if one should impose his or her culturally-different moral compass on an opposing culture. Although the Moclans’ belief in a mono-gendered society is unacceptable to the Union and human culture, it is not necessarily wrong for the Moclans to follow their traditions. Similarly, it is not necessarily wrong to point out immoral or unethical practices in other cultures too.

The crew’s choice to divert an asteroid hurling towards the planet Elnath 4, saving it in the process, also highlights the episode’s discourse over the ethics of tampering with fate: to save a planet from certain doom, or allow the disaster to happen. Using Rudolph’s red nose – a physical defect that benefited Santa Claus in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) – as a metaphor, Bortus, hopeful of his child’s undetermined future, rejects the sex change and the Moclan culture. Drawing parallels to a nature-nurture binary, a large portion of the custody over the baby’s gender stems from how she would be treated in a Moclan society. Advocate Kagus, representing the Moclan defendants, points to how the unaltered gender would condemn her to “a life of shame” and by the time she is old enough to make sense, the “childhood damage will be done” (“About A Girl”). The Moclans hypothesises that nature – the encompassing Moclan society – would determine the fate of the child by ostracization; the ultimate condemnation of the unnatural abject. However, the Moclans’ justification is thwarted when the humans call on Heveena, a Moclan female, to testify on their behalf. Brought up in seclusion by her parents and eventually becoming the planet’s greatest writer, Heveena’s story enforces the humans’ belief in nurture over nature. As a living proof that a Moclan female can perform just as well in an all-male society, Heveena’s characterisation exists as a reminder of the modern feminist movement and shift towards gender equality in the 21st century.

In “If the Stars Should Appear”, the crew’s encounter with a civilisation stranded in a 2000-year-old derelict generation ship generates a discourse about one of mankind’s oldest beliefs: religion. Orville’s Science and Engineering Officer, Isaac’s curiosity of “the common impulse of biological life-forms to attribute the origin of the universe to an omnipotent being” and the inhabitants’ misrecognition of the derelict ship’s captain, Jahavus Dorahl, as a godlike being questions what humans understand about religion – and the belief in higher beings – found in most civilisations throughout human history (“If the Stars Should Appear”). Stranded for most of their lives, Mercer claims that the inhabitants “evolved and grew until they simply forgot their origins”, while Grayson replies that “even Earth is a little fuzzy on some of its own history” (“If the Stars Should Appear”). The duo’s comments reflect how little modern humans understand religion, given that this belief defies the logic of causation or scientific explanation. Reciprocally, the lack of definitive proof feeds into the belief in omnipotent beings that defies science or logic.

In many ways, the conflict between the crew and the inhabitants parallels Plato’s allegory of the cave: like the freed prisoners freed, Orville’s crew possesses knowledge of the larger universe beyond the derelict ship, yet they struggle to relate their experiences to the closeted inhabitants; likewise, the inhabitants – still chained in their hypothetical cave – refuses to believe Mercer and his crew because of their inexperience. Kemka, the Reformers’ leader, views that people do not “alter their beliefs easily” and that many refuses to “accept an irrefutable truth” because “that truth puts them in the wrong” (“If the Stars Should Appear”). His view does not just reveal how malleable the truth is in people’s faith, but reflects how the truth can shape beliefs too, like how modern society moves past superseded beliefs like flat-earths. While The Orville’s commentary on religion and the understanding of human existence is not representative of how all futuristic science-fiction works view religion, it does hypothesise how humans would view themselves against the vast ambiguity of the beyond, as captured in Dr. Finn’s reiteration of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God” (“If the Stars Should Appear”).

While alien cultures used to subvert human discourse in interstellar science-fiction works like The Orville and Star Trek are not uncommon, the suspension of immediate recognition of a real-world satire helps to emphasise different standpoints to a discourse about the human condition. The technologically-advanced Calivons force the viewers to rethink the speciesist relationship between humans and other animals, while the discourse of the freedom of choice manifests as the single-gendered Moclans, questioning the ethics of imposing one’s morals and ethics upon another’s culture. The human-looking inhabitants on Dorahl’s ship, however, embody the uncertainty in questioning one’s own existence in relation to his or her religion and to the larger universe. Through these three non-Earth humanoids shown in The Orville, the show utilises the science-fiction topoi to deliver poignant social commentaries, while displaying an alternate anthropological reflection of the 21st century society.

Works Cited

Lafollette, Hugh, and Niall Shanks. “The Origin of Speciesism.” Philosophy, vol. 71, no. 275, 1996, pp. 41–61. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3751526.

MacFarlane, Seth, creator. The Orville. Fuzzy Door Productions and Twentieth Century Fox Television, 2017.

“speciesism”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 30 Oct. 2017. Dictionary.com. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/speciesism.

 

The Future of Film [a Point of View]

The film industry has had a tumultuous history since The Lumiere Brothers and Edison’s time. Since then, cinema has seen the rise and fall of silent films, the development of sound technology, the incorporation of colour, the rise of film medium as a socio-political indicator of a society, the embrace of the digital revolution as we stepped into a new millennium, and eventually reaching a time where cinema has become a cultural force of its own.

This transnational, multi-billion-dollar industry rests on the consumer’s hands. We, the film appreciators, the cinema-goers, the cinephiles, the ones who just want to pass time in a theatre, will decide how the film industry will change in the next decade and beyond. Whether we prefer a film to be a narrative or a spectacle, our viewing preferences will decide what films will look like in the future.

If a film garners enough media attention and consumer retention, it will live on in cinematic legacy with sequels, prequels, spinoffs, trilogies, quadrilogies, cinematic universes, extended universes, and so on. If the cash cow can still be milked, Hollywood will be there to squeeze every drop of it for the consumers. As such, there is a high chance that the cinema will be dominated by consumer-driven franchises or themes that will be deemed trendy. This phenomenon is already happening, with popular franchises like Transformers, Star Wars, Fast & Furious, and superhero films jumping on the bandwagon of extending their cinematic lifespan by creating more films to add to their cinematic universes. While critically panned, trendy films like The Emoji Movie or the Angry Birds Movie happen because the issue in question is popular among the target audience. Ultimately still a business for most, the film industry will still be geared towards making profits over artistic explorations.

The film medium is likely to change due to improvements in technology as well. We have already witnessed how technological improvements to sound, lighting and digital effects drastically reshape the film industry in the 20th century. With the rate of how technology improves in the coming decades, there is no telling how films would be watched (or interacted) in the future. With more personalised technological experiences being perfected every year, it is likely that films will become more personalised for each consumer. While it is far-fetched to think about a film that can cater to every single consumer with a wide range of life choices, it is possible to create films that personalise the consumer’s experience through virtual reality, interactive media, or even active participation. Perhaps in the future, Jurassic Park 35 will involve consumers walking around the theatre while the narrative transpires. Or maybe, a crime noir film will require consumers to actively solve the mystery via an escape-room-like scenario with every participative action affecting the narrative of the film. We are also seeing an increase in production value in video game narratives too. Certainly, large-screen formats are not the only way to experience the cinema anymore.

As viewer preferences change, the film industry must adapt to maintain its competitiveness to ensure its survivability. With modern streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, HBO GO, etc. rapidly rising in their purchasing and marketing power, viewers can watch their films at a lower cost, anytime and anywhere, if they are connected to the internet. More than ever, the consumer decides how the film industry will evolve in the future. With thousands of films in their catalogue, the power to stream films will impact how films will be like in the future. At any point of time, a film will be competing against thousands of others for the consumer’s attention. As such, marketing for films will adapt to increase product awareness. The spectacle may be prioritised to attract viewership, or popular narratives may be chosen over untested, original works to attract the existing fan bases. In 2017, War Machine, a Netflix-only film, aired its trailer on the big screen in theatres to promote its release. Perhaps in the future, we will see theatrically-released films advertising on Netflix instead. One thing is for sure, that streaming services will be a big threat to cineplexes for the next few years.

While it is doubtful that streaming services will be the cause of cinema’s death, it will undoubtedly change how we view films in the cinemas from here on. With the power to pause or personalise your viewing time, it comes the problem of procrastination of viewership, and that will be a problem for streaming services. To recuperate their production expenditures, films will always have to rely on box office or viewership numbers to gain the trust of investors. With more and more films available on streaming services, there is a chance of an implosion of streaming services that ultimately causes cinephiles to revert their cinematic experiences back to the cinemas. With better technology and changing viewing methods, the future of cinema looks uncertain, but it will not look the same as anything we have seen in the past or the present.

Festen: More Than Just a Realist Film [a Film Essay]

Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen tells a story of a family gathering-turned-conflict when the eldest son accuses his wealthy father of sexual assault on him and his now-deceased sister when they were young. Abiding by the rules of the Dogme 95 Manifesto, Vinterberg’s film is the first film to be recognised under the film movement. Restricted in the filmmaking process, the unaltered sets and props give Festen’s realist narrative an additional frame of authenticity, and in turn, highlights the realness of incestuous family abuse.

In 1995, Danish film directors Lars von Trier and Vinterberg laid out a set of rules, or the ‘Vows of Chastity’, of which a director would have to follow for the product to be considered a part of the Dogme 95 film movement. Jan Simons views that the Dogme 95 Manifesto “refines filmmaking as a rule-bound practice”, or like a “game”; and like a game, it “[forces filmmakers] to develop skills and strategies that would be cumbersome and quite useless in everyday circumstances” (3). To date, there are 35 films recognised in compliant with the film movement (Dogme95.dk).

One of the rules set in the Manifesto is the requirement for the camera to be hand-held, although immobility attained in the hand is allowed. Realistically, the redundancy of camera tripods or stabilisers ensure that the director moves freely without worrying about filmic space or stage blocking to capture essential shots without multiple takes or angles. Cinematically, the hand-held camera movement gives the footage a ‘home-video’ or ‘found-footage’ effect, thereby exuding a sense of authenticity in its film narrative. While primarily featured in all Dogme 95 films, this technique is popularised later when Hollywood adapts it as a storytelling tool to portray realism in non-realistic narrative. Popular non-Dogme 95 films to feature this technique includes The Blair Witch Project (1999), Paranormal Activity (2007), Cloverfield (2008), and Chronicle (2012); of which all of them tell extraordinary narratives involving ghosts, monsters and superheroes. In Festen, the technique acts as the viewer’s point-of view at the venue, which helps to show the privacy and intimacy of a family affair, where all who are present in the film either works at the hotel – which is owned by the patriarch – or is related to him. While the camera does not play as a character, the hand-held technique gives it a real-life aesthetic that simulates a presence within the filmic space. When sexual abuse allegations are raised, everyone in the dining hall – including the viewer, who sees the events first-hand through the camera – feels the emotions of Christian, the abused eldest son, and Helge, the patriarch. The viewer is forced to assess the awkward situation and anticipate the reactions from the affected parties while the film progresses.

Most of the rules in the Manifesto aim to create a real and authentic storytelling experience; one that Hollywood’s genre system has rendered unimportant, since fantastical stories like westerns and science-fiction offer escapism to their viewers. Regarded as a protest to Hollywood’s extravagant film budgets, the Dogme 95 movement allows the younger, less-experienced, or budget-tight filmmakers to tell their stories without playing into Hollywood’s game. Seen as a “call to realism” since the “use of any prop, light, or sound that the filmmaker does not find at the location” is prohibited, the film movement depicts cinematic experiences that could pull off as real-life events. Realism in the arts attempts to represent the subject matter truthfully without artificiality, while avoiding artistic conventions. Examples of realism includes the Italian neo-realist cinema – which illustrates a post-war change in culture and social progress – and realism in post-Romantic paintings and literature. Because of Dogme 95 rules, Festen is restricted to a modern period with its lavish setting set within the Danish manor house, Skjoldenæsholm Castle. With its real sets and props, Vinterberg creates a realist narrative and tells it through the realest perspective. Since the story is told through real actors in a real place within the present, the events and stories that transpired in Festen could happen in real life. Unlike quest narratives told through plausible stories like a western or a science-fiction film, which requires a reimagination on the storyteller’s end, Vinterberg’s story about sexual assault is made as real as possible, highlighting the realness of sexual abuse and the chronic denial often seen in incestuous families. While the Dogme 95 Manifesto does not “champion aesthetic or thematic preferences and does not promote political causes or ideologies”, Vinterberg’s choice to portray sexual abuse through the film movement allows a real-life issue to be brought out in its rawest depiction.

Festen, as the love-child of one of the Dogme 95 pioneers and the first film recognised under the film movement, is very much a model example of what the film movement is – a realistic cinematic experience of a realistic story. Vinterberg’s subversion of a very real problem in society within a realist narrative through realistic film techniques – the use of realistic sets, props and hand-held camera techniques – allows sexual abuse to be seen cinematically and realistically, thereby making the film more than just a realist film, but one close to reality.

Works Cited

SIMONS, JAN. “Von Trier’s Cinematic Games.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 60, no. 1, 2008, pp. 3–13. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20688581.

“Dogme Films.” Dogme95.dk, 7 Nov. 2017, http://www.dogme95.dk/dogme-films/.