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Tag: Film

Crazy Rich Asians: Beyond the Confines of the Screen

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Is it possible to separate the viewer from the viewed? A difficult question, but one which nonetheless appears when I think of this film. For me, so much of Crazy Rich Asians (2018) exists outside the confines of the screen that sometimes I feel like I’m not so much as commenting on this film but rather the cultural context around it.

Is that fair to Jon M. Chu’s piece of work? Is it fair to view the film not as an individual piece of art, but something embedded into the cultural zeitgeist of the time? I’m not entirely sure. One cannot deny that this film attempted to challenge the preconceptions surrounding the Asian ethnicity. The opening scene with the matriarch; Eleanor Sung-Young (Michelle Yeoh), was very much a giant middle finger to the feelings of cultural alienation that Asians have felt in Western culture for decades, if not centuries. The cartoonish Caucasian men rudely denying Eleanor a place to stay at the luxurious hotel for no explicit reason is understood to be a racist (or even possibly sexist) attack at her: Conclusions which the audience came to because of ‘reasons’ outside the screen. Once again, the question must be asked, “Should we see Chu’s film as an independent piece of work, or does it lose a lot of its significance once it is removed from its context?”

At the beginning of this year I made a promise to myself to refrain from consuming ‘mediocre art’. Yet, why did I watch Crazy Rich Asians if I expected it to be a somewhat generic romantic comedy? I’ll be honest, if the cast were not a majority Asian and if it wasn’t a big milestone for Asians in the West then I would not have watched it.

“Is it possible to separate the viewer from the viewed?”

Is the promise of seeing yourself represented positively, a good enough reason to consume a piece of art? It’s not like my love of the Godfather was tainted by the lack of Asians, nor did the lack of diversity make The Dark Knight any less enjoyable. Maybe, watching a film to see your ethnicity portrayed in a more appealing light isn’t a solid philosophical justification but it is also important to recognise that all attempts to separate the art from the context is impossible as both parties shape each other.

Was it wrong to watch Crazy Rich Asians because it was cultural comfort food? Entertaining and fun but definitely not intellectually challenging. I don’t know. But I watched it anyway.

There were quite a few moments which Crazy Rich Asians made me pause, not because it was showing anything which was revolutionary but rather because it just portrayed an Asian lead like the protagonist of any romantic comedies; attractive. Near the beginning of the film, there was a scene where an absurdly muscular Michael Teo (Pierre Png) walks out of the shower and approaches his wife; Astrid Leong-Teo. It was quite an exploitative scene and very objectifying. But there was no small penis joke, nor did a calculator fall out of his pocket nor was he being bullied for getting good grades.

He was just an attractive male, who also happened to be Asian.

Strange.

Likewise, I was also shocked that a lot of the music in this film was Chinese, with a few classics from Teresa Tang (甜甜密) and a few additional catchy tunes sung with Mandarin lyrics (我要你的愛). Even if this was a film that was located in Singapore with an all-Asian cast, it still stunned me that the director was going so far as to insert Chinese songs. It also made me a little uncomfortable, not because the songs didn’t fit, I thought the jazz-infused tunes were catchy and fit the city of Singapore; an Asian city with Western influences. But because I had subconsciously expected an English or French song to signify love.

None of these directorial choices are intellectually significant but culturally they are. So how do we judge this film’s merit as a piece of art?

Crazy Rich Asians heralds the rise of East Asia and the increasing influence that economic powerhouses like Korea, Japan and China wield upon world culture. The Asian demographic has become such a financial lucrative draw that even Hollywood is making films which specifically tell the Asian narrative. Maybe because of this, Hollywood green-lit a story that glamourises wealth and excess hedonism. This is a story about the 1% of the 1%; the gorgeous Astrid buys a pair of million dollar earrings nonchalantly and Bernard Tai rents a cargo ship for a bachelor party. Maybe I wasn’t the target audience since I was never impressed by the unchecked capitalism on display and soon the dialogue about bank accounts and designer cars started to irritate me.

I’ve heard it be argued that this film doesn’t celebrate excess wealth because Nick married a girl who was significantly poorer than him. But that always seemed to be a comment on Confucianism; the tension between filial piety and individualism. Rachel (an embodiment of Western thinking) earns the respect of Eleanor because she forgoes love (Nick’s proposal) for reasons greater than herself; his relationship to his family. This selfless act wins the Young family’s trust and thus she is welcomed into the house. However, for me, the ending reflect this film’s stance on wealth; crazy rich Asians celebrating an engagement on top of a crazy rich high-rise in Singapore. I understand that part of the reason for the cartoonish display of opulence was to juxtapose the Young family to Rachel’s docile upbringing; but as someone who thinks East Asia is already too obsessed with money, the celebration of excess seemed jarring.

Another moment that urked me more than I would have expected is the little fling between annoyingly-arrogant Bernard and the gold-digging Kitty. The pair get touchy during the celebration of Colin and Araminta’s after party and get caught out for their faux pas, much to the delight (and squeals) of the people who were attending. It felt odd for a film which attempted to expose how stressful Asian family dynamics can be due to gossiping to then make a joke about characters acting inappropriately. This was the Asian equivalent to a fart joke, it got a little chuckle from the audience but it seemed counterproductive for a film which seemed to be highlighting the overbearing elements of filial piety.

The question remains; “Should one attempt to see Crazy Rich Asians without factoring in the context around the film?” If this is even possible, it is certainly a hard task. The quotes from various important individuals within the film industry praising the film’s success whilst emphasising the financial risk that Warner Bros. took to produce a film with an all-Asian cast inherently reflects the cultural glass ceilings that Chu had to break before production had even started.

For me, it’s not possible, at least not in 2018. As someone who rarely see Asian representation in Western media, supporting this film went beyond just a question of artistic merit. And I think this film understands this, Chu carefully crafted this film in order to break the cultural assumptions of its time. Will this story be as widely received or ‘unique’ in a time where tales of attractive Singaporean bachelors and wealthy Hong Kong mansions are the norm? Most likely not. Maybe, this film’s power comes not from what is depicted within the camera, but the cultural assumptions it challenges outside it. Maybe this makes Crazy Rich Asians a propaganda piece or a mediocre piece of art, I think both cases could be argued. But as someone who got a celebratory message from a close friend for watching a film which explored an Asian narrative in the Western world. Maybe Crazy Rich Asians was the right film at the right time to break the mould.

In the Mood for Love – Review & Analysis

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“Sometimes I wonder if I wasn’t married how would life be…?”
“… Probably happier.”

[SPOILERS]

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese philosophy of finding the beauty in imperfection, a belief that the stories and history embedded in a frayed item reflects a deeper charm than just a pristine exterior. Kintsugi is a Japanese art form which heavily borrows upon this thinking, where broken pottery pieces are glued together with a mixture of gold, silver and platnium. This isn’t just an act of repairment but instead a transformation, where the item’s past is seen as an extension of its beauty; in many ways kintsugi is the perfect metaphor for life.

In the Mood for Love (2000) directed by Kar-Wai Wong explores the bitter loneliness and human desire for warmth which simultaneously plague our psyches. Our two protagonist; Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen move into two apartments close to each other, but are only drawn to each other when they suspect that their partners are cheating with the other’s respective spouse. In the crowded streets of Hong Kong in 1962, both Chow and Su are constantly surrounded by the faces of people never revealed to us, a clever decision to make the audience invest more heavily into the two leading protagonist. Lost in this sea of bodies, they often find themselves trapped in claustrophic spaces with only their feelings as company.

Apart from the theme of loneliness which permeates every scene, dialogue and interaction, is the question about the double edge nature of fate. Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen interact with each other for brief moments at the start of the film; meeting on the street only to politely excuse themselves from speaking to each other. Only when rains traps them both together underneath a shoddy street lamp do they finally get a chance to establish repertoire. Only thirty minutes into this film, do the audience finally see the two characters attempt to peel away the calluses around their hearts.

Yet no matter how longingly the exquisitely beautiful Su Li-zhen and the mournfully handsome Chow Mo-wan stare at each other, there is always this barrier which stifles their relationship. This uncomfortable distance which seems to repel away all human contact is cleverly reinforced in the camera work and the mise en scène. The camera seems to spy on the protagonist in the long hallways, the pair repeatly walk infront of fences which resemble a cage. The mirrors serve as a clever motif in this film, highlighting how oppressive the lack of space is in these dingy apartments, but also the duality of Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen; they crave yet fear love. This sense of melancholy acts as a barrier, and the audience is often forced to peek into their lives behind a window screen or curtain, as if the audience is physically prevented from changing their sombre destinies which have already been set in stone.

The colour palette of this film is simply stunning, draped in luscious reds and satin yellows, the time that Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen spend together in their hotel rooms usher the audience into a dream like state; where laughter is plentiful and noodles are always eaten with company. However amongst the flirtious looks and playful mannerisms, both protagonist are scared to develop feelings for the other. Both openly voice that having sex would “reduce them to the same level” as their disloyal spouses. Yet these words ring off as just a convenient excuse, in truth their lives have been sullied by infidelity and an act as passionate as sex would only leave them more vulnerable to the actions of the other party.

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“You notice things, if you pay attention.”

The fickle nature of Lady Luck is also seen at the end of the film when Chow Mo-wan asks Su Li-zhen to flee with him to Singapore; the promise of a ‘new life’ deeply alluring for both of them. Unsure of her response, Chow waits for her in a rented hotel room smirking sadly to himself before leaving, only to have Su arrive moments later; so close, but ultimately too late. And just like that our protagonist are denied the happiness they both deserve. Our hearts beat for their sadness and we curse the Gods who seem to be playing dice with their feelings. But ironically, their feelings itself was a stroke of chance, a relationship which was only nurtured through their proximity, poorly timed rain and their spouse’s infidelity.

So the protagonists try to express their feelings in methods which still maintain their self autonomy, phone calls seem to the main form of communicating in the 1960s Hong Kong landscape; a happy medium between the vulnerability of speech and the coldness of fax machines. After life has whisked Chow Mo-wan off to Singapore, Su Li-zhen calls him to hear his voice, he answers and then both remain silent on the phone, comforted by the simultaneous proximity and distance of their lover.

Chow keeps a pair of slippers that Su left in his room once as a souvenir of their love, even bringing this item to Singapore. Months later she would visit Singapore only to take back that keepsake, leaving only a smoked cigarette with lipstick on his ashtray as a sign of her presence. It’s a game of cat and mice, where the first to admit their true feelings loses, it’s not a healthy relationship, but after countless scars on their heart, it’s the best they can do.

The finale concludes with Chow Mo-wan whispering his pains, regrets and secrets into a stone hallow at a Cambodian temple before sealing it with dirt. Unable to find someone to confide in, he chooses, like those long distance phone calls, a method where he can speak his mind without hearing an answer.

Years after, both Chow and Su find themselves back in Hong Kong, they attempt to reconnect with each other a final time but are ultimately unsucessful as their communication slowly ceased, their fate once again seemingly sealed by an omnipresent force. Their future runs like parallel lines, oddly close to each other yet never capable of insecting again, their time has past and time is merciless.

But when it starts to rain, or when they pass by the noodle store where they had their first date, the lights of Hong Kong will shine a little redder and cigarette smoke will roll a little more graceful, as they both reminisce on the genuine feelings of longing which both tortured and gave them purpose in 1962.

Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen were both in the mood for love, they just won’t capable of it yet.

“Why did you call me at the office today?”
“I had nothing to do. I just wanted to hear your voice.”

Lost in Translation – Review & Analysis

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“I don’t want to leave.”
“So don’t. Stay here with me. We’ll start a jazz band.”

The title Lost in Translation captures more than just Bob Harris’ (Bill Murray) and Charlotte’s (Scarlett Johansson) confusion in an alien land with dizzying lights and lethargic frenzy. It alludes to what people have always wanted, simply, someone to understand and to be understood in return. Bob and Charlotte are two lost souls who find themselves wandering aimlessly around this neon playground, both entranced and uncomfortable with a country that seems incapable of rest; indifferent to the stragglers.

Bob is apathetic. As a declining movie star, he is in Japan selling whiskey to an audience he is completely disinterested in. He spends his time at the hotel bar, craving genuine human contact but too weary to start the conversation. Charlotte is young and intelligent but finds herself locked in a relationship which is already starting to disintegrate; she too, seems to be trapped in a web of pessimism. Yet their chemistry is immediate, their affection for each other is displayed through a string of subtle body language, the odd glance, the brush of the cheek, and the tenderness of their voices. Lost in Translation is a smart film because it uses nuance to communicate its ideas, the cliché of star-crossed lovers would be too easy, too obvious and Sofia Coppola is much too intelligent for that.

Most of Bob’s relationships have broken down; his wife calls him frequently to discuss everything but their relationship. She tries to put their children on the phone, yet they always seem to run away. After a string of biting sarcasm from both parties, she asks Bob if she “Needs to worry about him,” Bob responds with “Only if you want to…” and seconds later she hangs, stating that she has ‘urgent matters’ to attend to. Bob could be the life of the party, he could be cracking jokes but he is too jaded to entertain someone without getting something in return. At this point, he’s damaged goods and the years of wear have chipped away at his charismatic instincts.

Similarly, Charlotte tries to communicate with her husband but he seems too preoccupied in mingling with B-grade celebrities. He insists that she won’t enjoy coming along with him to his work and naively believes that a faxed sheet of paper with a hand-drawn heart can remedy their fracturing marriage. Later that night, Charlotte longingly flips through Polaroid photos of the pair in their younger days.

Both Bob and Charlotte are ‘lost in translation’. Somewhere in the past, both of them held their tongue, their partners reciprocated and their feelings got lost in a sea of comforting neglect. And it is these feelings of isolation that unite the two. Bob sees a beautiful, witty girl, who, like him, seems to have lost her way in life and Charlotte sees an older man who actually tries to understand how lonely she is. The most insightful moments are when the pair lie together and speak about cosmic themes in vague details, the absolutes don’t matter, only that they are next to each other; together. Charlotte asks about the difficulty of marriage and Bob attempts to pass all that he has learnt onto his younger student. The pair never have sex but they do something a lot more risky; they allow themselves to develop feelings for each other.

When we are spying upon their drunken adventures, there is a real sense of energy and enthusiasm. The night is forever young and each bend in the road offers the chance of another unforgettable experience. When the two are separate, the passion evaporates, a grey filter sets in and we divert our eyes, confused at why they are wasting their dwindling time on matters of little significance.

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“I just feel so alone, even when I’m surrounded by other people.”

But context is the sharp gust of reality ready to blow away this pink glazed dream. Bob is married with children, Charlotte is also married to another man and thirty years younger. The looming end of their impending separation accelerates the urgency of their unexpected friendship. Time is merciless, despite how perfect this pairing is, the audience and the characters know that it’s impossible. Charlotte has her path she must walk and so does Bob, yet for a brief, but powerful moment, their lives do cross. And this is why this film is such an understated masterpiece, it doesn’t pretend that Charlotte and Bob have solved all their problems by meeting each other, rarely does that happen in reality. I wouldn’t be surprised if Charlotte ended up dying from a drug overdose in five years, nor would I be surprised if she changes her mindset and allows her husband to share in her sadness. The same goes for Bob, maybe he divorces his wife and turns to alcoholism or maybe he returns home and holds her longingly; knowing that their relationship was once just like his and Charlotte’s.

That’s the beauty of this film, I don’t need answers. I am comfortable knowing that amongst the laughs, hugs and haunting stares of love, a genuine bond was forged in the most unexpected of locations.

Maybe one day, decades past, Charlotte will hear Bob’s name and then she’ll look down and crack a smile, or maybe even cry, or maybe not, because he is just a ghost in her past- And Bob will be on the other side of the world, attending to his own business, unaware that he had just entered the mind of a woman whom he loved, even if it was for a brief moment.

“I loved the moment near the end when Bob runs after Charlotte and says something in her ear, and we’re not allowed to hear it.

We shouldn’t be allowed to hear it. It’s between them, and by this point in the movie, they’ve become real enough to deserve their privacy. Maybe he gave her his phone number. Or said he loved her. Or said she was a good person. Or thanked her. Or whispered, “Had we but world enough, and time…” and left her to look up the rest of it.”

  • Roger Ebert, Lost in Translation Review, 2003

Genre: Romantic-Comedy
Certificate: R
USA Release Date: 3rd October 2003
Runtime: 141 minutes
Director: Sofia Coppola
Writer: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi & Fumihiro Hayashi
Synopsis: A faded movie star and a neglected young woman form an unlikely bond after crossing paths in Tokyo.

Up in the Air – Review & Analysis

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“Yes, it was pretty lonely.”
“Life’s better with company.”
“Yeah.”

You’ve made your bed, now go lie in it. Enter Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a man who summarises the shifting values of the 21st century, someone you see, but never meet. Tasked with the job of firing employees for ‘weak willed’ employers, Ryan travels the nation, never rooted, always moving. George Clooney delivers one of his best performances, and stars in the ‘Clooney’ role, an aging silver fox, with a seductive combination of wit and charisma, yet tragically flawed.

In this film, a young enthusiastic new employee; Natalie Kenner, played by the adorable and remarkably short Anna Kendrick, attempts to ‘revolutionise’ Ryan’s industry by introducing technology as the method of communication. Director Jason Reitman quietly brings up the moral questions of such an industry, will Skype make an already soul crushing announcement even less human? And if so, does it justify the cheaper economic cost? For Ryan, a gamophobic, he sees this decision as a direct attack on his laissez-faire state of living, ironically forgetting about the ‘real’ victims who are actually affected by the Global Financial Crisis. Already angry at Natalie for her suggestions, Ryan is tasked with the job of introducing her to the business, giving her first hand experience in this occupation, bridging the few months wait before the technology gets implemented.

This of course, cramps Mr. Bingham’s style, who personifies ‘easy come, easy go’.

On this subtle journey of self discovery, Ryan meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga); the modern day film noir love interest and a perfect combination of flirtiness, wit and unreachable allure. A self described ‘road warrior’, Ryan along with the audience is hopelessly charmed by her aura, even against their better judgement. It is with these bumps in the once smooth road, that the story starts.

[INCOMING SPOILERS]

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At the core of Jason Reitman’s film are the themes of relationships and responsibility; two dance partners who endlessly circle around the life of Ryan Bingham. Nothing reflects this like Ryan’s first encounter with Alex at a bar, both sipping on spirits, both waiting for the world to come and embrace them, but too jaded to make the first move. They start off their relationship by comparing credit cards, we as the audience are disgusted by such behaviour, but equally fascinated by their charm. They laugh and banter for a bit before going back to Ryan’s room to have sex. Casual and flirty; a quick transaction between two parties.

“We are two people that get turned on by elite status, I think cheap is our starting point.”

Apart from firing employees, Ryan Bingham also lectures about his isolationist philosophies, his message? “We weigh ourselves down until we can’t even move.” The core motif of this philosophy is Ryan’s travelling bag; light, compact and ruthlessly packed to maximise efficiency. The quick series of cuts showing Ryan checking into the airport at the start of the film, immediate convey his sense of character; professional, calculated and deliberate.

When Ryan’s oldest sister (Kara) calls Ryan to discuss about their young sister’s wedding (Julie), she pleads him to participate in their ‘wedding gift’. This requires him to take a few photos holding a cardboard cut out of the newly engaged couple at iconic scenes around America. Begrudging, and after a lot of resistance, Ryan agrees. From the continuation of the bag motif we can see how disgruntled Ryan is, the cardboard cut out, is a little too wide, a little too longer to fit into the metaphor of his luggage; his indifferent lifestyle of constant movement, constant activity. We start to see and understand how detached Ryan is, an emotionally damaged man, incapable, or even worse, unwilling to maintain any relationship. A man whose definition of success is to reach a mathematical number; ten millions frequent flyer miles. It all makes sense.

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“How much does your life weigh? Imagine for a second that you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to feel the straps on your shoulders. Feel ’em?”

Yet this motif comes to a crescendo when Ryan sheepishly invites Alex as a date to his sister’s wedding. When asked to pin the photos of the cardboard cutouts on a map, he stands there, transfixed. In front of him is a map filled to the brim with photos from all of the couple’s friends and family, it’s so crowded that Ryan struggles to find space. And there lies the irony, this humble homely couple in Milwaukee, unable to afford a honeymoon and with close to no travel experience, has connections all over the nation. In contrast, Ryan can boast about all the exotic places he’s been, all the five star hotels he has stayed and all the casual sex he has engaged in… Yet can’t describe the feeling of friendship, he can’t describe holding someone out of a genuine sense of affection.

Ryan Bingham lived for his resume and not his eulogy.

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Slowly, we can begin to see Ryan’s outlook on life change, his relationships with Alex builds and builds, overwhelming his once mathematical approach to life. Maybe, she wasn’t a burden, maybe love was more than just a transaction between two people. The wedding scene stands out as my favourite in the whole film; it was just relatable, so genuinely human. Reitman switches to a shaky cam and the tinge of vintage red makes the audience feel as if we’re attending the wedding of a close cousin. The following scene, when Ryan comes back to his unglamorous Omaha house contrasts the warmth and happiness he felt when surrounded by his new relationships. There’s no music, there’s no dancing, the world has lost its musky red filter. Only cold white walls, a vacant desk and dusty couch greet him.

During the middle of his ‘backpack’ speech in Las Vegas, a speech which was has been very excited for since the beginning of the film. Ryan stops and stutters, his philosophies have changed and the spark of superiority and sureness which glinted in his eyes previously was gone. He can’t even bring himself to say these words. He steps away from the podium, offers an apology and in an act of complete vulnerability and spontaneity, he catches a flight to Alex’s house to finally speak without his cool air of invincibility, without his sense of complete assurance.

And Ryan gets his heart crushed, Alex is married. With children.

Ryan’s whole life had been predicated upon his isolation and the distancing of himself from people. Now a middle aged man with his youth quickly fading away, Ryan realises the consequences of his actions. He made his bed, now he has to lie in it.

It’s ironic that for a man whose occupation demanded a total sense of aloofness, Ryan now stands as a victim to his own game. He hangs up on Alex after what is assumed to be their final phone call, “You are an escape… You are a break from our normal lives… You are an parenthesis.” Ryan Bingham was always very detached, unfortunately for him, he met the only person in America who was even more detached. Karma? You decide.

Dejected and demoralised, he catches a plane back home, when the announcement is made that he just hit the ten million miles mark. In celebration, the airline chief sits down beside Ryan and starts making small talk, asking him “Where are you from?” to which a disheartened Ryan can only respond with “I’m from here.”

When Ryan gets back to his office, he rings the airline company and tries to transfer his miles over to his sister and her new husband, giving them the chance to experience the honeymoon they deserve. Yet the decision is interrupted by an co-worker knocking at Ryan’s door, and he hangs up the phone. The thought is there, but whether or not he completes the action, the audience will never know.

The film ends with Ryan standing in front of a large destination board, once again called to be a ‘road warrior’. His figure dwarfed by the immensity of the screen. Stunned by the enormity of the task ahead, Ryan lets go on his luggage handle, silently protesting this lifestyle which molded him into a hermit. A man who has lived in many houses, but never a home.

And this is what separates Jason Reitman from the average director, with already a string of witty and clever films under his belt. Reitman refuses to give the audience their candy. A ‘happy ever after’ ending between Ryan and Alex would have been too smooth, too unrealistic, too impractical, and at their core, both were practical people. To have this joyous ending would have absolved Ryan and Alex from their past and ultimately, this was a film about responsibility.

You’ve made your bed, now go lie in it.

Genre: Comedy-Drama
Certificate: R
USA Release Date: 23rd December 2009
Runtime: 149 minutes
Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Walter Kirn & Jason Reitman
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga & Anna Kendrick
Synopsis: With a job traveling around the country firing people, Ryan Bingham enjoys his life living out of a suitcase, but finds that lifestyle threatened by the presence of a new hire and a potential love interest.

Unforgiven; Exposing the Darkness Within America.

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Unforgiven (1992) is a modernist western film that challenges the romanticised foundations established by American culture. Unforgiven questions the manifest destiny and the ideal of violence, two themes which define the western genre, this is done by creating a world of ambiguity where characters and situations can not be categorised as right or wrong. Instead Eastwood’s films highlights the hypocrisy of the American culture which claims to be founded upon religious principles but yet have managed to carry the ‘original’ sin from Europe.

The settlers which were moving westward across the new world were justified by their belief in the ‘manifest destiny’, just like how Americans had resisted the European tyrants in the War of Independence, the American spirit would be once again forged by violence and bloodshed on the western frontier. However Unforgiven questioned this age old belief that American civilisation created order and progress out of chaos, instead Eastwood highlights the demons and sins which plague life on the western frontier where communities live without the constraints of laws or morality. This is achieved through contrasting the beautiful, open and scenic landscape with the dark and dingy atmosphere within the houses; a symbol of civilisation. Often accompanying the landscape is a soft melody which emphasises the beauty of natural environment, in contrast the low key lighting of the houses accompanied by the rain evokes a sombre and claustrophobic atmosphere when audiences are first introduced to Big Whiskey. This is especially seen when Will Munny the ‘protagonist’ of this film talks to his children through the doorway, the brilliance of the sunshine is unable to plunge into the darkness of the house. In Unforgiven, nature is portrayed as tranquil and peaceful and contrary to popular myth, it is the inhabitants who are savage and aggressive.

Little Bill’s house could been interpreted as a metaphor for the creation of an American nation, whilst it looks sturdy and strong at first, it’s faults and flaws are quickly exposed when rains starts to pour. Likewise whilst American clings onto a glorified mythology of the past, a glance at American history highlights the hypocrisy of such a stance. Furthering this symbolism is the fact Little Bill is the sole creator of the house, American’s violent traditions were crafted by white men with violent tendencies who had convinced society that their use of physical force was righteous or were beneficial to society. Similar all the killings within this film are done underneath a roof, in particular the finale where the Will Munny of the past arises due to alcoholism and anger. It’s telling the two most populated establishments in Big Whiskey are the brothel and the bar, the underpinnings of the American west wasn’t the divine guidance of the ‘manifest destiny’, but of rampant alcoholism and prostitution. The savagery no longer rests in the American Indians or the landscape, instead it is reflected off the flaws of every American living on the frontier. American civilisation was built upon the mythology that the pilgrims were spreading civilisation to the savage Indians and taming a hostile landscape. Eastwood forces the audience to question the legitimacy of these cultural beliefs, instead the characters are stripped off the romantic glossing that are found in traditional westerns. All are portrayed as sinful and chaotic in comparison to the majesty of the natural environment.

Violence was and continues to be a defining theme in the western genre, the belief that the America was ‘baptised’ by fire and conflict transfers from the War of Independence to the western frontier, where the belief was an individual must rise up with force to resist evil and savagery. The notion of ‘sacred violence’ was coined by Allen Redman (2004) which was the belief that violence can be redemptive if used to oppose evil and tyranny. This mythology is embodied in the protagonist of most spaghetti westerns, however Eastwood once again challenges this fundamental American belief. Unforgiven is a film where the morality of the characters are ambiguous, the protagonist mirrors the antagonist and both share similar vices and positives as is foreshadowed in the similarities of their names. Will Munny like Bill Daggett are both men of violence who attempt to leave the bloodshed behind but are eventually sucked back into the violent cycle of society. Both men are vulnerable to hypocrisy, whilst Daggett attempts to lower the amount of violence by banning guns in Big Whiskey, he nearly beats Will and English Bob to death and eventually kills an unarmed Ned. Likewise Munny earns the approval of the audience by staying faithful to his deceased wife, but then in a fit of rage and alcoholism, he murders multiple people in the Big Whiskey bar. By merging the boundaries of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’, when Munny finally kills Daggett, Eastwood is creating a conclusion where violence doesn’t triumph over evil instead killing is seen as a natural cycle of the sinful American society. The classic showdown between two cowboys at noon, both who are reliant upon their physical prowess, is no where to be found in Unforgiven. Instead Munny kills Skinny Dubois unarmed and then proceeds to murder others in cold blood and under the influence in alcohol. Eastwood tears down the mythological image of violence, it isn’t presented as redemptive or righteous, instead it is seen as a product of a damaged society living on the western frontier, where morality like laws have no impact upon the citizens.

America’s belief that violence can be used to redeem past injustices is still reflected through out its society today, the western frontier was shifted towards Germany and Vietnam where once again America attempts to destroy the evil and thus cement the divisions between them and the tyrannical. Eastwood’s Unforgiven on the other hand, questions the legitimacy of violence, through presenting the victim’s perspective and having the protagonist question the validity of his actions. Davie-Boy’s death at the hands of Munny was slow, excruciating and sombre, instead of a thrilling shoot out, Davie slowly bled to left after Munny shot him unarmed. Davie-Boy’s youthful appearance, his high pitched wheezing “He shot me, I’m so thirsty…” combined with the fact he was willing to give the ‘cut up whore’ an extra pony for his accomplices’ crimes earns him the empathy of the audiences. Usually within a western the vanquished evil doesn’t have a chance to speak up and instead the story focuses upon the victory of the protagonist. However Davie-Boy’s assassination was cruel, uncomfortable and lacked the glamour and glitz of the western genre, forcing audiences to recalibrate their standing after his death. The blurring of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is also seen when Munny reflects on his killing of the ‘drover’ boy, “he didn’t do anything to deserve to get shot, at least nothin’ I could remember when I sobered up.” Unlike Ned, Munny or even English Bob who were ‘othered’ as ‘cowards, assassins and crooks’ before being beaten, allowing society to digest these violent acts, the drover stands as an innocent victim whose only wrong was living in a society without morals or laws. The need of ‘othering’ is also reflected in English Bob’s comments about how it is impossible to shoot royalty, violence is only accepted when it is used against the ‘wicked’ or in pursuit of a greater cause. In Unforgiven, violence is a fact of life, the citizens of Big Whiskey don’t receive “what they deserve” instead everyone is drawn into the cycle of violence found on the western frontier. Eastwood challenges the illusions of America being a just and noble civilisation, the western frontier is transformed from a location where American masculinity is forged to a lawless civilisation where the strong rule the weak.

The dream of America existed before the Europeans settled on the new world, it was supposed to be a land of spirituality and redemption, away from the vices and constraints of the old way, in a way America still clings onto that old mentality despite the under lying hypocrisy. Eastwood’s Unforgiven is a modernist western that attempts to tear apart the romanticised images of the western frontier, a symbol of white dominance over the savage Indians and landscape. America’s beliefs that it was establishing order in the once lawless outback is questioned, in the film it is civilisation that brings along malice and immorality, contrasted against the tranquillity of nature. A core component of westerns is the use of violence to conquer the wicked, traditional films of this genre often have rigid distinctions between the good and bad in order to justify the use of force. However Unforgiven presents the audience was a moral dilemma, the protagonist has flaws whilst the antagonist has moments of sincerity. Instead of sacred violence being used as a means to an end, violence and bloodshed in presented as an integral part of the western fronter and it doesn’t discriminate against the right or the wrong. The concept of America was once noble, however the vices which the pilgrims wished to escape from sound festered within American society. Eastwood’s Unforgiven aims to point out the hypocrisy of America, how equality must be paved by with blood and how violence was used indiscriminately on the ‘righteous’ as well as the ‘evil.’

WORD COUNT: 1537.

 

REFERENCES.

Eastwood, C. (Director). (1992). The Unforgiven [Motion Picture]. United States: Warner Bros.

Grist, L. (1996). Unforgiven. In Cameron, I. A., & Pye, D. (Eds.), The Book of Westerns (pp.294-301). New York, New York: Continuum.

Redmon, A. (2004). Mechanisms of Violence in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and Mystic River. The Journal of American Culture, 27(3), 315-328.

Transcedence – Review & Analysis

Transcendence2014Poster

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

Transcedence is a science fiction film whose imagination far outstretches its execution, with a mono-tone pacing and lack luster characters, Transcedence is a film which has the illusion of an epic, but leaves much to be desired. My expectations coming into this film was around average, the trailer was engaging with its up tempo, driving musical score combined with quick cuts of weapons and explosions which gave me the impression that was going to be a mix of Die Hard (1988) and Her (2013). At the same time I couldn’t help but snicker at the premise, Trascendence’s plot was unrealistic and cliche, and the unengaging story was a large reason by I felt disconnected from the film.

The story follows Dr. Will Caster and his wife Evelyn (beautiful name) as two married scientist who attempt to revolutionise technology, allowing artificial intelligence to play a larger role within society. The pair are trying to embed a consciousness into the technology, allowing the machinery to think and rationalise without extrinsic help. Will states “Imagine a machine with a full range of human emotions, it’s analytical power will be greater than the collective intelligence of every person in the history of the world.” Whilst the motives of Will and Evelyn are pure, their work slowly blurs the distinction between humanity and machinery, morality and immorality. On the other hand, R.I.F.T (Revolutionary Independence From Technology) an extremist group whose goals are the polar opposite of Will’s and Evelyns, fears the power of technology as Will and Evelyn try to mix humanity with machinery. R.I.F.T attempts to assassinate Will and he is shot with a radioactive bullet, meaning he only has one month to live. Evelyn unable to let go of her husband decides to use their research to save Will and after a month of work she manages to upload Will’s conscious on a computer. Though out the difficult procedure Max, Evelyn’s friend, warns her about the dangers of her task, stating that if they miss a single memory or emotion from Will’s past they would of instead uploaded something foreign, something alien.

My two biggest complaints about this film was, firstly how predictable it was and secondly, how boring the film was due to a lack of pacing, a lack of strong characters (the audience doesn’t know who to root for because we constantly have to question Will’s actions) and the film’s plot was ridiculous and over the top, creating a sense of disbelief in the audiences. Firstly they GAVE AWAY THE ENDING WITHIN THE FIRST THREE MINUTES, for a film which was fundamentally a character study of Will, this immediately took the tension out of the entire film, since the audience knew the eventual outcome. The point of the film was the battle between Will’s humanity and his new found artificial powers, by revealing the ending, it hinders the audience’s ability to emotionally connect with the film. It’s like unmasking the Scooby-Doo villain before the episode starts or spoiling Hamlet’s actions before the play begins. The audience became spectators since we ultimately know the final outcome of this film, hell even when Max gets kidnapped by R.I.F.T there was no tension in the cinema since we knew he will survive because of his monologue at the beginning of the film. This was so baffling.

It is important to create a consistent world especially within a science fiction film where the boundaries of reality are constantly being bent, the audience needs to know the boundaries and the director can’t over step these unwritten barriers without destroying the plausibility of the film. Firstly you’re telling me that Evelyn and Will somehow managed to create some technological utopia without anyone knowing? For two years, not a some member of R.I.F.T found out? If Will and Evelyn were totally isolated and without human contact this might be realistic but they built their laboratory next to a run down town, they hired labourers to create their home and scientist to run it, how did word NOT get out? Secondly this was an absolute deal breaker, Will becomes so powerful that he slowly gains the ability to heal the sick, introducing a horribly obvious religious motif in the film; Will has transcended humanity and acts like Jesus and he’s going to eventually give his life to better this world… Yay, this really couldn’t of been more simplistic and predictable (Was it an accident that Evelyn is similar to Eve? I think not Sherlock!). Will’s power continues to grow and it is only when R.I.F.T and the government attack his home that his ‘transcendent’ skills are put on display. (also why didn’t the government drop a bomb on the solar panels? Why send fifteen soldiers with RPGS?) Will can now heal the scientist and labourers defending his home by extracting nutrients from the ground, not only that HE CAN ‘HEAL’ INANIMATE OBJECTS LIKE SOLAR PANELS TOO. I kid you not.

WHAT?

The world the audience was first introduced to was a reality which mimicked life in the 21st century, this is the framework to which we viewed the film. You can’t start off with everyday life filled with cars and televisions to internet deities miraculously bringing people from the dead and recreating the matter needed to replenish inanimate objects. There are unwritten and unspoken laws of nature which every person obeys and acknowledges such as gravity, life, Newton’s laws of action and reaction. If you break these laws you sever the audience’s connection to the film as we can no longer believe what we are seeing. It’s like replacing Achilles’ spear with a lightsaber or giving Caesar a machine gun, ultimately this film attempted to chase grandiose ideas and wanted a big, large and ‘important’ climax but was this ultimately how the film should of been directed? For me it would of been much more interesting if Wally Pfister had focused upon the decaying relationship between Will and Evelyn as his powers ‘transcends’ that of a humans, instead of the clash between Will and R.I.F.T. Instead we got a protagonist we really struggled to connect with because he was more machine than human for a majority of the film, we couldn’t root for the antagonist either because we knew nothing about them and because their choices such as assassination were very questionable. At its core this film was a character study on Will, yet it tried to incorporate the flashy and ‘dramatic’ epicness of a Lord of the Rings battle or the final Terminator showdown and sadly it failed to achieve either one of its goals.

Transcendence is a film which takes reoccurring and cliche themes within the science fiction genre and attempts to add a Frankenstein-esque spin on it, seen through the clash of science and humanity and both the protagonist and antagonist’s objectives are unquestionable. The film was saddled with an unrealistic plot, over simplistic themes and boring characters. There’s really not much to celebrate about this film, the action scenes were mediocre, the script was mediocre and the acting was largely mediocre with the only ‘bright spot’ being Rebecca Hall who played Evelyn and maybe Paul Bettany (Max) after a few shots of Tequila. I would maybe recommend this film for fathers who enjoy the science fiction genre, younger children will generally find this film boring due to its slow pacing and because there’s really not much action, maybe a Sunday night rental at best, without any real defining characteristics, it’s a film you will quickly forget. I certainly will.

4/10.

Genre: Science Fiction
Certificate: 13
USA Release Date: 18th April 2014
Runtime: 119 minutes
Director: Wally Pfister
Writer: Jack Paglen
Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, Cole Hauser, Morgan Freeman.
Synopsis: Will’s conscious gets uploaded to the internet and his wife begins to question his humanity.