Book Review – Fit At Mid Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey

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I recently finished reading the excellent Fit At Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey by Samantha Brennan and Tracy Isaacs. Full disclosure, I had Samantha Brennan at a professor in a graduate seminar at Western University and, her class being one of the highlights of my university experience, my opinion on the book might be skewed slightly. That being said, one of the things I loved so much about Dr. Brennan’s class was the way that she seemed to make a conscious effort to buck some of academic philosophy’s most obnoxious trends. This class made an effort to pursue objective fact while at the same time not being presumptuous enough to think we can just fire up our armchairs and will ourselves beyond the vail of subjective experience. This trend is continued in the Fit at Mid Life, which talks data, trends and fact while telling the compelling story of two women on a personal journey to better themselves. I am happy to report that what works about Dr. Brennan’s classes also works in the book, which had me just as invested in whether or not Tracy would reach her goal of finishing an Olympic distance triathlon as I was in educating myself about the fitness facts.

Easily one of the most refreshing parts of reading this book was its emphasis on cultivating a new attitude towards fitness that’s all about function and health. For example, in one section of Fit at Mid-Life in which the authors put there philosopher’s hats on and go about defining fitness, mental health is not left out of the discussion. This inclusion may seem like a small thing but hearing people wise enough to include the other half of health in a fitness discussion read to me as nearly revelatory. This is just one of them many small delights of the book.

One other such delight was reading a discussion of health and fitness that didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. Fitness is interesting because as complex as it is, it is also simple. The never ending succession of people on the internet trying to tell you when/how/where/what to eat in ways that contradict the last thing you read by a seemingly equally qualified professional is unproductive and exhausting. You’ll find no claims like “make sure to only have sugar while standing on your head and juggling avocados, while also singing Shake it Off by Taylor Swift” in this book. Instead it approaches fitness discussion by sticking to what we know and know well, while busting some harmful myths about dieting and exercise in the process.

If I had one complaint, it would be that I wanted the philosopher’s hats to be put on a little bit more often and for slightly more lengthy durations. The fact that this doesn’t happen is by design and it’s not a flaw in the book by any means. I think I just crave a philosophical discussion of fitness and exercise that I can’t really seem to find anywhere right now. Still though, to demand that from Fit at Mid-Life would be to watch Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables and be mad that Hugh Jackman didn’t play Wolverine in it (I’m just kidding, you should never watch Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables). This book is about breaking down stereotypes about gender and age while also providing tangible, subjective stories that, on top of being compelling in their own right, ground the discussion in reality rather than pure theory.

The last thing I want to say about my experience reading the book is how much I enjoyed it despite the fact that it isn’t something many people would think of as being “for me”. I got more than a few quizzical remarks and questions about why I would read a book that seems specifically targeted at age and gender demographics that are very much not my own (male, 24). To that I say, reading books that aren’t “for you” is almost always educational and enjoyable in some way. At least, this holds true for me. There are obvious exceptions, such as movies or video games that populate their narratives with sexualized, two dimensional female characters. That’s the bad kind of “not for you” and women who avoid these stories are definitely not in the wrong. The good kind of “not for you”, however, can be transformative. This book gave me a lot of insight into what it’s like to be a woman in physical fitness spaces and this knowledge will almost surely affect how I conduct myself in these spaces in the future. I have certainly been guilty of presuming that older women in the gym are eagerly awaiting my instructions on how to properly lift weights. Hell, I bumped into at 70 year old woman in a Indigo store a couple of days ago and she was holding this book. I assumed she was hesitantly thinking about dipping a toe into the water of physical fitness but it turns out she was a marathon runner who could probably kick my ass in a great many physical activities.

Fit at Mid Life also gave me knowledge of what an active lifestyle looks like at age 50, which may not apply to me now but certainly will some day (unless scientist finally get off the couch and make putting human brains in robot bodies a reality). My assumption going into the book was that my body would slowly get slower, weaker and less effective every year after my 40th birthday. Research covered in the book that shows age isn’t the barrier to physical activity that many believe it to be was illuminating. I won’t go into the whole thing here but, suffice it to say, certain cultural preconceptions of what aging people can do end up creating a sort of feedback loop. “I know my body is going to get weaker so I’d better not run so much” is, as it turns out, something of a self fulfilling prophesy.

In a lot of ways, this book is appealing to me because of my attitude towards new and different perspectives. After all, Fit at Mid-Life is all about women doing things that aren’t deemed to be “for them” and, unlike my experience with picking up this book, this is actually an obstacle or at least a point of frustration for them. Still, I want to encourage anyone who would hesitate to read this book or any others like it because they don’t think of themselves as that book’s core demographic to check the book out anyway, as it might give you what this book gave me, a valuable new perspective and a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.

Seeing Allred Review: A Fine Entry in the Superhero Genre

00-story-image-seeing-allredIt may not seem initially appealing to watch Seeing Allred (directed by Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain), which can’t help but come off as a self promoting commercial for its subject, crusading attorney Gloria Allred. This reaction is reasonable but also more than a little ironic, as a main theme of the film is pointing out how Allred is wrongfully scrutinized for being some hot shot, self promoting lawyer who has little empathy for the victims she represents. The Gloria Allred we spend time with in this movie is a legit feminist crusader who tangibly contributes to getting justice for victims of sexual assault and rape. Seeing Allred asks the audience why the kneejerk reaction to outspoken, powerful women is so often disdain. One might think, as the filmmakers clearly do, that this is a question that is especially pertinent in Donald Trump’s “United” States.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of legitimate criticisms of Hillary Clinton. It would be incredibly hard to deny that fact. By the same token, it would be equally difficult to deny that there was a misogynistic element to the discourse surrounding the 2016 Presidential debate and Clinton’s candidacy in particular. I mean, how could there not be when the main Republican candidate and eventual President-Elect is a multiply accused rapist/sexual assaulter who proudly brags that he grabs women “by the pussy”. In terms of public perception, Allred and Clinton are very much cut from the same cloth. Allred is clearly ambitious and has a distinctive personal brand, as we see when she grabs a pink pant suit from a closet full of them near the beginning of the movie. These traits are frustratingly thrown in her face again and again by critics to undermine the legitimately important work she does as an advocate for the victims of Bill Cosby, Donald Trump and others.

As with any good feminist text, Seeing Allred interweaves the personal with the political. Allred discusses her survival of rape with candor and the film is used as a platform for the survivors that Allred represents. A great part of the movie is getting a chance to know the women behind the famous accusations of people like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. It’s telling that, even in the most widely publicized sexual assault cases, the public is often content not to know anything about the women involved. Seeing Allred rectifies this and (like Allred herself) puts the women in these much talked about stories front and center. This material can’t help but be emotional important, as the movie focuses on the way women in general are often perceived as dishonest and manipulative when they are in the spotlight and talking about women’s issues. Allred and the women that she represents come up against substantial scrutiny and watching them overcome that scrutiny fills you with the classic feminist cocktail of cynicism and hope that should be familiar to anyone who pays attention to gender relations in North America.

Allred has been so prolific that Grossman and Sartain can essentially track the progress of the American women’s rights movement through her career. It is compelling stuff and it is consistently interesting to see how much the discourse has evolved but at the same time, how much it really hasn’t. When the film takes the viewer back to Trump’s election, it perfectly captures the sense of total disappointment and the feeling of sheer unbelievability that came with incredulously staring at the television. Fortunately, Seeing Allred also gets the audience fired up to continue the fight and, as far as I’m concerned, that makes the film vital and necessary viewing in 2018.

Masculinity and Performance in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

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Whatever you may think of Joss Whedon, it is impossible to deny that his work (especially in the realm of television) never fails to provoke discussion. “Buffy Studies” – the niche of film scholarship that critically analysis Buffy and Angel – is nearly an academic discipline unto itself. There is also plenty of written material on both Firefly and Dollhouse (the former more than the latter). While Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog certainly enjoys a good reputation, I have seen comparatively little writing on it relative to the rest of Whedon’s oeuvre. In this essay, I will examine how Dr. Horrible examines masculinity via its performances by the film’s central characters. I will argue that both Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris) and Nathan Fillion (Captain Hammer) represent different masculine paradigms and that the film is ultimately critical of Dr. Horrible for succumbing to the same masculine faults that are embodied by Captain Hammer.

Whedon signals that Dr. Horrible is about the performance of masculinity first and foremost by his choice of genre. The musical is a format that demands that its characters literally perform their songs and choreography. Furthermore, musicals have a kind of cognitive dissidence at the heart of them. From the perspective of the other characters, are the performers *actually* singing and dancing or are the musical numbers just peculiar interludes that other characters do not acknowledge? The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t really matter but the logical observer in us can’t help but wonder whether musical performances are made salient to the characters in said musical. Thus, the musical is the perfect venue to examine the performance of masculinity, which is a performance that most men don’t even realize that they are doing.

The choice to work within the confines of the superhero genre once again calls attention to the performativity of the main characters’ actions . Due to the ubiquitous trope of heroes and villains having secret identities, superheroes constantly perform. For example, Clark Kent pretends to be a mild-mannered dope, Bruce Wayne a vapid playboy. These examples are relevant because both characters evoke questions of exactly which aspects are of their personality are authentic and which are performative. Is Clark Kent the “real” person, while Superman is an affected persona that helps to conceal Kent’s identity, or is it the other way around? Most Batman fans accept that Bruce Wayne is the performance while Batman is the real person underneath (an assessment that I disagree with, but that is another essay for another day). The one two punch of the superhero musical invites us to question who exactly is the true persona of both Captain Hammer and Dr. Horrible, and who is a performance.

The super personas of Captain Hammer and Dr. Horrible convey a lot of information about each character. Hammer adopts the masculine-associated title of “captain” and pairs it with a hammer, both a traditionally masculine tool and an object that signals a blunt and basic approach to problem solving (the old saying “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” comes to mind). Hammer seems to have also put the bare minimum of effort into his disguise, slapping a picture of a hammer on a yellow circle background onto a plain black shirt. From this lack of effort, the viewer can glean two key pieces of information. First, we learn that Hammer doesn’t take his super heroics all that seriously beyond his opportunities to inflict violence on Dr. Horrible. Secondly, there is very little that separates Hammer from his non-superhero persona. He is a pair of gloves and a homemade symbol away from being a normal guy, the implication being that being Captain Hammer is his normal life. Billy, on the other hand, has clearly given his persona more thought. He has more elaborate props, such as his goggles, which are purely theatrical and never actually used until he switches costumes at the end. Billy also takes on a masculine-associated “doctor” title but it is to emphasize his intelligence rather than his strength. We also see that Billy puts a lot of thought into his super villainy, trying on new catchphrases and pursing the super villain career path of joining the Evil League of Evil.

Hammer and Horrible figure nicely into a classic nerd vs jock dichotomy, which incidentally sets them up as embodying different masculine paradigms. Hammer is old school masculinity, valuing simple brawn over all else. We see this in the way that Hammer solves problems. He stops the Billy’s heist in Act 1 by punching the van control device and forcefully pushing Penny in the garbage, he tries to impress her on their date by showing off his physical strength on the swan boat and he tries to kill Horrible with his own death ray.  Billy is a newer masculinity that is very much a response to the former. He solves problems with his mind, designing technology like the freeze ray and van remote. Billy rebels against the classically masculine norms that Hammer is emblematic of, but he is frustrated that this rebellion means that he can’t have the things that Hammer has. He wants people to think he’s good looking, capable, loveable and more than anything else, he wants Penny’s affection. None of this is meant to endorse Billy’s perspective, as I think the film ultimately rejects it and this will be discussed later in the essay.

One of the crucial takeaways from what I have said so far is that superheroes and masculinity are explicitly paired in the world of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. The story is about two men who represent different masculine paradigms each trying to validate said paradigm by proving that they can attract a woman. It just so happens to be the case that the brains vs brawn battle for Penny’s affection is dramatized through the means of the superhero musical, which calls attention to the specific context of masculine performance that is always present in love triangle stories. Every super-event in the film, such as the wonderflonium heist, Horrible’s off-screen freeze ray test and the showdown at the homeless shelter are all explicitly linked to Billy and Hammer’s competition for Penny’s affection. The heist is performed to get the freeze ray working, which “My Freeze Ray” equates with winning Penny’s affections, the off-screen heist tests the freeze ray and the showdown is a direct response to Hammer emasculating Billy at the laundromat by flaunting his victory in the chauvinistic competition for Penny’s affections.

Whedon makes it easiest to answer the question of “which persona is the mask” with Captain Hammer. Captain Hammer is distinguished from Billy in that he only has one persona that the audience actually gets to know. We never meet his civilian identity, even when he meets Penny at the laundromat or goes on a date with her. Penny doesn’t even seem to acknowledge that Hammer has any more to his life than being Captain Hammer. She tells people that she’s Captain Hammer’s girlfriend, making no reference to a civilian persona. In some sense, in virtue of consistently presenting himself as a superhero, Captain Hammer is always performing. It is no mistake that we are introduced to the character while he is singing and that we spend most of our time with him in songs. Regarding the theme of the performance of masculinity, it is no accident that Hammer is also the most classically masculine character in the film on top of being the most consistent performer. The audience sees Hammer solve problems with brute strength repeatedly throughout, with his muscularity being referenced by both Penny and himself. In addition, when Hammer says that he is “going to give Penny the night of her life, just because [Billy wants] her”, he reveals that he is primarily motived by the prospect of dominating and emasculating his enemy than by any romantic feelings he might have towards Penny.

Contrasted against the consistent, hypermasculine performance of Hammer is the bifurcated Billy/Dr. Horrible. Unlike Captain Hammer, the lines between the Doctor and Billy are blurry. In Doctor Horrible’s first song, we see Billy in the laundromat singing as well. In his second song, aptly titled “A Man’s Gotta Do”, Billy is seen only briefly before the context of the song demands that he shift personas and change into his super hero outfit. The lyrics to “A Man’s Gotta Do” can even be read as Billy’s two personas engaging with one another. As Billy considers abandoning the courier van heist (signaled by his longing gaze in Penny’s direction and the conflicted expression on Billy’s face), the music kicks in and the audience hears:

“A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do
Don’t plan the plan if you can’t follow through
all that matters: taking matters into your own hands
Soon I’ll control everything; my wish is your command”

In the first line, the masculine is explicitly evoked to justify Billy’s continuation of his actions as Dr. Horrible. The second line makes the most sense directed at Billy himself, since he is the one who is in danger of not following through on his plan. This line begins the trend of Billy including the word “you”, rather than “my” or “I”, in his lyrics despite singing to himself. It is tempting to read the final line as the typical claim that a supervillain would make to the public, but it wouldn’t make sense for “you” to shift from referring to Billy in the previous lines of the verse to the citizens of the city in the final line. Instead, we should read the final line as Dr. Horrible shifting from encouraging Billy to take part in the performance of supervillainy to threatening him. In Act 1, Billy primarily moves around in the real world while his Dr. Horrible persona is relegated to the film’s musical segments and one-take blog sequences (the blog is another form of performance, which is why Horrible is seen doing it). The implication is that Billy is still the one in control, needing to be coaxed into performing the heist and hanging on the prospect of a normal life.

The third song, “My Eyes”, is the only one that is performed by Billy outside of his guise as Dr. Horrible. This shift is crucial because it backs up the message behind the song. When Billy sings:

“Anyone with half a brain
Could spend their whole life howling in pain
‘Cause the dark is everywhere And Penny doesn’t seem to care
That soon the dark in me is all that will remain”

He is telling the audience that Dr. Horrible is in danger of taking control of their shared identity (“the dark” being an obvious reference to his supervillainy). As such, we are being shown here that the lines are starting to blur, and Billy is now acting as we have only previously seen Dr. Horrible act.

In the laundromat confrontation between Billy and Hammer, Billy is utterly unequipped to handle Hammer outside of his super villain persona. He frantically tries to leave after learning about Hammer’s arrival, going so far as to leave his clothes behind. Hammer controls the interaction, going on a lengthy monologue while Billy is nearly paralyzed. After Hammer leaves, Billy once again starts singing and quickly changes into the Horrible persona. It is during the song “Brand New Day” that Billy is confident and collected, even as he misses all of the darts that he throws at a cut-out of Hammer’s head. Billy’s fantasy of being a giant who is capable of physically intimidating and scaring Hammer betrays the fact that his fantasy is about no longer being at the mercy of macho guys like Hammer, rather than the social change that he frequently demands. This is a running theme, as we see Billy frequently fantasize about his super villain victories. In “My Freeze Ray”, Billy imagines himself dancing with Penny and sings about them ruling the world. It is telling that Billy never fantasizes about actually ruling the world or having henchmen or followers of his own but only about getting the girl and defeating his male adversary.

In “So They Say”, Billy sings the following:

“There’s no happy ending
So they say
Not for me anyway
Stop pretending
Take the chance to build a brand new day”

The line of interest here is “stop pretending”, which gestures toward Billy only being half committed to his performance as Dr. Horrible up until this point. The verse making reference to a “brand new day” pairs Billy’s commitment to his performance with killing Captain Hammer, a decision he made during “Brand New Day” and that the viewer is reminded of by both the chalk board and death ray that are seen during “So They Say”. In “Slipping”, Dr. Horrible frequently refers to himself in the first person but nonetheless reasserts the dichotomy between himself and “Billy” in one of the last verses

“No sign of Penny – good.
I would give anything not to have her see
It’s gonna be bloody – head up Billy buddy
There’s no time for mercy
Here goes – no mercy…”

By referring to “Billy” as both a separate person and his “buddy”, we see that Billy is very close to committing to Dr. Horrible in the same way that Hammer has committed to his superhero persona full time. This commitment is finally realized in “Everything You Ever”, when Dr. Horrible sings:

“Now the nightmare’s real
Now Dr. Horrible is here
To make you quake with fear
To make the whole world kneel
And I won’t feel
A thing”

Whedon cuts to Billy, in his living room blogging space right before the last line. This signals the definitive shift in who the dominant persona between Billy and Horrible is. Billy now inhabits the space that Horrible used to inhabit, a space that represented confinement in virtue of it being both a space of performativity and a persona space for Billy (his apartment). It is important to note that the lighting in the living room is terrible and the scene seems to be taking place at night, which is highly irregular for the blog (the only instance being after Billy’s off-screen defeat at the Superhero memorial bridge). Also, Billy is recognizably miserable in the shot and appears to be making no effort to engage an audience. The evocation of a major defeat and the lack of any performativity in Billy’s behaviour dispels the notion that Horrible will be performing Billy in the same way Billy performed Horrible. Instead, the takeaway is that Billy has been defeated by Horrible and left in a sate of isolation.

Billy’s character arc plays out through every song and it is ultimately one of self destruction. We see that he is slowly being overtaken by his exaggerated, masculine persona until the persona becomes dominant. This pairs Dr. Horrible with Captain Hammer; whose hyper masculine person is his primary (if not only) one. The final question to answer now is what, exactly, is the point of all this? To answer that question, we will have to take a look at Billy’s relationship with Penny and how it is affected by his adherence to the masculine norms embodied by Captain Hammer.

Firstly, it is made very clear to the audience that Penny and Billy have the possibility for a romantic relationship. After “Penny’s Song”, the two leans towards each other slightly, indicating a mutual desire to kiss. Also, during “So They Say” Penny is eating frozen yogurt, with a second yogurt that is clearly intended for the absent Billy. Whedon puts a fine point on the scene by having Penny excitedly check the door when it opens in the hopes that Billy will show up. This beat is especially important because it conveys to the audience that Dr. Horrible, and by extension Billy’s, participation in the objectifying and masculine competition for Penny’s affections is actually an obstacle in his attaining them. If Billy were not planning Hammer’s murder (and thus not attempting to recede further into his super villain persona) then he could be bonding with Penny. In the homeless shelter sequence, we also learn that Penny is off put by Hammer’s objectification of her and leaves during his speech, telling the audience that she really has no interest in his overt machismo. Dr. Horrible being antithetical to a relationship with Billy and Penny is literalized when the Death Ray (the mechanism by which Billy will “make the nightmare real” and become Dr. Horrible full time) explodes and kills Penny.

The obvious thematic upshot here is that the regression of Billy’s newer masculinity into only a slight variation on classical masculinity is a detriment to men, women and society in general. It leaves Hammer an emotional wreck, Billy defeated and Penny dead. The implication of society being worse off comes from the movie positioning Penny as the arbiter of what is and isn’t good for society. She was the only one of these three central characters who was legitimately interested in changing things for the better. On top of that, she calls out Billy’s flawed plans for social change and is ultimately vindicated by the narrative. For Hammer, social change was a means to get laid and for Billy it was about quelling a growing dissatisfaction and indulging in a power fantasy. Without Penny, and the truly altruistic social change that she represents, we can infer that society will be worse off. This decline is confirmed by what little we see of the city post Penny, with Dr. Horrible robbing a banks and being unchallenged as the ELE’s newest member.

Dr. Horrible is a cautionary tale that laments the failure of nerds to properly change the way that they perform masculinity in response to “alpha male”, strength flaunting chauvinists like Captain Hammer . This theme is also explored in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s sixth season, where disempowered nerds like Jonathan, Warren and Andrew are presented as far deadlier than any supernatural foe that Buffy has ever come up against (this is made explicit by the controversial killing of Terra by Warren in Seeing Red). In Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Whedon is once again lamenting that nerds who were shoved into lockers and ridiculed by men trying to assert their dominance chose to emulate this behaviour in a new form rather than to repudiate it.

 

Bright Review: Here’s One For All Of You Suicide Squad Fans Out There

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I would have loved to be in the room when someone at Netflix suggested getting David Ayer, fresh off making Suicide Squad, the worst blockbuster movie of the past decade to make their first big foray into expensive, Hollywood style blockbuster filmmaking. While Bright is not the disastrous non-movie that Squad was, it is very much cut from the same cloth as Ayer’s previous debacle. It is a dreary, unimaginative and bloated movie that could have been good if the filmmakers had bothered to brush up on the basics of storytelling before moving forward with production. The film is set in an alternate history version of LA where orcs, elves and fairies all exist. However, the world of the film is deliberately a straightforward Gritty Cop Dramatm with the only major change being that racial animosity exists between humans and the other fantasy races rather than just between groups of humans. Will Smith plays Daryl Ward, a jaded cop that we are introduced to in a cringe inducing scene that involves him beating up a fairy and quipping “fairy lives don’t matter today”. Joel Edgerton plays Nick Jakoby, Ward’s Orcish partner. When the pair come across Tikka (Lucy Fry), a mysterious girl with a magic wand that everyone in LA is after, they have to put aside their personal differences and help keep the girl and the wand out of the hands of street gangs, corrupt cops and renegade elves.

Smith is fine in the lead role. He reigns in his natural charisma and convincingly sells Ward’s hard edged, cynical personality. However, the real stand out is Joel Edgerton. Edgerton imbues Jakoby with stiff and awkward mannerisms that make him come off like a socially anxious version Drax the Destroyer. Smith and Edgerton have great chemistry and watching them play off each other is a high point of the film’s first act. After the main plot kicks in, the character work that informs the first 30 minutes falls by the wayside, so the characters can do nothing but tell us where they are going, why they are going there and what they are about to do. The exposition is as gratuitous as it is tedious, and you can’t help but wish Ayer had gone less in the direction of Suicide Squad and made a film more in the vein of his solid, low key cop drama End of Watch.

It is a shame that Bright doesn’t go all the way and imagine how human race relations would be affected by a history this different from our own. Do people of colour in the United States still face oppression? If not, shouldn’t the racial makeup of the lower-class neighbourhoods that we see in the film be different? If racism is still present among humans, shouldn’t this be something that the film explores in the relationship between its central characters (strangely, the film could have a white lead and nothing would really change about the character dynamics at all)? These are all questions that I feel like writer Max Landis couldn’t really be bothered to answer, perhaps because he was too busy laughing about how “fairy lives matter” is like “black lives matter”. The big problem with the allegory and the alternate history stuff is that is all superficial. The film simply has nothing interesting to say about race or racism. There are interesting ideas on the table and a better filmmaker might have used this film to examine the contingency and arbitrariness of certain stereotypes and racial association that the viewer may have. Unfortunately, Ayer is not that filmmaker.

Underneath the racial allegory is nothing but an overlong, exposition laden cop drama that is filled with repetitive, boiler plate action scene. It is astounding how boring some of the film’s action scenes are, given the canvas the filmmakers must work with. The film establishes that orcs have super strength early on (we see an orc lifting a car, so his child can get a ball out from under it) but this doesn’t manifest in the action scenes in any interesting way. Instead, we get a lot of standing and shooting at things, with the elves jumping around to make something – anything – pop on screen. The problem is that Ayer doesn’t give his action scenes any kind of internal narrative. The duration of each scene could be halved, and nothing would be lost because the scenes don’t exist for any compelling reason. The action fails on both the level of spectacle and narrative and it feels like you could trim almost 15 minutes out of the movie without losing anything.

There plenty of other mistakes, such as the complete absence of a character for Lucy Fry to play (it’s unbelievable, they don’t bother to build her relationship with the other characters at all but said relationship ends up being the dramatic crux of the film’s second half). Honestly though, I am as bored counting these mistakes as I was watching the movie. In the future, let’s hope that Netflix focuses more on quality and less on proving that they can produce a big studio movie just like everyone else.

 

The 2016 Golden J Awards

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I think that the idea of film awards is strange and misguided. Not only do the established award shows (Oscars, Golden Globes etc) consistently fail to pick out the vital, complex films of any given year but it is often a self fulfilling prophecy, given that withstanding the test of time is a key signifier of a film’s worthwhileness. However, it is important to consider that these award shows nevertheless spark a large scale film discussion that would not be had otherwise. On top of that, they get people to watch plenty of movies that wouldn’t normally be given the time of day. As such, my top ten list ends up being less about calling a movie “the definitive best picture of the year” and more about recognizing merit in movies that I wish everyone could see and discuss. So, without further ado:

10. The Neon Demon

The first time you watch a Nicholas Winding-Refn film is always a memorable experience and The Neon Demon is no exception. The film is consistently vexing and shocking while also being frequently beautiful. Indeed, The Neon Demon plays like some strange, acid trip combination of a Stanley Kubrick and David Argento movie as it satirizes the fashion industry in a way that only Refn could have. In addition, the film’s score is a high point in Cliff Martinez’s already impressive body of work. Similar to his massively underrated Only God Forgives, The Neon Demon will have you saying both “what the hell did I just watch” and “when can I see it again”.

9. Hush

This movie has a killer premise that it would have been easy to screw up. A deaf, mute woman lives alone and finds herself smack in the middle of a home invasion thriller. The movie could have felt cheap and exploitative but instead ends up being a taut, character focused thriller that clocks in at a lean one hour and twenty-minute run time. Director Mike Flanagan creates an incredibly parsimonious film that uses every minute wisely and doesn’t overstay its welcome. The movie mines a lot of tension out of the fact that our protagonist can’t hear her attacker or call for help but, crucially, it succeeds in making said protagonist a nuanced, three dimensional character.

8. Nocturnal Animals

I find the idea that one element of a film can be perceived as “more real” than another to be fascinating. For a quick example of what I am talking about, think of the audience reaction every time some element of a narrative is revealed to be a dream or figment of a character’s imagination. The ascription of degrees of reality to films is strange and merits exploration in a way that I hadn’t seen until Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. This film explores the relationship between audience, artist and art using an multilayered structure that sounds like it shouldn’t work – roughly half the film consists of a dramatized version of a novel that the protagonist is reading- and yet totally does. Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams are both great in this movie but Michael Shannon and a barely recognizable Aaron Taylor Johnson steal all of the scenes that they are in. I don’t think a lot of people saw this one, which is a shame because I expect that we’ll be talking about it for a while.

7. The Invitation

If you were to approach The Invitation without looking at its thematic subtext, you would likely come away happy from the incredibly gripping thriller that you just watched. It just so happens that the film is also a unique look at the way that socialization affects grief in modern society. The best movies are the ones that grab you on the first watch but that get better and better the more that you think about them. The Invitation is just such a film and I can only hope that it gets director Karen Kusama the attention that she has deserved since the underrated Jennifer’s Body was released in 2009.

6. The Witch

The Witch does something that many horror movies fail to do. Namely, it relies entirely on the craft of the filmmakers for its horror. There isn’t a single “jump scare” in the film, which is pretty remarkable. Anyone can scare you by unexpectedly shouting in your ear really loudly. It takes a true mastery of the form to frighten an audience with only atmosphere and ambience. There are more reasons to love The Witch than just its palpable atmosphere: it has great child actors, it strives for authenticity in its depiction of witch hysteria and it contains one of the most awesome cinematic depictions of the devil that I have ever had the good fortune to witness. The Witch is director Robert Eggers’ debut feature and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

5. Fences

I just published a fairly lengthy essay about Denzel Washington’s superb adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences. So, it should come as no surprise that the film is easily one of my favorites of the year. The quality of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis performances could not possibly be overstated. On top of that, Fences offers a poignant story about accepting everything that made you who you are, even the ugly things. In a market saturated with movies in which the world is constantly going to be destroyed by some supervillain or another, Fences proves that there is no substitute for good drama when it comes to making involving, meaningful works of art.

4. Moonlight

I usually try to avoid statements like “X is the Y of this generation” because they can be reductive. However, I have no problem saying that Moonlight is a worthy companion of Ang Lee’s nearly perfect film Brokeback Mountain. Moonlight does what Brokeback did so well and puts a magnifying glass on a very specific kind of experience. In this film’s case, it is the experience of a gay, black man and his struggle to accept and understand his own identity. Obviously, I am not the person to verify whether or not the film is authentic in this depiction but I can say that it is profoundly moving and it reads to me as insightful. This might not have been my favorite movie of the year but it definitely merits the most attention.

3. Amanda Knox

How come I heard about Making a Murderer for months after its release but nobody is talking about this incredible true crime documentary? Amanda Knox cogently argues for the innocence of its subject, going through the evidence piece by piece and revealing the dubious police work involved in her investigation. Beyond that, the film also takes a hard look at the misogyny that informed the public’s bias against Knox and holds the media accountable for its pandering to a public that wanted to see a woman in prison for no compelling reason. I loved this movie but more than anything, its willingness to look at Amanda Knox as a woman rather than a character in a misogynistic media narrative really won me over.

2. Manchester by the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea is a film that tactically avoids catharsis. The film explores grief in a mature, understated way that eschews many movie cliches in its depiction of a man grieving his brother and forming a relationship with his estranged nephew. As such, I feel a lot of people will be disappointing by the film because they want Lee (Casey Affleck) and Patrick (Lucas Hedges) to become surrogate father and son, fixing all of each other’s flaws in the process. Manchester By the Sea is simply not that film. What it is instead is a powerful look at how memories and grief pervade over a man who is dealing with unimaginable trauma.

1. Arrival

I thought of a poignant scene from Arrival months after I saw it, while I was doing some shopping at the mall, and I nearly came to tears. Nothing could have prepared me for how much I love Arrival. The film is at once a tear jerking piece of human drama, a high-minded science fiction film that deals with my favorite subject matter (death and how we should feel about it) and the home of one of the greatest plot twists since The Sixth Sense. I had only ever seen Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners before this film (which is excellent) but Arrival was the movie that pushed me to seek out his entire filmography.

So, these are some of the films that I loved this year. I would happily spend more time talking about my top 15, 20 or 50 movies of 2016 but the internet seems to have arbitrarily decided that 10 movies are enough to read about at one time. So, let’s hope I get to do another one of these before the United States’ lunatic clown President brings about the downfall of western society.

SUICIDE SQUAD Review: The Movie is an Unsalvagable Catastrophe

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After Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I thought that I would never see Warner Brothers so completely botch another comic book property. Oh, how naive I was. Suicide Squad is a complete write off of a movie. The film’s characters are barely characters at all, getting no development and acting different from scene to scene without clear motivations. The plot is hardly coherent due to poor screenwriting and abysmal editing. The film is ugly, oscillating between boring conversations in generic settings and unmemorably staged action scenes against unfinished looking CGI baddies. I know for a fact that David Ayer can make a good movie about a bunch of assholes on a mission together, go and watch Fury if you need proof of that, so one can’t help but wonder just what the hell went wrong here.

An ensemble action movie about a team of comic book characters lives and dies on its team dynamic. A huge part of the appeal of films like this is taking the larger than life characters that inhabit the pages of comic books and seeing how they play off of each other. After all, an interesting team dynamic allows the director to tell us some of the most important information that they will need to tell us (namely, “who are these people” and “what do they care about”). Crucially, there is no team dynamic to speak of in Suicide Squad. Aside from very minor beats in the story, Katana (Karen Fukuhara), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) and Slipknot (Adam Beach) do literally nothing of note or importance throughout the course of the film. Killer Croc is possibly the exception because after hanging around for the whole movie with hardly any action or dialogue, they contrive a reason for him to do something underwater. It is a transparent, last minute effort to make him look like a valuable member of the team but at least it is something. Here is a good screenwriting tip: if your character could be removed from the plot without anyone noticing that they were missing then you should either give them something to do or remove them from the plot.

Aside from all of the superfluous characters, the characters that the film is actually interested in don’t fare much better. Deadshot (Will Smith) is your standard hitman who seems like a decent dude except for the fact that he’s a hitman. Confusingly, the film constantly alludes to the fact that there’s more to Deadshot than being a cold blooded killer but forgets to actually tell the audience what more there is to him. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) gets treated like the lead character of the movie except she doesn’t really do anything and what little development the audience could have gleaned is completely undone by the film’s ending. Do you remember in The Amazing Spider-Man when the culmination of the third act was that Peter realized he couldn’t see Gwen anymore, only to decide that he actually can see Gwen after a short montage? Well, Harley’s character development takes an even harder hit than that. El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), the tattooed Latino gangbanger who Deadshot keeps calling “esse”, ostensibly gets a character arc that concludes in him calling the Suicide Squad his family despite the fact that he goes the whole movie without actually speaking to some of them.

It has often been the case with comic book films that I have disliked that I was still able to justify having seen the film by virtue of the spectacle that it provided me. I didn’t love Captain America: Civil War but the airport fight was an all time great superhero action scene. Man of Steel was garbage but the third act throwdown provided me with the closest thing to a live action Dragon Ball Z movie that I’m ever likely to see. Suicide Squad can offer no such silver lining as most of the film’s action scenes have the team pitted against visually generic black blob monsters. The monochromatic hordes of faceless enemies fail to register onscreen at all, often give the impression that the Squad is shooting at nothing in particular. These boring action scenes can not possibly prepare you for the terrible third act, which pits the Squad against an unfinished CGI monster who looks like the final boss in a Crash Bandicoot Game. The fight feels like the most apparent byproduct of the film’s reshoots, given how cheap it looks and how keen it is to tie a bow on everyone’s apparent character arc with dialogue alone. It is the kind of sequence where Harley Quinn can explicitly state what it is that she wants just in time to refuse that exact thing so the audience gets the impression that she has developed.

You will notice that I have completely neglected to mention The Joker thus far and that’s because he’s in the film for roughly ten minutes. That’s right, we all endured months of bullshit stories about how hardcore of a method actor he is (even though ALL of the stories are just instances of him sending gross shit to the door of his coworkers) and he’s barely in the film. What little time we spent with Leto’s Joker is enough to cement the fact that he is definitively the worst on screen version of the character thus far. Not only is it a self indulgent, shall we say Depp-esque performance but it is not in any way an interesting version of the character. Leto’s Joker is defined entirely by his relationship to Harley Quinn. He’s not a clown, he’s not an anarchist and he’s not a supervillain. He’s just an insecure, sexually abusive gangster who happens to bear a slight aesthetic resemblance to the Joker. I usually dislike cheap retcons but if Warner Brothers continues making Batman movies, they need to figure out a way to make this guy “not the real Joker” as soon as possible.

So, what about the film actually works? Well, Will Smith brings all of his charisma to the role of Deadshot. Smith is an incredibly likable actor and he takes a character that is boring on the page and injects some much needed life into him. Also great is Margot Robbie, who will make you wish she was playing a version of Harley Quinn who wasn’t constantly being objectified and abused by Ayer’s camera and/or the film’s characters. I’m avoiding spoilers to the extent that I can but suffice it to say that the movie makes just about every mistake that it can in the depiction of Harely Quinn and The Joker’s relationship. It’s clearly abusive, which the film appears to recognize until it totally undercuts its own recognition of the abuse in the ending. It’s a total mess that many will deem “problematic” and they will be justified in doing so.

It is honestly hard for me to talk about the editing without getting so frustrated that I can’t figure out what to say. The film has multiple characters just walk onto the movie and get a one sentence introduction from team leader Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnamen in yet another forgettable leading role). In one scene, Captain Boomerang quits the team but then in the next scene he is working with them again (which completely contradicts everything we know about him as a character). I’m pretty sure that Katana says less than 3 sentences to the rest of the team but yet there are two scenes of Flagg explaining her backstory to the audience. These explanations never pay off or figure into the plot in any way, they are just kind of there for some reason. At one point there is a scene where Flagg is telling the team information that none of them have…except the audience already has all of this information because we saw the event in question happen (yet the movie plays this like a reveal). The film is edited with a level of ineptitude that you should simply not be able to get away with in Hollywood.

There is so much more wrong with this movie than I have time and space to talk about. Usually I can see a bad movie two or three times because I’m interested in what went wrong with it. I can’t envision myself ever willfully watching this film again and I wouldn’t hesitate to call it the worst superhero film since Catwoman. If you value your time, money or intelligence then I advise that you skip this movie and see literally anything else.

JOY Review: David O Russell Revisits Familiar Territory with Mixed Results

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It is clear from Joy that David O. Russell’s interests as a storyteller are limited. He likes telling stories about people who reinvent themselves and particularly people who have to overcome an overbearing family to do so. A feeling of familiarity will pervade over Joy for anyone that is familiar with Russell’s last three films. Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is a woman who once had childhood dreams of becoming an inventor. Now, she has to hold down a dead end job at the airport to take care of her mother and children. Every time Joy shows a spark of potential or enthusiasm, it is suffocated by her overbearing family. Obviously, this is the kind of story suited to David O. Russell’s sensibilities. Unfortunately, what it does to set itself apart from his other films might be where most of my complaints come in.

The movie is the kind of sentimental ode to the American dream that you don’t really see any more. It is the sort of movie that equates the character’s success with how much freedom she has to run her company and how much money she is able to make doing so. The kind of movie where a gentle, old narrator takes us to the future to ensure us that Joy will move into that big house she always wanted and that her enemies will never succeed in ruining all that she has built. So worried is David O. Russell that the viewer might think that Joy does not get absolutely everything she has ever wanted that it just goes ahead and tells us that she does.

Joy is certainly a low point for David O. Russell since his comeback with The Fighter in 2010 but that does not mean it is without redeeming qualities. Front and center of these is Lawrence’s excellent performance as the titular character. Lawrence allows Joy to be believably vulnerable when dealing with her overbearing family but undeniably powerful when dealing with her business. She seamlessly weaves these strengths and weaknesses that are potentially counter to one another into a believable character. The scene where Joy has to demo her mop on TV encapsulates all of this perfectly. We see the shyness and vulnerability when the demo starts and the confident, capable woman come out and sell what she has made before the demo ends.

It is a pity that the movie surrounding Lawrence is treading such familiar ground for Russell and does nothing to make the revisitation worth while. Would I surprise you at this point if I told you that their was a scene in which everyone in the room is standing except Joy, even when they make decisions about her company? I can’t imagine so, especially if you saw Russell do the exact same scene in The Fighter. It is not just that Russell is repeating himself here, it is that he hasn’t found a worthwhile context that demands such a repetition. The whole movie just plays like a retread of The Fighter with less emphasis on the troubled sibling relationship.

“On the nose” is a phrase I keep coming back to with Joy. While reading a book to her daughter, Joy talks about cicadas. Cicadas hibernate for 17 years, which is exactly the amount of time that has passed since Joy has given up on wanting to build things and settled into a life of mundanity. When she casts the book aside and exclaims that the idea of hibernating that long is disturbing, I couldn’t help but feel the movie did not trust me to understand even this blunt metaphor on my own. If the metaphor is not obvious enough, a dream sequence in which a younger Joy (17 years younger to be exact) confronts her older counterpart spells it out for us even more. The movie is full of on the nose, surface level beats like that and fails, in my opinion, to be something of anymore depth. This is a story that has characters constantly telling Joy she can’t succeed and then celebrates with Joy when she succeeds and…that’s sort of it.

This review is coming out more negatively then I thought it would as I was walking out of the theater. At Joy’s best moments, I was right there with it. I was rooting for Joy to take control of her life and run her company the way that her family and her own self doubt kept her from doing. Unfortunately, those best moments are entirely the product of Lawrence’s charisma and honestly, they are few and far between. When it isn’t hitting those highs, it is a retread of Russell’s other films with a level of sentiment approaching maudlin. I like David O. Russell as a director but this film proves to me that he needs to take on a different kind of story to avoid falling into serious stagnation.