movie essay

10

I feel like I’m standing in the middle of a crowded room, screaming at the top of my lungs,
       and no one even looks up.
                                                                             Titanic, November 18, 1997

Decoding the Biblical Narrative of Mother!

As I left the theater Friday night after the showing of Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, an older woman turned to me, looking as baffled as I was, and said, “Well, we got through it.”  It was an understandable sentiment.  The movie is bizarre and overwrought and disturbing.  It makes no attempt to explain itself.  Aronofsky puts a lot of faith in the audience to put in the effort to decode it.  I suspect there will be two types of viewers of this film: those who leave the theater confused and kind of peeved and write the movie off as a forgettable romp in narcissistic arthouse theater; and those who become infected by the film’s sheer mystery.  

If I’m being totally honest, I must say that I pretty much gave up on decoding Mother! a few hours after seeing it.  I suspected it was saying something about the life of the artist and its inherent selfishness, but my interpretation was murky at best.  And then, as luck would have it, as I laid down to sleep, it hit me, seemingly at once: the whole film is an incredibly compressed retelling of the Bible.  Or, at the very least, its action mirrors that of the Bible.  

What follows is a rough attempt to break down how key scenes in Mother! reflect stories of the Bible, which hopefully will help foster a greater understanding of the movie’s central themes of creation, destruction, neglect, and obsession.    

As you could have guessed, Javier Bardem’s character represents God, although he is far from benevolent.  In my opinion, Jennifer Lawrence’s character represents a kind of Mother Nature figure. She is the one working on the house, which symbolically represents the earth, and she loves her work.  She is the one creating the physical beauty of the world, and she wants the chance to enjoy it.  But before she gets a chance, a stranger (Ed Harris) enters her world.  This stranger is Adam, the first man.  Bardem welcomes Adam into his home, who turns out to be a huge fan of Bardem’s poetry—in fact, Adam nearly worships him.  Bardem gives Adam a tour of his office, where he shows Adam his weird glowing crystal.  Adam is drawn to it and reaches to touch it, but Bardem forbids him to (forbid being the operative word here if you catch my meaning).  That night Mother finds Bardem comforting Adam as he vomits into the toilet.  She catches a brief glimpse of a wound on his rib cage which Bardem quickly covers with his hand. The next day, Eve arrives, having been fashioned out of Adam’s rib during the night.  

Now there’s that scene with the toilet. Mother discovers a strange, um, organism hanging out in it that quickly vanishes down the drain.  I cannot say with any certainty, but I believe this creature might be the serpent that tempts Eve.  We don’t see it again, so the temptation itself must take place offscreen, but nonetheless, this scene is an unsettling hint at the corruption to come. Soon after, Adam and Eve are found in Bardem’s office, where they have touched and shattered his glowing crystal.  Bardem with all the fury of the Old-Testament God banishes them for the office and boards it up, just as God banishes Adam and Eve from Eden and hides the Tree of Life.  By the way, the Tree of Life in the Bible is the source of eternal life; in Mother! the crystal is what allows Bardem to reset time and seemingly live forever.

Enter Cain and Abel, who quickly play out their murder scene, but with a doorknob as the weapon of choice instead of a rock. I believe it is after this scene (but a re-watch is required to validate this) that we first see the “heart of the house” show signs of corruption.  The fall of Adam and Eve along with this first act of violence pave the way for the film’s staggering and increasingly fanatic third act.  I’d say it begins during the wake sequence after the sink falls apart and water rains down from the heavens—excuse me, I mean sprays out from the pipes—resulting in a Great Flood that finally gets Bardem to kick his unruly houseguests out.  

Then Mother gets pregnant and Bardem publishes a best-selling book of verse.  The press shows up at his house, along with pretty much the rest of the world, and all hell gradually breaks loose.  The guests worship Bardem and greedily grab whatever they can find of his to worship as, you guessed it, idols.  Sin wreaks havoc and the house goes full-on Sodom.  The imagery that follows is so densely packed that I can’t pretend to have caught it all, but I imagine all sorts of Biblical allusions find their way into the scene.  

Mother is on the verge of giving birth and Bardem helps her find a quiet place to do so. The guests send in gifts, and while there aren’t any stand-ins for the three kings, you get the picture: its Jesus, folks.  Bardem’s first thought is that he must show his followers his son, and when he does, they hastily devour him.  After witnessing this, Bardem comes to a very Christ-like conclusion:  “His death must not have been for nothing,” he tells Mother. “We must forgive them.”  This he says, by the way, while his followers are still chewing on his newborn baby’s flesh.  Communion anyone?

 Finally, Mother cracks and sets the house ablaze in a giant ball of fire, not unlike the kind God rains down on Sodom in the OT. An unscathed Bardem walks out of the ashes holding a well-burnt but still breathing Mother, rips her heart out of her chest, and uncovers a new glowing crystal inside, which he uses to reset time to live out the events again but with a brand-new Mother.

Whew.

That’s, at least, how the plot mirrors the Bible. I didn’t touch on what these parallels do for the film’s thematic material, but I’m too exhausted to delve into that right now.  In short, Aronofsky tells the untold story of the neglected Mother behind creation, which is also the story of the neglected muse behind the artist.  That’s a whole different post, though, and hopefully, I’ll get to it soon.

PSA for writers

Recently I discovered some awesome YouTube videos about movies and screenwriting, but I think the lessons from those videos are a great resource for aspiring novelists and short fiction writers as well. So I’m going to share a few that I liked :)

1) The Darjeeling Limited: How Brother’s Communicate

2) Let’s Discuss Horror

3) Andrei Tarkovsky - Poetic Harmony

4) Opening Shots Tell Us Everything (I think this would be super useful for writers to understand how to write opening scenes in their stories.)

5) Dialogue in Film: How Should Characters Talk? and The Social Network - Designing Dialogue (These are REALLY good for dialogue, definitely my favourites.)

How The Wicker Man (Almost) Disappeared

The 2006 Wicker Man remake is coming to Netflix, and I am groaning eternally. I BEGRUDGE NO ONE THEIR BEE MEMES, but it does kill me that there’s almost no content for the original 1973 film (at least around here).

I mean, there’s the fact that it’s one of the finest horror films ever made, but also, its production history is completely baffling. The universe practically conspired to make this movie disappear. 

First of all, it was made on an itty bitty little budget - 500,000 GBP (that’s about $650,000). And a big chunk of that went toward building the famous final sequence. Christopher Lee, the guy the film was written as a vehicle for, worked for free so that the project could keep going.

And y’all, this film was Christopher Lee’s baby. He went around on an actual road tour of the U.S., appearing on radio stations in small towns at the asscrack of dawn just to promote this film. He loved it.

Unfortunately for him, the higher ups…did not love it. Or rather, this one particular guy really hated it, and he just so happened to be at the top of the food chain. When TWM was written and shot from 1971 to 1972, it was under the production studio called British Lion. But by 1973, when the film was completed, British Lion had been bought out by a larger studio. And thus, Barry Spikings and Michael Deeley inherited the smaller studio’s work. 

Deeley hated The Wicker Man. Fucking. HATED. It. Straight up telling Christopher Lee it was one of the worst films he’d ever seen levels of hate. FLAMES ON THE SIDE OF - etc. He didn’t want to release it at all. The film’s previous producer basically snuck around his back by submitting the film to Cannes (just to show, not for any prizes), which is how it got picked up for foreign distribution. 

Now, the original edit of the film, the longest version, was 99 minutes. Already that supposedly has 15 minutes of material shaved off, mostly Christopher Lee scenes. The show’s composer recalls scoring a psychedelic dream sequence that was never in any released cut of the film at all. 

BUT WAIT, it gets better. 

When he found out that he couldn’t just bury the picture and have done, Deeley went to Roger Corman. Yes, Roger Corman, or “that guy who directed Vincent Price a whole bunch” (and also eventually made Sharktopus yes really). This is the guy you come to with the weird unsettling cult movie. And Corman did indeed have suggestions for what an American audience would like, which ended up with the film cut down to 87 minutes with a few scenes rearranged. At that length, it could be released in the UK as a “B-movie,” i.e. the second half of a double-billing. 

So, the film goes out, Lee does his work. Some people get to see the film, sort of (though the U.S. showing was quite limited, and it only made around $50,000). But then, in 1976, the director, Robin Hardy, decides he wants to try and restore the original cut. So he calls up the studio, only to find that that’s apparently impossible.

Because Deeley told his staff to get rid of the film negatives. The famous urban legend is that he had them thrown in a landfill, though others claim they were burned). The ONLY reason it wasn’t lost forever was because a single copy of that initial cut had been sent to Corman, and he’d held onto it - and was further willing to send a duplicated copy to Hardy.

One guy’s fervent dedication to being a spiteful dick almost lost us one of the greatest films in horror. 

And THAT is a way better story than bees. 

On Applying to 20+ Colleges

I completed 24 college applications, submitted 17 (to Princeton, Cornell, Vanderbilt, Rice, Amherst, Georgetown, Emory, UCLA, UC Berkeley, University of Michigan, UNC-Chapel Hill, UVA, University of Pittsburgh, Williams, Washington University in St. Louis, Harvard and Yale) and received admission to all except the last four.

N.B. Some of this info may be dated/inaccurate and 100% of it is tinged w/ my own bias.

Things To Think About

Why do you want to apply to so many colleges? 

  • If it’s hubris (i.e. “I want to collect admissions offers like trophies”) or fear (i.e. “If I submit more applications, I’m less likely to be shut out from every school I apply to"), stop and reevaluate. I applied to Vanderbilt even though I knew I’d never want to head south. The reason? It traditionally takes a lot of kids from my HS. Yeah, don’t be like me.

Do you really want to spend all that money? 

  • I ended up wasting $2500 (and that’s a conservative estimate) on 17 schools. I’ll only be attending one college in the fall.

That said…it can be done.

General Tips

  • The “Why Us” essay isn’t asking “why would you choose our college?” so much as “why should our college choose you?” Emphasize how you’ll contribute to the college—inside the classroom and out—by referencing specific programs, classes, and extracurriculars.
  • Creating a template is a major time-saver. Once you have an effective “skeleton,” all you have to do is insert school-specific details. 
  •  Stay organized.
    • Create a spreadsheet. These were my columns: College Name, Application Type, Application & Aid Deadline, Standardized Test Report, Transcript & SS Form, Recommendation Letter Deadline, Creative Writing Supplement (Y/N), Interview (Y/N), Merit Scholarship (Y/N), CSS Profile, FAFSA, Sticker Price, Response Date.
    • If you use Google Drive, create a folder for each college.
  • Consider making a CV/resume. Keep it short (~1 page). Possible uses: upload as a part of your application; hand it to alumni interviewer.

Miscellaneous

  • Don’t apply to Georgetown unless you really really like it. There’s a separate application (not Common App) that’s cumbersome to fill out, and you can’t access it until you pay the application fee (which also happens to be p expensive)
  • Optional essays are NEVER optional. Hopefully, this is obvious.
  • The more selective publics (UC Berkeley, UCLA, UVA, UNC, UMich) are more holistic than you think. They reject high stats kids on the reg (anecdote: a dude from my school who got into Caltech didn’t get into Berkeley; another who got into Cornell didn’t get into UMich) so PAY ATTENTION to the essays.
  • Alumni interviews don’t matter AT ALL unless you make a terrible impression—or possibly if you’re a borderline applicant.

N.B. Applying to colleges based on the perceived difficulty of the application isn’t the greatest idea. That said, for your reference:

Easy College Applications

Vanderbilt University

  • Very easy. Only a 100-word extracurricular essay, I believe. Unless you want to fill out a scholarship application.

Washington University in St. Louis

  • Also very easy. No supplement unless you fill out scholarship app.

Amherst College

  • Zero work if you have a graded school essay you’re proud of (can upload in lieu of a college supplement)

Harvard University

  • I think there’s just one supplement and you can write about whatever you want.

Cornell University

  • Just one “Why Us” essay

University of Pennsylvania

  • One “Why Us” Essay, unless you’re applying to Engineering or a special program like Wharton, M&T, etc.

Moderate College Applications

Duke University

  • Three supplements, I think. All fairly straightforward. There’s a diversity essay that’s optional (refer to the Miscellaneous section)

Princeton University

  • A lot of short, lighthearted questions (favorite keepsake, favorite movie, etc.) and an essay (they give you three prompts to choose between)

Stanford University

  • Three fairly straightforward, 150-word essays. There’s a letter to your roommate, an intellectual interest essay, and something else.

Emory University

  • Easy, short supplements, but there are three of them.

All the UCs

  • There’s one UC application for all the UC schools (Berkeley, LA, Irvine, etc.) so same essays and everything, but you have to pay an application fee for each school you apply to. There are a lot of questions (called Personal Insight Questions) so it’s not quick, but once you’re done you’ve covered multiple schools. Also, if you are applying, ask your counselor about the UC GPA.

UMich

  • Three short essays, one of which is “Why Major.” Another is an extracurricular essay. Don’t remember the third.

UNC

  • I don’t really remember the supplements, but they weren’t that bad.  

Difficult/Thought-Provoking College Applications

Yale University

  • This is hard because there are a ton of questions with 35, 100, and 150- word limits. “Why Yale” essay. Hard to come up with insightful answers/make an impression with so little space.

UChicago

  • I personally wasn’t a fan of the cutesy/philosophical prompts, and the essays that I wrote (but ultimately never submitted) reflected my utter lack of interest. If you enjoy them, UChicago may just be the school for you :P

Dartmouth College

  • Only three short i.e. 150 word essays, but one of them referenced Sesame Street. Something along the lines of ‘It’s not easy being green. Discuss.” There was another one on describing a time when you said YES to something. Anyway, I disliked them and never completed my application.

UVA

  • I think there are three short essays, but they require a decent amount of thought. Although UVA is a public school, craft your essays well. The admission officers care a lot about them.

Williams College

  • There’s only one short supplement, but it’s a real pain. Hard not to veer into cliche territory.

Tedious College Applications

Columbia University

  • So many (five?) supplements. Some are generic though. “Why Columbia,” a list of books you’ve read/media you’ve consumed.  

Rice University

  • Also a lot of supplements. “Why Rice,” “Why Major,” Diversity essay, the famous box (where you can upload any image you want).
Rurouni Kenshin Fight Sequence Analysis Series: Production Design

Welcome back to my series analyzing the filmmaking techniques of the RK trilogy! Over the course of roughly over a year now, we’ve discussed how choreography can grant us insight into a character’s state of mind or even their philosophies as well as how costumes can help us keep track of the characters as they move throughout the screen. They have formed an exciting foundation and are instrumental in the grand scheme of a movie’s visual language: Production Design.

Production Design, like many aspects of filmmaking, is a nebulous term. In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that choreography and costumes can be useful tools to reveal a lot about a character and their environment. If that’s true, then production design is the world itself and its aesthetic presentation. People like set decorators and costume designers, art directors, prop makers, hair and make-up artists for anywhere between high fashion or blood or gore, and many other people all work hard to bring the vision of the director to life. Some properties of production design are so iconic that, not unlike costume designs, you don’t even have to be familiar with the film or franchise to recognize its aesthetic. See Star Wars for example. 

This essay, however, will be more concerned with the overall production design relating to the final aesthetic of the finished movie rather than breaking it down technically. Occasionally, I will comment on a specific aspect, but mostly we’ll be looking at the overall aesthetic presentation of the film and how it’s used to convey its story and of course, how it is an integral part of a fight sequence. As a result, it will be very generalized for reader convenience. 

This post, as all the others may spoil ALL of the live action films thus far, so if you haven’t seen them yet…seriously, why not? 

                                              CRAFTING A WORLD


Production design -sometimes called Art Direction-  is one of the most important aspects of filmmaking and it’s the heart of any film’s aesthetic. Some cinematographers, for example, can’t even begin to light or plan shots and camera movements until the set or location is ready, making the production design absolutely essential to the production process. Think of it like the setting of a story; the set is where the audience is going to believe these events are taking place, and strong production design is necessary to have the effect of every scene maximized. 

Production design is really a series of decisions, much like cinematography and directing -decisions from things as small as what kind of lamps to decorate a scene with or what kind of chairs characters should sit in, to designing entire sets that transport us to a different time or even a different universe. These decisions are essential in creating worlds that are believable and weave seamlessly into the story, adding to it rather than distracting from it. And this brings us to the ultimate question: how does the RK Trilogy’s production design contribute to the fight sequences?

On the top of the food chain in the art department, as well as one of the most important people in making a film besides the cinematographer (Director of Photography or DoP), the Director, and the Producers is the Production Designer or PD, sometimes referred to as the Art Director. To simplify for the sake of brevity, the production designer’s job is to meet with the producers and/or director to discuss the visual aesthetic of the world they’re trying to bring to life in film, with regards to the script and story they’re trying to tell. During these talks, the production designer might provide sketches and designs, as well as lay out plans that take the film’s budget into account. Essentially, one of their responsibilities is to balance the needs of the story and the artistic vision of the director with the amount of money available to them and communicate to the rest of the art department to ensure those perimeters are met.

The man who shoulders this particular burden is named Hashimoto So, according to Variety. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a picture of him or most of the people I wanted to highlight in this section, which is a bit awkward, but please bear with it. 

                              THE WORLD OF RUROUNI KENSHIN


The setting of our film is obviously 10 years into the Meiji era for a majority of all three films, which means that there is a unique challenge the production designer faces: there’s a lot of integral details that need to be accounted for, such as making sure everything used existed either within the source material or belongs in that time period, otherwise, it can conflict with the immersion at best and cause distraction at worst. On top of that, they must also decide which parts of the historical setting they want to emphasize, with regards to the script/story.

Unlike the seemingly endless stream of huge budget films in Hollywood, most movies have a limited amount of money and audiences have even less attention span. Audiences more often than not are not willing to give movies second chances if it doesn’t grab them immediately or bores them. As a result, a movie needs to minimize details to the essential as to not overload the audience with useless information that doesn’t serve the narrative. The emphasis placed on aspects the story requires can cause movies that take place in the same time period to look very different. If you examine a movie that takes place in the Meiji era like, say, The Last Samurai, it looks very different from the Meiji era of Rurouni Kenshin. This is because the two films are completely different narratively and everyone, including their respective production designers, must make decisions that suit their stories.

This means that we can potentially examine a film’s subtexts and themes through the backgrounds the characters traverse to. Production design is more than simply making a world feel alive, it can be used to tell a story, even just by examining extras. There is an enormous amount of thought that goes into extras, like making sure they all have costumes, closing down streets and dressing them to look like they turned the clock back, making sure every location and set is juuuuuuust right for the scene, and making sure it doesn’t run too expensively on the budget. 

                                           ESTABLISHING A WORLD


Before we can examine how production design services a fight sequence, we must examine the impact that it has on the story and what the director uses it for, and one of the ways Otomo uses the production design is to introduce the audience to two pivotal time periods: The Bakumatsu, and the 10th Year of the Meiji. So-san must work with the art department to decide how these worlds should look and what details about the time period should be emphasized. Because the central theme of the story is the turning of an era and the story stating that the Bakumatsu was a turbulent time in Japanese history, and the Meiji era was an era of change and modernity, So-San’s primary concern here is to create visual distinction between the two worlds, which we see in the first film’s opening act. 

The first things we see when the film first opens and the text crawl ends is a world draped in cold, January snow falling on the battlefield of Toba-Fushimi. The camera slowly pans like an invisible observer as we follow it through the bloody, war-torn battlefield. We’re introduced to a lot of important information in this scene: we see people at war, lots of explosions, dirt, and people dying before finally leading us into Kenshin at the height of his skills in battle. This also serves as our introduction to Kenshin as a character, or more aptly, his legend. Suddenly, he hears his comrades call out victory cries and he realizes he has been victorious. He has successfully won a battle to secure a new future for Japan.

Shortly after we see Kenshin put down the sword, we’re now in a Japan 10 years after that battle where we see bustling and lively streets, people running around and celebrating. Bright summer sun, people sweating, vibrant music… All of this persists, even after the corpse of one of Kanryu’s opium dealers is discovered with Battousai’s call sign. This expresses to the audience visually that this is the start of the Kenshin killed for. This is the world he wanted. When we see men like Kanryuu and eventually men like Jin-e, and Shishio, we begin to realize that they’re out of place. The world and the aesthetic Hashimoto So created contrasts against the main antagonists and serves to highlight how weird and outmoded Jin-e, Gein, Banjin, and the twins look in this world. It’s because they don’t fit in the Meiji Era that Kenshin helped create, and that contrast will boil into the conflict the film revolves around.

This visual motif is repeated even once more with even more to say in the Kyoto Taika-Hen film when we see modernity blooming in Tokyo. We see Caucasian men dressed in western clothing of their time period, Japanese people dressed in western clothing, jazz musicians, and a bustling trade opportunity. These introductory scenes give us the impression that this is a typical day in the Meiji, which reinforces to the audience the stakes Kenshin faces as he eventually goes to battle forces that seek to destroy this fragile new era. 

Already, we see a clear distinction between the nature of the two worlds, not just in the color grading, but in the framing itself. So-san takes advantage of his extras and reduces the space between them in both scenes to create a sense of chaos but to polar opposite effects. The opening sequences have chaos in violence, and the new era shots have chaos in celebration. Otomo and his cinematographer then shoot these scenes in medium to longer lenses, which put more emphasis on snippets and details of this world rather than the world itself, making the stakes feel very personal as we see individual people celebrating. Every single one of these people feels important to Kenshin, at least on a thematic level. It runs parallel to the theme that modernity wasn’t Kenshin’s goal: the happiness of the people around him was, and he felt modernity was the best way to achieve that, and that’s reflected in these scenes. 

This is the strength of So-san’s production design when directed by Keishi Otomo. Not only does it establish the world of the film, but it also visually reinforces both its central theme, and the most important thing to Kenshin as a character by creating a contrast between the two eras he’s is torn between.

And keep in mind, these are not real people. They’re probably just told to look like they’re having fun, but a costume designer dressed every single one of them. Set decorators designed this set or maybe even dressed up a street to look like Meiji Japan and because it looks so authentic, we believe it which is the sign of a production designer who knows what they’re doing. This plays wonderfully into a later section of this post.

                                        EXPRESSION OF CHARACTER


Have you ever noticed when watching a movie and we’re introduced to a character in their room, we always see other characters walking around as the camera slowly tracks them, revealing to us little details like their bookshelf, or maybe their wardrobe? Maybe the main character fidgets with something casually sitting on their dresser? 

The reason for this is because, even as we’re engrossed by the dialogue, our eyes are being treated to visual information given to us by the director and production designer. Much like our real lives, our rooms or personal spaces can carry a lot of details about us, and sometimes those details might be relevant to an audience. 

What does this room say about the main character of Black Swan? Can you tell whose room it is by the image? What kind of personality do you think she has?

What does this say about her character? What does it say about her mind and world view? Another example: 

Just by looking at the environment and the characters in this shot, who do you think this space belongs to? What does it say about that character? 

Now that we’re on a roll, how about this?

In this set, we’re introduced to the main antagonist of the latter two films and this set immediately establishes the essence of Shishio’s character. It’s dramatic and gaudy, we see old, decadent structures being consumed by fire, and an insane man and his posse standing behind him. In a lot of ways, it creates a parallel to the first film when we see Kenshin in the Meiji era for the first time, only inverted. This is the world Shishio seeks to create, and it is utterly horrifying. This parallel and contrast in production design also sets up the conflict between Kenshin and Shishio immediately as well as their similarities.   This warring ideology motif is echoed again later on in Kyoto Inferno when we see the same blue tinted war ground we saw in the first film’s opening, only this time at the end, we see a bright contrast of the orange fire against the blue-ish snow, symbolizing Shishio’s desire to rebuild the world through fire just as he was.

So how does this relate to crafting a fight sequence? Well, simply put, the essence of a great fight scene isn’t just two people hitting each other: it is the conflict between characters, themes, and environment expressed through the background is the true essence of production design. Each major battle/fight that takes place in the three films all occur in enemy territory since Kenshin doesn’t really have anywhere to protect except the Kamiya Dojo, which means that the main stages for the final conflict of each must express his opponents. He’s walking into enemy territory and the production design must reflect that. Consider the first movie. Each major fight in the third act of the first film takes place in Kanryu’s mansion except the final one. Observing each room, we can tell what kind of character Kanryu is and subsequently, what each of his henchmen is about.

Something unique to So-san is that he uses his production design and choice of location for each fight sequence to constantly remind us what’s at stake, both literally and narratively. The battle for the holy sword in Kyoto Inferno against Cho takes place in a shrine, like the manga. The shrine as the main battle stage could thematically sanctify the ideals of the Sakabatou as well as Iori, while two unworthy titans clash for the future of those ideals. The location for the battle isn’t simply cool, it’s thematically important to the fight sequence and subtly but constantly reminds us what Kenshin is up against and thematically reinforces the situation rather than simply being a cool area for characters to fight. It’s part of the statement the overall scene is trying to make.

Another example we should consider is the Rengoku as it is blasted into oblivion by modernity. This war galley, a symbol of the spark that ignited a revolution, goes up in flames much like Shishio himself. We watch Shishio and his empire crumble under modernity as cannons tear through the ships halls and decks, and Shishio himself exhausted to the point of combustion burns surrounded by the fires that consume his ship. 

These sets are not simply the battle stages of a fight, they are carefully and elegantly crafted to express the story’s characters and ideologies. They are important storytelling tools that are a necessary component in creating a compelling action sequence and good production design, through themes and tone, can create memorable and powerfully cinematic experiences when working together with the rest of the filmmaking team.

                                   THE BATTLEGROUND AS A WEAPON


Here’s a mouthful: Verisimilitude. It is what drives all cinema and RK is no exception. For an experience to work and for all the lofty stuff we discussed in the previous sections to pay off, the most basic and crucial element must be secured: the audience MUST believe it.  We know it’s a set. We know the light is artificial in a lot of scenes, and we know that the sword Kenshin is smacking people with is just piece of rubber. We know the people falling are just actors. Hell, Kenshin isn’t even Kenshin, he’s just some dude in his mid-twenties playing pretend. But when the opening text pops up on-screen telling us about the backdrop, as the camera pans through a snowy battlefield, and as we see a single red-haired kid tear through a legion of soldiers without even needing to catch his breath, we’re sucked in. It *feels real, and we believe it despite ourselves. We believe it because we want to believe it. 

Arguably, the director’s job can be boiled down to them forcing us to want to believe it. They need to lull our incredulity into taking a backseat to anticipation and excitement, and that works, not necessarily by creating a realistic experience, but by creating an authentic one and that requires all of TeamOtomo to accomplish, including So-San.

They have plenty of techniques to accomplish this and to cap this long post off, I want to focus on just one thing TeamOtomo does incredibly well in conjunction with So-san: incorporating the battlefield into the fight by having characters directly interact with their environment. 

This involves all of the production team working in tandem. The costumes and actors get sufficiently dirty. The swords get damaged and whack at objects in the environment. The choreography calls for a moment where a character kicks a staircase and sends the splinters flying towards an opponent. The stunt team plans a sequence where Kenshin has to use a tree to maneuver and flank his opponent, and the production design is the hub that all of these decisions are based on.

So-San’ s decision making, choice of location, and aesthetic all play into crafting what amounts to a springboard, from which all of these ideas sore. The gif above can only work in that location because it is a decision Kenshin made BASED on his location. It’s a small detail, some might even say trivial as we’re too busy being dazzled by the high-speed choreography, which judging from the popularity of my choreography post is something a lot of the people notice immediately, but let’s take a moment to appreciate that the choreography is directly informed by production design, which is informed by the script, which in turn informs the cinematographer how to light and move the camera, which feeds back into the costume designs creating costumes and making sure the colors are good for the shot and so on.

When we consider this, we can see how So-San’s production design truly is the bedrock the film’s action sequences are built on, and I don’t think there is a more elegant or telling expression of this than when I see Kenshin run up a wall in Kamiya dojo to procure a bokken to fight with, or when Kenshin actually uses an enclosed area underneath the shrine to limit Chou’s swing to unleash devastating hand-to-hand combat on him. We see the world inform the fight because we see characters use the environment to gain an advantage or to compensate for a weakness. It makes the characters feel richer and alive, autonomous even in a tightly scripted situation, and maybe even real.The emphasis is never drawn away from the character, and the conflict feels real because it comes directly from them. Because of this, at least in part, the fight feels verisimilitudinous; it feels real and authentic. 

All great martial arts films do this since it’s an old technique. Jackie Chan, for example, is probably the greatest choreographer when it comes to working with the environment. That said though, Otomo’s Rurouni Kenshin films takes words from the vocabulary established before it and uses it to compose excellent fight sequences that will remain in our memory for as long as we can remember as well as employing old techniques in new ways unique to the story that we all love. Each decision from every member of this team is filled with hard work and faithful to the essence of what made the original manga so amazing. This wouldn’t be possible without men like Otomo at the helm, or men like Hashimoto So designing magnificent sets that bring the manga to life. That’s the magic of filmmaking, and pertinently, that’s the magic of So-san’s production design. Thank you for reading.


SPECIAL THANKS:

@whiteplum

for creating HYRK as well as providing most of the graphics of this post. 

@heckyeahruroken For giving all Rurouni Kenshin fans a place to congregate and providing a platform for me to share these posts with a larger audience.

And you guys for even taking the time to humor me and read these rambling posts!

Anyway, the real villain of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was the government and no one can convince me otherwise. MACUSA:

  • fails to notice the Director of Magical Security and head of Magical Law Enforcement has been replaced by an international magical terrorist for several weeks at least, even though he is in constant contact with the highest ranking MACUSA officials, including President Picquery, even though he’s probably only using Polyjuice potion to achieve this, therefore having to be constantly doing out of character things, like drinking hourly from a hip flask while working, probably, and sentencing people to death without trials
  • fails to do anything, at least on screen, or exhibit any care that their Direct of Magical Security and head of Magical Law Enforcement is probably being Barty Crouched somewhere, with hair ripped out of his head and imperiused so that he can be imitated effectively, since for a replacement scheme to work, he needs to be alive, á la Goblet of Fire
  • stripped a competent auror of her position because she defended a magical child from abuse. They don’t know Credence is an obscurial, but he apparently stands out instantly as being from magical lineage, i.e. seeming to be a squib, meaning he isn’t a muggle/no-maj and therefore even with their effed up no-maj relation laws they could and should be protecting him and giving him a place in society. Also, Mary Lou Barebone is abusing all the children she’s adopted, and MACUSA knows and instead of helping, you know, protecting god damn orphan children, they demoted the one witch with any god damn integrity.
  • are actually protecting the Second Salemers, i.e. the people calling for witches to be burned at the stake again, which kind of threatens the statute of secrecy doesn’t it? Since people as high ranking as a presidential candidate’s brother believe them and their voices are being heard. But no, since an auror attempted to stop the abuse of a child, they are allowing these no-maj’s (and non-no-maj’s, since both Credence and Modesty at least seem to have some powers) threaten the international statute of secrecy. This at the same time as protecting the statute with stupid, small things like beast extermination and not allowing no-majs and wizards/witches to be friends or lovers, which is horrific. As other people have pointed out, what does this mean for no-maj/muggle born witches and wizards? Nonsense. But PIcquery is fine for wizards and witches to get drunk during prohibition, sure.
  • President Picquery refuses to listen to a competent ex-auror, who appears in front of her with a culprit already in custody, she does not even allow an explanation. Picquery later gets angry at Porpentina for not telling her what had happened sooner, when TIna appears in front of her with the same man and the same (looking) case. Yes, because that’s logical. Picquery is just in general a terrible leader and a terrible human being, which I’ve talked about before.
  • In a room with every magical world leader, none of them are willing to look at the evidence, or listen to the professional in the field, and admit that it is possible that magical children might be being abused to the point of becoming obscurials, even though, in at least America, they can’t keeps tabs on every magical child because they have no way to check on no-maj-born kids because of their effed up laws, and they refuse to help the no-maj-born kids they do know about, i.e. the Second Salemers. All these government leaders are so determined to not be wrong/scapegoat a beast that they put countless people’s lives in danger, including those of children. “There hasn’t been an obscurial in centuries.” “I literally saw one three months ago what the hell are you talking about!?”
  • actually behave worse than the darkest wizard who ever lived, at that point in history. They’re at least as bad as him, if in different ways. Graves/Grindelwald listens to people when they obviously have information, no matter their position. Is Grindelwald a monster? Heck yes, he manipulates and abuses a child (I’m counting Credence as a child, ok, he’s probably in his late teens, but considering he doesn’t seem to be able to escape his mother, even legally, I’d put him at 17, i.e. not an adult), he has killed and attacked countless people, he’s partially responsible for Ariana Dumbledore’s death, he wants to use an abused and tormented child for his own gain, he sentences Newt and Tina to death, he’s a horrible person and I’m not on his side, but neither am I on the side of MACUSA. Grindelwald doesn’t strike me as another Voldemort, i.e. pure evil, he seems more he like he knows exactly how to manipulate the discontent and downtrodden, and he wouldn’t gain this support for “the greater good” if the government weren’t failing so many wizards and witches already.
  • has a torture death chamber that they can apparently send people to without trial, which is just as bad as Azkaban. I don’t even need to go into why this is so horrible. Even if you support the death penalty (which I sure as hell don’t), you can’t support the chamber of showing you your worst and best memories as you slowly sink into a burning acidic fiery death pool. That’s inhuman.
  • also, despite a magizoologist, a competent ex-auror and ministry employee, and the Director of Magical Security and head of Magical Law Enforcement telling them not to do it, and showing that they knew how to help Credence, MACUSA still executed a child on President Picquery’s orders, and there are no repercussions for that. This is not even a mercy killing, because Credence has already proved that when treated with compassion, he is skilled enough to survive and prosper, even as an obscurial. (Is it possible he survived? Considering what Hayes has said and that little whisp at the end, yes, but that doesn’t change the fact that MACUSA tried to kill him.)
  • they were also entirely willing to let Newt try his Thunderbird Swooping Evil venom plan, even though Newt has only theorized about this, and never actually attempted it, and they have no idea what the side effects could be. To save themselves, they released an untested substance into New York’s water supply, and the water cycle in general, with no idea of how it would work. What memories will actually be lost? Will it be effective? What adverse effects might there be? How will wizards be immune, when it’s in the water supply? This was a bad plan, and MACUSA risked a lot letting it go forward.
  • Picquery at the end is just a bad leader. “We owe you everything- gtfo.” “We owe you a debt- obliviate your friend who had a massive hand in saving our necks and many, many lives.” “I just said it was ok to kill a child- do what I say.” She is a very, very bad leader, who canonically cares more about letting wizards drink than she does about the lives of no-majs, no-maj born and squib kids, children suffering abuse, her Director of Magical Security and head of Magical Law Enforcement probably being locked in a box somewhere, the truth, and whether someone can be saved or not. She is just another Fudge,  but ten times worse.

TL;DR: MACUSA, President Picquery and global magical goverments as a whole are portrayed as villains in this film, and it’s very easy to imagine how Grindelwald found support when the international situation is so critical; Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a few steps away from advocating the murder of the bourgeoisie and I entirely support this reading.

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New video! My first ever video essay, taking a look at Christopher Nolan’s new film Dunkirk (which is amazing and you should all see it when you get the chance) and the rest of Nolan’s films! I worked super hard on this (I haven’t slept lol) so I hope you all like it, if you enjoy please like, comment, and share the video and around (reblogging this post helps as well!) and if you want to see me make more videos please subscribe to the channel! Thanks so much everyone! ^_^

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Edgar Wright is known for making funny movies, but very little attention is paid to his knack for efficient storytelling. Until now…

Man of Steel changed the way I look at movies, not just superhero movies, but movies in general. It gave me the Superman I’d wanted to see since childhood. A Superman that I not only related to, but could really look up to. He wasn’t just a grinning boy scout with little character depth, he was a Superman.
In a movie that had heart and soul. A movie with pain and love, dark and light. A villain that really felt scary and I couldn’t predict how it was going to end.

And it gave me hope. Not just in my personal life, as I’ve discussed before, but it gave me hope in art. Movies as art. Superhero movies didn’t need to be high-saturated, popcorn movies with nice, neat, closed plots. They could be big, epic, meaningful artistic narratives! Something that reflected how important the mythology of superheroes is to the fans.

And then Batman V Superman came out and enriched everything that Man of Steel established. It built on the foundations and not only gave us a universe where Batman and Wonder Woman can fight alongside Superman, but it gave us some understanding of WHY these heroes do what they do and why they are teaming up. We saw Wonder Woman get slowly dragged back into heroism, and we knew why. She didn’t just suddenly, inexplicably drop out of nowhere onto the roof of a jet and start beating up another hero with absolutely no explanation. She hesitated, she fought her instincts and tried to be impartial, but the hero in her wouldn’t let her. And let’s not get into the extraordinary depth of character and development of Batman in this movie. Because that’s an essay into itself.
And then we saw the sacrifice of the hero who started all this. Whose sacrifice inspired these weathered, wary heroes into action again.
What a beautiful way to end a movie but start another! The dovetailing of this writing is genius.

After this we got Suicide Squad. A bit of a frantic, hectic, off-kilter movie about villains. It did a lot for world building, but most importantly it showed us what kind of people our heroes have faced before, and will face again. It showed us how strong and capable the villains can be, and this added so much to this universe that it is an invaluable movie.

Now, we have Wonder Woman! Adding more exposition to Diana’s motives in the modern day, this beautifully layered movie provided us with the first Wonder Woman movie, and yet but another incredible chapter to the DCEU. Never losing track of the themes and ideals of the shared universe, but maintaining its own unique voice, this movie delivered the finest superhero origin movie to date. While I still personally feel that it shares the stage with Man of Steel in terms of quality, it stands out on its own merits, because it is the first Wonder Woman movie, the first Wonder Woman origin story on the big screen and the first time a superhero movie has had such widespread, universal appeal.
It still considered the sense of realism established in the previous movies, showing the reality of war, a hero that will put the needs of others above her own and it kept a sense of doubt and confusion in the face of responsibility.

These movies have all been amazing in their own ways, and stand out as their own entities whilst keeping the universe cohesive. No other franchise has done this yet.

And it’s far from over.

This November, we get to see another huge milestone as Justice League hits the big screen. And I for one can not wait to see how this builds on what we’ve seen so far, and what will be built upon it.

It is a phenomenal time to be a DC fan, but it’s also a great time to be a movie fan and a superhero fan, too.

Bring it on.

Stray morning thoughts:

On the surface, the central messages of the Lego Movie and Mob Psycho 100 are in direct opposition to one another (”you are special”/”you are not special”). But in reality, they are actually complementary and may in fact be the same, just filtered through the cultural lenses of individualist and collectivist societies.

You know, I don’t talk about it much, but I actually have a lot of feelings about Han and Leia’s relationship in Return of the Jedi, specifically how Han does things like apologize to Leia for being impatient with her when she’s upset and promise to step aside and not be a dick about it when he thinks she’s in love with another man.

And we hear all about Han’s character development from a rotten scoundrel who would shoot Greedo first second at the same time to a hero who helps save the day, but I think his progression from the ‘I don’t care about nothing or nobody’ mercenary of ANH to the tough guy trying to hide just how much he really does care of ESB to this genuinely loving person in RotJ is even more fantastic.

Actually, the more I think about it, the more the way the Star Wars saga overall portrays its men being men just makes me really happy.

The Wonders of Steve and Diana in Wonder Woman

by Monique

(image source)

Spoiler Alert!

We get it. Everyone has been raving about the kickass Amazon woman taking down gods and Germans during World War I. Women may have gotten the courage to charge to the front or wield a sword and shield with a suit, but perhaps they may have also nabbed a glimpse of a relationship they should be striving for with a man. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine created a unique on-screen romance as the respective Diana Prince and Steve Trevor, presented in such a way not many other movies have done before.

Both Marvel and DC have given audiences various relationships to gush over, or to fight over, depending on who you ask. Some people want to be swept off their feet a la Lois Lane in all the Superman movies, while some wanted to shout obscenities at the screen when Steve made a move on Sharon Carter (you know, Peggy Carter’s niece?) in Captain America: Civil War. Lots of these arguments stem from how the hell these connections develop on film (seriously, her niece!), but in Wonder Woman, we get to see practically all of Steve and Diana’s relationship bloom in the span of a single two-hour movie. From the moment Steve crashes onto Themyscira to his heroic sacrifice to save innocent lives, the audience gets to experience love and tragedy thanks to how naturally the chemistry develops between him and Diana.

Speaking of whom, Diana’s fish-out-of-water storyline is a perfect starter determinant of whether or not Steve is a decent guy or not. As she is thrown into an unknown world in a state of despair, not once does Steve talk down to her or treat her anything less like, well, a god. In fact, he’s just as curious as she is when it comes to some foreign island inhabited only by women. After all, he did witness all of them defeat a fleet of Germans coming after him without the use of guns or other modern artillery. The movie provides this motif of discovery, despite the hellish conditions surrounding them. Diana gets casual, sometimes funny and sometimes heartbreaking explanations of how the real world and how humankind works. Steve could have easily scoffed at the notion that she didn’t know what a watch was. Instead, he gives her a bumbling definition and later on, a reason for her to keep fighting.

And unlike many other male leads, he isn’t leading. It’s refreshing to watch a man who is genuinely scared of the war, and it doesn’t take the lasso of truth to see that throughout the movie. Steve’s constant pushes to keep Diana from fighting back combines fear with doubtful submission to his superiors’ orders, rather than the establishment of power over her. It works well, because this fear eventually evolves into the courage he needs to help Diana and the rest of the war effort. Side by side, they teach and assist each other how to move forward with their goals—Steve to protect innocent lives, and for Diana to defeat the god of war, Ares. The way he mirrors the shield technique from their battle on Themyscira in the battle to reclaim Veld is a beautiful (and very epic) display of what he was able to do to help her reach both their goals.

Ultimately, Diana learns the meaning of self-sacrifice and love thanks to what Steve was striving for. You can pinpoint the moment when everyone’s hearts, including Diana’s, shattered when that plane exploded while he was on board. Tragic.

The best part about Wonder Woman, if that can even be a thing since the whole movie was the best part, was that there wasn’t a huge whoop about their relationship development. The audience didn’t need some passionate kiss in the rain or some unnecessarily loud declaration of devotion in a public space. We get one kiss when they’re alone together, following their dance in the middle of the Belgian village they reclaimed hours earlier. The latter itself felt more intimate than the kiss; Steve is as vulnerable as ever with Diana, revealing that he doesn’t know what normal feels like after everything that’s happened in this war. Much like many of the scenes of torment and despair around her, Diana gets further insight of how war breaks people. After living for so long in peace and growing up peacefully with the most powerful women on the planet, it’s a shot straight to her heart. And the audience’s.

Cheesy as it is, it’s true what Diana says by the end of the film: love can save the world. In a time of unrest and continuing inequality, it’s important that we can at least find the time to understand each other and not be so concerned about power and greed and everything else that tempts us to turn into complete jackasses. Steve was a patient, compassionate gentleman who was able to learn from Diana, and she was able to do the same after being with him. A relationship isn’t a competition or an excuse to display all your best qualities—it’s a team effort that when combined, makes all parties stronger. Wonder Woman wins when it comes to a well-written, well-developed relationship. Without all the fuss and fluff, we get amazing, dynamic characters that will hopefully influence audiences in finding love with the right people.

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About the writer | Creative, hungry, and perpetually tired, Monique is a human being with interests spanning from life science to the finer points of fanfiction. When she isn’t doing her best to meet a deadline as early as possible, she’s either unsuccessfully flipping an omelet or binge watching the latest anime. You can find her hiding from the summer heat, winging her eyeliner while ordering pineapple on pizza.

i feel like the fundamental ideological divide they’re using for civil war is that steve is reacting to the winter soldier while tony is reacting to age of ultron

steve is afraid of being controlled, of being forced to take action or inaction even when his own moral code disagrees, or when he’s not given all the information (this ties a lot into bucky’s arc but that’s a whole other post)

tony is afraid of himself, of what he could do or who he could become without something restraining him, of being the merchant of death with no accountability all over again

steve does what he does because he’s certain that what he’s doing is right; tony does what he does because he doesn’t trust himself to make that call anymore