Month: April 2017

Thoughts on Arrival (2016)

arrivalI have been on a bit of a sci-fi kick these days. I think my escapism is acting up because work is so unfulfilling. Hopefully, that will change soon. I actually plan on moving back to Massachusetts in August, though if I am lucky, that process might happen sooner! I never thought I would be happy about going back north, but I miss my friends there, and in my life these days, friends are few and far between.

This week, in addition to Passengers (2016), I also watched Arrival (2016). The latter is rather conflicting. On the one hand, I think there is a lot, A LOT, of racism, colonialism, and xenophobia going on in this film. It was very distracting. On the other hand, there is this beautiful message somewhat nestled in with all the racism and xenophobia, and the fact of the matter is, I do think it would have been a more believable message if it had been two people of color playing the lead. But with two white leads, it just seemed like an appropriation (yet again) of Eastern religions.

First, it was incredibly frustrating to watch so much colonialist propaganda come out of a black man’s mouth. My best example is at 40:36, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) literally says, “And remember what happened to the Aborigines [of Australia]. A more advanced race nearly wiped them out.”

I don’t know about y’all, but internally, I was screaming when I heard this line. Bravo, white supremacy. Your strategy is truly formidable. Whichever asshole put this line into the script made sure to hide the white colonizer behind the black man in a military uniform. If we dissect this scene, we’ll see the truth of it, no? First off, this movie was directed by some white Canadian liberal (Denis Villeneuve), so the military in this movie is a projection of what white liberals think they are doing (I’m not pro-military when I say these things, but I do believe white liberals frequently blame the military for problems that they themselves cause). You can tell by the over-the-top chauvinism, sexism and, well, militarism of these men who represent “military”. It reminded me somewhat of the military in Avatar (2009), and also the honest trailer of Avatar created by Screen Junkies on Youtube, where you will recall the iconic line “military bad…trees good”.

Personally, I have no connections to the military, besides a very small number of acquaintances, so I have neither the knowledge nor experience to comment directly on their operations. However, in this particular case, I do kind of chafe for more nuance. Just a little bit.

Furthermore, I think the fact that this specific line is said by a black character is an indicator of how frequently black men are used to uphold white supremacy. (If you want more examples of how the hell this happens, read Ain’t I A Woman by bell hooks). Frankly, I think it’s really unfair that Colonel Weber is portrayed as a sort of brainwashed simpleton. As though black men, or men in the army, aren’t capable of independent thought? (I know that’s probably a much more complicated concept than what I just wrote there) I probably don’t need to mention how harmful it is that this is now one of the representatives of black men in film. I don’t, right? Okay, well I mentioned it, so now y’all know.

Sadly, this is not the only example of racism in the film. I think one of the ironies of this movie is that China is portrayed exactly the way America actually is. Let me list the ways: hairpin trigger militarism, stark aggression toward the unknown and/or alien life forms (symbol for immigrants much?), distrust of every other political entity in existence, refusal to listen to reason, unreasonable masculine leadership, somehow more powerful than every other country on earth (for some reason when they militarize, all other countries do as well?). Does this seem a little inaccurate to you? Don’t we know a country that seems kinda like that? Hm, I wonder where it is…

Furthermore, (UGH) I’m frustrated by the paternalism of Louise Banks (Amy Adams) when discussing how the Chinese communicate with the aliens. (I also think it’s really interesting that this line was planned for a character who, in many other scenes, is interrupted or talked down to. She is the only woman working on this operation and was the person designated to say this line. I’m very confused sometimes by the scripting of this movie). At some point, one of the characters reports that General Shang (Tzi Ma) has been using a mahjong set to communicate with the aliens. Dr. Banks implies that the Chinese will only view the aliens as competitors because they are using a game to communicate with them.

Let’s dissect the myriad assumptions made in this scene. (That too, I feel like it’s somewhat disloyal to the character to have given her this line.) First, I think it can be reasonably said that mahjong tiles can have more than one purpose. There are 136 tiles to a set (usually), and they are a bit like Western playing cards. There are 4 “suits” so to speak and 9 numbers in each suit. You can represent a lot with a game that has 36 possible symbols.

The statement seems to reek of American ethnocentrism. By that I mean, the ubiquitous my-way-is-better-than-yours mentality that a lot of people in America have. But here’s the catch–Dr. Banks is a professor of linguistics, a person purportedly capable of deciphering complex messages in languages like Farsi and Mandarin Chinese. Why would a person with that kind of depth say something so shallow? I swear, Eric Heisserer. From one writer to another, GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER.

If we want to extend the metaphor of the movie to beings here on earth, I feel like this is Hollywood’s idealized version of how Americans interact with foreigners. Except in real life, it goes nothing like this. Immigrants are not greeted with kind, understanding linguistics and physics professors who want to understand how they communicate. They’re usually greeted with hostility, ignorance, and frequently, military force. So while I feel like maybe the military part is not wrong, I also feel like it’s highly implausible and unrealistic to act as though Americans would treat unknown entities as anything other than creatures in a zoo.

In addition, there is a very interesting commentary being made in the film about the relationship between military and the academy. I noted that the reason why Banks is involved in this whole scheme is because of her past work with the military. Is this the role people want academics to play in society?

I do think Adams is fitting in her role. Unlike Jennifer Lawrence in Passengers (2016), I felt like Adams’ personality works to her advantage in this role. She is frequently cast as a soft-spoken person, and it seems to work as, in this movie, she is frequently the voice of reason amidst a gang of unqualified hotheads. I’m also glad she didn’t turn into Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) from King Kong (2005), though she did at times seem to suffer from the same special snowflake syndrome as Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) in Twilight (2008) or Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in Hunger Games (2012). By that, I mean that I’m glad she didn’t turn into Dr. Louise Banks, Brave White Woman and Protector of Aliens. She played a realistic role in which life continued on earth after her encounter with the heptapods. I suppose I’m still not convinced about why she was “chosen” by the heptapods. Yes, she was the only person who made a realistic effort to communicate with them (and all the men including Donnelly were too pig-headed to be capable of this). Still though. White woman. Fantasy/sci-fi movie. “Chosen One” role. Seems like a trope.

Lastly, I do think there is actually this lovely, subtle point being made in the movie about language. Banks is able to see the future by learning the language of the heptapods. I also like that the future and the past are not entirely clear in the movie. I know it probably infuriates people who need a more obvious plot, but I like the open-endedness and the possibilities of interpretation. I also like the implications of knowing the future. It seems as though it brings people a sort of serenity, as opposed to the anxiety of needing to change what will happen. It seems as though clairvoyance brings Louise implacable tranquility. She does not care about competing, changing herself, avoiding what is to come, being something else–experiences that I think American capitalism necessitates. It doesn’t matter what she does because the future is unyielding in its certainty.

I don’t think I have done this movie much justice in this review, but then again, I think this movie grapples with a lot of complex things (and also does not grapple with some things it really should have). I haven’t even touched the linguistics piece (these coffee-mug-stain sentences that the heptapods write–I do wonder where those came from), or how language affects memory (huge implications). I will say, though, I appreciate how provocative it was, in spite of its shortcomings.



Thoughts on Passengers (2016)

passengersPassengers (2016) was released about four months ago and was marketed as a sci-fi adventure. Upon watching it, I think the marketing was wildly inaccurate; it should have been labeled as a sort of romantic drama kind of thing. It focused much more on human relationships than it did on the fact that the humans were in space. Space seemed to have been a background in this movie for the things going on between characters. In spite of the contradiction, and the really bad Rotten Tomatoes review (31 percent. Folks have gotten rather harsh these days with sci-fi things, no?), I actually enjoyed it. I’m hoping that’s not my mushier, more romantic side talking, but I actually think it has a few strengths, even though there also some obvious weaknesses.

The screenwriter, Jon Spaihts (is that like, the stylish way to spell the name “John” these days? People seem to have done away with the “h”. Apologies, I’m distracting) is also known for Prometheus (2012) and Doctor Strange (2016). I have not seen Doctor Strange yet, but Prometheus left quite the impression on me (that horrifying scene where the female lead does a C-section on herself–the thought still makes me cringe and want to vomit). To me, Prometheus seemed to be a cautionary tale about how not to be an idiot in space. If I remember correctly, I thought all the characters in that movie were incredibly stupid, though I can’t recall why. Though, it does seem as though Spaihts has a pattern of laying human relationships bare against the barrenness of outer space.

What I like about Passengers is that Spaihts seems to tell a prosaic story in an original way. By that, I do not mean that it is a particularly deep story. Two people fall in love. Then they fight. Then they get back together. The typical rom-com. But I like that Spaihts doesn’t try to imply that the story is more than that. (Maybe he does, but that’s all I got from it in its totality). It’s not like Christopher Nolan’s try-hard attempt at being deep in Interstellar. God, could Nolan have gone for lower hanging fruit? “Our memories make time meaningful” or whatever that shit was. I feel like there’s a point at which a movie is great, and Nolan always goes just a smidge beyond that point and ruins a good thing (see Inception).

In terms of cinematography, this spaceship design is definitely in my top 5, but I kind of resent it as well. Whoever designed the interior of this vessel is quite the architect. I loved the very Zaha-Hadid inspired atrium, the wings-resembling-flippers that rotate around this gargantuan energy source (also more elegant than the one in Interstellar, might I add), the curved hallways, the way the control room is located in this sort of gravitated ring thing…It’s a beautiful ship, somewhat like a giant, lovely space fish. I resent it because the vessel, named Avalon (to inspire bourgeois sensitivities), is actually a sort of luxury space cruise in which passengers are supposed have a good old cock-sucking time in their last four months of a 120-year journey (they’re in hypersleep until then). The flaw in this plan is–you guessed it, if you wake up too early, it’s terrifying.

There’s definitely a commentary being made in this film about automated technology and capitalism. I can’t decide personally if it is a technophobic commentary or not. My reason for saying so is that I didn’t object to it, and I usually object to technophobia, though I’m also not the authority on the matter. When Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), a mechanic from Colorado, is woken up by a number of meteorites hitting the ship, the recorded, automated responses are so seamless that it actually takes him a while to realize he is not supposed to be awake (that, and the hibernation sickness). He discovers that in addition to being alone 90 years from his destination, his ID card only gives him access to very basic foods, and a very basic cabin, because he purchased a pretty cheap ticket. A year goes by, and in that time, he discovers he cannot enter the command rooms because his ID does not allow him access. He finds out a message to Earth would take 30 years to get there, and it would take 55 years to receive a response. He enjoys everything his miniature paradise has to offer, but he is utterly alone. Thus he wakes up Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), sentencing them both to life on house arrest in a spaceship. Aurora, a writer from New York, has clearly purchased a better ticket, and she promptly treats Jim to all the food he’s been missing out on.

It was at that point that I began to question, why is this construct a familiar one? I’ll explain what I mean. A lot of recent movies about heterosexual couples start off with the masculine protagonist at some sort of disadvantage. In movies that are not about space, we see this to be true in Beauty and the Beast (2017) and Me Before You (2016). In the former, the masculine protagonist is kind of an animal thing, and in the latter, the masculine protagonist is quadriplegic. In Passengers, the masculine protagonist is clearly a social human who is suffering from loneliness and wants company.

Now if we flipped the script, would the movie even have been made? If Belle had actually been the ugly one under a curse, would the prince even look at her, let alone fall in love? If it had been Louisa and not Will who was quadriplegic, would anyone have been sympathetic to her? And if Aurora was the one who was woken up by a meteorite, would people have had sympathy for her for waking up another human on board? Why are stories constructed this way? Why is it assumed that a woman will always give her emotional and physical labor for a man’s well-being, but the same is never expected of men? Why are movies perpetuating this narrative? I felt like it’s a pattern I’ve seen a lot recently, and the role it casts women in viscerally bothers me.

There was symbolism that was done rather nicely, if not somewhat simply, in the film. For example, Jim and Aurora pass by a rather bright, warm star just as they begin to fall in love. In addition, the ship begins to fall apart right after Aurora finds out Jim lied to her about how she woke up. Admittedly, while I don’t mind Jennifer Lawrence, I do think she basically plays herself in this movie, a trait that I think Lawrence suffers from as an actress in general. I think it worked very well in American Hustle (2013), where she plays a neglected New York housewife. Her over-the-top style worked for her in that film. It also worked in Joy (2015), when she was this larger-than-life inventor who cares a lot about her family. In Passengers, I’m not sure that I buy her romantic interest in Pratt’s character. Though, I’m also not sure how to sell romance as the only two people arguably alive on a ship, either.

As far as Chris Pratt’s acting, I actually prefer him in a comedy. His style works better in kicky funny things like Guardians of the Galaxy and Parks and Rec. In this role, he doesn’t particularly stand out. It felt as though he and Lawrence’s character were really friends moreso than romantic partners; whereas I felt like this film called for epic, dramatic romance. Like, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher in Star Wars tier romance. Omar Shariff and Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic. You get my point. They weren’t selling it. It wasn’t hot enough for me.

By far my favorite moment in this film is when Gus (Laurence Fishburn) wakes up, finds out what Jim has done (at that point, Aurora already knows) and gives us one of the most savage scenes of all time. After realizing Jim woke up Aurora, he asks Jim how long he was alone. Jim admits it was a year. At this point, Gus says, “still…damn.”

The man has a point, though. Didn’t Mark Watney (Matt Damon) in The Martian spend something like 5 fucking years alone on Mars before his crew rescued him?? Then again, I guess he wasn’t supposed to be asleep for 120 years on a ship that assured him he would stay asleep. I am a little miffed, though, that the One Black Character dies within days of waking up because of some silly excuse about how his sleep pod was fucked up and left most of his internal organs necrotic. It seemed like he was literally used as a plot device just so the two protagonists could finally have access to the command room and the inner workings of the ship. Do better, directors.

I think the film does a great job of forcing us to contend with the “should be”s and “could have”s. There is a lot in this film about time, especially since the two protagonists are going to be dead before they reach their final destination. It makes for very interesting time references. They frequently say things like “I would have built a house” or “I would have written a book”. In fact, they will never see the generation they leave behind again (because time moves forward 120 years), and the people on the colony planet may be from a different generation (because they took 120 years to get there). The protagonists’ lives become one huge in-between. It really fucks with the social construct of time. Like, what if in the future, there are human beings whose purpose it is to literally just keep a ship running from one end of a galaxy to another? What if that takes longer than a lifetime? What if there are routine tasks like traveling that last longer than a human life?

I wonder if they ever forget that they are on a ship (you learn that they find ways to change the ship to fit their needs). I also wonder what kind of nasty co-dependencies develop between two straight people who know they are alone together.

I did also think it was a little sinister that the planet they are headed to, Homestead II, is referred to as a “colony”. I don’t know if y’all remember when America was a bunch of colonies, but it really didn’t bode well for Native people. I picture this future in which a bunch of rich white people launch themselves off to various planet-colonies. Then they realize how much work it is living in outer space, and they either bribe or kidnap all the poor people of color left on earth to do all the dirty work for them in outer space, just like Americans did to slaves from Africa, Asia, and in the modern world, South America.

In short, this film was kinda weird, and it also kinda worked. Maybe I just have weird taste, who knows. At the end of the day, I think I have always been a sucker for great ideas, even if they aren’t fleshed out so well. I think the idea for Passengers can carry stories even larger and more provocative than this one. I’d be interested to see a writer take on that challenge.



Thoughts on Me Before You

me before youY’all remember the movie Me Before You (2016), right? It came out the summer of 2016 and every women’s fashion magazine was talking about it. I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing it at that point. It was later critiqued by the #StarringJohnCho campaign for being a super-white film (a valid critique, if you ask me). I then became somewhat more interested, but I guess the thought slipped my mind until recent days.

Well I finally watched it over the weekend. I remember the main controversy surrounding the movie had to do with the commentary on disability, and how the movie seemed to imply that it’s better to die than to live with a disability. I feel like that critique is also valid; while watching, it did feel as though this rich white boy was whining about missing things about his “old life” that, on average, almost no one gets to experience anyway (water skiing? Working a job that manages companies?? Being engaged to a manic pixie dream girl??? Living in an apartment of that size in fucking London????).

I think what bothered me the most about the film actually had to do with the emotional labor of the feminine protagonist, Louisa Clark (Emilia Clarke). In the movie, she is hired by Will Traynor’s (Sam Claflin) mother, presumably to be a sort of day nurse for her son, who is quadriplegic after an accident. It should be noted, Louisa just lost her job at the cafe where she used to work, and she lives with her family in her home town. She was basically desperate for a job, and this one happened to come along (a feeling I relate to a little too well). The family that hires her, the Traynors, are unimaginably wealthy people who own a castle. Yes, a castle.

Louisa, who goes by Lou, finds out Will is planning to go through with physician-assisted suicide and believes it is her responsibility to keep him from doing so. At this point, I was like…wait, what? Why would you take on that responsibility?? Literally no one asks her to do this. Mr. Traynor alludes briefly to the fact that Mrs. Traynor may have hired Lou to fulfill some of Will’s emotional needs, which Mrs. Traynor does not deny, but at no point do either of the parents explicitly say that Lou is expected to keep their son from killing himself. (I felt it was also problematic that they hire Lou to fulfill emotional needs, but I can’t put my finger on why. At least she was getting paid for the labor, but it is labor that I feel like the family specifically hired a woman to do. Why wasn’t Nathan (Stephen Peacocke) enough to keep Will happy?). In this sense, I feel like Louisa is fulfilling some sort of weird white-savior complex/feminine gender role in which she believes it is her duty to interfere where, in reality, she doesn’t have to. In some ways, I felt like this was tied to class as well. As a poor, young woman, she had little control over other factors of her life, so she projects her own worth onto whether or not she can keep this man alive. If she was a smart employee, she wouldn’t. And if her employers weren’t manipulative assholes, they would maybe make the distinction between their expectations of her and their hopes for their son clear to her from the beginning. I felt like portraying her this way is egregious because of the kind of unrealistic expectations it puts on feminine labor. (Is it not a well-known abuse tactic for men to say they will kill themselves if a woman leaves?)

I felt like the movie also suffers from a general category that I refer to as “pacing problems”. I find that a lot of romantic comedies suffer from this problem; I just wish movies in general were more realistic about human communication (or maybe I’m just picky and I like people to be direct with me?). I don’t remember either character explicitly say anything about their feelings to each other. It is just assumed at some point (After Will attends Louisa’s birthday party? After they go to Will’s ex’s wedding?) that the two like each other. Maybe. Kinda. And that Louisa is doing all this fancy stuff for someone she is romantically interested in (taking him to horse races! Concert! Fancy vacation!), and no longer just because she is employed to do this. Like, sure, Will and Lou say some romantic shit to each other, and maybe I’m just being hella asexual, but they could just be saying these things as friends? I know people who say very intimate, romantic things to each other as friends? It is a possibility?

Because of this lack of directness and super-heterosexual assumption-projection, it felt to me as though most of the action doesn’t happen until the movie is nearly over. That’s when Lou and Will kiss for the first time (I guess confirming what has still never actually been said–that they have feelings for each other?), they kiss for the second time, they kind of break up, and then right before Will dies, they make up, all within about 30 minutes in a movie that’s 110 minutes long. It was strangely noncommittal. Instead of talking about their purported raging boners for each other and not doing anything about it (the way they do in the Twilight series), Will and Lou were more inclined to wax philosophical about life before and after Will’s accident. Rather one-sided, considering Lou probably has a lot to worry about as a 26-year-old who has only worked one job before she started working for the Traynors.

I digress. I do think Emilia Clarke deserves some recognition for being a moderately talented actress. In Game of Thrones, she’s a terrifying Daenerys Targaryen, and for this role, she becomes a slightly anxious, chirpy, naive woman in her mid-twenties whose entire closet seems to come from Modcloth. It’s quite the about-face, and I think Clarke pulls it off gracefully, despite the shortcomings of the role itself, which I blame the writers for more than the actors. I wish I could see Sam Claflin in a more fleshed out role. I’ve only seen him in The Hunger Games, in which he plays a small role as Finnick Odair, and now Me Before You, in which I still think he doesn’t have much of a role. He’s a grumpy dude, and then he’s an in-love dude. With the exception of the disability, this is basically how dudes always are and in no way showcases acting. I feel like I can’t comment on Claflin’s potential because I haven’t actually seen it yet.


In short, Me Before You is somewhat entertaining as a collection of scenic shots of small-town England. To me, an accurate description of the plot would be “Two people have a fling while doing rather indulgent things together, and then one dies and the other has to move on.” The film did not convey anything deep or even particularly romantic in my opinion. I’m even somewhat let down by this film poster. Emilia’s character is supposed to wear this gorgeous, low-cut sleeveless red dress. In the film, this dress never appears; Lou wears a knee-length red dress with sleeves to the concert and a low-cut, sleeveless blue floral print dress to the wedding. Perhaps I’m petty, but it was such a let down! I was so waiting for that sexy red dress and it never showed, not unlike the spunk in this movie.

The Waiting Women


A photograph I took at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It had a courtyard in the center that I liked.

The Waiting Women

The movement has no name, but she has pronouns.
She walks between the living and the dead,
a spectre, hand outstretched to catch the rain.
She is waiting in the corner of a courtyard.
The bottom of her skirt is drenched with mud.

The movement has no age but she has grace,
the messenger between spirit and flesh.
Her life is spent remembering past lives:
lovers’ names forgotten long ago
and children who have died in her arms.

Ancestors, like oceans, stretch before her.
“The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair.”
The people, all of them, they want to take her,
Change her, meet her, love her, and worship her.
They assume they know, but never ask.

She wants much more than what they want for her.
Her bruises and her scars are so apparent,
people must think she will never die.
The last being on this earth was not a man,
and when he left, she found some sense of peace.


It must be your lucky month. Two poems in two weeks. To be honest, there may be more on their way. I’ve been in a very poem sort of mood lately. I’ve been thinking about ancestors a lot, their constant presence and absence, that dichotomy.

I wrote this one while I was thinking of all the women I love, all the truth I know about them, that they know about me, and how often we seem to be waiting.