Black Widow: Better Than I Expected

Image taken from rogerebert.com

So, what can we say about a film that should be irrelevant? After all, this is a story about a character who is, at least in viewer chronology, already dead, right? And yet, it isn’t quite the prequel either. Rather, it’s separate story, albeit one that fills in a crucial gap in the narrative between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. Also, it stars a character that many though received a bum deal in Avengers, with her death seemingly glossed over because, well, Iron Man.

Black Widow is set right after Civil War, and the various anti-Sokovia Accords characters are on the run. It’s refreshing to see Natasha exercise her spy skills (a liiitle bit) for once and the beginning of the film has a feeling similar to espionage films like The Bourne Identity. That, of course, doesn’t last but, refreshingly so, the action sequences are rather well paced and well spaced; the movie feels dynamic, but it isn’t the exhausting roller coaster ride (um F&F) that some movies are. Also, it was an intersting idea to create a different dynamic for Natasha to interact in. The dysfunctional family she and her sister Yelena (played excellently by Florence Pugh) plays to Natasha’s established personality. The sarcasm, the dry wit that Black Widow featured in the first Avengers movie gets to surface again, this time in the form of a “family.” Rachel Weiss and David Harbour are perfect as the “parents,” particularly Harbour, whose presence is a pleasant comedic foil to all the cloak and dagger. If anything, though, these sequences could have benefitted from slightly punchier dialogue as some lines felt flat.

As with most superhero movies, the plot isn’t the greatest. But, as plots go, at least this was simple enough to keep control of. Natasha and Yelena are driven with a clear motivation, though, as villains go, General Dreykov was just ok. More irritating than intimidating, really. I did appreciate the pathos they attached to Taskmaster, who is, in the comics, just a smart-talking mercenary with a knack for mimicry. But, as is with nearly all the Marvel films, the action is fast and exciting, the visuals wonderful to see. The acting? Well, it’s ok. But hey, it’s a Marvel film.

As a side note, Natasha seems to have gotten some sort of durability buff since she started in the MCU, huh? Given how many (supposedly fatal) crashes she gets in this film, there is the speculation of her being a kind of super soldier herself, something that was kind of alluded to in the opening credits (not really much of a spoiler folks, I’m just guessing here.) It does get a little silly visually, though.

Black Widow is also not about Natasha. There is a passing of the torch here, something that was inevitable since, after all, Natasha is dead in the current MCU. Also, there is the idea of moving on with the cast of the films. With Chris Evans and Robert Downey, Jr. retired and with Chadwick Boseman sadly gone, there is a need to start thinking about where to move these stories going forward. The idea of a Black Widow present in the MCU is appealing, even if Scarlett Johansson is no longer the cast member playing it.

I must say, Marvel is still on their game with Black Widow and with their television shows. It’s intriguing where this next phase of films will go, since there’s still a lot of setting up to do, but at least with the first releases, they’re holding our attention. If there’s a gripe I’d have, it’s that this film should have been made earlier, where it would fit better in the whole MCU narrative arc. But, in all, it’s a fun film that’s worth the two hours.

Trese. Filipino Fantasy Finally Found?

Netflix’s Trese is an animated series based on the comic book series of the same name created by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo. It is a supernatural crime thriller with gobs of Filipino mythology weaved into it. The books were beautiful works of art done in black and white. They’re also, currently, sold out, though I suspect that they will return to print soon.

I say this because the animated series has received a lot of attention in the Philippines, where fans of the comic were thrilled to hear that it was being adapted into animation by Netflix. It is, I think, the first Filipino comic to be adapted into an international series. It is history made, especially since the author and artist did this with no real idea of how successful it would eventually be. I’ve chatted with Budjette over the years about Trese and remember the time when it would take years for him to sell out a print run, and how the earnings from the comic weren’t enough to live off of, which necessitated him having a day job. It was, for a very long time, a work of love more than anything else.

That said, difficult comics sales aside, Trese always had legs. The comics had some strong characters, and was based on the premise of a supernatural detective, at least, at first. But Tan’s use of Filipino mythology, and popular urban myths, helped cement the fictional ground for the comic. This wasn’t just a story that had the typical aswangs and engkantos. It had them doing things that they were never really allowed to in comics. They were living lives, they interacted, they were much more than just ideas used to scare people with. He firmly grounded these mythological ideas in the here and now, and in the process made a mythology of his own.

When I finally got around to watching the series, what first hit me was the accuracy of the portrayals. The MRT looked right, as did the skyline of Manila. The little things, like that maybe two or three second scene with Captain Guerrero riding a jeepney and passing the fare, that’s a very Filipino thing that makes it feel more authentic. Yes, the language sounds strange, no matter what dub you listen to, but that didn’t really matter much to me. What mattered was that the series took the effort to get the characterizations right, and streamlined a vignette-based story thread so that it felt more cohesive. The dialog was crisp, even when there were jokes that didn’t seem to fit. The visuals were pretty, especially how they’ve designed the characters. The animation was good, but it could be smoother, though I suspect the roughness is because of budgetary restrictions more than anything. The action sequences felt exciting and were well choreographed. Rough animation aside, it is a Netflix caliber show and can easily stand alongside any of the original Netflix productions.

One thing I do hope is that this is a beginning, that Trese is not a one-shot. Not only in terms of the series maybe running for multiple seasons, but that it generates enough interest in the global community so that they want more Philippine stories, whether fantastic or not. We have awesome stories that, up to now, we Filipinos have only shared with each other. They deserve to be seen and heard out there. This is what I hope Trese is, the first of many Filipino stories being enjoyed around the world.

Kong vs. Godzilla. Um, yeah.

I remember the older, Toho Studio Godzilla films, when I’d “fast forward” the old VHS tapes to the fight scenes because, well, that’s the point of those films. The “big” monsters trampling on suspiciously flimsy looking buildings were the reason for the whole film, after all, not the reflections of the human characters trying to make sense of it all. The same went for a lot of the Ultraman films, which all followed the same formula of guys in rubber suits stepping on plastic models while playfighting.

That’s kind of what this movie feels like, with better effects. Much like those films, the plot is just filling in the time between the big fight scenes. While we can argue that that is true for all these monster movies, the prior movies Godzilla and Godzilla: King of Monsters carried storylines that were a little more compelling. The plot on this one is silly, at best. There are so many holes in the plot that one just kind of ignores them later on because, well, there’s really no point to thinking about them. Godzilla and Kong will fight. That’s it.

I did appreciate the attempt to paint Kong as the more benevolent of the two, after all, he’s the relative newbie in this franchise. It worked, for the most part. The big lug was sympathetic. You can actually think of the film as a Kong film rather than a Godzilla film. The big lizard basically just pops in and out of the story whenever he’s seen to be necessary. It’s Kong’s turn to get some character building. But to be fair to the big lizard, Godzilla was, at least in this one, meaner than he was in prior movies. However, if we think about him being the “Apex predator,” then this was the film that showcased that the most. He was savage, as he should be. Kong was also, thankfully, shown to be a match in a way that felt true to his character.

Oh, yes, somebody does win. Image from ComingSoon.net.

The fight scenes were good. Better, in fact than in the earlier two films, which tended to focus on a very “human” point of view, which meant that we saw a lot of legs. This one kept us at a more level viewpoint, which is more in keeping with the old “rubber suit” films. The up side is, we get to see more of the fighting. The down side is, well, it’s hard to keep things realistic when you’re doing that. But, over all, the pacing and camerawork of the scenes lent themselves to a thrilling experience. It was fun. Thank goodness.

Because the rest of the movie, well, is a hot mess.

The plot of how the big baddie is discovered is confusing, contrived, and unnecessarily silly, almost like this was written for a 1990s cartoon episode. The big, deep emotional anchors of the first two films are gone, replaced with wooden villains and what seemed to be underutilized actors. Some characters weren’t just silly, they were annoying, which didn’t help my growing discomfort at watching these scenes. We’re never really clear about anyone’s motivations in the movie, and the jumps in logic are just too many to even work through. So, instead, I ended up waiting for these scenes to play out so I can get back to the two big monsters beating each other to a pulp. So while I appreciated the fun of the movie and the fight scenes, I couldn’t quite reconcile that with the lack of human reactions by the human characters in the film. Unfortunately, these scenes brought back memories of another film that ended up being a silly sequel: Pacific Rim: Uprising.

Good thing those things don’t really matter in a monster movie, huh? So, in essence, yeah. Go watch the monsters fight. Ignore the rest. It’ll be fun.

Justice League: The Snyder Cut

I must admit, I wasn’t enthused by the idea of watching The Zack Snyder cut of his 2017 film Justice League. I was, unfortunately, severely put off by Batman Vs. Superman (to the point that I was going to walk out of the theater) and had my suspicions about how bad the Justice League movie would be with him at the helm. The storied problems with production (him having to leave because of tragedy in the family), the reshoots, bringing in Joss Whedon to “fix” the movie didn’t sound promising. The movie, unfortunately didn’t disappoint. It was a dismal mess, from the awful CGI of Henry Cavill’s mustache to the underwhelming, well, everything of the movie; I wrote the franchise off as dead.

Then stories started to circulate about the “Snyder Cut,” a version of the film that was truer to the original version Snyder wanted to release. There were posts about how much better it was than the box office release and that it “redeems” Snyder’s reputation. I remained incredulous.

Now, with that version finally out, and me finally able to watch (all four hours of it), I finally have an opinion of it: it’s not as bad as the theatrical release, but it also would not have worked as a theatrical release.

Snyder is an ambitious filmmaker. From his acclaimed nearly panel-by-panel recreation of Frank Miller’s 300, to the geek homage Sucker Punch to the also highly anticipated theatrical version of DC’s classic Watchmen, he’s made his bones being this swing-for-the-fences director. It’s not always worked. To be honest, he’s failed more than he’s succeeded. While 300 was a rousing success, it was mainly because he was working with material which seemed tailor made for his style. Sucker Punch was awful; a collection of geek tropes and themes mashed into what was essentially a female prison exploitation film. While Watchmen wasn’t bad per se, it couldn’t capture the depth of the material that it was trying to adapt, something which Watchmen writer Alan Moore already said in the 1990’s, when Warner Brothers first tried to turn it into a film. I actually liked Man of Steel, but I hated BvS. So, in other words, Snyder’s films aren’t a sure thing.

So, on to the film itself. It is a ponderous, shuffling behemoth of a film.

The opening scene already starts setting up the whole story. Image from Den of Geek: https://www.denofgeek.com/movies/zack-snyder-cut-justice-league-trailer-breakdown-analysis-dc/

It does have it’s good points: this cut knew what story it was telling. Shots are established, scenes are clearly set up. The story picks up at the end of BvS and carries on from there. What I really appreciated was finally, the scenes for the characters make sense. The revival scene of Superman, for example, is just so much better paced in this cut. The visuals are impressive. Steppenwolf is finally a worthy villain given both a better appearance and some actual reason for doing what he does while big baddie Darkseid is given his “Thanos” moment. The action scenes are better paced, with some innovative choreography for some scenes. The development of the plot is clear, though still messy, as are the introductions to The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg, who are the new heroes in the film. I liked the darker, moodier palette and the lack of the “punchy,” campy humor that the theatrical release had. The visuals are, in general, more impressive. The music was surprisingly good, the song selection and the scoring worked to build mood and atmosphere at key points.

But, it lumbers. Oh, how it lumbers.

It nearly takes two hours, or half the film, before the team is even completely recruited and they can actually get down to tackling the conflict, which isn’t even clearly felt in those two hours. The stakes are supposedly massive, and yet there’s no palpable presence of world-ending danger anywhere. The bad guy sets up in an abandoned town in Russia, so where’s the threat? Because the story had to introduce so many characters, the plot slows down to a crawl. Even something as important as Superman’s revival doesn’t gain any traction until two hours in. If Snyder’s original plan was followed, which was to have two films released, then the first film would have done nothing but introduce everything, with no clear movement in the overall story arc, and then end abruptly. For a studio to release two films, the first half of which really tells very little, is a gamble. The problem of the film was the ambition of it. The story arc was huge, intricate, and had the possibility of setting up something that could stand toe to toe with the Marvel franchise. But, it could not possibly do that with just four (counting Man of Steel and BvS) films. In truth, the whole arc could have used two more films just so it could build up to Justice League with clearer characters. There is, throughout the series of films, a sense of “catch up,” that Warner Brothers was rushing it because it felt like Marvel was leaving it behind in the box office. It was, but rushing films out to try and catch up doesn’t work. Snyder’s plans for the franchise seemed to point to an intriguing and fun set of films. It would have been fascinating to see how those films would have played out.

Image from: https://time.com/5946917/snyder-cut-justice-league-fans/

But…I can’t help thinking that this would have been better as a mini-series on stream. It screams for more time for setting everything up.

Then there’s the self-indulgence of it. The set scenes play out just a tad too long, showcasing whatever visuals he wanted to show off. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “see, THIS is what you missed.” Except now, we’re not missing it and it feels a little… much. Some restraint would have been nice to see also. Yes, we get it, it’s better than the theatrical cut.

That’s the other thing. It definitely is better than the theatrical release. By miles. But that was because the theatrical release was essentially a gutted version of this film, something that couldn’t be avoided at the time. But is it better than, say, Infinity War or Endgame? Sorry, but no, it isn’t. There simply wasn’t enough buildup for people to care about these characters, even Superman. It would have paled in comparison had these films been released closer to each other. Justice League had cool elements. It was visually exciting to look at. But, in the end, the story couldn’t get the audience invested enough for it to be the Avengers-beating film Warner Brothers was looking for.

Is it worth watching? Sure. You’ll get to see the film as intended, lumbering story and all. But, the story is cohesive, mostly, and is enjoyable enough. Will you cry, or cheer, like you did in Avengers? Not likely. Will you watch it again?

I won’t.

Pacific Rim: The Black

After the second movie, I honestly did not have a lot of expectations from the franchise. The second film felt like a super-sized Avengers ripoff, with no real sense of urgency to the conflict. I’ve bitched about it before, so I’m not going to bother repeating myself here. Instead, let’s talk about the new Netflix animated series: Pacific Rim: The Black. Thankfully, this series redeems the franchise, delivering an experience that is closer to the one presented in the original film, while also deepening the mythos and giving viewers a new viewpoint of the world of Pacific Rim.

The animation style is anime-ish, taking cues from other Netflix originals such as the similarly impressive Voltron reboot. It’s also appropriate, since the franchise was inspired by the super robot series made by the Japanese. The visual palette is pretty bright, especially with the main Jaeger, Atlas Destroyer, which definitely makes it look very anime inspired. The story itself, however, is not as bright. It deals with a post-apocalyptic setting where Australia is lost to the monsters of the franchise, the kaijus, and despite massive evacuation efforts, people are left behind. Specifically, the show deals with Taylor and Hayley Travis, two children of Jaeger pilots who get left behind; the fate of their parents are left unclear, though both assume that their parents passed away fighting kaiju. After tragedy falls on their little settlement, they resolve to try and look for their parents, with the help of an intact Jaeger. That premise sounds like a great beginning for a light, episodic, kaiju-of-the-week series, with the siblings battling, and beating, a monster every episode while going on their journey. That was what I was expecting. That was not what I encountered.

Image from The Verge

The show, despite the bright colors, is not a light story. It is, as it should be, a dark, tense story. Young viewers should be cautioned because there are deaths, violent ones, in the show. Think of the story as more Mad Max than Voltron. The protagonists struggle with the dangers presented by the setting, which isn’t only the environment, but the people they encounter in the environment. That surprised me, because the plot was much more sophisticated than I expected. Interweaving storylines, flashbacks, new concepts, and mysteries are presented, which not only complicates the story, but it also refreshes the storyworld, something which the cinematic sequel failed to do. There is also some deep characterization being done. The protagonists deal with trauma and repressed memories. There are conflicts that are internal, and are, at times, hidden from the other characters. Society is radically changed; it isn’t just humans vs. monsters but human factions vying for dominance against each other. There are clear shifts in the politics of this different world, called “The Black,” and it can be disturbingly different from what we understand society is, or how it should be. In that sense, it’s clearly a post-apocalyptic story, again more like Mad Max or The Walking Dead. Parents of very young viewers should take note of that.

The dark tone of the story, along with the associated traumas the characters go through, does make the choice of having relatively young characters as the protagonists a little problematic from the point of view of a young viewer. Do we really want teens and pre-teens watching a show where people kill other people in cold blood, never mind the massively destructive monsters? That said, older viewers would appreciate the choice, I think, since it makes their plight a bit more desperate. Also, who doesn’t resonate with the quest to find your parents, and unfortunately, that loses a lot of its appeal if the characters were in their thirties.

As a giant robot fan, what impressed me most in Pacific Rim was the dedication director Guillermo del Toro had on rendering weight. In the original film, the mechs moved ponderously, reflecting the massive weight that the machines had to carry just to do things like walk or throwing a punch. The effect was that, if one saw the Jaeger landed a punch on a kaiju, the impact felt much more devastating. This disappeared from the second film, where the machines were suddenly moving so much faster, to the point that the, for lack of a better word, impact experienced by the viewer was diminished. The machines felt weightless and, thus, less believable. I suppose they wanted faster action scenes but it sacrificed that sense of weight that made the first movie so impressive. That sense of weight is back in this series. The main Jaeger in The Black moves slowly, and does not jump around or do any flying kicks. Instead, like the first film, it builds up its momentum to throw a punch. While not as spectacular as the film, the series does acquit itself quite well in showcasing the scale that these machines have. Also, Atlas Destroyer, despite the name, isn’t as badass as it seems, which, again, fits in very neatly with the pared-down, post-apocalypse story.

The show also pushes some of the existing ideas introduced in Pacific Rim forwards. The Drift’s capabilities and uses are expanded beyond being the technology that allows two pilots to synchronize their thoughts so that they are able to pilot the massive Jaegers. Here, it’s much more than just an interface; it’s becomes a way to see into, or even manipulate, other people’s minds. As a storytelling device, it allows the viewer a wider understanding of the inner worlds of the characters without the need for a lot of explanation. It’s also used in innovative ways which promise other possibilities for the technology moving forward. It should prove to be as exciting as the giant machines themselves. Then, there are the kaijus themselves. Without spoiling things, let’s just say that the kaijus now come in many shapes and sizes, including the intriguing idea of a Jaeger/kaiju hybrid. There’s a lot of promise and possibility with these ideas and I do hope that the show will be able to capitalize on it moving forward.

In the end, one can think of this as the real sequel to the original film. It carries similar tones and has the same respect for the base material as the first film. It also adds new ideas and twists to the storyworld that move the entire franchise forward. Warning, though. The first season ends rather abruptly, and will leave you asking for more. I do hope there’s enough of a following to warrant another season. Kudos to Netflix for producing this, it’s a good watch.

Lovecraft Country is creepy, but not in the way we think

The title alone should send Cthulhu fans into a tizzy. A TV series exploring the mythology of H.P. Lovecraft should be fun. Lovecraft’s particular brand of horror, one which also explores the borders of sanity, has become quite popular of late, spawning not just more stories, but spinoffs like games and merchandise. Cthulhu him (it?) self is the subject of many memes and fan friendly items on sale.

Case in point: A crocheted Cthulhu for sale on Etsy.

I’m not sure how Lovecraft would have felt about that, but he would have been able to use the money. Lovecraft never enjoyed the fruits of his stories; he died penniless. He believed in the utter helplessness of humanity in the face of an unfeeling, uncaring universe, something which translated into his stories. The “universe” got characterized as the “Old Ones,” malevolent Gods sleeping, waiting for their time to wake (which was the entire point of the horror – the Gods were always just about to wake).

The horror in Lovecraftian tales was branded as a “cosmic” one; out there, all encompassing, but not really palpable except as a kind of existential dread. Then, of course, it gets very real with the appearance of some odd monsters and such. But the real horror remains that “big one” out there which is always present, but rarely obvious. The horror was that it existed everywhere, all the time.

The book, and now the HBO series, Lovecraft Country takes the idea of cosmic horror and brings it crashing down to earth. Yes, it still deals with the looming horror of doom hanging over everyone. But, because of who the characters are, there is another looming horror that they deal with, and this one is not cosmic but is painfully present in our daily lives: Racism. There is also, of course, the irony of Lovecraft stories being used in a story about racism; Lovecraft himself was racist.

Focusing on the HBO series, developed by writer Misha Green and produced by Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams, the tensest moments in the episodes so far (there have been three released so far) are not the ones dealing with the monsters or spirits or cults. Instead, it’s when the main characters, who are all African-American, need to deal with the everyday horror of living in post-WWII, segregated America. The horror of trying to escape a “sundown town,” for example, where any African-Americans found after sundown are lynched, is excruciating as the main characters try to race to the county line as the sun is setting, but need to stay within the speed limit because the sheriff is following them to ensure they are following the law.

If anything, the cosmic horror of the Lovecraftian mythos becomes an atmospheric device more than an actual source of the scares. It’s scary enough to have these hostile human beings harass the characters, with the characters fully knowing that any resistance they mount will be met with persecution from the police, or worse. It’s great to see these moments come to light with the right emotional cues attached. It’s a terrifying experience to be racially profiled; it’s worthy of any horror movie.

That said, Lovecraft Country is also a horror show in the traditional way. There is gore, magic, and jump-scares in the episodes. But to me they aren’t the horror that matters, instead, these become fantasy-like elements and are almost a break from the everyday horror faced by the main characters. The more terrifying thing about this “everyday” horror is that it still remains in existence today in so many areas around the world. Wouldn’t the idea of some mythical, monstrous, sleeping God seem almost quaint compared to the idea of waking up every day having to constantly be looking around for danger from people around you?

So, take a watch, and maybe check your own life for a little bit. Be glad if you don’t have to live in a state of constant vigilance. Cosmic horrors are all well and good, but in the end, it’s still the ones you face every day that are the more dangerous ones.

Westworld. Now THAT’s Better.

If you’ve finished the season, you know this means more than just a poster. From IMDB.

Admittedly, I watched the third season of Westworld with a significantly lower bar than I did the second. The second felt like a stretch, a meandering narrative written in that way because that was the expectation. Not that it wasn’t entertaining, it was just taking its sweet time getting anywhere. Most of the important events happen at the end of the season, which makes the earlier episodes seem like an unnecessary grind. The finale, where we finally see the world outside of the park, was a welcome, and exciting, relief.

Now that the third season’s over, it seems like Westworld has finally outgrown the park and has given as a view of a very interesting “real world.” Dolores, Bernard, and Maeve are all back, and are given new roles to fulfill in the new season, as well as giving us a wider view of the impact that technology can have on human lives. The idea of Rehoboam, an A.I. designed to optimize the world, isn’t that far-fetched. We already have learning A.I.s running now, God help us, though, on what they are learning. Dolores is the main mover of the plot, with her plan to do, well, something to the world, well under way.

The same questions, however, are still being examined. What does being human mean? The question of free will versus a determined, “scripted” existence is still there, except that, perhaps to Dolores’ dismay, the human, Rehoboam-run, world is strikingly familiar. Her attempt to break things down, to restore the idea of freedom, of the capacity to decide one’s own fate is the same struggle she’s always had from her time in the park to now. It’s just that she’s a much more ruthless character now than before, though that gets clarified right at the very end (sorry, no spoilers here).

Image from cnet.

There are new characters too. Serac and Caleb, who are the Bernard and Dolores of the human side. One is Destiny, the other, Choice. Though, to be honest, they needed more time to be developed, really. Aaron Paul’s Caleb is, as Aaron Paul’s characters tend to be, intense and tortured. But also, at the end, noble, which may be why Dolores chose him to be with her. Serac, played by Vincent Cassel, is smooth, definite, but only on the surface. They become the players for humanity, even as they work for, and with, the A.I.s.

There are other questions, too. Such as how experiences can shape a person (think Dolores/Hale). Or how freedom of choice can lead to visionaries and also to disruptions which can create tremendous change, but often at the cost of (at times) catastrophic upheaval. The technology of the future is explored in fascinating ways, with new kinds of drugs, the use of apps for managing everything in our lives, holographics, etc. These were a welcome shift away from the host-focused tech of the first two seasons.

Speaking of which, the plot of the 3rd season, which sees mankind plunge itself into a kind of global crisis becomes uncomfortably familiar, given the fact that I’m currently locked in my own home because of a global crisis. The idea of radical change coming out of upheaval informs the show, and also my viewing of it. How will the world change in the show after this? For that matter, how will my world change after the crisis we’re in? It ends with the question up in the air, which, again, is painfully familiar to anyone sitting in quarantine right now. It’s cuts close to reality, but that’s not the show’s fault.

Unexpectedly poignant, this scene. From Time Magazine.

What it is, however, is a chance for Westworld to truly push the limits of its original premise. The park, it turns out, isn’t much different from the world it supposedly imitates. The same problems, that of injustice, of exploitation, of a lack of real freedom, are there, in spades. Dolores must have felt right at home. In many ways, the season was a setup for whatever comes after, and given how the season ends, we can really say that at this point, what comes after is anyone’s guess.

A Waiting Government

From Al Jazeera.com

It’s been over three years since Rodrigo Duterte won the Philippine presidential elections. President Duterte promised change, and while change came, it doesn’t seem to be the change that people were hoping for.

Since 2016, economic growth has slowed, foreign investments have lessened. The Philippines pulled back from a position of influence in the region. Poverty rates remain the same. Law and order has not improved. Prices have gone up, as have taxes. Even the president’s signature issues, Federalism and a crackdown on drugs have stagnated. While there are infrastructure projects ongoing, these were initiated before his term. In truth, we are looking at a government whose only interest seems to be to stay in power.

Taking the President’s penchant for inflammatory speeches (which, for the most part, have also gotten old) aside, there really isn’t much going on with the Duterte administration. Marawi City, victim of a terrorist siege early in this government’s term, remains mostly ruined, the promised rehabilitation undone. The vaunted clean up of Boracay was an admirable stunt, but given a lack of any sort of serious follow up elsewhere, that’s all it was. The declaration of martial law (and subsequent extensions of it) in Mindanao seems to have accomplished nothing of note. What dominates the headlines on most days are what new outrage the President seems intent on causing, and the feeble attempts of his media team to walk back or misrepresent what was said. The political noise this administration makes is deafening and it’s masking a dearth of actual action on almost any issue.

It’s almost as if the government’s top leadership doesn’t want to do anything except wait out his term.

The parties around the president have, of course, been staunch in their defense of the administration. But, as the recent debacle with Communications Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy seems to indicate, they aren’t even ready to mount a serious defense. In a televised talk show which wanted to discuss achievements which the Duterte administration claimed to have attained, Badoy imploded. Faced with figures and analysis from the Ibon foundation, a local think tank, all she could do was launch into a spurt of red-tagging, accusing the long-running organization of being a communist front. When called out on it, asking if she could actually refute the figures of Ibon, she fell silent.

This has been the major feature of the communications office of the government, which has shown itself to be woefully unprepared in many instances. When asked about why action has been slow, not just in Marawi, but also in Taal and now, currently facing the threat of the NCoV outbreak, the government has been mostly silent. Oddly, often, the response is not a statement, but an action, often aimed at a different target. Instead of replying to these issues in question, they go on the attack in wildly different directions, revoking the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, threatening to remove the franchise of the largest media network in the country. It seems to be a tactic; add controversy to take away from other controversies.

In the meantime, nothing’s getting done.

While ousting the president seems far-fetched, given how popular he still seems to be (based on the surveys), this administration has not shown any remarkable achievements that have impacted Filipino lives. Given how lethargic they have been at instituting reforms, it’s not a stretch to assume that this will be the case for the remaining years of his term. Sadly, for those who hoped for some genuine change, they will be sorely disappointed. It is a pathetic showing from someone who carried so much potential. Instead, we have a government who seems intent only on staying in power until the term is done. A benchwarmer presidency.

It’s administrations like this that puts the six-year term into question. It’s an excruciatingly long wait to change presidencies. Also, the mastery of hanging on to power, dodging possible impeachment or removal with numbers games (similar to what is currently happening in the United States) showcases the lack of any true desire for real reform or change. It shouldn’t be a surprise, they’re the ones reaping the benefits of power, why even try to change it? Will a change in the term do anything? At this point, looking at the pool of politicians in office, change seems farther than ever before.

So, we, like our president, wait for the next one. This one isn’t going to do anything. It’s time we accept that. It’s time to start thinking about who we’re voting for next.

That Star Wars Thing…

What are we to make of The Rise of Skywalker? It’s a franchise film, purportedly the end of the “Skywalker saga,” despite the title. It’s been maligned as supposedly the worst of the Star Wars films. It’s also been defended by some who’ve seen it, saying people should really get their panties unknotted; after all, it’s a franchise film.

Franchise film, what does that mean? Nowadays, it points to films set in the same world, using the same characters, thus contributing to a series of stories that brings viewers to the same place, and, hopefully, use the familiarity to enjoy whatever new installment is on offer. That said, franchises cannot be consistently good; the very idea of returning to the same world means that there’s the constant pressure between the familiar and the new. Veer too far in either direction and the film either becomes “too different” or “derivative.” Franchises, thus, are constantly trying to both meet expectations and beat them, simultaneously. The more films/stories told in that world, the more difficult this balancing act becomes.

So, is it really a surprise that people had such strong reactions to Rise of Skywalker? As has been written about elsewhere, there seemed to be a turnaround from Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, which was trying to push the franchise in a new direction, which I personally thought was a great idea. This film was an attempt to make sure fans got to see what they expected to see, a definite step back from the push forward of Johnson. However, when the film finally opened, surprise, surprise, the audience didn’t like that either. It’s the problem many films face when executives and producers rely too much on the FGDs and the numbers. Sometimes, you just need to trust the story and the storyteller, and, more importantly, realize that the fans are not, and should not, be in control of the story. They became fans because they liked what they saw, not because they got what they were campaigning for.

The major issue of Rise of Skywalker was the frenzied pacing of the story. As many others have said, it was rushing through everything, not allowing the audience to soak in what were supposedly shocking twists and truly gorgeous vistas. Instead, it was as if we were on a rushed tour, stopping too briefly to see some attraction before being whisked away again to another place. It goes back to trying to please an ever growing and ever more vocal audience. Yes, they buy tickets. Yes, they have fora where they will dissect everything and note every possible clue/error they can find. But, if the creators cannot trust their own work, then it will always be insufficient simply because they will never be able to please everyone in this globe-spanning fandom.

Which brings us back to the idea of franchise. Franchises are more than just stories; they’re industrial complexes. They aren’t just films. They’re parks, merchandise, video games, books, TV series, and many, many other things. The Franchise turns what was a story into an entire industry. Sadly, that’s where things go wrong, unless those who run the franchise care about it enough to understand that it’s malleable; the stories can vary, the expectations of the audience can be managed, not necessarily by pandering, but by having faith that they’ll figure it out on their own.

All this is, of course, water under the bridge. Fandoms will always have opinions, and studios will always try to use them to try and see what will excite the audience. The problem with Star Wars is the same problem that Game of Thrones faced, a passionate, demanding audience and enormous pressure to please them. Perhaps one thing we can all take away from Rise of Skywalker, and, in fact, all three movies in the final trilogy, is that people need to give a little trust to the people running the show.

A good counterpoint to this is Star Wars’ own The Mandalorian, which seems bent on simply going its own way. With no huge fan pressure (yet), it’s been free to run it’s own stories and audiences have been loving it. Of course, it has the advantage of being a completely distinct storyline. That said, the showrunners have remained very faithful to their core work, and it’s paid off. People are genuinely enjoying the story. Also, it veers so far away from the main Jedi-focused Skywalker stories that it can stand on its own.

Both the Skywalker saga films and The Mandalorian are part of the same franchise. What The Mandalorian seems to showcase is that Star Wars is now big enough to tell a myriad number of stories, something that Rian Johnson was trying to show with The Last Jedi. The movements away from the core don’t diminish what made the franchise great, instead, it establishes a starting point. The bigger the franchise gets, and the more stories are told, the richer and more enjoyable the franchise becomes.

I guess all I’m saying is that we need to give showrunners and filmmakers the freedom to give their takes on a franchise, to let them shape (and re-shape) as necessary to keep it rich and enjoyable. That means a little trust and a little patience. In the end, well, we fans should be the eventual beneficiaries anyway.

Failure

I failed.

I took my promotion exam to move from kyu to dan (from non-black to black belt) rank in Aikido and tanked it. I knew it the moment my exam finished, and it crushed me. I spent a year preparing for it and for me to perform so miserably during the exam itself, well, it broke my heart. I’m not blaming anyone, or anything. This one was on me, and I own that. What’s frustrating, to a teeth-clenching degree, is that I knew everything. I was prepared. Or, well, I thought I was.

Failing in a martial arts exam has the added feature of it happening in public. The examiner was calling my name out often, making me do techniques over, techniques I knew, but, for whatever reason, I was completely flubbing. What’s more, it was the simplest ones that I was having problems with. I could see his own frustration with me as I kept faltering again and again, each time my own panic was making me lose more and more focus. I began to not trust what I was hearing, which didn’t help because I was the furthest away from the examiner. I was flailing in a sea of confusion and fear, with no land in sight. Everyone who was watching, friends, fellow examinees, teachers, saw me drown, helpless to do anything but watch.

That led to many pats on the back and expressions of “you can do it” and “it’ll be fine.” It was all sincere and heartfelt, but when people see you as a failure, that sounds a lot like pity. The sympathy really didn’t help; I knew that I failed. In my head, I would’ve failed that performance, what more the examiner. Inevitably, it leads to thinking back, what happened? Why didn’t I do better? Was it really just my fault? The answers were complicated. No, it wasn’t just me. I didn’t hear him properly a lot. But, it also was just me. I should have trusted what I heard more (I actually heard him right, but I doubted myself). I should have stuck to what I knew to do, I should have kept composure. I should have. I should have.

Yeah, that didn’t help.

We were called by the examiner together for final notes. He singled me out, saying, “You have potential. You have to do better. I have very high expectations from you.” Which, at first, confused me. Did I pass? But, thinking about it, he was already implying I failed. You’re going to have to do it over. I want to see you do it better. It boiled down, he said, to how far you want to push your potential. It took me some time to work that out, that failure is part of pushing forward. I needed to get over my own grief first for a year of preparations that didn’t pan out.

It would take another 12 hours before the final results were out, but it was a more sensible assumption to make that I was going to have to do the exam over next year. I was, surprisingly, fine with that. When the results finally did come out, I wasn’t surprised; I was relieved. I knew what I needed to do. I made plans, talked with some friends to help with preparations again. They were all to happy to help. My own sensei was more brief. He simply said: “See you on Wednesday,” which was our next day of practice. I apologized to him for the failure and said, “Yes, Sensei.”

Failure is often seen as a terminal point: one fails and that’s it. Sometimes, that’s true, if deadlines or rules demand success by a certain time. But, failure is never really the last point, neither is success. They’re points, yes, but they’re just parts of larger movements. My Aikido progress was never going to stop with the black belt. Whether that meant going for higher ranks remains unclear, but I wasn’t going to stop because I failed.

Thinking about it, the idea of failure as an end point is unproductive. It’s something I hear sometimes when people fall off the wagon and “ruin” their diets, for example. The diet isn’t ruined, it can be picked up again the next day. Or when people can’t finish a project and decide to just throw in the towel. The act of “rage quitting” is an act of surrendering to failure. Failure, generally, is not a terminal point, it’s a pause. It depends on the person on whether that becomes permanent or not. I’m aware that there are moments and situations where it is permanent, but, for the individual, there’s always the idea of moving on and shifting gears. It’s much, much harder than it sounds here, and there are times when the pain of failing, of giving up, or of simply moving on, can be excruciating. But, if one doesn’t, then that becomes part of who one is. Failure becomes actual when the person who fails stays in that situation, even if the actual moment had already passed.

I failed. That’s normal. I failed in public. Sure, that’s also normal. What I am not going to do is fail myself. What does that mean? In Aikido, it means that when you’re thrown, you get back up. It’s how things are. It means stretching my neck, shaking my shoulders, and stepping back on the mats. It means preparing (which technically means I just don’t stop preparing). It means studying my weaknesses and working on them. It means trusting my friends (and my Senseis) to help me.

Yup. I definitely failed. I’m grateful for it.