A Tarisian Ronin

It’s no secret that Akira Kurosawa’s films had a massive impact on international cinema. Spaghetti westerns and Star Wars especially have pulled heavily from the Japanese film master’s work. Nothing new there. And they’re also great movies, so it’s always fun and engaging to watch one.

I’ve only very slowly started watching Kurosawa’s films. It’s not something that I really have much of a drive to do; it just happens occasionally. I saw Rashomon in college. I saw Seven Samurai in the past year. And I just watched Yojimbo this week.

I wouldn’t even mention it, but it was funny to realize not only how it influenced the original Star Wars film, but how its plot was basically transplanted into the Taris portion of Knights of the Old Republic.

Yojimbo‘s plot in a nutshell: a masterless samurai enters a town torn apart by conflict between two gangs fighting over turf. One gang is led by a father and son; the other is led by the former right-hand man of the father, who split off when the son was chosen as the heir. The samurai plays the two sides against each other until they destroy each other.

The Tarisian section in a nutshell: a masterless soon-to-be Jedi enters a portion of the city-planet that is torn apart by conflict between two gangs fighting over turf. One gang is led by an old man; the other is led by his former right-hand man, after the elder gang leader refused to appoint him as heir. While the older man’s gang is depicted as fundamentally good and the younger man’s gang is depicted as degenerate and thuggish, there is still the option to play both off each other (even though the Light Side, presumably EU-canon version is that the eventual Jedi helped the “good” gang). Plus, since Taris ultimately gets wiped out via Sith bombardment, the hero’s meddling does destroy both gangs–from a certain point of view.

Oh, and there’s a subplot in film and game involving the capture of a woman by one of the gang leaders as a negotiating tool to gain power; said woman is freed at least in part by the efforts of the protagonist in both versions.

That’s all I’ve got. Funny to realize years later that a story I enjoyed is so indebted to an older source. It actually makes the Taris section, as mundane as it can be on replay as a bloated sort of prologue, rather interesting once more.

Review: Birdshot

Birdshot (directed by Mikhail Red, and written by Mikhail and Rae Red) is a fusion of magic realism and film noir. It’s a dark, tragic coming of age story. It’s a tale of innocence lost in the face of violence, corruption, and abusive authority–innocence of not only Maya (Mary Joy Apostol), the farm-girl protagonist, but also Domingo (Arnold Reyes), a young police officer who is a major viewpoint character.

Maya and Domingo are both paired with gruff older men who expect them to learn about and adapt to the harsh realities of the world to survive. Maya’s mentor is her father, Diego (Ku Aquino), caretaker of agrarian land adjoining a national wildlife refuge. Domingo’s mentor is the thoroughly corrupt and violent partner he’s paired with, Mendoza (John Arcilla), who’s more concerned about pleasing their commanding officer than delivering justice.

Maya is trained by her father to use an old rifle to hunt birds. She’s initially reluctant, but she wanders into the sanctuary to follow a strange call. When she sees a Philippine eagle, she shoots and kills it, inadvertently committing a crime. Meanwhile, Domingo is eager to find out what happened to an abandoned bus and its missing passengers, while his mentor is insistent that he drop the case and focus on the seemingly trivial matter of the missing eagle.

Police corruption is demonstrated on two levels. On the intimate scale of the film’s main events, the officers are called off a major missing persons case and both eventually become comfortable with violence, maiming, torture, killing. On a broader level, higher-level law enforcement and operators of sprawling haciendas are implicated in the exploitation of tenant farm workers and the suppression of protest.

The film hints at magic realism, though it doesn’t go all-in. There is a figure that follows Maya when she is alone; one is left to interpret that figure in a variety of ways. Her grandmother tells her stories about the spirits speaking to the living during the full moon, which frames how much of the film’s events are viewed. In contrast, Domingo seems to encounter a ghost who turns out to be the family member of a missing worker.

birdshot dark.png

The framing of that moment is great. The police station shuts off power after-hours. Domingo sits at his desk, exhausted, out of leads. He lights a cigarette and sees a ghostly apparition down the hall. We see his surprised face, illuminated by the cigarette. Then we cut to a perspective behind him, looking over his shoulder, framing him faintly in the foreground, with the stark, mysterious figure down the hall; with the cigarette blocked by his body, we only see its smoke, wrapping around the hall like tendrils of mist, or like spectral apparitions of their own. Even once we have a human face for the woman, the lamp Domingo uses gives her a ghastly pallor. She is a ghost, of sorts, a ghost of loss and grief, a voice of the dead.

There are so many moments in this film with beautiful, powerful images. Maya is typically clad in white and red, a none-too-subtle reminder of the violence that stains her innocence (and that is echoed by her own bleeding when she starts menstruating in the middle of the film). Red by blood or cloth or firelight, corpses of birds and people, deep darkness especially in scenes with the police, and the digging of graves (or symbolic graves, as when Diego and Maya attempt to hide the gun) are just some of the symbolic visuals incorporated into the film. So many scenes are loaded with powerful imagery and unearthly sounds breaking silence. So many shots would work just as well as still photography (the cinematographer is Mycko David, but in reviewing the film’s credits I’m reminded that so many people play a role in the creation of a scene and a movie that I feel a little guilty not simply listing everyone here).

The plot is also twisty, winding back on itself in subtle and obvious references to earlier events and dialogue. It slowly builds layers over a straightforward police investigation. It’s simple to follow, but it rewards reflection. My wife and I are still drawing connections and having light-bulb moments days after the film.

Like most great noir, the film ends in tragedy and loss, the protagonists futile against institutional power. Perhaps most shocking to me was the moral collapse of one character only midway through the film. But having not expected a noir film when I began, I was not expecting the conventions of the genre, which were in some ways adhered to and in other ways subverted.

This was powerful, thought-provoking cinema, and I’d highly recommend it. And for now, it’s readily available for streaming via Netflix.

Review – Jurassic World: The Evolution of Claire

The Evolution of Claire (Jurassic World)The Evolution of Claire by Random House

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Evolution of Claire is fairly small in scope, intimate even, especially for a title set in the Jurassic Park–excuse me, Jurassic World–franchise. Author Tess Sharpe details a nineteen-year-old Claire Dearing’s summer internship on Isla Nublar for the Masrani Corporation, in the final months before the new park would open. While there are many misadventures and some moments of wonder as the interns interact with dinosaurs in the park, the central focus of the novel is Claire’s budding romance with another intern. A B plot is a series of mysterious happenings around the facilities that seem somehow connected with a fabled class of Phantom Interns from the year before. The central culprit behind those happenings is a spoiled, mysogynist intern who is so obviously villainous and yet so obviously not the true antagonist that he’s basically Red Herring from A Pup Named Scooby Doo.

So it’s a YA novel with dinosaurs. It was a fun read. There were issues with continuity that sometimes annoyed me. I would have enjoyed more about the creation of the dinosaurs (Sharpe seems aware that mosquitoes alone would be insufficient for this resurrection miracle, yet never references potential alternative DNA sources–even Crichton’s original book, and the recent game Jurassic World: Evolution, at least refer to bone fragments and other potential alternative sources). Isla Sorna is mentioned, and it’s suggested that most if not all of the animals were to be moved to Isla Nublar (after several had been thinned out by poaching), but this plot thread still feels nebulous. The interns freely hop between radically different assignments, like security, genetics lab work, and vet work, though most of them are not qualified. The interns themselves seem rather young for such a selective and intensive program, having only completed a semester of undergrad, although maybe that’s commonplace among the hyper-competitive. There were some good dinosaur moments, but I wanted more dinosaurs in general; Brachiosaurus and Triceratops got spotlights, Tyrannosaurus had its moment, and there was a big showdown in the climax with an angry Velociraptor, but other genera had fleeting glimpses or name drops if they appeared at all. With so many dinosaurs to choose from, so many dinosaurs we know were at the park, it’s disappointing that the author settled on the highlights of the original film. And while Claire is no specialist and therefore doesn’t necessarily know how to interpret what is happening, there’s a general lack of detail that is disappointing in contrast to the rather specific world-building found in the Crichton books and Spielberg films (the latter show that depth does not need to bog down the story with exposition). So there are things that I would have preferred to be different, but nothing that ruined the reading experience.

There’s a good deal of melodrama, particularly in the last third of the book, but there’s also a lot of authentic depiction of trauma and grief in those moments as well. I’m not sure that I would have made the decision to have yet more death at this park before it even opened if I were making narrative choices here, yet it does do a lot to provide a clear character arc for Claire that extends through both of the films in which she appears. Over the course of the book, we see her go from an ambitious, bright-eyed optimist who is truly amazed by the creatures she encounters to a hard-edged, jaded young woman who sees protecting people from those same creatures as a driving purpose. It’s more complex than that; I was truly impressed with the character development, which really helped explain who Claire was and made clear why she would make the decisions that she did in Fallen Kingdom. Most surprisingly, the book does a lot to renovate Dr. Wu’s appearance; he’s driven, but his ambitions are motivated at least in part by his coping strategies for the loss of close coworkers at the first park. It’s a more effective portrait than the mad scientist of the Jurassic World films.

All in all, this isn’t a bad book by any means. It’s light and enjoyable. It’s not really what I would want out of a book in this franchise. But it does character development better than Crichton ever did. With expectations accordingly set, the average Jurassic World fan should be able to appreciate the experience.

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TCW Re-watch: Failings of the Jedi

Star Wars: The Clone Wars offered such a rich variety of stories that there are an endless array of lenses to approach the themes within the series, both those unique to it and those that elaborate on the subject matter of George Lucas’s six-film saga. I’ve gone into this re-watch with a few particular themes and contradictions on my mind, and the most current reviewed episode, “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” (1.18), touches on most of them.

Most interesting to me is the tension between the apparent necessity of the war in the moment in contrast to the audience’s foreknowledge that the Jedi’s mere entry into the war was the trap that doomed them. This narrative emerges clearly enough in the films with the end of Attack of the Clones, with Yoda’s admonition that “the shroud of the Dark Side has fallen.” Perhaps more subtly, that theme is present in the decision on the part of the Jedi and the Republic to assault a Separatist planet in the midst of heightened political tensions to rescue two Jedi and a Senator who had infiltrated that independent system to perform acts of political espionage, sabotage, and murder, and who were being punished under the laws of that system. While leaving the trio to execution would have been an unacceptable ending to audiences and would have seemed too merciless, and while viewers know that the Separatists were preparing their own attack on the Republic, interfering with the laws of another government via open invasion is a shockingly imperialistic act for a group of alleged peacekeepers. And, of course, that theme of loss merely through engagement sees fruition in the collapse of the Jedi and the Republic in Revenge of the Sith.

The Clone Wars readily acknowledges this burden. Yoda does a lot of wrangling with this moral crisis and imminent loss throughout the series. While that’s perhaps most emphasized in the final season’s episodes, the theme is present in moments with Yoda–and in merely observing what the war does to Jedi and clones alike–throughout the show. As Yoda says in “Lair of Grievous” (1.10), “To answer power with power, the Jedi way this is not. In this war, a danger there is of losing who we are.”

And this theme manifests in at least small ways in almost every episode. Returning to “Mystery of a Thousand Moons,” we see the Jedi once again putting innocents in harm’s way in an attempt to win a battle. In this case, Ahsoka, Padme, and several clone troopers are infected with a super-virus and almost die before Anakin and Obi-Wan can provide a cure. Padme’s a senator. Ahsoka is literally a child who is nonetheless invested with the powers of a military commander. And the clones have been manufactured to fight and–as Rex notes in the episode–to die, yet the Jedi were perfectly willing to enlist them and use them as though they lacked in personhood or choice (a damning decision no matter how many Jedi befriended them between battles).

Yet that super-virus is another example of the seeming necessity of the war. The recreation of the Blue Shadow Virus for biological war in “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” and in the virus’s eponymous episode (1.17) is a shocking atrocity, intended to quickly wipe out whole ecosystems on hundreds of planets. In the same arc, the Separatists have blockaded a planet with a force field that kills anyone who tries to leave orbit, seemingly with the intent of preventing the export of the one raw material that can be used to produce a cure to the virus. Similarly, in “Defenders of Peace” (1.14), the Separatists intend to test a weapon that wipes out all organic life in its blast radius but leaves droids behind–and their intended target is a village of pacifists. Messaging consistently reinforces a pro-war mentality, at least in the moment. “Defenders of Peace” and its companion “Jedi Crash” (1.13) have no room for pacifists; the ideology is portrayed as too naive to actually survive without outside intervention by occupying defenders. Certainly there are historical precedents where passive resistance or acquiescence have not halted or appeased a bloodthirsty oppressor. Yet, to complicate things further, the “Jedi Crash” arc is immediately followed by “Trespass” (1.15), which actually provides for a scenario in which peaceful diplomacy is the ideal solution in contrast to aggressive interventionism.

If nothing else, the show highlights how messy war and conflict are. Moral solutions are not always apparent. The Jedi, even early on in the show, frequently cross the line of acceptable behavior, but that line-crossing often achieves results. For specific examples, contrast “Cloak of Darkness” (1.9), in which Ahsoka brushes off Master Luminara Unduli’s warning that “terror is not a weapon the Jedi use” because her threat, which does (momentarily) convince an imprisoned Nute Gunray to cooperate, “wasn’t serious,” with Anakin’s threat in “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” to kill mad scientist Nuvo Vindi completely failing to produce results (and actually giving Vindi another opportunity to gloat).

Lastly, one little item of head canon that I’ve been toying with for a while is that some version of the Mandalorian Wars and the subsequent Jedi Civil War of Knights of the Old Republic actually happened, and that this resulted in a radical shift in Jedi dogma. We at least have confirmation of a Mandalorian-Jedi War, but it’s the latter war that’s more significant to me. Revan and Malak rushed off to join the Republic in defeating the Mandalorians, in opposition to the Jedi Order’s mandate to stay out of the war, but their experiences turned them to the Dark Side. Revan’s later redemption was the only thing that could stop Malak, and he went on to pursue a larger threat outside of the galaxy. Other Jedi who went to war did not necessarily fall to the Dark Side. The Jedi Exile, for instance, chose a life of nomadic wandering following her actions at the Battle of Malachor (a battle that has been partially introduced to the canon, as well). Her eventual return to the major events of the galaxy stopped another festering Sith threat, and it is implied that she and her disciples helped rebuild a decimated Jedi Order. (Light Side decisions and their resultant outcomes in video games were typically perceived to be closer to canon during the run of the EU, and even in this canon-reboot era, that assumption seems to me a valid starting point for discussing the state of the old EU lore.)

The implications of the first two games are cast to the wind to enable the direction of The Old Republic and its companion novels, like Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan, which conveniently wiped Revan and the Jedi Exile off the board. I’m not so impressed by the idea of Jedi and Sith joining together to combat a larger threat; it happened surprisingly often in the old EU, it seems counter to the core messaging of Lucas’s films, and it seems like something that exists in Star Wars: The Old Republic largely as a justification for players to join the Sith faction without necessarily being pure evil. So let’s set aside the implications of everything post-KOTOR II.

With that division of the franchise in place, I rather like the idea that Revan, the Jedi Exile, and their followers would have forced a radical rethink in Jedi philosophy. Perhaps the Jedi, over time, would have felt that earlier official involvement by the Jedi Order in curbing the Mandalorian expansion would have stopped a lot of cruelty and death–and would have prevented the rise of the Sith Lords that followed. The Jedi Exile, in particular, would have been a model for a more interventionist Jedi Knight. This change in doctrinal thinking could have resulted in an over-correction that could have made the Jedi all too willing to hop into aggressive pursuit of peacekeeping operations. The reform spirit of the Jedi Exile would have faded into institutional tradition over the centuries, such that the shift in Jedi mindset would have only served as another pillar of dogmatic thought for later generations of Jedi leaders. Such a mindset would have primed them to hop straight into the Clone Wars, before cooler heads (mostly a more reflective Yoda) could prevail, and with the assumption that they were fully in the right. I think The Clone Wars and its depiction of the last years of the Jedi Order provide some ammo for that theory.

(By the way, in my full version of this head canon, which veers hard into amorphously formed fan fiction, Bultar Swan offers a lot of storytelling possibilities as a potential Jedi who quickly sees the entry of the Jedi into the business of war as detrimental. I tend to imagine her getting the hell out of the Order and the war shortly after Geonosis, after seeing just what it takes to kill and seeing the Jedi leadership all too willing to keep going down that path. But that’s getting way off topic for this post.)

I don’t plan on regularly discussing The Clone Wars over the course of this re-watch, but I do suspect that I’ll have an occasional update as this gradual viewing continues. I’ve only watched the show in full once before, and this new trip through has been quite enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Recommendation: Manila in the Claws of Light

What follows isn’t exactly a review; nor is it analysis. It’s just a recommendation of a classic film that I only recently discovered.

I had the pleasure of recently watching Manila in the Claws of Light, a 1975 Filipino noir film directed by Lino Brocka, produced and with cinematography by Mike De Leon, based on the novel of the same name by Edgardo Reyes and adapted to screen by Clodualdo Del Mundo Jr, and released in the midst of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos. In sum, it’s about the crushing oppression and despair experienced by the urban working class. Julio Madiaga (portrayed by Bembol Roco) is a simple fisherman who moves to Manila in search of his missing girlfriend, Ligaya Paraiso (Hilda Koronel), who was coerced by a strange outsider woman to move to the city with the promise of a factory job and education. Julio struggles to make ends meet as a construction laborer, encountering corruption and labor violations (including terribly unsafe working conditions) and discovering the worst slums of the city where some of his coworkers live. Ligaya, meanwhile, has been forced into prostitution. Julio most make desperate choices to stay alive, and yet we also see the working class friends he makes standing together in solidarity (mostly) to try to make it to another day. The film builds toward Julio finally rediscovering Ligaya, who is virtually imprisoned, with its final act devoted to a plan to escape. The entire arc of the movie is a series of tragedies, scenarios always worsening whenever the slimmest sliver of hope manifests.

The structure of the story is couched in intrusive flashbacks, especially in the first act, which can be disorienting and which reflect the protagonist’s exhausted, overworked frame of mind and his driving goal. Scenes of life on the streets of 1970’s Manila are bleak and powerful; at times, it almost feels documentary. The music is eerie, often anxiety-inducing, and frequently in jarring dissonance with the ambient sounds of the city, which typically crush in on the action. Manila’s streets constrict on the actors and audience as people swarm about with their own lives. Violence is commonplace and random. The few beautiful shots of city high-rises almost always frame them in the distant background, unreachable or uninhabitable by the core cast of characters. Public parks can be beautiful but also are threatening and clearly position Julio as out-of-place.

A few weeks ago, I’d never heard of the film. Now, it’s one of my favorite neo-noir works, up there with Taxi Driver and Chinatown. Thanks, Indianapolis Public Library system! This was a Criterion Collection remastered release of the film, and in addition to special features, it included a very thoughtful essay by film scholar José B. Capino regarding the movie and the director.

Manila in the Claws of Light is beautiful, disturbing, and intense, and I highly recommend it.

Review: BlacKkKlansman

I cannot imagine leaving BlacKkKlansman without a strong emotional reaction. In the film’s final moments, when it cuts from the narrative to footage of present-day racist gatherings and racist violence and finally ends in solemn silence, it felt as if a sobering pall had settled over the audience, who digested a few moments in silence before beginning to leave the theater. For me, white supremacist groups in America have felt so distant and ridiculous, not so much a threat as an absurd caricature, but this film portraying fictionalized events in 1970’s Colorado Springs reminded me of just how virulently evil and close and dangerous racism could be. I have remained perpetually disgusted with Trump’s administration, but I had the cooling distance of a native-born, white, middle-class American male, and with the never-ending string of controversies and scandals, most seeming more ineffectual and frivolous and unchanging, I stopped being so angry without ever realizing it. It’s a privilege to not be angry, to not be constantly troubled by the sudden confluence of blatant white supremacists and longstanding racist institutional structures, and this film reignited that anger and reminded me that a good portion of Americans don’t have the privilege of turning a blind eye to the never-ending racism in this country.

Some left the film confused–I know that. I overheard a discussion between mother and daughter, the mother hesitant and reserved in her evaluation of the movie, disbelieving. Some might be angry at the film itself, either for allowing nuance and complexity or for being too militantly activist. Others might challenge the factual events underlying the story (although any dramatic film actually trying to tell a story with any degree of artistic merit and structural cohesion will of course deviate from and embellish facts–it’s not a documentary). I’ve heard and seen some of these reactions emerging. The only sure thing is that people will react upon seeing it.

The film validates black anger and various black responses to a racist system and to individual racism, but it still credits those black people accomplishing good by working within the system rather than opposing it, and it recognizes white allies and other minorities who can work together and produce positive good in or out of the system, supporting or working in parallel with black activists. That was a fascinating trick, to simultaneously validate black anger against white people, to understand how someone could feel that all white people are bad, and yet to see that there are good white people who can be counted on to make a difference. Part of the success of this “trick” is that the film fundamentally recognizes that there is no single universal experience, that white people and black people don’t fit into monolithic demographic groups without any divergences or varied opinions and experiences. Even police officers are shown to inhabit a variety of attitudes, some compassionate and good, some obviously racist and power-hungry and evil, some subservient to additional power structures and punishing of those who push against them. But it’s still a trick that I can’t fully explain, because it’s not something revealed in a single moment. That nuance, the validation of the anger of many black people and the recognition of the range of attitudes among white and black people and among those within institutions of power in this country, might be what the film is about–one of the many things the film is about.

Other things the film is about: how individual and institutional racism are separate but serve similar oppressive functions and ultimately work together to mute or neuter progressive change; how a certain brand of conservative politics and religion, coalescing around a cluster of issues including crime, immigration, and entitlements, has given racism a reformed look; how certain politicians (irrespective of party or platform), from Wilson to Nixon to Trump, have directly benefited from playing to the concerns of white supremacists; how gun ownership and ready access to firearms is simultaneously a tool of white supremacists and a potentially empowering protective force for minorities; how even the most absurd, caricatured, cartoonish racism can be violent and dangerous and never really vanishes; and how even people with good intentions and admirable goals can still do terrible things (Stallworth starts the movie spying on the black power movement so that the police leadership can keep the minority population in check). That’s not an exhaustive list by any means, and it’s a combination of themes that are clearly intended by the creators and also inferred by my own viewing.

BlacKkKlansman is a film that sits squarely in the director-as-auteur tradition; Spike Lee’s fingerprints appear to be all over it. That said, I only know of Lee and his films by reputation, not familiarity, and so I can’t comment coherently on this or say what does or does not reflect his previous works. The cinematography was excellent (Chayse Irvin was director of photography), but this is definitely a film that benefits from careful editing and post-production. Posters, film clips, radio transmissions, music, and documentary footage flit between diagetic and non-diagetic. A particularly powerful moment flashes up images of a rapt audience reacting to a speaker, faces illuminated against a black void, showing the power of the speaker’s impact and the personal relationship between speaker and listener that is felt in a particularly moving oratory. The film is sometimes surreal, and its surreal moments develop an emotional authenticity. So even while the movie feels like an auteur production, it’s impossible not to easily recognize the influence of editing and the art, visual and special effects, and sound design departments in crafting a masterful whole.

The pacing is spectacular for the over-two-hour run-time. The dialogue is smart; it’s at times repulsively, unbearably hateful (which, in this context, is incredibly appropriate to show just how insidious and terrifying racism is), while at other times it’s charmingly, playfully light. No matter how dark the film gets, and it gets very dark, there is a lot of humor, and even some of the darkest moments can be funny, if uncomfortably or shockingly so. (Writing credits were given to Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee; the film was based on a book by the actual Ron Stallworth.) Interestingly, the plot feels very much like neo-noir: an investigator unravels a series of discoveries that result in a small win that is in turn ultimately crushed under the weight of institutional corruption and fails to produce lasting change. The comparisons are more numerous than that, but even in a nutshell, the noir influences are obvious enough. It makes sense: the narrative conventions of the genre work rather well for a story about battling against organized racism without ever really making a substantial dent. The local Klan by the end of the film has been somewhat defanged, but not deterred, and the organizational structure and political pressures in the police force cause efforts to curtail the Klan to be derailed just as soon as the undercover cops begin to make progress. They are too successful in stopping the worst of the Klan, such that the threat seems unimportant to higher-level officials.

And the film is full of fantastic acting. Most noteworthy are the leads (as is appropriate, I suppose). John David Washington has such natural charisma and a gleaming white smile, while his eyes alone are able to project such a range of emotions, even while the character of Ron Stallworth is often reserved or inhabiting a role. Adam Driver dripped sarcasm but always projected a heart of gold as Ron’s undercover partner Flip, and he has his own emotional arc as Flip finds himself reflecting more on his Jewish identity and how he has passed as “white” even as he burrows into the role of white supremacist to infiltrate the KKK. Laura Harrier conveys intelligence, passion, flirtatious charm, and self-righteous fury as Patrice, a black student union president, activist, and Ron’s romantic interest. Topher Grace is very hilarious as a young David Duke, and while I assumed he was just doing outright parody, the ending and very real clip of the current-age Duke made me realize that the performance was hilariously spot-on. And the cast of cops, activists, and white supremacists in supporting roles is deserving of note, as well–the supremacists in particular shockingly had a range of roles that, while all detestable and often idiotic, allowed at least local KKK leader Walter (Ryan Eggold) to seem charming and intelligent and almost-sympathetic. (I could say a lot more about the character of Walter–one of the interesting choices of the film was that it gives him a moment to explain why he’s a racist, but never explores it further; we don’t know if his history of violent encounters with black people is true or false, and ultimately it’s irrelevant, because nothing would support his racism. Actually, each of the characters represents something worthy of discussion about white supremacists, including the role of white women in these organizations.)

You may not like BlacKkKlansman. You may not agree with the film’s apparent messages. You may walk away with a variety of emotions or experiences that I cannot fully predict. But I’m sure that you will react. See it, and see it soon.

Review – 1898: Los Ultimos De Filipinas

This was a strange and interesting movie to come across on Netflix. It’s a war story, a psychological horror, and a fairly accurate (though biased) recounting of a unique historical event. The plot is easy to summarize: Spanish soldiers sent to garrison the town of Baler in the midst of the Philippine Revolution are besieged by Tagalog resistance fighters; cut off from the outside world and abandoned by the Spanish government, the defending troops continue to hold out months after the end of Spanish influence in the islands and into the early occupation by the Americans.

A Spanish-language, Spanish-produced film, 1898: Los Últimos de Filipinas (directed by Salvador Calvo; written by Alejandro Hernández) could have been a standard patriotic tribute. It could also have been a radical, anti-imperial production. Instead, it lands somewhere in the middle, reminiscent of works like Heart of DarknessApocalypse NowDances with Wolves, or The Last Samurai–works that criticize colonialist, imperialist, militant policies, primarily through the psychological impact on the (mostly white) individuals sent to enforce them, and only secondarily through often grotesque violence committed en masse against the oppressed indigenous communities. 1898 inherits the awkward tropes of these other narratives; whether that’s through familiarity or just the nature of anti-colonial narratives filtered through the lens of the former colonial power, I’m not sure.

I’ll miss plenty of the tropes, but I’ll target a few. We have a charming white male lead who is sensitive and artistic but who turns to opium and is physically and emotionally scarred in horrible ways by the war. And–for double our money!–we have yet another charming white male lead who defects to the natives (this happens early on, and his character decreases in importance, serving more as a representation of escape for the bulk of the soldiers still trapped inside their defenses). We have upper leadership acting in stubborn and stupid ways, fixating on patriotic fervor and a dogged belief in superiority over the natives to keep fighting past anything sensible. We have natives in three roles: the noble warrior, the tempting women who serve as a siren call away from “civilization,” or the faceless and nameless hordes who die in wave after wave. And we of course have a senseless conflict motivated by profits for an absent ruling class.

I shamelessly enjoy a lot of this genre of safe, white liberal fantasy about the White Guy Who Does The Right Thing. I recognize it’s massively problematic. I recognize how it often dehumanizes or denigrates native cultures, how these films could be better if they had a greater focus on the indigenous peoples themselves and if they were created by the surviving voices of those same indigenous peoples. I see how having a convenient narrative like this does less to actually challenge the American and European history of empire and more to soothingly whisper to white liberals that if only we had been there, we would have been different. I don’t approve of that, but I can’t help it that these sorts of productions are often really engrossing historical epics! And that’s the case here.

It’s also hard to set aside that this film is beautiful. When soldiers are approaching or leaving Baler, we often get lovely shots pulling back to show just how small and overwhelmed the soldiers are, just how ready the massive jungle is to consume them entirely. Visual allegories are frequently used without much, or any, comment: a crocodile snatches a dog, a spider slowly prepares its trapped prey. When in the “fort” (actually a fortified old church), shots are dark, tight, claustrophobic. It always feels as though the men are practically stumbling over each other, with too little room and too little light. Their faith fails, their health fails, their reserves fail, even as the building fails.

The performances are great too, and the characters in that fort are so varied and vulnerable. Luis Tosar plays Lieutenant Martín Cerezo, an officer forced to take charge after the premature death of their commander; he’s sympathetic, compassionate, and principled at first, but the strain of command and his desire for glory, with nothing back home to look forward to, corrupt him into a cruel dictator. The tempting force that leads him down that dark path is Sergeant Jimeno Costa (Javier Gutiérrez), a survivor from the original fighting forces in Baler and something of a half-mad Kurtz. In contrast, Vigil (Carlos Hipólito), the unit’s doctor, is a rational and empathetic counterbalance who unfortunately goes ignored (Vigil was my favorite character, portrayed with a subtle pathos under his stoic demeanor that gave him perhaps the most complexity of any character in the film). Carlos (Álvaro Cervantes) is the sensitive and naive artist I mentioned; Juan (Patrick Criado) is the defector-gone-native. Carmelo (Karra Elejalde), the town priest, joins the soldiers in the temple and is obsessed with preserving a history of what happens–even while introducing Carlos to opium and showing himself to be a thoughtful philosopher who is perhaps lax in his own faith. And critically, Teresa (Alexandra Masangkay) is a village singer and not-so-subtle spy who is derided as a whore but who also gives the Tagalogs the friendliest face.

While the Tagalog resistance is only rarely seen, they are gradually shown in a different light–in some ways, quite literally. At first, we only see the soldiers at night, charging recklessly at the defenses to be gunned down. I’ll be honest: the faceless, anonymous violence of the freedom fighters seemed so biased in its depiction against the natives that I was close to giving up on the film in the first third, but this improves quickly. When Juan defects, it is because he sees a Tagalog fighter dead on the ground, young and human and lifeless just like the Spanish dead. We gradually start to see more of the Tagalogs, still mostly at night and only from the Spanish perspective. The Tagalogs gradually make entreaties for peace, asking the Spanish to surrender, attempting to inform them about the status of the outside world–but the commanding lieutenant continues to disbelieve. And they do small kindnesses for the Spanish, offering short truces to bury the dead and delivering oranges when the Spanish stocks ran low, though the Spaniards do not show gratitude in return. The Tagalogs mostly move on with their lives, returning to village activities and training their men of fighting age to be more of soldiers. It’s a subtle development, not detailed directly, but by the end of the film the freedom fighters are a true army, with artillery, uniforms, and disciplined soldiers. The Spanish are shown to be the ones out for blood, fighting way past any point to do so. And in the end, the Filipinos accept the Spanish surrender and provide an honor guard out of the fort, proving themselves to be honorable and quick to forgive.

It’s not just a “happy” ending, either. It more or less reflects the actual outcome of the siege. That’s striking to me.

I don’t think we’re ever supposed to be on the side of the occupying force–other than that Spanish viewers might recognize them as military heroes from textbooks or something similar. One character says early on that the natives were fighting for their freedom, while the Spaniards were fighting to save an empire. Even that early on, we are surely meant to see the Spanish side of things while recognizing that between freedom and empire, there’s an obvious right side. We can sympathize at the suffering of the besieged Spanish forces, but even without ever centering the film on the Filipino resistance and villagers, my greater sympathies were always with them, dealing with an occupying force after the rest of the nation had already moved on to the next threat (unfortunately, yet another occupying force).

The premise of the film is simple enough, but its execution is close to masterful. The lack of a distinct Filipino counter-narrative is a detriment, but this movie is morally complex, thoughtfully disturbing, and often quite beautiful.