Saw (2004)

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It’s mostly nonsense, but it’s an admirable piece of nonsense.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. I still meet some people who are impressed by the ‘ideas’ in this film. Jigsaw’s ideas are retarded. Not only do they sound bullshit to anyone a little familiar with antinatalism or right-to-die (This is what happens when people are unfamiliar with pessimistic philosophy), but it doesn’t make sense. Jigsaw rambles about appreciating life, yet he clearly doesn’t. His games are cruel and impossible to win. Plenty of times other people have to die. A person who appreciates life wouldn’t put them in such dangerous situations. Moreover, these horrifying experiences leave people with PTSD. People with PTSD hardly end up appreciating life. They have a high suicide risk.

But Saw is nonsensical from the start, but it’s nonsense with spirit. Somewhere around here is a brilliant, slightly silly and slightly deep psychological thriller. This could’ve easily been Se7en‘s and Cube‘s weirder brother. Jigsaw barely has a presence here, anyway.

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What went wrong? This was before the series became pure Torture Porn. That didn’t happen until the third installment. Rather, it’s an expansion on the claustrophobic thriller. The genre has a built-in emotional appeal. We’re immediately thrown into the psychology of the characters. Human beings love puzzles by nature since, well, the world is a puzzle. Birth throws you into life and you have to figure out what to do with it. Life also happens to be as terminal as Jigsaw’s game (Oh! the Irony!).

For a while, this goes really well. The film moves like a point-and-click game. Writing characters with unique reactions to their surroundings how you avoid directing an actual video game and it works. Lawrence and Adam, even if they aren’t the deepest characters, react differently from the very beginning.

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The art direction is also important, and that’s something the franchise never lost. If you’re telling your story using visuals, make those visuals count. Saw has a rusty, industrial aesthetic. Very few scenes depart from this. Jigsaw’s concept may be moronic, but at least he has a style of his own. The ‘games’ often consist of rusty, broken-down machinery and the rooms always look decrepit and falling apart. It’s the visual equivalent of Industrial Music and I mean that in the best way possible.

Another important aspect – and Saw’s biggest contribution to the world of cinema – is the soundtrack. It’s almost sad how one of the best scores in film history is wasted on this. The ending theme isn’t the only highlight although it’s so epic it should appear in every film. Clouser did a brilliant score consisting of creepy ambiance, metallic drums and buzz-saw guitar riffs. The last 30 minutes owe half their intensity to the soundtrack. A rusty world consisting of broken machinary demands the sound of these machines in the soundtrack.

Clouser is a versatile composer, so it’s not just those noises that are effective. Throughout the films there are some melodies and rhythms. They’re just as important at adding tension. What makes Clouser’s score so different is the fact he chose a specific sound that fits the film’s visual style. Most composers just stick an orchestra that gets louder in the climax. Clouser uses a few strings, but “Hello Zepp” has those rusty electronics, too. Listening to the soundtrack alone, it’s easy to forget how the film doesn’t live up to its promise.

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The film has various flaws, but it’s hard to pinpoint the big problem. Something those hold the film back from being Very Good, but what is it? It’s not the ridiculousness of the premise. Jigsaw’s presence isn’t felt too much and the twist in the end is just too bizarre to hate. Unlike other claustrophobic thrillers there are plenty of scenes in the outside world, but that’s a better option than info dumps. The direction feels amature-ish, but the unique aesthetic and odd premise points to an undeveloped but unique mind.

Perhaps it’s the needless sadism. The film isn’t as cruel as later installments, but these moments still feel wrong. The fact we’re meant to somewhat agree with Jigsaw is plain sick. He’s a psychopathic torturer who disregards human life and basic rights. The camera often lingers on people screaming in pain, which is uncomfortable. These characters are just pawns in the game anyway. Seeing them being tortured and crying in pain isn’t easy because of that. It’s their lack of humanity that makes their suffering so hard to watch, but also unpleasant and pointless. Fictional characters don’t exist, but they’re meant to portray living human beings. The disregard the creators show for them is unsettling.

Other small flaws are easy to forgive. The characters may lack a deep psychology, but Gordon and Adam react to the world in their ways. The actors aren’t great but they do put effort. Even little utterances and phrases are spoken differently. The best example is Michael Emerson as Zep. Although the script gives him no unique lines, he imbues his character with the instability that a person in such a position would suffer from.

It’s a shame the film’s legacy was ruined. At first it was called a Se7en clone and now it’s considered the bomb that kickstarted the Torture Porn genre. What it really is, is a bizarre, deeply flawed but fascinating claustrophobic thriller. It’s worth a single watch or two, just to absorb its ideas.

3 Industrial guitar riffs out of 5

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Network (1976)

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Someone decided to take all the literature by Neil Postman and Jerry Mender and make a film out of it. Countless of films and works about technology are praised for ‘staying relevant’. It’s a vague statement. A lot of works remain relevant because many themes are universal. Network is still relevant because it doesn’t actually criticize television, but viral content.

Content becomes viral when it gets people talking. Viral content has built-in emotional appeal. It’s immediate, doesn’t demand too much of us and is escapist. It makes us either mad as hell, or forget that we should be mad as hell.

There was a story about a girl who became an ‘advice animal’, and how this disabled person was exploited for cheap laughs. It’s no different than what the network, or even the world does to Howard Beale. People get their entertainment and their release, so they don’t care that the person on TV clearly needs some help. Sometimes the person has to exploit themselves on TV in order to get ahead. Budd Dywer exploited the viral nature of suicide on TV for his own gain.

Some viral content may seem like it has a noble purpose, but it is all just emotional manipulation. Beale rants and raves about a deal with the CCA. Sure, it got the people to send telegrams to the white house but it did more harm than good. That’s because the people didn’t care about learning or understanding. Viral charities give us a simple cause – an evil corporation, a terrible disease – and encourage us to do something simple to solve it. Problems aren’t just solved by pouring ice on ourselves, and spamming the government with uninformed telegrams only leads them the wrong way.

Of course, there’s great irony in the fact this is a film that criticizes television. A book called Nation of Rebels deals with this situation. Often, ideas are co-opted by the same groups the idea fights against. Television destroys or makes presidents, but both are good for them. Criticizing television can also make for great TV, because every idea can be oversimplified.

This is what’s so scary about the medium and why Jerry Mender doesn’t sound so irrational in his book. No idea is too pure that it can’t be simplified, commodified and stripped of its depth. Both fear and sedation make for great television. Beale hates television, but the institution is so strong that it swallowed him. Instead of fighting television, he made it stronger by criticizing it on television. Instead of people turning off their sets like Beale tells them so, they keep watching to hear his rants against television.

It’s the format that simplifies those ideas. When watching TV, a video of terrorist shooting up the place is more attention-grabbing than their background. These various types of content – terrorists, funny videos, weather are all smashed together with no rhyme or reason. Neil Postman pointed out the absurdity of this, how news is more entertainment than informative.

The information is supplied by beautiful or charismatic people. The presenters choose the content based on what will grab the most attention. The show jumps from one topic to the next with no connection, complete with cool transitions.

While the film doesn’t elaborate too much on the nature of profit (besides a slightly cheesy monologue), it does presents how it harms the news. The purpose of news may be to inform people about the world, but the network needs money. News shows are in competition with all other shows. The only way to compete is create viral content. Diana cares more about viral content for that reason, a story that will grab people’s attention rather than inform them.

It’s a dark film, but not a grimdark one. What makes it so dark aren’t the people but the ideas. Jensen’s monologue is a perfect example of that. It should’ve been a weakness since it lays out an idea, rather than show it. However, it’s both written well and helps the film focus on its purpose. It’s not a story of cruel people being cruel to innocent ones. Rather, it’s how certain ideas – profit, viral content – are so tempting, and make us into cruel people. As Schumacher criticizes Diana, he points out the specific thing that turns her into a profit-chaser. Beale is just as guilty as everyone in the network, since he goes along with his exploitation.

The darkness of the film isn’t like real news. Its purpose isn’t to shock the audience but make them understand. Diana’s main role is to warn us of the appeal of viral news. If it’s hard to watch, it’s only because we see ourselves in Diana. Such a film isn’t misanthropic. It’s concerned about humanity and its nature, so it tries to show us its flaws in-depth rather than just make us hate them.

It does suffer from being very obvious. It has a clear mission statement and never for a second it pretends it’s realistic. People give off long, meanigful monologues that only happen in online communication. The balance is a little off, since it often wants to be and then satirical and then dramatic. Eventually though it settles on being exaggerated instead of realism. This way the writers take advantage of their skill. Even if the monologues are obvious, they’re beautifully written. Jensen’s monologue doesn’t make us hate him, but persuades us.

Network is a brilliant film. It may not have a stylistic quirk to make it viral, but then again the purpose is exist is to criticize the nature of viral content. The only hooks it has are satirical and a few good jokes. It’s a well-written, thrilling film that’s emotionally engrossing and explores its subject matter to the limit. People who think entertainment and thoughtfulness are mutually exclusive clearly haven’t watched this. Besides being a little obvious in places, it’s a brilliant film.

4.5 messages out of 5 mediums

Feminism in Star Wars: Rey Vs. Princess Leia

The new Star Wars¬†film has a woman with a gun shooting people and committing other acts of violence. She also has various other skills. This has been described as feminist by some, in contrast to Princess Leia. If people want more characters (or worse, people) like Rey, then I’m afraid feminism still has a lot to accomplish.

If you praise Rey for her skills and ‘strength’, you’re probably uncomfortable with a female character being a human. This new obsession with resilience, with a power fantasy also leaked itself into discussions around Mad Max. I don’t know which is worse. A power fantasy about violence, or a fantasy about being weak and defined by how a man feels about you.

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Your average Fallout protagonist

Rey has no unique line of dialogue, no reactions that are specific to her that define her personality. Han Solo is a sarcastic, gritty smuggler. Chewbacca is his partner who growls and says whatever is on his mind. Finn is a moral hero who’s too afraid to be a hero. Kylo Ren is an angry teenager dying for a little bit of power. BB-8 is a childish, more energetic version of R2-D2.

What makes Rey unique?

People praised Rey for being strong, for being skilled and ‘surviving on her own’. If you played a Fallout game, you know that’s not much of an achievement. A character survives on a wasteland because the author wrote it so. A character can fix a spaceship because the author put skill points into that area.

Characters are not defined by skills. They are defined by their personalities, their desires and needs and flaws and inner conflicts. These are the qualities that drive stories. If skills were enough, then my Amazon in Diablo II would have been one of the best female characters ever.

The skills of the Amazon don’t move the story of Diablo. Why the Amazon would go chasing after Diablo could be an obsession with morality, or revenge, or desire for glory. Each of these traits would lead to a drastically different story with different themes.

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From one fantasy to the next, we still struggle to draw women as human beings

A hero concerned more with glory would interact differently with characters. They would boast and they would only take missions that will grant them fame. A hero that seeks revenge will have tunnel vision, won’t bother about anything but killing Diablo. In all of these stories the Amazon still has the skills. She can still throw javelins, yet they’re so different.

Princess Leia is more of a human than Rey. She might be a damsel in distress, but that’s her initial role. It’s not her personality. Throughout the film we learn who she is by how she speaks. She’s confident in her position of power. She’s so used to it she speaks to everyone in a bossy way. As soon as she’s rescued she takes command of the gang. Notice how, before they reach Leia they’re a bunch of weird buffons.

Rey doesn’t affect her surroundings like this. I often forgot she even existed. I cannot remember a scene that her personality contributed anything to. There is a bit of ‘tough girl’ persona going on, but it’s not well-developed. Rey screams here and there for Finn to stop holding her hand. Instead of sounding strong, she sounds like a grumpy tsundere. It’s shocking she also didn’t call him ‘baka’.

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Looks feminine, relies on a guy and still has more personality

The tough girl persona can work, of course. Furiosa was a cliche, but the creators (kind of) knew what makes the cliche work. Everything in her appearance pointed to a hero so rugged they have no existence outside of posing with shotguns. She has a distinct look that fits her archetype. Rey’s archetype is more vague. She’s tough, but not in a unique manner. Furiosa was tough in an 80’s action way. She’s inspired by Schwarznegger and Sylvester Stallone – the desexualized human who exists to kill people because it’s fun. Of course, they did tack the whole redemption thing but I already addressed Fury Road‘s failure at feminism.

It’s weird how Western cinema still struggles with female characters. You don’t have to explore anime too much to find diverse casts. Just look to Neon Genesis Evangelion or Attack on Titan. Even shows that rely on sexiness and fanservice, like Freezing, still have a cast that’s as diverse as their design. What’s better is that all of these characters can be developed without hiding their femininity. The characters of Freezing don’t need a tough exterior to fight the Novas.

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Leia isn’t satisfied with just getting rescued – she reacts.

The request for more women who ‘kick ass’ (basically, are violent) is odd. The obsession with power also makes me question whether these people even understand how fiction works. Fiction isn’t a fantasy to escape from reality to. Fiction, like any other art form, brings us closer to reality. It’s supposed to connect to it in some way. It can be anything from exploring pure visual beauty or themes of life and death. A character that is a wish fulfillment is boring.

I wonder how long it will take until this trend will die. Trends come and go, anyway. We now have an obsession with toughness and grimdarkness. We used to have an obsession with escapist brightness. Someday we’ll look at it all and laugh at how stupid we are.

Further reading: Keely’s series of posts on Strong Female Characters

Inside Out (2015)

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Pixar’s films were always deeply psychological. Toy Story wasn’t just a film about funny toys coming to life. It featured a mental breakdown. The main message behind it was that we can’t be anything. We have to understand our limitations and make the best of them.

Inside Out is the most overt psychological film yet. The main setting is, after all, the inside of a girl’s head. It’s also their most metaphorical film to date. Nothing about the film is meant to be taken literally, not even the life of Riley. There is clear meaning behind everything happening outside her head. It’s that meaning that makes this film a success.

I can’t imagine anyone enjoying this film unless they’re past high school age. The fact that Riley is frustrated with the moving isn’t the point. The meaning of moving to a new environment is an extension of the new environments we encounter when we grow up.

Growing up is receiving blows to our core worldview. High school, a new job or a new town makes us question who we are. We’re forced into a new environment and have to make sense of ourselves over again. Riley moving away is paralell to any other radical change in your life.

The same goes for her running away. She’s not running away but she’s running back. She’s trapped in nostalgia. It’s reminiscing over old memories taken to the extreme. Since so far she only knew how to be happy, she thinks that simply going back to the old place means going back to happiness.

Happiness isn’t enough for deep thought, however. It’s often when we’re depressed that we ask questions. It’s when we’re depressed, seeing problems that we actually search for solutions. Sadness also makes us see reality for what it is. When Sadness (the character) colors the core memories with that emotion, it’s the realization that it’s over. You can’t go back.

The original meaning of ‘nostalgia’ is a form of homesickness. The term was coined to describe how Swiss soldiers felt, missing their land. I first felt this fully in the military when I was away from home. Looking back, I noticed how nothing will be the same. I was still with the same people, but how we are now is vastly different from the past. Growing up is having a whole chunk of past to look behind to and feeling sadness over the fact these happy moments ended. That’s why Sadness colors these memories.

Growing up also means seeing the various colors of life. In truth, no moment of our life has a single emotion. Entering a romantic relationship, you’re happy that she said yes and fearful she’ll break it tomorrow. Some people said of their loved ones’ suicide that they’re at least happy their pain has ended.

Inside Out doesn’t recall Toy Story just because of the artificial details (both films feature two characters who are opposites, on a journey of return). The main message behind it is that we should embrace our emotional comlexity. It’s anti-‘Be positive’. It’s amazing how a film with bright colors and cute characters can have such sentiments. It goes to show you that no matter how many gangsters, witty lines and suits you have in your film it doesn’t equal depth.

At this point, talking about the technical details of Pixar’s films is boring. They know their formula. The good old journey of return is back. Since it works, since they have enough visual ideas and depth to make it feel new again it doesn’t matter. After all, it’s the content, rather than the form that’s harder to get right. So if following this pattern means Pixar can focus on the themes and ideas I don’t mind.

There is a small alteration to the formula. Pixar tends to push their journies to the extreme. It’s amazing how always, no matter how hard they push the characters the solutions make sense. This time they’re more restrained. Althugh they had an oppurtunity to roll the snowball more and make it bigger, they didn’t. They stopped it just in time. The grand moment of realization is also more subdued this time. That’s a good thing. Pixar are always one step away from becoming manipulative and after the brilliant behemoth that is Toy Story 3, it’s good to see them more restrained. Success can get you drunk.

Inside Out is as brilliant as people say it is. Of course it’s beautifully animated and cleverly written. What makes it unique and what makes it another classic by Pixar is the deep psychology, the complex emotions and how maturely they treat their material. At this point, it’s ridiculous to call these films for children. Sure, Pixar never has any violent or sexual content but they can say so much without it. They make it seem so simple.

4.5 voices in your head out of 5

Stephen King – Carrie

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It’s odd to read this now. King is a behemoth. People who don’t read books probably know his name and he’s synonymous with Horror fiction. It doesn’t feel like he wanted to be a horror writer in his first novel. There’s blood, cruelty and a general depressive tone. What defines a story is more than these techniques.

At its heart, this is a psychological novel. Its main concern is not with horrifying, but exploring different viewpoints. A lot of characters are pushed to the extreme, especially Carrie’s mother. It doesn’t make them any less understandable. King just makes everyone equally exaggerated.

Carrie’s mom is terrible, but she has reasons for what she does. While she’s an exaggerated portrait of an overprotective mother, she never becomes a strawman. King writes events that make her personality understandable. She was already predisposed to extreme religious views. When so many things happen that only strengthen that position, her already narrow view becomes narrower.

It’s weird to see King forgive his antagonist like this. He didn’t do it in other stories, where someone was evil because of something in the past and ruined the fun for everyone. Margaret White is more of a warning, showing us how we can become so protective (and thus dangerous).

The Evil Hot Girl gets a worse treatment, but it’s still there. Things make sense from her point of view. She’s used to getting what she wants easily. Such people react with anger when people challenge them, especially if it’s to protect a weirdo. Chris was raised in praise of normality. Her cruelty comes from hatred towards Carrie, but the hatred doesn’t come out of nowhere. Carrie was a challenge, a weirdo who made her presence known and that people sided with. Of course Chris will feel threatened.

The novel isn’t about horrifying readers. It’s about bullying. It doesn’t even use this controversial subject as an instigator to spill blood. The first half of the book is concerned with what bullying is and how it can affect people.

There’s an irony here. Parents want to protect their children, especially from bullies. This overprotectiveness can become bullying. Margaret has good intentions, but she still bullies Carrie. Confining, locking away and limiting a person’s freedom is a form of bullying. It’s just as harmful as insults. It’s a form of violence. Margaret tried to protect Carrie from the world, but her overprotectiveness made the world more dangerous since she never taught Carrie how to handle the world.

Bullying doesn’t start from pure sadism. A person becomes a target for bullying when he’s odd enough and don’t know how to react. This what makes the locker room scene so effective. The whole blood-from-vagina thing isn’t an a horror thing. It’s just texture. The purpose of that scene is to show what makes kids bully another. Carrie was a weirdo, getting her period late and not knowing what it is. It’s something the kids can use for their entertainment.

Yes, bullying is that cruel. There was nothing very exaggerated about it. Bullying escelates from insults to such acts of violence, complete with the crowd cheering. Not everyone is going to jump in, though. This is a surprising insight from King. Instead of painting everyone as just out to make Carrie miserable, he recognizes not all of them are evil.

Some of them may even regret. Some of the popular kids are probably busy having too much fun to care. That is far more realistic. Some people will get drunk with power being at the top of the popularity chain. Others will have too much confidence, enjoy their life too much to make time to make someone else miserable.

It’s hard to trust them when you’re used to bullying so much. When you’re a nail, everything looks like a hammer. Carrie isn’t an antagonist but a tragic character. She was pushed around so much that she couldn’t believe a good thing was happening. She is quick to look for how other people will hurt her and jump to conclusions.

The most horrifying thing about the explosion at the end is not all the blood and the damage. It’s the fact we understand Carrie and that her reaction seems reasonable.

There are excerpts from various fictional texts scattered around the novel, and they further emphasize that people were acting based on what they know and what seems reasonable to them. It’s not just a way to show off writing styles. The focus is how each text treats the case – an autobiography with a personal tone a cold interview and an academic text that remains skeptic of everything.

This causes King to spoil his own book. He would continue doing it in later novels, but it doesn’t matter here. The novel relies more in its exploration of viewpoints than withholding information. The fact King already dispenses How It Ends and the Secret Power allows him to spend the rest of the pages developing characters.

It does take a nose-dive in the climax. While it remains fun, all the depth is gone. It’s a typical King climax where everything goes batshit crazy. Gas stations explode, people die, blood pours like rivers and so on. It’s not scary anymore. It’s just one disaster after the next. It moves in brisk pace, but there’s nothing to it.

At least it never becomes too pornographic. King doesn’t waste two paragraphs on drop of blood and keeps the events moving. Still, it’s disappointing. It doesn’t have any of King’s weirdness which lifted his weird stories. It doesn’t develop the characters furhter. The editor went AWOL in that section and it shows.

Overall, it’s a tight book. I guess the reason King’s later works are so unfocused is because he was beyond editors. Here,

3 periods out of 5

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

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A film that’s such an event can’t be this unremarkable. The seventh episode of Star Wars was supposed to be either a rejuvination or a complete disaster. It either proves the franchise has another lifetime in it or destroy its Death Star for good. For all the references, new faces, re-hashed concepts it’s just okay.

The most interesting about it is how it updates the series to 21st century worldviews. Aside from Kylo Ren, who’s a more flawed and humane villain the update does mostly damage. In fact, the movie doesn’t stay true to the spirit of the old films at all.

Millenium Falcon, cute droids and Cloak-and-Mask villains are props. They are not the spirit of the series. The original series was a pulp adventure. It was silly, overblown and never meant to be serious. Everything in it was insane, but it was never cruel.

When the Death Star destroyed planets, all we saw was the explosion. The camera didn’t linger on the suffering because it didn’t matter. Darkness was not important. It was only important to establish that the Empire is so evil they’ll destroy planets for the fuck of it because they’re evil.

This cartoonish approach doesn’t mean you can have emotionally effective or shocking moments. It’s because of the contrast that Vader’s cruelty was frightening. He was a heartless leader backed by an Army of Nonsense. That madness imbued characters with humanity and made Luke a generic moral hero with charisma.

It takes about half an hour until something light-hearted comes in. The opening scene has the massacre of a village which is depressing in its cruelty. It’s a scene more at home for a film about the horrors of war. The presentation doesn’t add any depth but just removes joy.

Compare Jakku to Tatooine. Tatooine was an insane planet. Everyone was weird. Jabba was menacing partly because everything around him was so bizarre. We had aliens with oversized heads playing music and walking cloaks who collected droids.

Jakku is a gloomy post-apocalyptic landscape where nothing happens. Everyone struggles to get by. Life is harsh and that’s it. There are no odd moments, moments of madness and absurdity. Rei is a scavenger who has a hard time making ends meet and the guy shells stuff to is just an unpleasant asshole.

There are enough Fallout games to draw inspiration from to make a convincing Post-Apoc landscape. There’s no reason to settle for this boring gloom. Junktown or Megaton are more lively and realistic places than Jakku.

It’s not that the film fails to capture the magic of the previous chapters. It doesn’t even try. Gone is the wide-eyed approach. Instead, it’s replaced with more serious grimdarkness. Perhaps they know their target audience, which are fanboys who take the films as serious mythologies rather than great adventures.

Rey is also more of a joke than a character. She walks around looking tough and screams at Finn to stop holding her hand. This is a not-so-subtle way to tell you it’s feminist and doesn’t put women into traditional gender roles. It just puts them in new roles, but Rey is just as one-dimensional if she were a damsel in distress.

The makers forgot. Furiosa was a boring character whose purpose was to hold a shotgun. It was Max’s shaking and paranoia that made him real and charismatic.

Finn is much better, and alongside Kylo he provides some grey morality that was missing from the original trilogy.

In most stories, the heroes struggle against a powerful villain. No matter what ideas the character holds, it boils down to who’s a better swordfighter. Kylo Ren isn’t a powerful villain. He simply desires power. He’s not just similar to Darth Vader to evoke nostalgia. He wants to be him and Vader is a shadow that looms over him and affects him.

Kylo is dangerous because of his personality. He’s not in control but impulsive. It’s actually that impulsiveness, that desire for power that makes him so weak. As an expansion of the Dark Side, it’s brilliant. He’s also aesthetically fun. His mask and voice are different enough than Vader, but similar enough to make him a worthy successor.

As for BB-8 who is going to be the mascot of the new trilogy, he’s more needed than it looks. The original droids were brilliant, but BB-8 injects a sense of fun that’s missing from the film.

In many scenes, he’s the only relic of Star Wars’ energy and silliness. He’s a great addition to the droid trio. He’s not a copycat of R2D2 even though he’s another attempt at taking an inanimate object and making him cute. He has a childish, jumpy personality that makes him different than C-3PO’s nervousness or R2D2’s heroism. R2D2 is perhaps Star Wars’ weirdest achievement, creating a vivid character out of a machine. BB-8 is a great successor, but hopefully we’ll see the two interact.

The story itself re-hashes A New Hope, sometimes too much. Some ideas are turned on their heads in an amusing way that expands upon them. They failed in replicating the Death Star’s menace. It’s transformed into a huge gun that’s a hole in a planet.

The first Death Star was menacing because it nonsenscial (why’d you go out of your day to wreck a whole planet?) but symbolizing ultimate destruction. The second was frightening because of its wrecked look, which shows how it leaves other planets. The 3rd one is bigger, but that’s it. There’s no unique features to it and we don’t even a cool shoot that makes us admire it.

Speaking of visuals, the old style isn’t back. The effects are technically better, but they visual ideas aren’t as interesting. I kept looking for some background detail that will catch my eye, a random alien or a ship. The best shots are those that show old Empire vehicles wrecked.

All the details don’t necessarily make for great visual details. Now we can film in darkness, but darkness still obscures the view. That’s the problem with working without limits. With nothing to limit you, you have no obstacles to overcome. You can throw everything in and you don’t think of ways to make it catch the eye.

It’s a good film. It’s not the disaster it should’ve been and it often points that there’s still life to this. It can move the franchise towards a more psychological and morally grey area, but it also points to a worse angle. Grimdarkness and Hollywood Feminism also have a strong presence, suffocating creativity for the sake of looking cool. It’s just a stepping stone. The sequels will tell us more whether this was a good idea.

3 Death Stars out of 5

Vacation (2015)

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The film opens with a series of photos from a family vacation. Something wrong goes in most of them, something that is supposed to be funny. ‘Going wrong’ here means things like a horse urinating, or a child seeing animals having sex.

I don’t go to movies to look at hot women. If I wanted hot women, there’s plenty of places to see them without distractions. In fact, whenever a film tries to dazzle me with how beautiful the actress is, I get the urge to message a philosophical question to a friend so he’ll entertain me. When I find myself enjoying the presence of a hot woman in a film, it’s clear it has nothing else to offer.

Vacation also has Chris Hemsworth showing off his muscles and lack of fat. I appreciate this stab at equality, but I’m not sure it’s worth sitting through an hour and a half of terrible jokes for. Couldn’t they just shot a short video of him flexing and put it on his Facebook page?

There’s an attempt here to make a dark comedy, only it’s not really dark. Like a lot of shitty comedians who use ‘shocking’ content, they’re afraid of going all the way. They gross you out, but it’s just unpleasant.

There are two ways to go about it. You can either go complete light and pretend it’s not dark. That’s hard to pull off, but it worked brilliantly in Borderlands. You can also confront the darkness. Use the jokes not as a way to cheapen the darkness but to magnify it. Make it both dark and funny. That’s why Catch-22 and the anime series WataMote are funny.

The creators put the characters through a lot of hardships, but none of it is meaningful or interesting. They bath in raw sewage, which goes on for 3 minutes. Someone actually thought that extending that scene to 3 minutes was a good idea. It was kind of funny at first when they didn’t realize it, but the scene goes on and on. We see them rubbing shit over themselves for a few minutes, which feel like they’ll never end. How does that extra length contribute to anything? Even splatter films don’t linger so much on the ugly details.

Some people die in this film, which is supposed to be funny. I’m not sure where the joke is in the scene with the suicidal guide tour. He kills himself after his fiance breaks up with him which is pretty sad, but where’s the joke? Wikipedia has a list of unusual death which is both hilarious and terrifying. What’s funny is not that these people died, but that their circumstances are so absurd.

No situation here even tries to be absurd. Things just go wrong. They want to go to hot springs, and they end up in raw sewage. Debbie tries to prove she’s wild at heart but she vomits pitcher of beer she just downed. The older brother finds a pretty girl and along comes the dad to make things awkward.

What defines absurdity is that it’s unpredictible. How funny can you be when every joke is so obvious? It would be easier to stomach if it wasn’t so cruel, though. When your jokes are cruel but lack wit, you just come off as a sadistic bully. Vacation is no different from the Saw films in that aspect. You see characters having a hard time and trying desperately to get out of it.

There’s no joy in here, no pain. They can’t even rely on joyful/depressing contrast to make jokes. The creators are so cruel they don’t allow the characters even a small victory. At least the Saw film have a unique visual style and a killer soundtrack. Vacation can’t justify all the pain it inflicts on its characters.

Ed Helms tries hard to make something good out of the material. Maybe that’s the joke. Maybe I was supposed to laugh at him trying to be funny with such weak material, but at this point I’m sad. The guy stayed for three Hangover films. Can the Coen Brothers take him to one of their movies now? There’s an almost effective scene where his characters break down. Helms tries to inject a little darkness to that scene. Seeing a character breaking down would’ve been truly shocking, but you can hear one of the executives telling him to stop. We’re here to gross out the audience, the executive says. Then Helms walks away like he should’ve done long ago and the car blows up. That’s a clever metaphore for his career.

There’s no reason for this film to exist. The kid behind me laughed a lot, but I also used to find shit and sex funny when I was younger. Now, I found life to be much more crazier and weirder than just these two subjects. Sex and shit can be funny. I have a personal anecdote involving shit, but it’s not just the shit that itself is funny. Mainstream comedy is just as terrible as it always was.

I can’t believe my friends chose this over Inside Out.

1.5 suicidal guide tours out of 5