Zero Dark Thirty: Bigelow’s dark moment

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There’s a reason Zero Dark Thirty is in the news for its torture controversy. I watched Bigelow’s appearance in Colbert Report a week or so ago and not once did she talk about the film. Let me rephrase that, not once did she mention a word about the film as a work of screen but rather the controversy surrounding the film. Sure, may be it was her 60 second for promoting the film. What about Jessica Chastain a week earlier on Jon Stewart. She, too, never said a word about the film’s main point. She implied that the film generates dialogue by asking us “Where do you want to go?” as the films last words. My answer was, “I want to go online and ramble about how much time you wasted building this thing up only to never deliver!”

Let me back up a bit and acknowledge my misconceptions. I went into this film only knowing the controversy surrounding the torture used and [SPOILER ALERT] Osama will be captured and killed. In Chastain’s interview with Stewart, she implied that the film will be seen from Maya’s (Chastain’s character) angle. I expected the film to introduce me to Maya and at least get me to view and understand this whole ordeal through her eyes. Bigelow did this brilliantly last time around with Hurt Locker. I got to know the Iraq/Afghan war through the eyes of a battle zone addict marine which helped me gain a new perspective as opposed to my simpleton assumptions. Even a documentary like Restepo, through clever editing and camera work, allowed me to understand the dynamics of a regiment. Zero Dark Thirty offered none of this. Who didn’t know that torture was used? Whether it was cohesive in the attainment of high ranked terrorists’ information will never be clear but enough has been written and filmed about it. The subject of torture was in the news well before this film was even conceived. Most people were aware of the Abu Gharib scandal. And Bigelow’s new film added nothing to the discussion.

Now Chastain’s interview tried to imply that Maya was the focal point of the film. And here’s why the film failed. Maya is as shallow as a low tide. There’s a brilliant bit in the trailer where she’s asked by the CIA director whether she has done anything else other than Osama’s pursuit. She answers, “Nothing, nothing else.” And that summed her up for me. We know nothing about her. Whether this is to allure us into the mysterious background of CIA operatives then it fails terribly. In an ironic twist her coworker, the interrogator/torturer we see in the beginning of the film, happens to have deeper character background than Maya. He has his domesticated birds in an army camp, tries to leave the Middle East after staying for little too long for his own liking and acts like a mentor to Maya. We understand why he does the things he does. This is not to say that we are tricked into agreeing with him but at least we understand his side. Maya is quite the opposite. Some will say that she was fueled by the loss of her friend, Jessica but that isn’t even doing the film any justice (Side note: I loved Jessica. She was probably the best character in the whole film). As a matter of fact, their relationship felt very forced. From the earlier scenes you could tell that the two were written just so they could be friends. Typical manly-serious-female character against homely-girl coworker. (What is it with female characters forced to appear as masculine as possible in order to be regarded as strong?) Feminism film theories aside, this whole dynamic was just wrong.

Now to anyone who feels that Maya was even remotely deep I pose one question. Remove Maya from the screen. Replace her with anything. Does the film feel significantly different?

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Looper: The rebirth of classic sci-fi

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BEFORE YOU PROCEED, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THE FILM (…..and why haven’t you watched this?)

It was last summer when I watched the trailer to Looper. It was a promising time for Joseph Gordon-Levitt as he seemed to be picking up gigs left and right. At the time it looked like another cash-in on this new A-list figure before Daniel Radcliffe is old enough to not be associated with wand jokes. I wondered whether JGL was taking it all in to quickly without learning to say no. Premium Rush had just come out and JGL was the lead actor as a NYC bike messenger being chased around by cars due to a package he was in charge of delivering (?). At least that was what the TV spots led me to believe. Let’s not forget his role in The Dark Knight Rises, his second work with Christopher Nolan (and hopefully many more to come between the two). Not surprising, I was waiting for JGL’s first bad casting decision because it seemed all too inevitable.

My initial reaction to Looper was the complication with time travel plots. Ever since Terminator 2, there hasn’t been a film that involved time travel and pulled it off (12 Monkeys probably comes the closest). The setback with time travel on film is you need to base the plot on it while fully aware of the complicated paradoxes that emerge. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban struggled with this and to this day it’s a well known joke around the fan base. Terminator 2 succeeded by never quite focusing the story on time travel but rather the consequences of time travel events. Looper seemed to take the second and dirty road. The trailer allowed just enough to know that the film will be completely engulfed with paradoxes. Why do they send these guys back in time to die? We get it, you need someone else to do your dirty work, but surely the writer could’ve used better story devices. Is time travel worth the risk? Why would you risk your audience over-thinking while watching the film?

How wrong I was. Looper knew its audience. And it did answer my first question rather early. When 30-year senior Joseph Simmons (Bruce Willis) from the future and the present Joseph (JGL) sit in a diner, they tackle this issue head on. Let me allow the dialogue to explain my case:

Old Joe (Bruce Willis): It’s hard staring into your eyes. It’s too strange.
Joe (JGL): Your face looks backwards.
Old Joe: Yeah.
Joe: So, do you know what’s gonna happen? You done all this already, as me?
Old Joe: I don’t wanna talk about time travel shit. Cause if we start talking about it, then we’re gonna be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws. It doesn’t matter.
Joe: If I hurt myself it changes your body. This is what I do now, change your memory.
[suddenly old Joe snaps in anger]
Old Joe: It doesn’t matter!

Looper screamed at us to shut up. It knew that we are looking for answers that don’t matter and wouldn’t solve the current problem. Just like the young arrogant Joe, we wanted to find a fault with the logic used just so he could dismiss the entire plot. It’s a form of composition/division fallacy that is quite common with audiences. I have been guilty of this quite a fair number of times.

On the subject of self awareness, let’s not forget Jeff Daniels’ character that mocks JGL. He smirks, “The movies that you dress like, are just copying other movies. Goddamn 20th century affectations. Do something new!” Could the film be any clearer? And he, too, clears up on the confusion of time travel paradoxes, “On top of which, a man from the future runs free long enough — [in a disgruntled and frustrated voice] — this time travel shit fries your brain like an egg.” It is quite clear the film knows it stands on pillars that might or might not exist (Schrödinger’s pillars?). But the fact it’s not falling, makes it pointless to worry about the pillars.

One of the classic rules of cinema is simply “Show, Don’t Tell”. Sci-fi as a genre benefits a lot from this. Blade Runner is a renowned Sci-fi film and I can vouch that its accolades stem from respecting this rule. Looper took lessons from this. The Mise-en-scene is full of interesting bits that we never quite fully explore. Here is where Sci-fi gains an advantage over other genres. Directors and writers get to take us on a tour in their worlds and allow us for the 2 hours to explore as much as we can. Minority Report allowed us to wonder whether targeted advertising was appealing or creepy. Blade Runner was filled with police paranoia and their omnipresence. These anecdotal memories are what stick longer than the actual plot. Looper introduced telekinetic characters who constantly played with lighters. It introduced eye-drops as recreational drugs. To some extent, it felt like the film didn’t even need a plot. The mere fact I get to live in the world for 2 hours suffices. A plot, however interesting, seems to act like a gateway into this magical world. The plot shouldn’t be there to hold together the fictional world. Quite contrary, the world should be large enough to hold up the plot and several others too. This applies to any fictional world whether in film, book or any other work of art. I caught myself imagining the despondent revelation of the telekinetic characters on their seemingly promising powers yielding disappointing results. The eye-drops drugs seemed to have an interesting story as Joe was quite addicted to them. These were heavy elements with equally interesting stories when compared to our main plot. Looper exposed these elements but never said a word about them. Leave it for the imagination.

In a time when the genre seems to be replaced by “comic-book sci-fi” Looper loudly reminded Sci-fi, “Do something new!” Ironically, ‘new’ involves going back 20 years and learning the core elements of classic Sci-fi. I would go as far as claiming that Looper would fit in any of the past 4 or 5 decades. It has easily established itself as timeless.

SeaHawks and Tanzania

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One of the most bizarre things I’ve encountered this week was the new obsession of Tanzania that has taken over in Seattle, particularly the sports franchises in the city. According to several Seahawk’s fans I’ve talked to this week, ever since they put up the banners in one end zone at the CenturyLink field, Seahawks haven’t lost a single home game while scoring more touchdowns at the ‘Tanzania’ endzone. Their home record this season was flawless. Fans have been taking Tanzanian flags to games while some taking them to sports bars. I’m not so sure how I feel about this.

Seattle Sounders haven’t been poor themselves. It was a couple of years back when Mrisho Ngassa, well known Tanzanian player, had a trial at Sounders and even featured in a game against Man Utd. He never broke into the team and moved back to Tanzania but he was the first player from the Tanzanian Premier League to move to MLS. I’m not sure how deep the co-operation between the league and Sounders works but as far as I know, they have some sort of link between the two. It was surprising enough for an MLS team to pick up a relatively not-so-well known player outside Tanzania without such a program existing (although he’d held trials unsuccessfully at West Ham too).


*I wrote this about 2/3 weeks ago and never knew what I was trying to say. After Seattle were knocked out today, I thought I might as well publish it before I decide to erase it forever. Tough luck Seahawks. I understand how it feels considering the match at Old Trafford we witnessed today.

‘Gamification’ Effect

One of the things I’ve always been wary of is the idea of ‘gamifying’ work places as the video explains. I am an avid user of reddit and recently I’ve seen the decreasing quality of links and constant barrage of marketing links. This could be attributed to people chasing intangible and irredeemable points mainly for a sense of belonging. But I would go as far as claiming that it is a result of gamification of social media.

I remember back in one of my management classes, a class I prefer to forget, we had a game simulation as a class exercise. It was designed to teach us business running and decision making. It didn’t take long for the whole ordeal to turn into a contest on who could get the most points in a digital simulation. It stopped being about how to successfully circumnavigate the bureaucratic process and quickly became a race on who could click the right buttons. Mind you this was an exercise that winning ensured a straight A without the extra step of writing a report on the simulation. And win we did. Did I ever learn anything from it? Besides that it only takes 2 people to win a simulation, I’m not even sure what the lesson was. Oh, let’s not forget the friends who asked for help in the following semesters because it became clear the simulation just required someone to know the right time to press the right buttons. And they all won too (I’m still waiting for my payment guys).

One of the things the video mentions is the idea that gamification is a marketing tool. And as all marketing is concerned, it is a popularity contest. Whoever achieves the quickest results is the winner. Whoever sells the most wins. It automatically becomes an insecurity button. If you don’t have so&so you will definitely stagger behind which means you will fail. It overrides the whole concept of constant review on the goals a particular project is trying to achieve. Posting insightful links becomes a contest on who can quickly get 1000 points through whichever means. Learning how to make business decisions becomes who can quickly click the right buttons at the right time. It stops being about how and becomes a when question.

I’m very curious on how the marketing side of this will develop. It is only in its infancy stages after all. Its evolution will be very interesting. Will facebook start giving achievements like “The Hermit: You’ve successfully not added any friends in the last month”? Will twitter start having badges like “Social Awkward: You’ve twitted 20 celebrities without a reply”? Jokes aside, this could be pivotal in the next couple of years. Marketing gurus are catching up on this. Some websites like Huffington Post have already been using this (although to a limited extent) for a while now. Sharing links on social networks can be changed into a marketing game. A simple badge could be the difference.