Category Archives: Trials

Trial: What is the best superhero musical theme of the DCEU?

*Trials is a weekly series in which two writers tackle a proposed question or task. After they’ve written their opening statements, the writers will offer rebuttal arguments against the other’s and for their own, and a third writer will come in to make the verdict.*

This week’s question: What is the best superhero musical theme of the DCEU?

Writers: Harrison Tunggal and Kyle Kizu
Judge: Sanjay Nimmagudda

*Warning: Potential spoilers for ‘Man of Steel’ and for ‘Wonder Woman.’*

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Harrison’s argument:

As this video explains, Wonder Woman’s theme (AKA “Is She with You – Wonder Woman’s Theme”) by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL is basically a Led Zeppelin song — driven by a killer riff bound to become permanently lodged inside your brain, but in a good, “Kashmir” sort of way. The Wonder Woman theme accomplishes what any superhero score should — it represents the character. Wonder Woman is capable and incisive when necessary, a quality brought out by Tina Guo’s razor sharp electric cello riff. As DC overlord Geoff Johns said, Wonder Woman is the best fighter in the DC Universe, and her musical theme reflects this assertion. Simply put, her theme is badassery distilled in sonic form.

When Wonder Woman saves Batfleck in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the cello riff kicks in, the audience can’t help but feel a jolt of adrenaline. The tune is used to similar effect when Wonder Woman takes out a room full of German soldiers in her solo film, Wonder Woman. In this sense, the Wonder Woman theme functions as an element of a film’s set piece — just as CGI (for the sake of this argument) contributes to the design of a set piece, so too does use of the Wonder Woman theme immediately raise the stakes of any conflict. Every time that Wonder Woman’s theme is used, it’s a jolting and exciting moment, one filled with the thrills that superhero films thrive on.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Of greater import, is the type of jolt that audiences feel when Wonder Woman’s theme is used. I’ll preface this by saying that other superhero themes are undoubtedly effective — John Williams’ Superman theme sounds hopeful, and Hans Zimmer’s Batman theme from The Dark Knight Trilogy is darkly pragmatic; both tunes capture the essence of the heroes they represent. But these superhero themes are merely effective, while the Wonder Woman theme is also affective. For the first time, a superhero theme sounds like a call to action. Wonder Woman’s theme is empowering, a source of energy that films featuring her draw on. It’s energy that is communicated to anyone listening to her theme.

Wonder Woman’s theme represents the character’s warrior persona, but the theme goes further, representing all facets of the character. Wonder Woman’s mantra is “It’s not about deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.” The compassion that drives Wonder Woman is inherent in her theme — as “Is She with You” trades biting cello riffs for contemplative string melodies, the song invokes Wonder Woman’s great capacity for love, not just fighting. This sentiment is taken a step further in Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score for Wonder Woman, which alters the implied darkness of “Is She with You” to become a score driven by warmth and idealism.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Additionally, Wonder Woman’s theme is a landmark in film scores, just as Gal Gadot’s portrayal of the character is a landmark in cinema itself. We’ve heard Superman, Batman and Spider-Man represented through music before. But as an introduction to a new character, Wonder Woman’s theme is as significant as Gal Gadot’s performance.

If nothing else, Wonder Woman’s theme is hugely listenable as an individual track. In particular, Tina Guo’s metal cover of the theme will turn your daily walk to (insert something mundane here) into a heroic march into battle.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Kyle’s argument:

It’s a bit unclear what the specific Superman theme in Man of Steel is, but all signs point to “What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?” as the heart of the score’s character. Once that logistical step is taken, though, it’s difficult to think of any other theme as better. This one is just too moving on every level.

Hans Zimmer had an absolutely enormous task ahead of him in crafting an original theme for Superman. That of the 1978 film is iconic, injected into the veins of the character. But the choice to leave it behind was a smart one; it would be almost too camp in a contemporary film with the tone that Man of Steel aims for.

In brilliant manner, however, Zimmer actually doesn’t wholly deviate from that ‘78 theme. He takes the specifics notes of it, and leaves behind its aged sense of melody to adapt them for our contemporary understanding of it.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Zimmer is often at his best when at his most minimal. The end of “Time” from Inception is all that’s needed to make that case. With “What Are You Going to Do,” Zimmer starts with soft and gentle singular piano notes. It echoes the thematic structure of the film; at the beginning of the film, Clark Kent struggles with his strength, with holding so much power despite the gentleness of his core.

The film is all about Clark finding the synthesis of power and gentleness/kindness in a world that isn’t so kind. That synthesis begins with the introduction of the drums and the whirling strings as the piano notes become more forceful. Here, Zimmer’s adaptation of the classic notes find the same kind of awe-striking build and progression of the original. For about a minute and a half, the track almost feels like it’s searching — just as Clark in the middle of the film, despite coming upon his suit and past, is still searching for what it means to be Superman.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

And then the track explodes into wonder that even Wonder Woman’s theme can’t quite match. It’s fascinating what Zimmer does with layers. The layering, in terms of what instruments are being used, where they’re being used and how, is very similar to his work on The Dark Knight Trilogy, but the distinction is in tone. Zimmer is a master of tone and despite this track holding the same kind of bombast that much of his previous work does, there’s an unmissable, undoubtable sense of hope in “What Are You Going to Do.”

Yet, the track does not end with just two minutes of hopeful bombast. Somehow, Zimmer dives back to a sort of humble quietude before exploding yet again.

On purely a musical level, Superman’s theme is magnificent. It’s informed, in every sense, by character and, thus, is able to feed back into how character is shaped in the film.

That Zimmer’s work has become so utterly adored and embraced as this generation’s Superman theme — despite the film’s mediocre reception — is yet another testament to how well-executed and brilliant of a theme it is.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Harrison’s rebuttal:

Kyle, there’s no doubt that Hans Zimmer’s Superman theme is one of the great film scores of all time. The fact that his score can compete with the original John Williams theme is a huge testament to how well the new Superman theme represents the character. To my great surprise, the Superman theme does not actually give the listener the power of flight.

But Zimmer had a template to work from. He had a goal, to make music that embodies hope, but that goal was set by John Williams. In other words, a good Superman score had been done before. You even mention the fact that Zimmer took specific notes from Williams’ theme. While the Wonder Woman theme takes a page from Led Zeppelin, choosing the rock and roll aesthetic of that band was an original interpretation of the character, whereas the Superman theme was less distinctly an original interpretation. In short, it’s easier to choose John Williams as the template for a score, than it is to take Led Zeppelin as inspiration, and forge a new path for Wonder Woman.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Through crafting the Wonder Woman theme, Zimmer, Junkie XL and Tina Guo were treading new ground, and in doing so, all three artists made a contribution to the very character of Wonder Woman. Hans Zimmer redefined Superman, but that pales in comparison to doing the act of initial defining, which he, Junkie XL and Tina Guo did with the Wonder Woman theme. The character of Wonder Woman isn’t the same anymore, because of their work on her theme. There’s no way a comic book reader will open the pages of a Wonder Woman story, and not mentally hear her theme.

And while both the Superman theme and the Wonder Woman theme perfectly encapsulate their respective characters, the Wonder Woman theme has proven more malleable, and adaptable to various films. The Wonder Woman theme, biting and incisive in Batman v Superman was modified to reflect the more compassionate character we met in Wonder Woman. The essence of the theme remains the same, but structurally speaking, it can be modified to fit different films. In Justice League, Danny Elfman tweaks the theme — instead of an electric cello, the theme’s riff is played on horns, reflecting the epicness of the Justice League.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

In contrast, the Superman theme has proven less adaptable. It really only works in the context of Zimmer’s bombast. The fact that Elfman would turn to Williams’ original Superman theme for Justice League illustrates this fact — the sweeping majesty of Zimmer’s Superman theme has yet to work effectively in a non-Zack Snyder film.

Finally, I take issue with the need to stray from the “camp” of the Williams score. There’s nothing wrong with campiness, especially when it’s sincere, and if there’s one thing that’s essential to Superman, it’s that he’s a sincere, saving-cats-from-trees kinda guy. The Zimmer score might convey hope, but I would argue that before being a symbol of hope, Superman is primarily an emblem of goodness. In essence, Superman’s hopefulness stems from his capacity for being indiscriminately good, and that’s a concept that the Williams score captures more effectively.

Most importantly though, the Superman theme lacks the affect of the Wonder Woman theme. At the end of the day, the Wonder Woman theme is a source of empowerment. And while the character of Superman might have been a similar well of empowerment in the past, Wonder Woman has arguably become this generation’s Superman. It’s only fitting that her theme surpasses Superman’s.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Kyle’s rebuttal:

Harrison, you mention how Zimmer had a template, but that’s not any sort of knock. If anything, it’s a testament to the fact that Zimmer had to follow something so iconic — a daunting task — and still made something both informed by the original, but also distinctly its own. Most don’t even realize that it takes notes from the ’78 version, but everyone feels a renewed, modern sense of Superman. That’s a great achievement, not a knock in any way.

The Wonder Woman theme is, undoubtedly, awesome, but in it lies plenty of issues. You argue for its badassery. I can’t say anything against that. But I can say that the theme does less character work than you give it credit for.

Firstly, the theme uses the Man of Steel score. Between 3:25 and 4:10, there is a literal lift of Superman’s theme. Any sense of hope that “Is She with You?” builds for Wonder Woman’s character is marred by the fact that the only soft moment in the track is wholly define by Superman’s music. There’s no other sense of quietude that is its own.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Secondly, her theme isn’t malleable because it had to be adjusted for. Gal Gadot, herself, says that Batman v Superman got the character of Wonder Woman wrong. So, the character work that the theme does in that movie is off. Wonder Woman had to course correct. This sense of unending goodness in her character is more defined by Patty Jenkins’ direction and Gadot’s performance in her solo film than it is by the track that’s based in a movie where Wonder Woman gives up on mankind — something we now know she would never do.

Wonder Woman’s theme may be what people think of, but that’s only because no one had done it before. It’s easily possible that, hypothetically, another composer’s theme would be what people think of — because it’s the first.

It’s also arguably only so memorable because of its badassery. Plus, memorability does not mean superior. The feat of creating something that’s iconic on its own despite something so iconic coming before it is greater than creating a badass start. One can look to the rest of each character’s scores as evidence. I remember nothing of the rest of Gregson-Williams’ score other than a general notion of goodness. With Man of Steel’s score, I remember distinct tracks.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Since we haven’t seen Justice League yet, you can’t genuinely leverage it. Wonder Woman’s theme may be adapted, but we don’t really know how it functions in the film — perhaps poorly. The same goes for Elfman’s choice use the ’78 theme. He actually says he’s using it for a rather dark moment, and we don’t know how much Superman is in the movie and what exact Superman we’re getting (black suit or not), so we don’t know what the function is. We can’t make arguments based on what we don’t know.

I also think you misunderstand how I talk about “camp.” There’s nothing wrong with “camp.” But to think that it’s negative to stray from it for this new film — a film entirely different in tone both as a story, but also musically in that we literally don’t think in the same ways of melody anymore — doesn’t make sense to me. Zimmer did necessary work to modernize Superman and you even say that the score is one of the best of all time.

Finally, Wonder Woman may be this generation’s Superman. But that’s only true if we’re talking about the films. Man of Steel’s score perfectly evokes a contemporary sense of Superman. The movie might fall short elsewhere, but that doesn’t take away from the work that the theme does. So listen to it and adore it, even if they didn’t love the film. While Wonder Woman is a better film, Zimmer’s Superman theme transcends film.

Sanjay’s ruling:

Wow. First of all, I applaud both Kyle and Harrison for two holistic arguments that truly elevate the discourse surrounding movie scores to an extremely thought-provoking level. Harry, your assertions in exploring the malleability and nigh ubiquitous nature of “Is She with You?” is inspiring. Kyle, the depths to which you explore Zimmer’s intricacy in crafting a new theme for an iconic character is revering. If I could, I would call this a tie based solely on the eloquent, scrupulous analysis of these two tracks by the both of you, but in reading your rebuttals to one another and subsequently re-reading your original arguments, I think I’ve made a decision – albeit begrudgingly.

Harry, you mention how Wonder Woman’s theme is overtly affective. It impacts how the character’s perceived not only in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but also in the likes of her comic series, future movies and so on. You also mention that the song is not merely a song but rather a capsule that encompasses melodic allusions, character motivations and qualities as well. While I wholly agree with you on those points, I do have to concede that Kyle’s argument that creating a theme for a hitherto unseen character on film, while undoubtedly momentous, is a less daunting task than re-defining a cultural icon auditorily.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Why do I say this? Well as Kyle points out, in creating Superman’s new theme in Man of Steel, Zimmer was fighting an uphill battle. John Williams’ uplifting score from Superman ‘78 is deeply engrained in the cinematic and generalized cultural zeitgeist. Zimmer was always going to face the court of comparative public opinion, so he had to craft something both inherently, emotionally familiar yet distinctly different in execution so as to not do a disservice to the Last Son of Krypton while not simply riffing of his compositional predecessor. That’s a daunting task and seems much more likely to fail than establishing the tonal (pun intended) status quo for the Pride of the Amazons.

While I do not refute, at all, the waves “Is She With You?” has made since first appearing in 2016, and the detail that went into composing such an elegantly powerful song for the fictional embodiment of those qualities, I have to side with Kyle in that “What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?” (I’ve always thought that it should be ‘You’re,’ sue me) accomplishes all that and more, at least in my opinion, in spite of what came before it. It’s played over the end credits of the film, without even a glance at the character it encapsulates, and still manages to contribute the persona of Superman. I’m going to give this one to Kyle, but let’s be real here, both themes are always an auditory cue that something insanely badass is about to happen onscreen.

 

Do you agree with Sanjay’s verdict? Or would you have picked a different DCEU theme? Sound off in the comments.

Staff records:

Harrison Tunggal: 3-2

Levi Hill: 1-0

Kyle Kizu: 1-2

Sanjay Nimmagudda: 0-1

 

Featured image via Warner Bros.

Trial: What is the best horror film of the past 5 years?

*Trials is a weekly series in which two writers tackle a proposed question or task. After they’ve written their opening statements, the writers will offer rebuttal arguments against the other’s and for their own, and a third writer will come in to make the verdict.*

This week’s question: What is the most effective horror film of the past 5 years?

Writers: Harrison Tunggal and Sanjay Nimmagudda
Judge: Kyle Kizu

*Warning: Spoilers for ‘The VVitch’ and for ‘It Follows.’*

Northern Lights/Animal Kingdom/Courtesy

Sanjay’s argument:

Contemporary horror movies are burdened with the stigma of excess. Whether it be excess in the form of jump scares, clichéd storylines or, more often than not, gore, recent scary movies fail to make a lasting impression of pure terror on the minds of their viewers. This is the cinematic landscape into which writer-director David Robert Mitchell introduced his 2014 horror sleeper hit, It Follows, simultaneously reinvigorating the genre while cementing the film’s place as certified nightmare fuel.

What sets It Follows apart is the film’s ability to gradually instill dread into its audience through sheer simplicity. Mitchell builds suspense and conjures up uneasiness via a basic narrative that has far-reaching real-world applicability. Gone are the chainsaw-wielding rednecks, demonic poltergeists and invincible masked killers, but the terror their histories carry with them is here in buckets. The film brilliantly supplants the cheap, and non-lasting, scares that these horror archetypes induce with a more primal and intrinsic fear present in every man, woman and child at some point in his or her life.

Northern Lights/Animal Kingdom/Courtesy

By simply having the ostensible ‘final girl’ Jay (Maika Monroe) relentlessly stalked by an indescribable force of evil, It Follows engages audiences on a more personable, and relatable, level. ‘When was the last time you felt as though someone or something was following you?’ the film posits. This inherently natural and ubiquitous fear is more effective and lingering because it can happen to and overcome anyone. Mitchell does not bog the film down with backstory or pad the runtime with a high body count, no. Instead, both director and production progress with the confidence that the most terrifying things in life are the inexplicable.

That’s not to say It Follows is without its subplots — a staple of the horror movie game — but the fashion in which it incorporates its motifs anxiously underscores the terror which the main narrative produces. The young adults who comprise the main cast are not trite caricatures of teenagers as audiences have come to expect within the genre, but rather, they act naturalistically, organically so to speak, and subtly convey moments of grief, trauma, sexual repression and mental illness on screen as actual teenagers would.

They are shameful, scared and unsure of what to do, but concurrently, they are not just bodies on the screen waiting to be picked off one by one. The realism in their portrayals as well as how well the film intertwines these socially taboo subjects creates an atmosphere of shame and guilt which only serves to emphasize the weight of the situation these people have found themselves in. Mitchell makes these kids likeable, empathetic and real, rendering their predicament all the more personally horrific.

Northern Lights/Animal Kingdom/Courtesy

What’s more, It Follows understands that what makes a horror film truly frighteningly is not simply what’s onscreen (though that is a large part of it), but rather the atmosphere established about the entire film. With a score that is both unbelievably disturbing and a beautiful callback to the iconic sinister tracks in films like Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, composer Disasterpiece constructs an auditory dialogue between new age synthetic tones and classic horror film melodies which unsettles, intrigues and works beautifully in cohesion with DP Mike Gioulakis’ minimalist cinematographic style. Gioulakis boils down each shot to the bare essentials whether it be a simple car parked in an abandoned lot or the frequent, but no less harrowing, extreme long-shot of a small figure slowly inching its way toward the foreground. This is horror filmmaking without the frills and ostentatiousness of its contemporary counterparts and more terrifying because of it.

By excising the excess of modern horror while ameliorating the trope-ish tendencies of horror past, It Follows manages to deliver an innovative and, necessarily, simple story which harks on the fears and insecurities present in all of us, that never truly leave. It is the best horror film of not just the past 5 years, but of the 21st century.

A24/Courtesy

Harrison’s argument:

Robert Eggers’ The VVitch isn’t scary in the traditional sense. But everything about it is unsettling. It is a film that is meticulously designed to flay one’s nerves for 93 minutes by any means possible, right down to the spelling of the title, an aesthetic choice that elicits existential dread from my computer’s spell check software.

The VVitch barely has any jump scares (the ones in the film are damn effective though), preferring instead to escalate the viewer’s sense of unease through the language of cinema. Immediately, we’re introduced to a world drenched in darkness; cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s use of only natural light (or lack thereof) suggests that there is neither a shred of brightness to be found nor hoped for. The visual aesthetic of The VVitch instantly communicates dreariness to the viewer, establishing the unease of what’s to come. This sense of unease is continued when we’re introduced to the farm where the main characters reside. It’s in an open field, completely vulnerable to the sinister, hungry maw of the surrounding forests. We’re constantly worrying that the titular witch will emerge from the woods and descend upon the exposed farm. Additionally, the farm is completely cutoff from society, and the isolation that imbues the film is akin to films like The Shining. In this sense, the world of the film is one that constantly and inherently invites tension.

A24/Courtesy

Of course, setting alone can’t invite the full-scale unease that the film achieves, and that’s where the characters come in. The film centers around a family of 17th century New England Puritans, who experience typical household troubles, which ground them in reality. So when that sense of reality is swept away by the supernatural — literally, when baby Samuel is snatched by a witch and ground to bits — we’re invested in the well-being of the family. Mostly though, we’re most invested in the character of Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the family’s eldest daughter, who may or may not be the supernatural source of the family’s troubles. As the film progresses, we see how Thomasin is simply caught up in a family that is slowly caving into itself through their isolation, seemingly without any help from the supernatural. Thomasin never intends her family harm, and when she is consistently getting blamed for the family’s misfortunes, our unease stems from the sense that disaster is looming, despite Thomasin’s innocence.

Then, there’s the music, composed by Mark Korven. Whereas most horror films are content to blast pounding waves of noise, Korven crafts a signature sound for The VVitch by turning to period-accurate instruments such as the nyckelharpa. The string melody of “What Went We” is at once beautiful, but also intuitively evil — not unlike the film’s depiction of Satan himself. The vocal chanting of “Witch’s Coven” likewise bears an inherently sinister quality. This isn’t “avada kedavra,” but something that feels real, as if the sharp, angry chanting comes from a real coven of witches. The music of The VVitch turns an already tense film into an utterly bone-chilling one.

A24/Courtesy

Regarding the religious horror on which The VVitch is based on, there’s something tactile and authentic in the way that the film approaches witches and satanic lore. It certainly comes as no small sign of approval when real Satanists lend their support to the film. The film posits the threat of Satan as a constant one for Thomasin and her family — present in the mundane, the extraordinary and everything in between — which also makes such a threat feel salient for the viewer. When Satan’s influence is posited as inevitable, maybe even condonable, that’s when the viewer truly becomes unnerved.

Ultimately, The VVitch is a thoroughly unsettling experience, one which leverages filmic language and storytelling to create an aesthetic experience of pure dread. If nothing else, the film deserves all of its plaudits for launching the career of Black Phillip, the most talented, savvy and charismatic actor of his generation.  

Northern Lights/Animal Kingdom/Courtesy

Sanjay’s rebuttal:

I have to concede to Harrison that Eggers does implement painstaking detail in recreating the puritanical homestead upon which The VVitch takes place. The mood evoked by the film’s fixation on isolation, familial disputes and the unpredictability of the eponymous witch does contribute to an overwhelming amount of tension that envelops the film as a whole. It’s clear that the film’s existence as a period piece sets it apart from cinematic peers, but I would argue that said peers are not of the horror genre. What the movie accomplishes with the aforementioned plot beats, aesthetic and auditory choices and overall unnerving atmosphere is not necessarily indicative of horror so much as a drama or even thriller. The VVitch is most informed by how it captures the trial of Thomasin as a victim of historical patriarchal oppression.

Thomasin’s ascension to fully-realized autonomy is what drives the film as she is constantly belittled, disparaged and generally disregarded by her family. The film relies on her perpetual disenfranchisement as a woman in Puritan society and a daughter to a distrustful family to achieve its ultimate conclusion. I would assert that the “dreariness” and “uneas[iness]” of the movie, while undoubtedly generating fear, is not primarily meant to do so in service of fear, but rather to elicit sympathy for Thomasin’s plight.

Northern Lights/Animal Kingdom/Courtesy

Therein lies the delineation between classifying The VVitch as horror or drama/thriller, while a film may contain all the tell-tale signs of your run-of-the-mill scary movie, those signs are just a means to an end. And unless that end is to frighten, to horrify, to scare an audience, then that film cannot fully be classified as a horror film. The VVitch appropriates elements of horror which Harrison describes, such as Blaschke’s specific use of natural light and Korven’s string-based score, not to directly terrify but rather to emphasize the severity of Thomasin’s indescribably traumatic life.

Though scares do exist within its runtime, The VVitch functions best as a portrayal of the hardships and eventual retrieval of agency of its main character. The frights and scares, while very real, exist as tools to support and accent the journey of its central protagonist. While one might try and accuse It Follows of a similar feat, the difference is, It Follows’ narrative and thematic through lines of sex, disease etc. never overpower the film’s scares. Thomasin’s arc, on the other hand, becomes more compelling and deserving of our attention as the film progresses. It surpasses even the looming threat of the titular witch, that is, until Thomasin becomes her. In fact, when compared to It Follows’ straight-forward narrative, the intricacy of The VVitch’s storyline and the stark lens it casts on the familial dynamic as well as Thomasin’s identity make it a better film. Just not a better or scarier horror film.

A24/Courtesy

Harrison’s rebuttal:

Arguing that The VVitch is a better horror film than It Follows is no easy task, especially when Sanjay makes his point as thoroughly as he did. I can’t deny that It Follows is one of my favorite recent films, not least because its simple, atmospheric scares capture the anxiety of being followed, and of teenage sexuality.

Still, I would argue that the scares in The VVitch work in the same ways that those of It Follows do, but more effectively. It Follows leverages Mike Gioulakis camera work to create scares, in particular through the long takes that create a sense of anxiety for the viewer. But The VVitch makes the same play. The final scene of Thomasin walking into the woods lingers on her slow departure, going further and further away from the camera. This shot follows the same methodology as the cinematography in It Follows, but the anxiety of the shot is heightened because of the way that the film consistently escalates tension. The VVitch allows its viewer no time to breathe, no escape from the film’s ever tightening grasp on the viewer. Quite frankly, there’s hope for the characters in It Follows; they have the chance to pass on the specter of death that follows them. Thomasin, in The VVitch, has no such luxury. Her entire world crumbles away, and the shot of her walking into the forest — a climactic moment — only serves to highlight this fact. Sure, she might be better off with the witch’s coven, but nowhere in the film does the viewer not feel tense.

A24/Courtesy

In regard to atmosphere, The VVitch is arguably more hauntingly atmospheric than It Follows. Robert Eggers’ experience as a production designer comes out in full force: the film’s color palette, eerie music, blunt but mysterious approach to the supernatural and utilization of 17th-century aesthetics all create an atmosphere that coalesces to haunt and unnerve the viewer. In this sense, the atmosphere of The VVitch is more unified and purposeful than that of It Follows.

Ultimately though, both It Follows and The VVitch are two of the best recent horror films. Yet, the constant tension and unique aesthetic atmosphere of The VVitch give it an edge that It Follows lacks.

Kyle’s ruling:

The arguments are exactly what I hoped for out of this specific trial. They’re rather different. Harrison focuses on the complexity of production and the viscerally unsettling experience, while Sanjay focuses on the incredibly efficient, effective and simple story. Both are cases made well, cases that show how incredible the horror genre can be and, if all to base a judgment off of, impossible to pick between.

But there’s a clear winner, and it’s because someone shot themselves in the foot in the rebuttals. Sanjay seems to take the route of arguing for why The VVitch isn’t even primarily a horror film in the first place. It’s a bold strategy, but it doesn’t pay off. He makes the case for how the tension and unease are in service of a dramatic idea in regard to the film’s main character, which he believes makes it more of a dramatic film than a horror one. It’s an idea, sure. But I never understood why that meant that The VVitch‘s scares and fright aren’t indicative of horror, of rather good horror. Wouldn’t that make it a better horror film? That its scares and frights are in service of story and character and not just there for horror’s sake? Isn’t that the very idea you present in your own argument for It Follows? That it isn’t cheap? And if It Follow‘s themes are in service of the horror, and not the other way around, wouldn’t that make it cheap?

It was too bold of an attempt, and not one that had to be made.

In Harrison’s rebuttal, he uses the angle that Sanjay does in his very own argument for It Follows to take down that film — talk about effectivity, and how The VVitch is more so.

Winner: Harrison

 

Do you agree with Kyle’s verdict? Or would you have picked a different horror film as the best of recent years? Sound off in the comments.

Staff records:

Harrison Tunggal: 3-1

Levi Hill: 1-0

Kyle Kizu: 0-2

Sanjay Nimmagudda: 0-1

 

Featured image via Northern Lights/Animal Kingdom/A24.

Trial: What is ‘Blade Runner 2049’ director Denis Villeneuve’s best film?

*Trials is a weekly series in which two writers tackle a proposed question or task. After they’ve written their opening statements, the writers will offer rebuttal arguments against the other’s and for their own, and a third writer will come in to make the verdict.*

This week’s question: What is director Denis Villeneuve’s best film?

Writers: Harrison Tunggal and Levi Hill
Judge: Kyle Kizu

*Warning: Spoilers for ‘Blade Runner 2049.’*

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Levi’s argument:

It’s not an easy task to take a beloved science-fiction classic — one that American Film Institute listed as the sixth greatest science fiction film of all-time — then one-up it. But that is exactly what Denis Villeneuve has done with his masterpiece Blade Runner 2049.

In an age of stale, repetitive blockbusters (lesser “replicants” of their former self), Denis uses this very meta-textual set-up to make an outwardly replicant of the original film. The original film followed a blade runner, Agent Deckard (Harrison Ford), as he begins to hunt down replicants that just want to be human. Because of this, the film created a human perspective from the outside looking in of things that just want to be treated equal to the humans they are modeled after. From this perspective, the film was calculated and cold. Ford played a detective tasked with murdering and murdering (mostly) innocent replicants — until he just can’t anymore because he has fallen in love with one, Rachael (Sean Young). All the while, he is increasingly haunted by memories of violence, and an unicorn running free.

The film leaves us cold, if visually enthralled.

Is Deckard a bad guy? Is he a replicant? Are memories only real for humans?

Wisely, Denis has created another cold, calculated story from Ridley Scott’s template, but frames the story entirely from the *spoiler alert* replicant perspective. Agent K (Ryan Gosling) is indeed a replicant (Nexus 9 model), and once again, is tasked with hunting down the Nexus 6s and 7s that can live as long as humans, if not much longer. However, unlike other replicants we have seen, he has a timed life span, unable to live longer than any other human. He also is made to obey orders from the LAPD — facing a strange PTSD test that questions whether he has established any lasting emotional capabilities after each bloody mission of killing his own kind.

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Think A Clockwork Orange’s eyes wide-open scene, but with the humanity removed.

Thus, when K experiences a “miracle” that threatens to “break the world,” Denis’ intelligent placing of the main character as replicant creates an emotional pay-off about the very definition of what constitutes a “human.” The audience’s alignment creates an emotional journey that explores the politics of a rebellion, the cost of human life in a looming war, the power of memories and the sacrifices people make for just wanting to be free.

Acting as a sequel or a “replicant” of the original story, Blade Runner 2049 is the only sequel I can think of that is finally more human than the original — “more human than human.”

Besides this storytelling ambition, that posits itself as a meta-textual statement on how stories can play on established world-building, Denis has also crafted a story more experimental than Enemy, more intense than Sicario, more sprawling than Prisoners and more intellectual than Arrival.

A factory scene, with a grinding, synthetic score rivals the poetic, haunting, surreal beauty of anything Tarkovsky created in Stalker or even in the also lyrically tinged Enemy. A late stand-off between K and a highly-skilled foe adds more bone-crunching intensity than any of Sicario’s many gruesome shoot-outs. The scope of the film, that constantly reimagines what is capable for the medium of film, blows any recent Bond film out of the water and definitely dwarfs the complex, expanding mystery in Prisoners. Then, the very existential question of what it means to be human, and how one becomes “human,” carries more weight here than the equally intellectual questions regarding memory and communication in Arrival.

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With Denis’ controlled direction, each drawn-out, beautifully framed moment stands out as a work of art and the highest class of blockbuster filmmaking. With repeated overview shots of an overpopulated, water-soaked LA, or the orange dust clouds that pervade every frame in the Las Vegas setting, Denis creates a visual structure that only can be registered in all of its majesty on the big screen. It’s the first film Denis has made — and the first film this year, outside of Dunkirk — that visually cannot be truly appreciated without the biggest screen and the loudest sound.

And let’s not forget, this film is following one of the already most visually accomplished works of all-time.

Oh, and Denis proves why Harrison Ford, after many years of taking roles seemingly only for a paycheck, was once considered the most sought after actor. Ford arguably has never been better, and while the actor needs to be praised for bringing an unexpected amount of soul, much also has to be said about the bold choices Denis makes regarding the iconic character.

Every choice Denis makes here — in storytelling, composition, editing, sound, score, acting and design — acts as a culmination of what he has done before.

Not-so-simply-put, in every single facet of filmmaking, this is Denis’ home-run. This is his masterpiece. This is his classic.

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Harrison’s argument:

Arrival is Denis Villeneuve’s best film because it is the sole entry in his filmography that will define and inform our national conscience for years to come. The film released in the US the weekend after the 2016 election, and it was a clarion call for empathy and rationality, and a denouncement of violence and xenophobia — all of these qualities coalesce to become, at once, a warning against belligerence and a message of consolation in the face of vitriol. There hasn’t been a more timely film in recent memory, a film that speaks to our hearts so frankly, elegantly and warmly. The film’s screenwriter Eric Heisserer himself admitted that writing Arrival came from a place of necessity, the need to invite people to empathize and communicate with each other. It was a cinematic invitation that won him the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

On the level of craft, Arrival is made with precision and purpose, all of which make it yet more profound (especially when paired with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s ethereal score). Bradford Young’s cinematography is utterly jaw dropping, and while he might not have the experience of the seasoned Roger Deakins, Villeneuve’s frequent collaborator, Young delivers shots that are just as jaw dropping as any of Villeneuve’s Deakins-shot films — particularly Dr. Louise Banks’ (Amy Adams) first glimpse at the heptapod spaceships, as clouds roll away.

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Choosing a mellow, soft color palette of blues and grays to reflect the film’s message of nonviolence was an inspired choice by Young, who shot the film digitally, leveraging the color grading that such a format allows. Arrival is an example of what humanity can strive for, but it is also a fine example of what digital filmmaking should aspire toward.

Then, the production design, the look of the heptapods and their language are astounding feats of design. The towering alien figures are as majestic as whales, but with just a touch of humanity. Their language is beautiful to behold, an example of how design mirrors theme, since the heptapod view of time is nonlinear. The meticulousness and originality that went into creating the heptapod language is itself worth the price of admission.

Ultimately though, Arrival is the story of a mother and her daughter, and we see how time spent with someone, no matter how brief, is worth it if there is love. That’s a message that, regardless of political era, is resonant and timeless. Beneath the film’s linguistic theory is a warm, beating heart, featuring arguably the most emotional climax in any Villeneuve film. Though Arrival is a film of our time, it is also one that prevails throughout cinema henceforth.

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Levi’s rebuttal:

Harrison, I don’t disagree with anything you have mentioned above, except that Arrival is Denis’ best film. Rather, it is his second best film, as Blade Runner 2049 took everything that made Arrival a modern landmark, and then one-upped it by giving each of those themes (xenophobia, communication between different species, rationale before violence, familial bonds) a greater sense of purpose and clarity in Blade Runner 2049, albeit with the bigger risk of following up a top ten science fiction masterpiece, while maintaining the very pointed political critique.

Plus, it doesn’t have the most atrociously handled line of dialogue in an otherwise excellently written film — “let’s make a baby” — or the asinine plot contrivances of the Chinese General Shang telling Louise Banks, in the future, that her former/present self should tell his former/present self his wife’s dying words to create world peace. It still doesn’t make sense to me, how a film that did so well for 95% of its run time, can botch the last 15 minutes so severely. Should have it been powerful? Yes. Was it? If you like your movies overly sentimental and don’t fret about plot holes completely untouched, maybe it was — but not for me.

As for Blade Runner 2049, it’s hard to discuss the story at all, but the plot holes that might be present in the film are meant to be there. It’s not a conclusive picture of an entirely built world, but rather, it operates as a conclusive story for Agent K and in some ways, Agent Deckard. The audience is left to ponder real ideas, without given either/or answers. Arrival poses big questions, but rarely allows ambiguity to remain once the final frames brace us. If there is a flaw in Arrival, it’s that.

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Say what you will about the lengthy run time of Blade Runner 2049, but if you take any individual scene out, the aura of the mystery, the power of the last 45 minutes and entire grandeur of the project are lost, like tears in the rain. Can you imagine if Lawrence of Arabia was condensed? 2001: A Space Odyssey? The Godfather? Lord of the Rings: Return of the King? Hell, even Interstellar cannot be trimmed and fully be seen as the experience it needs to be. Some films need that time to work us over and create new visual and audial scapes for us to experience. Blade Runner 2049 is one of those films.

Then Leto, yes, he sort of seems off in the film (to some, not me), as a less dimensional villain. However, isn’t that the point? He is one of the only human characters in the world given significant screen time, and humans have created this travesty of the earth where the ice caps have melted and we’ve become so overpopulated that people are crammed in high rises living in hallways, not rooms.

With this, does it not make sense to make the incomparably privileged and wealthy Wallace (Leto) an egotistical, calculated, business-is-cutthroat monster, hell-bent on seeing his own agendas accomplished? Great or fine, Leto’s performance here is not bad, and in fact, it works for the film’s message.

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This is a film that even refuses to paint the main antagonist of the film, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), as anything resembling simple. While a replicant and forced to obey Niander Wallace (Leto) at all cost, Luv even finds a sense of depth in her constructed humanity that Marvel, D.C. or any comparable blockbusters haven’t come close to since the Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight.

Add in the symbolism of Wallace’s blindness, unable to see the world for what it is, and Luv’s uncontrollable tears when near him, and the duality of the two characters comment on how seeing is believing within Blade Runner — whether you are a human or a replicant.

There’s an immense sense of complexity in every frame, the most minute of details matter here. The opening shot of a green iris of an eye, followed by a match cut of the barren landscape of the outskirts of Los Angeles say more about the world and tone and theme of Blade Runner than most filmmakers accomplish in a career. And that’s not taking into account the more experimental flourishes that appear in Blade Runner — and are absent from Arrival — such as when Joi malfunctions in San Diego and, instead of quickly cutting, we see an extended take of her heartbreaking malfunction in stop-motion, as the world around her remains shot in real-time.

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I haven’t even touched on the fact that, somehow, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch may have outdone the original Vangelis score by adding more bombast to giddily jarring purposes, or that every female role in the film creates the agency and urgency in the story, or the other big fact THAT HARRISON FORD IS ACTUALLY 100% ACTING AGAIN, which, considering the potential of him showing up here simply being a fan service-y extended cameo, like what some have argued his scenes in Star Wars: The Force Awakens are, says a lot about Denis’ care to make sure that every element of the film operates as a soulful, humanistic, impressionistic exploration of the fundamental question to existence: what does it mean to be alive?

Designed from beginning to end to be enrapturing, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most accomplished directorial visions we’ve ever seen — taking an already highly touted vision and making it fresh, unique and cinematically groundbreaking all over again.

If that isn’t enough to convince someone Blade Runner 2049 is the greatest Denis Villeneuve film (so far), a film that not only excels with the given template of blockbuster cinema, but truly advances what is capable for big-budgeted storytelling, then I don’t know what is.

Blade Runner 2049 is what it looks like when the highest of art has finally perfectly synchronized with the spectacle of $150 million of pure, crowd-pleasing imagination. Seriously, the fact that an esteemed film critic has compared Blade Runner 2049 to an Andrei Tarkovsky film says a lot about this film’s poetic, epic beauty.

Take a bow, Denis.

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Harrison’s rebuttal:

Without a doubt, Blade Runner 2049 is proving to be not just a great sci-fi film, but one of the greatest sequels of all time, deserving a place alongside Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight. However, it is by no means a perfect film. For starters, Jared Leto has yet to wipe his take on the Joker from our memories, and his portrayal of Niander Wallace doesn’t do him any favors. He continues to harp about his method acting, which gives the character a built-in invitation for dislike. Even without such promotional antics though, his portrayal of Wallace is neither threatening, nor as profound as the rest of the film. In contrast, there isn’t a character in Arrival that is the least bit distracting. An ancillary performance from Forest Whitaker lends the film with a gravitas that Leto can’t pull off, while Stuhlbarg highlights the baser elements of our humanity. Leto might gesture toward grander ideas, but doesn’t succeed as well at conveying them as Arrival.

Additionally, while Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is noteworthy, it doesn’t pick up the baton from Vangelis as elegantly as it could have. Much of their score in Blade Runner 2049 veers toward bombastic sound design, and while this approach worked for Zimmer in Dunkirk, it feels jarring when the expectation is the melancholic synth-jazz riffs of Vangelis.

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Moreover, when it comes down to picking the best Denis Villeneuve film, choosing Arrival feels like the best representation of Villeneuve as a director. The aesthetic choices, production design and the internal logic of the world feel more unique to Villeneuve, whereas in Blade Runner 2049, Villeneuve is forced to play in a sandbox created by Ridley Scott. While Villeneuve succeeds in conforming to the rules of Scott’s universe, the originality present in Arrival makes it a better candidate for choosing Villeneuve’s best film. The endings of both Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 are very emotional, but while the latter film incorporates imagery and musical cues from its predecessor to elicit emotion, Arrival does not have such a reliance. Instead, the emotional finale of Arrival is achieved solely by the characters crafted within it, lending it a sense of originality that just slightly puts it ahead of Blade Runner 2049.

Even though Arrival is based on a short story by Ted Chiang, the characters onscreen and the subversion of sci-fi is still a wholly original cinematic experience. For once, we see a strong female intellectual be the hero of a film. Sure, we’ve seen various professors lead their respective films, but how often is it that a female professor is the star of a film, let alone a female humanities professor? It’s impossible to understate how significant it is that the humanities save the world in Arrival. Ultimately, Arrival boils down to a story about mothers and daughters, and when the box-office of Blade Runner 2049 is partly due to a lack of female audiences, Dr. Louise Banks, and the film she inhabits, is worth celebrating.

Kyle’s decision:

Both arguments are intensely passionate, informed and well-crafted. And this has proven to be one of the better Trials as the arguments and rebuttals are rather different. Levi jumps in with an expansive, overwhelming (in a good way) comprehension of film itself while arguing for Blade Runner 2049, placing it not only within Villeneuve’s filmography and not only in conversation with the landmark original, but within the landscape of film today and in harmony with the history it fits into. It’s an extensive but fluid argument — one that makes me feel the need to put a word limit on Trials as it becomes difficult to not be persuaded by so much excellent argumentation.

But Harrison fights back with fervor, making a more humanistic case for Arrival, a case that pleads for the importance of film outside of the boundaries of film itself. The parallels between Arrival’s themes and today’s problems are harrowingly emotional, and you brilliantly lay out how affecting Arrival is through not just the presence of those parallels, but through how expertly they’re pulled off. You also do a better job in your opening at pointing out the coherency of those intangible elements of the film, theme and emotion and humanistic importance, and how the color palette, the design and the subject matter exist truly as veins of the film, rather than just facets.

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After reading the openings, I realized that these arguments may be calling into question what “best” really means. Levi made the better case for Blade Runner 2049 as Denis Villeneuve’s most brilliantly crafted film, while Harrison made the better case for Arrival as Denis Villeneuve’s most important film. In the rebuttal, I needed more from Levi about Blade Runner 2049’s importance outside of film. I got more about the brilliance of it as a film in film history, in comparison to the original and in Denis’ filmography. I got some small rebuts of Arrival as a film. I got some superfluous detail that didn’t need to be there and threatened the stability of the argument. But I did end up getting that idea of the film’s importance outside of the art form it comes in, how it also has many of the relevant, pressing humanistic themes that Arrival has — not just ideas of humanity in general — and makes use of them well within its own story.

Harrison bounces back with a very fine rebuttal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t present enough in terms of Arrival’s brilliance within the scope of film nor does it take down Blade Runner 2049 in regard to those elements, only offering rebuts of a performance and the score. The rebuttal, however, solidified that, if this were an argument of “importance” rather than “best,” Harrison would be the winner.

But Levi does too well to be overcome. While you may slightly lose out in the “importance” battle (and “slightly” is the important word as anything more severe might’ve cost you), you are undeniably convincing in every other area in regard to defining what “best” is and placing Blade Runner 2049 into that.

Winner: Levi Hill

 

Do you agree with Kyle’s verdict? Or would you have picked a different Denis Villeneuve film as his best? Sound off in the comments.

Staff records:

Harrison Tunggal: 2-1

Levi Hill: 1-0

Kyle Kizu: 0-2

Sanjay Nimmagudda: 0-0

 

Featured image via Warner Bros. and Paramount.

Trial: Who is the best movie villain of the year so far?

*Trials is a weekly series in which two writers tackle a proposed question or task. After they’ve written their opening statements, the writers will offer rebuttal arguments against the other’s and for their own, and a third writer will come in to make the verdict.*

This week’s question: Who is the best movie villain of the year so far?

Writers: Harrison Tunggal and Kyle Kizu
Judge: Levi Hill

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

Harrison’s argument:

Easily, the best villain — or rather, villains — of the year comes from Jordan Peele’s Get Out. The Armitage family function as terrific movie villains in every conceivable way. They offer thrills that more than justify the price of an admission ticket, but also transcend the entertainment value of a masterfully crafted horror film.

The Armitages hold up a mirror to our society in the most affecting way possible, presenting us with a clan of white liberals that are as destructive as any MAGA-branded, outed racist and as insidious as Freddie Krueger. Sure, maybe Dean (Bradley Whitford) would have voted for Obama for a third term, but the way he drives the point home is more like a nervous tic designed to hide a deep-seated undercurrent of racism, rather than anything remotely approaching sincerity. It’s a feeble attempt at preserving the illusion of white racial innocence, an illusion that is outed as soon as the Armitages host their party — less of a party, and more of a montage of barbed microaggressions.

And if it wasn’t obvious that the Armitages are innately and intensely harmful, then they reveal themselves as outright monsters when they enact their body-snatching plan, trapping Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) in the Sunken Place while they perform their heinous operation. Jordan Peele has been direct in naming the Sunken Place as a metaphor for the silencing of Black voices, while the Armitages’ body-snatching operation is a literal takeover of Black bodies.

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Though I can’t know what it’s like to view Get Out as a Black audience member, it is clear that Peele’s film is a cinematic expression of racial anxiety — one made from a uniquely Black perspective. This expression of racial anxiety is effective, by and large, because of the Armitages, and the writing behind them.

Going beyond the abstract, the Armitages are an example of compelling villains, particularly Rose (Allison Williams). When she gets found out, she resorts to attempting to seduce Rod (Lil Rel Howery), a truly despicable moment in a film filled with them. She also tries to use her whiteness to pin the violent third act on Chris. Thankfully, it doesn’t work, but it once again exemplifies the depths of depravity that define Rose. Jeremy’s (Caleb Landry Jones) overbearing masculinity and Missy’s (Catherine Keener) hypnotic tea cup only add to the villainy.

Ultimately, the Armitages represent a villain we’ve never seen before. As white liberals, the Armitages are a far-cry from Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), or the snarling Epps (Michael Fassbender), which allows them to lend nuance to conversations about race, making them significant in the pantheon of film. Confronting racial anxieties has become ever more important — this country’s leadership is exacerbating such anxieties, rather than soothing them and finding solutions to them. Therefore, it is up to us to shoulder that burden, and films like Get Out — through its nuanced villains, among other aspects — can point us in the right direction.

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Kyle’s argument:

While it’s an especially on-brand choice, I believe that my pick for the best villain of the year so far is the right one: “the enemy” from Dunkirk. We’ve seen “the enemy” in countless pictures before — flaunted with their symbol, uniform and leader. But we’ve never seen them quite like this. In Dunkirk, “the enemy” is faceless, a haunting spectre that terrorizes the British soldiers like the shark does to the beach goers in Jaws. And in that sense, “the enemy” is all the more frightening for it. Not only is there a sense of realism to the approach — as the real soldiers themselves almost certainly lacked any visual — but it also allows Christopher Nolan to get creative.

The main visual we do have are the ME 109 planes, and there’s something about how they’re realized that’s more terrifying than if we were also in their cockpits. They pop up of nowhere, coming “out of the sun.” They follow determinedly, with an unstoppable motivation, a horrifying monster always on our soldiers’ tails, and they hold equal terror in their evasion, a villain just out of grasp.

But with any other visuals taken away, Nolan turns to the other sensory aspects, mainly sound. The sound design of Dunkirk almost feels as though it’s for a horror film, which leads to some seriously horrific scenes of destruction and death. As eyes wander into the sky and bodies start to scramble or duck for cover, the hard cut to the approaching dive-bombers, their intimidation horns sounding out, is literally arresting and utterly transfixing.

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And their impact is devastating, with bombs lifting sand and soldiers into the air and gunshots splintering and riddling the wood of the mole as man after man takes cover.

“The enemy” terrifies even simply with its guns. Bullets pierce without origin, with a purpose solely to murder. The opening scene as soldier after soldier falls and, when Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) makes it over the fence, the gate is blown apart by countless bullets stands next to the Dutch ship scene where three gunshots inject endless fear into the soldiers below as two of the most frightening in the film.

And that’s exactly where “the enemy” becomes more than just a faceless villain. Below deck of the Dutch ship, and on deck of the Moonstone with the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy), our men start to tear each other apart, absolutely terrified by the thought of murder. “The enemy” invokes a fear of annihilation, a fear that digs into our characters’ bones and causes them to turn on each other — the only direct uses of “German” being directed at our own allies. While the sounds are scary as all hell, and would alone be almost enough reason to win, it’s the effect that “the enemy” creates here that puts them over the top. Without ever being seen, they get into the minds of our heroes and almost pull them apart.

We’ve all been granted far too omnipresent, omniscient views of “the enemy” in countless films before. Dunkirk’s rendering is one of the first that shows us how real soldiers likely saw them. And we all know who they are and what they stand for, so seeing them in this light is refreshing and, truly and immensely, far more terrifying.

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Harrison’s rebuttal:

First and foremost, Kyle, your undying love of all things Nolan will never cease to draw my utmost respect and admiration. Additionally, before I make my points, I would like to emphasize that my rebuttal is not intended to detract from the validity of “the enemy” as a movie villain, nor as a real-world source of evil. I am in no way saying that Nazis are less terrifying than the Armitages — both represent terrible evils that must be stamped out with the utmost vigor.

While I admire Nolan’s creativity in showing characters reacting to “the enemy,” I will assert that the uniqueness of the Armitages in cinema makes them the more significant villain. Jordan Peele doesn’t show us images of overt racism, but rather tries to impart a deeper understanding of the fears and anxieties of Black people by showing us villainous white liberals — people that seem harmless enough, but would reject such a deeper understanding, which only intensifies the aforementioned fears and anxieties.

Both Nolan and Peele show us new takes on villains we’ve seen before, but I would argue that Peele gives us new dimensions to a conventional racist antagonist, whereas Nolan removes dimensions from his Nazi antagonists. Again, this is not a criticism, just an observation — I mean, Nolan doesn’t give them faces or names. Nolan streamlines his antagonists, distilling “the enemy” into one thing —  the sense of fear they cause.

In contrast, Peele gives the Armitages many different angles of deplorability — the privilege that Rose embraces, the objectification of Black people that all of the Armitages are guilty of, and the denial of a Black person’s consciousness that is the Armitages’ ultimate goal. Solely in regard to the films, the Armitages represent a wider swath of villainy than “the enemy.”

Finally, the Armitages are a deliberate exercise in scathing social commentary. While “the enemy” is as relevant today as they were in 1940, Dunkirk doesn’t deliberately position its antagonists as social commentary. “The enemy” exists in the film to escalate tension, but does little else, unlike the Armitages in Get Out. As such, Get Out has the better villain, on the basis that the Armitages antagonize Chris, while also serving the film’s satiric and symbolic ends.

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Kyle’s rebuttal:

Similarly to your rebuttal, it’s difficult to argue against how good of villains the Armitages are. Get Out is truly a landmark film and the unforgiving, scathing, honest and raw depiction of the damage that white liberals, apparent allies, cause is deeply nuanced in regard to how Jordan Peele writes and directs them. It’s a deeply needed portrayal within cinema. So, in rebutting, my framing is to simply show how “the enemy” is a better villain, not how the Armitages are worse.

I have to address the comment about how Nolan removes dimensions from “the enemy” because that’s exactly why they’re so phenomenally impactful. We know what “the enemy” stands for. We know the absolute atrocities that they committed and we’ve been beaten over the head with depictions of their deplorable ideology.

Thus, when Nolan removes those dimensions to focus in on a singular aspect, it actually enhances “the enemy” in ways that only reduction could. Dunkirk focuses on the visceral, invasive physicality of “the enemy” and its devastation. The film shows us images of death, tactics of intimidation — the “We surround you” papers are breathtaking in how much evil three words exude despite their simplicity — and effects of fear like we’ve never seen them before. So, because we already know the nuance, or lack thereof, of who “the enemy” is and what they represent, showing them in this light is actually a grander, more impactful and more horrifying rendering of them than we’ve gotten before.

It’s like Jaws, but if the shark were a Nazi. It’s like a Nazi shark. I mean, come on.

Warner Bros./Courtesy

As I said before, the Armitages are terrifying villains. And I don’t want to argue with how Peele depicts them — it’s an approach that does its job and does it so well that it becomes deeply resonant in today’s world. I think, in purely cinematic terms, their tracks could’ve been laid a bit more methodically. I don’t mean this to undermine how abrasive and jarring white people’s microaggressive statements are, but it feels as though, in terms of cinematic crafting of villains, they might have even been more effective with a more paced out progression.

It’s difficult to argue that Get Out isn’t clearly more of a social commentary than Dunkirk is, but I do think that Dunkirk has a very subtle political idea that goes along with not naming “the enemy.” In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Mark Rylance posited the idea that the Germans have been villainized enough in regard to the Nazis. They’re a country with guilt hanging over their heads and, more importantly, they’re a country that’s moved on from that evil while it’s in America where, somehow, neo-Nazis now hold a world stage. In that sense, not naming “the enemy” becomes more empathetic and all encompassing as it’s not a people that the soldiers were fighting, but rather an ideology. The soldiers were fighting fear and hatred, and that is something still relevant today.

Levi’s Verdict:

As the second edition of Trial, or the Kyle vs. Harrison show, I once again had the dubious honor of having to choose between two wonderful arguments. Yet, instead of masking who I think is the winner, like I did last time, I will just come out and say that Harrison, once again, wins in a tough battle. Reading the rebuttals of both, I feel that this edition offered much more succinct arguments from both sides. Both promoted their arguments and neither attempted to bring down the others. That is a testament to the strength of both writers and the ideas behind both.

Kyle’s argument about how “the enemy” revolutionizes how we typically see war villains is true. It did. And Nolan’s Dunkirk is a stunning achievement. The way that it’s the ideology being fought — a violent, pretty much unseen force — is a frightening metaphor for how those violent, deep-rooted ideologies can pervade at any time. It’s quite like the shark in Jaws, as Kyle mentions, but with real ideological fervor and fear. Hatred and fear still persist today — both nameless and faceless.

But to me, the tangible reality of Get Out’s villains, the Armitages and white liberals, are a far too pertinent villain of today.

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

Peele’s film magnifies the anxieties regarding the way African Americans are viewed within society — with their voices silenced, with their bodies sexualized and glorified, with their minds traumatized — and the film confronts both openly racist and subtly racist white people and their causation in the way society problematically operates today. Because of the fact that Get Out puts a face to the ideologies and spends time letting the audience get to know the fake-good intentions of the Armitages, only to show their truly monstrous and manipulative plans, Peele makes a specific, yet wide critique of white people in America.

Ideologies scare us all. But a face to the ideology scares us just a little more.

Winner: Harrison Tunggal

 

Do you agree with Levi’s verdict? Sound off in the comments for which villain you think is better, or if you would’ve chosen another one entirely.

Featured image via Universal Pictures.

Trial: Pitch the Obi-Wan Kenobi ‘Star Wars’ standalone film

*Trials is a weekly series in which two writers tackle a proposed question or task. After they’ve written their opening statements, the writers will offer rebuttal arguments against the other’s and for their own, and a third writer will come in to make the verdict.*

This week’s task: Pitch the Obi-Wan Kenobi Star Wars standalone film.

Writers: Kyle Kizu and Harrison Tunggal
Judge: Levi Hill

Lucasfilm/Courtesy

Kyle’s pitch:

Fans have wanted a standalone Obi-Wan Kenobi film for years now. But the deep crave for one seems to always brush over one fact: it’s going to be incredibly difficult to pull off. Casting anyone other than Ewan McGregor would be a publicity nightmare, so let’s operate under the assumption that he’ll return for the role. And with McGregor aging 10+ years since the prequels, it’d be wildly difficult to sell Kenobi as younger than he is in The Phantom Menace. All of this means that the only period of time a film could work with is the roughly 20 years between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope — most of which are spent on Tatooine.

The film would obviously be a contained one, and would be much more interesting if entirely on Tatooine. It doesn’t have to be a massive epic in the vein of The Force Awakens or Rogue One. In that light, and considering that, technically, Stephen Daldry isn’t officially signed on to direct just yet, I would shift to Their Finest’s Lone Scherfig. With her most recent film, Scherfig shows an adept ability at implying scale while remaining intimate, as Their Finest is relatively contained, but the sense of World War II is still deeply felt. That sensibility could translate to an Obi-Wan film in which the aura of the galactic struggles are still present amid a story bound to a single planet. And Scherfig also could nail Kenobi’s snark and humor, qualities very present in her film, specifically with Bill Nighy and Sam Claflin’s characters — two actors that could be brought in here.

As for the story, and the themes accompanying, I feel as though it’s necessary to maintain what is perhaps the heaviest influence on the franchise: the Empire as the Nazis. After the surfacing of neo-Nazis in the U.S., the film could prove profound in today’s age while also being loyal to the timeless, very Star Wars-esque good vs. evil story. Much of what Obi-Wan Kenobi would be doing on Tatooine is watching over and protecting a young Luke, but the story could also introduce problems of the Empire ravaging villages across the planet while Kenobi attempts to shelter women and children in a similar manner to the many heroes that helped people during the Holocaust. Think The Zookeeper’s Wife meets Schindler’s List meets Star Wars. And in Their Finest, Scherfig deals with the war in which Nazis took action, meaning she’ll be familiar with these ideas.

The film could almost be an underground story, featuring world-building of much more depth than A New Hope, really making Tatooine feel like a planet with a fully informed environmental/societal system of living — something that no Star Wars film has yet truly done.

Luke wouldn’t even really need to be in the film that much, functioning as merely a named presence — perhaps just “the boy” — which could make an ending in which Luke does appear, one in which Kenobi accidentally encounters him and is forced to introduce himself as “Ben,” incredibly exciting.

Harrison’s pitch:

Any Obi-Wan film without Ewan McGregor is bound to invite the ire of Star Wars fans across the galaxy. Likewise, such a film that isn’t titled High Ground: A Star Wars Story would be a massive missed opportunity. Thus, High Ground (okay, maybe a different title), starring Ewan McGregor, opens in the small town of Anchorhead, on the planet Tatooine. Fulcrum (John Cho) is a swashbuckling rebel spy going through a black market weapons deal, which is interrupted when Imperial forces descend on the town. Fulcrum is the sole rebel survivor, who is saved when the forces of Gallus the Hutt (voiced by Idris Elba) — larger than Jabba and capable of walking via robotic spider legs —  completely destroy the Imperial presence. However, Gallus takes Fulcrum hostage, and effectively seizes control of the town. Even though Anchorhead is safe from the Empire, it isn’t safe from Gallus, who begins extorting money from residents, brutalizing them in the process.

This is where we find Obi-Wan Kenobi, living a spartan lifestyle. He watches over young Luke Skywalker and the Lars homestead, while attempting (though failing) to communicate with the Force ghost of Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). He just can’t tap into the Force like he could before, especially since he found out that Anakin lived on, and became Darth Vader. He is a man plagued by the specter of failure.

However, his life changes when he is approached by Fendis Beed (Élodie Yung), one of the most notorious bounty hunters in the galaxy, who is hired to save Fulcrum. Kenobi refuses, insisting on keeping a low profile. But when Gallus takes Owen Lars (Joel Edgerton) as ransom for not paying his dues, Kenobi joins Fendis to free Owen and Fulcrum. During the mission, Kenobi is torn between toppling the violent Hutt regime (and creating the power vacuum for an Imperial presence) and allowing Gallus to terrorize the people of Anchorhead. He ultimately embraces his heroic former self, and alongside Fendis, Fulcrum and Owen, he frees Anchorhead from the grasp of Gallus, drawing his lightsaber and using the Force for the first time in years.

Still, Kenobi’s heroic actions have allowed the Empire to settle in the nearby Mos Eisley without fear of Gallus’ forces, and for that, he can’t help but feel great guilt. In a moment of catharsis, he finally communes with Qui-Gon Jinn, who assures him that saving Anchorhead was the action of a true Jedi Master. Jinn tells Kenobi not to fear the looming presence of the Empire, as he will give him the training necessary to better protect Luke and to become the ultimate defender of Tatooine.

Lucafilm/Courtesy

Kyle’s rebuttal:

Your story is fully fleshed out, as I expected. It’s engaging, action-packed and ripe for character exploration of Obi-Wan. It also brings in actors that I could only dream of in a Star Wars film. John Cho?! I’m in. However, I wish you went further with investigating the character of Obi-Wan. There’s so much moving in your pitch before we reach Obi-Wan that by the time we do, it almost feels like there’s not enough time for him specifically. The idea of him holding on to immense guilt is pitch perfect and necessary, especially after what he went through in the prequels. But I fear that, with the layered plot you set forth, we would only get the surface level of those emotional concerns, which leads me to my next problem.

While reading through your pitch, I was engaged, but I was questioning what might the value of this story be to the larger idea of Star Wars. I think that if you sell Obi-Wan’s character journey more thoroughly, we could feel this sense of history, fate and interpersonal relationships of Star Wars on a whole, which could make the moment when Obi-Wan sacrifices himself in A New Hope even more profound than it already is. But right now, I don’t really feel that when reading your pitch. You definitely have notions of it in there, but there’s more work to be done for it to be fully realized because, right now, I don’t know if this film would be, in the larger picture, as satisfying and valuable as it could be.

I feel as though my thematic concerns make up for the lack of plot, as plot can be built more easily around theme, while theme is more difficult to insert into an established plot. And with prevalent imagery akin to the Nazis, an evil force we’re beginning to struggle with again today, and a deeply intimate, contained and harrowing journey for Obi-Wan as well as for the people in crises at the hands of the Empire — at the hands of deranged nationalism — my idea for an Obi-Wan standalone film both works on its own terms while also contributing to the grander narrative of the universe.

Harrison’s rebuttal:

First and foremost, major props for suggesting a Star Wars film that functions as political allegory. Even more props for putting Lone Scherfig in the director’s chair. I thoroughly enjoyed her work in Their Finest, and I couldn’t agree more about her strengths — she can balance intimacy and scope like Anakin balances the Force. But for an Obi-Wan film, I don’t want an epic scope at all, implied or otherwise. An Obi-Wan film should be as intimate a character study as possible, and I think the scope that you implied would detract from that intimacy.

More specifically, I don’t think the Empire should figure heavily into another spinoff, since stormtroopers have been cannon fodder for Rogue One and (presumably) for the Han Solo film. Additionally, since the First Order is essentially a re-branded version of the Empire, we will have gotten seven total films that feature the Empire as the overarching antagonist. Many fans have complained that the Disney-era of Star Wars hasn’t dared to expand its universe, and making the Empire the antagonist of an Obi-Wan film would only further this problem. My film sidesteps this issue by making Gallus the Hutt and his army of scum and villainy the primary antagonists. Even though Gallus was inspired by the comic book character Grakkus, it would allow for the familiar iconography of the Hutts, while expanding the canon of the film universe.

Most importantly though, your film lacks emotional resonance. We know Obi-Wan is a hero, so I think a subversion of our expectations — a broken man who doesn’t believe in himself, and can’t even use the Force properly — is more interesting. My film ratchets up the emotional impact by having Obi-Wan reluctantly return to heroics, before finally communing with the Force through his contact with Qui-Gon Jinn. Qui-Gon represents the specter of failure that haunts Obi-Wan — he failed to save Qui-Gon, he failed to kill Anakin and he failed the entire Republic. Qui-Gon’s appearance to Obi-Wan to validate his actions and offer consolement would be one of the most emotional moments in all of Star Wars canon.

Ultimately, I believe that my film does more to expand the universe while offering emotional stakes that we haven’t seen fully realized since The Empire Strikes Back.

Lucafilm/Courtesy

Levi’s verdict:

First off, both ideas are perfect, and if there was a way to find a happy medium between the two, a balancing of the Force, let’s say, then I think all Star Wars fans would see a standalone masterpiece. However, as in most lightsaber duels, someone will inevitably win and the other ends up missing a limb, but able to fight another day. So let’s just hyperspeed into this thing, like the Millennium Falcon…

Thematically, reading Kyle’s pitch, it just felt right. The power of Star Wars movies, and really genre films at large for that matter, is their ability to have social commentary about political machinations. It’s not a hidden truth that the Empire is meant to represent the Nazis, and the Rebels are meant to represent anyone with the decency to stand up to them. Thus, having a film almost explicitly laying out that good vs. evil dichotomy, under those terms and having them stand in for today, is a brilliant move. Also, Lone Scherfig, while not an obvious choice, is literally a perfect choice. Their Finest balances humor, action and drama with the best of movies — all elements that have made Star Wars the most endearing franchise in the world.

With that being said, though, Harrison is my winner. The amount of Star Wars lore he’s able to fit into his pitch, along with the incredible casting (EWAN MCGREGOR, JOHN CHO, IDRIS ELBA AND ÉLODIE YUNG TOGETHER!!!), as well as having a perfect character arc for the one-and-only Obi-Wan just felt right. Both Kyle and Harrison were right in making the films have a more intimate scale, because truly, how many more Death Stars and countless Stormtroopers can we see destroyed before Star Wars finds something a tad more original. But where Kyle focused on the theme, and rightly pointed out Harry’s lack of theme and potentially too jam-packed story, I think Harry’s rebuttal ultimately was the deciding factor for me.

To see Obi-Wan struggle with a crippling inability to use the force and with the guilt of his (in)action only adds immense depth to his character. And assuming Star Wars: The Last Jedi shows an equally down-and-out Luke, there could be some interesting thematic parallels regarding the pressure of being the Jedi tasked with saving the Rebels and destroying the Empire. Or, if Rey does end up being a Kenobi, is she destined to follow in the same tracks as her ancestor?

Regardless of plot details for sight unseen films, Harrison’s Obi-Wan standalone is both an emotionally resonant tale of one of Star Wars most loved icons, as well as a perfect set-up for Rogue One and A New Hope.

Winner: Harrison Tunggal

 

Do you agree with Levi’s verdict? Sound off in the comments for which pitch you would’ve chosen, or if you have a pitch of your own.

Featured image via Lucasfilm