In Shogun World, ‘Westworld’s’ Female Characters Must Suffer to Be Strong

Episode five of Westworld picks up from episode three’s cliffhanger where a mysterious man wielding a katana charges at Maeve. Enter Shogun World–this is the park where guests come when they find Westworld too tame, a concept which emphasizes guests’ desire for a stereotypically “exotic” experience. In an entertaining and cinematic episode, writer Dan Dietz and director Craig Zobel play with the nostalgia of Westerns and samurai films. While it featured stellar performances from Rinko Kikuchi and Thandie Newton, this episode shows how Westworld continues to subject its female characters to trauma to prove their strength.

When Maeve and company enter Shogun World, writer Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) reveals that, in an effort to write as many stories as possible, he took their Westworld storylines and gave them a stereotypical Japanese twist to make it “new.” It is fascinating to watch these “doppelbots” recognize each other, particularly Maeve and the geisha, Akane (Kikuchi). They’re both sex workers, seen as pieces of meat to hosts and guests alike; they want to protect their own (Maeve and her daughter, Akane and Sakura, a young geisha); they both must suffer to grow.  

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Maeve discovers she can now mentally control other hosts. But, this new ability only comes after being beaten and choked by a ninja. As she gasps her last breaths and her eyes roll back into her head, Maeve realizes she can stop her assailant, even when she can no longer speak. Her suffering to gain this new ability is only one example in this episode of female characters needing to experience trauma to prove their strength.

At one point Sizemore yells, “Why should we care about a literal sex robot,” which encapsulates my problems with the show. While the writers try to make audiences care about these “sex robots,” they want us to care only after watching them continuously suffer. Sakura is literally branded, and Akane watches her die, as these characters are subjected to violence and trauma in the name of “character development.” Yes, Westworld is a violent show, but I’m tired of violence towards women being used as a plot device.

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Sizemore’s character seems to be the comic relief in a show that has never relied on such a device. Every few minutes he exclaims, “Wait that wasn’t supposed to happen,” as if to help orient the audience. But instead of being helpful, he just seems clueless and comical. Sizemore continues to feel out of place, existing to only quickly fill in context.

Meanwhile, back in Westworld, Dolores soliloquizes to Teddy about what needs to be done to ensure the success of their mission. When she realizes Teddy is too sweet for what they must do, she decides to take his fate into her own hands. Like Maeve being able to control hosts with mental commands, Dolores reprograms Teddy to fit her needs. Both women are learning to manipulate others for what they deem the greater good. Dolores even says, “To grow, we all need to suffer,” as she watches the Teddy she “fell in love with” become someone new. Dolores and Maeve’s parallel narratives show how they both are grappling with what it means to be in control.

The narrative of each episode continues to get better. The stories feel like they are tightening up, with the last two episodes only following two storylines instead of four or five. But despite these narrative fixes, I can’t help but still feel frustrated. While the violence towards women was used to show how cruel humans can be, it’s becoming tiresome. It isn’t about making a point anymore, it’s about brutalizing these characters to create empathy.   

‘Revenge’ is the Stylish, Gory, and Feminist Take on the Exploitation Film We’ve Been Waiting For

Lars von Trier’s latest film, The House That Jack Built premiered this week at Cannes to polarizing reactions (to put it mildly). It’s a film that follows the development of a serial killer and the five murders (all women) that have defined who he is. Why? Because it’s von Trier and he wants to cause a reaction. But, a film about the murder and mutilation of women in name of a man’s development is not what we need right now. What we need is Coralie Fargeat’s debut film, Revenge. Fargeat’s stylish and gory film confronts how we view exploitation films in a time where we need it most.

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Kevin Janssens and Matilda Lutz in ‘Revenge’ (2017)

Revenge opens with Richard (Kevin Janssens) arriving to a desert oasis with his girlfriend, Jen (Matilda Lutz). She is presented as the perfect woman and sex object: tan, blonde, skinny, perfectly manicured nails, and legs for days. She’s even seductively sucking a lollipop. Then, Richard’s friends show up. These friends drool over Jen, ogling her up and down, and giggling whenever she acknowledges them. However, they take this acknowledgment as sexual advances and when they’re turned down, Stan (Vincent Colombe) rapes her. Instead of the boyfriend coming to her defense, he tries to silence her. But once Jen threatens to call his wife and tell her about his infidelity, Richard pushes her off a cliff. A bit of an overreaction, but to these men, Jen is as disposable as a paper cup. They’re in for a big surprise. What comes next is an hour and a half full of bloody, disgusting, and satisfying revenge.

Reservations about such a plot are understandable: Why would you want to watch a woman being tortured for nearly two hours? The answer, to me, is to see how Fargeat addresses the role of the male gaze in exploitation films and how she makes the audience painfully aware of it. The close shots of Jen’s crotch, butt, and lips in the film’s beginning, make us aware of how men look at women.

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Matilda Lutz in Revenge (2017)

As Jen’s body is mutilated, it is no longer something pretty to look at. But Fargeat won’t let you look away. Close-up shots still linger on Jen’s stomach, legs, and butt to show how these pieces, that have been so desired, have transformed: the manicure is chipped, the legs are covered in blood and dirt, the hair is tangled, and her tan body has been torn apart. All that remains of her previous identity are the neon pink star earrings that glow in the bleak desert sun. Fargeat makes us really look at Jen’s gaping wounds, as if to say, “If you want to stare at her body, you must stare at all of it, even when it is ruined.”

Fargeat also uses close-ups, paired with a thumping EDM soundtrack, to create a creeping anxiety that permeates the film. When the camera is close on Jen, or even her attackers, we don’t know what lurks around the corner. This creates a feeling of being hunted, and doesn’t go away until the final bloodbath between Jen and her (ex) boyfriend.

From peyote-fueled surgeries to picking bits of glass out of feet, Revenge brutalizes the audience. And although it’s a feminist twist on the genre, Revenge won’t make anyone a fan of these types of films. But despite the buckets of blood, Revenge gives us a girl that represents our current political climate, one that fights back against predatory men and makes them suffer for their crimes.  

 

‘Westworld’ Episode 4 Tackles What it Takes to be Immortal

Co-creator Lisa Joy directed her first episode of Westworld, and it’s probably the best of this season so far. Joy creates an episode that is creepy and beautiful to look at, something the show has desperately needed. She also provides answers to some pretty big questions, namely, what is going on in that lab beneath the park? Well, it’s all about creating host clones of humans.

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Delos’s record player. Screenshot from HBO

The episode opens with a long pan across a crisp white apartment while “Play with Fire” by The Rolling Stones drifts off a record player. As the camera pans across the apartment, it stops on James Delos (Peter Mullan) who seems to be going through his typical morning routine. Then we discover he is actually in an observation period, according to young William (Jimmi Simpson). We return to this scene two more times, slowly learning that this isn’t the real Delos. Instead, Delos’s mind has been transferred into a host’s body in an attempt to achieve immortality. But, this process is not so easy.

Continue reading “‘Westworld’ Episode 4 Tackles What it Takes to be Immortal”

Episode Three of ‘Westworld’ Begs the Question: Who Let the Tiger Out?

We aren’t in the wild west anymore, folks. Episode three of ‘Westworld,’ ‘Virtù e Fortuna,’ has finally confirmed the existence of not one, but two new theme parks: the Raj (British-occupied colonial India) and Shogun World (samurais). Dissent is spreading to the other parks and the hosts have taken control; plus, there are rogue tigers chasing guests.

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Episode three opens in the Raj, where guests sip tea and plan their hunting expeditions, while Indian men serve them. It’s a place for the rich to live out their Victorian fantasies of experiencing the exotic, while still in the comfort of a luxurious resort. In this resort, two strangers meet, engage in some interesting foreplay, then go off into the jungle together to hunt tigers. But subsequently are hunted by a host who declares, “these violent delights have violent ends” as he pulls the trigger. The man is shot and the woman escapes, only to run into the jungle and encounter a tiger.

Then, in a scene that is distinctly J.J. Abrams, a tiger knocks this mysterious woman off a cliff. Don’t worry, she survives somehow. She seems to have a part to play in all of this, but within a narrative so full of characters and storylines already, it’s hard to be excited about someone new.  

While tigers are attacking guests, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) has started a war. She sacrifices her new Confederado allies, armed with Civil War-era muskets, to the heavily armed human park security. In an uninspired battle where the massacre of hosts doesn’t seem much different from previous episodes, Dolores asserts herself as superior to other hosts–hosts that have not yet been awakened. She declares, “These men are just children. They don’t know any better. They need to be led.” She has become self-important and rather than feel inspired or moved by her monologues, I found myself bored.

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A character who finally had a shining moment was Teddy, played by James Marsden. So far this season he has been as memorable as a piece of plain white toast. But in this episode, Teddy’s discomfort with Dolores’ violence is no longer just a puppy-eyed grimace. This time, he disobeys Dolores and releases a group of hosts instead of executing them. There may be a glimmer of hope for that piece of white toast after all.

As Dolores continues to act poetic about her new role in this world and her grand plans, I find myself wishing for more scenes with Maeve. There are no dramatic monologues or too-sincere declarations, there is only her daughter. Maeve is smart, strategic, calculating, but also loving. She holds Hector’s (Rodrigo Santoro) hand, much to the surprise of their human hostage and park writer, Lee Sizemore (Simon Quartermain). That violates the narratives which were written for them; they are breaking the rules. Hector is supposed to be linked to the host, Isabella, not Maeve.

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But despite breaking some rules, Hector still echoes back cheesy romantic lines that Sizemore has written for him. Are these hosts really freethinking? If not, what happens when they truly break free from these narratives?

We also learn that Sizemore wrote Hector and Isabella after a breakup. Specifically, he wrote a narrative where Isabella, who represents his ex-girlfriend, is killed off as a perverse form of revenge. Sizemore’s anecdote illustrates the show’s problem with excessive violence towards women as a form of unwarranted punishment. Yes, ‘Westworld’ is violent and seems to spare no one, but there is a particular focus on trauma and violence towards women.

Episode three ultimately introduces plenty of new parks and new characters, but few answers. The storylines continue to multiply and branch off with no end in sight. As the story continues to expand beyond the scope of Westworld, it’s starting to become too big to contain. The season may only be three episodes in, but I’m exhausted thinking about what the rest of the season could bring.

Much Ado About Cinema’s Favorite ‘Star Wars’ Moments

There are few film series as iconic as George Lucas’s ‘Star Wars’. It has spanned generations and shows no signs of stopping, with ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ coming out in just a few weeks. This franchise has given us heroes, villains, an iconic film score, and JarJar Binks. To celebrate May the Fourth, Much Ado is looking back at our favorite ‘Star Wars’ moments and why they resonant with us.

Llewyn – Binary Sunset, ‘Episode IV: A New Hope’

‘Star Wars’, for me, has always been about the spectacle of adventure and discovery first and foremost. These movies, like the serialized “Flash Gordon” entertainment they are inspired by, are an escape from mundane reality and into a world of whimsical beauty. When we first meet our hero, Luke Skywalker, he is a moisture farmer on Tatooine searching for a higher purpose. This iconic moment, closing off the first act of the film, shows Luke looking off into the setting dual sunsets of his home planet. The iconic John Williams score kicks in as we close up on Luke’s face. What awaits him out there in the galaxy, past these burning stars? Will he ever get the opportunity to rise up? Is that in his destiny? This is a true defining moment for this franchise, one that represents empathy, hope, curiosity, and ambition. Regardless of where we come from in life, maybe we are destined for more.

Mary Beth – Fight Above the Sarlacc Pit, ‘Episode VI: Return of the Jedi’

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They approach the Sarlacc Pit in ‘Return of the Jedi’

Whenever I think of Star Wars, this is the first scene that comes to my mind. Just thinking about those quick, deep notes that play as the camera cuts to each character right before Luke jumps gives me goosebumps. Then, he jumps, R2D2 shoots out Luke’s lightsaber, and all hell breaks loose. Chaos reigns as Luke, Lando, Han, and Chewie all push their guards into the Sarlacc’s gaping maw. And who could forget Princess Leia? While the men are brawling, she single handedly strangles Jabba the Hutt with the chains used to imprison her, all while in a bikini. Talk about iconic. Even in the face of tentacled pit monster, the Force will always win.

Kareem – Luke confronts Vader, ‘Episode VI: The Empire Strikes Back’

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Luke confronts Darth Vader in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’

The Empire Strikes Back’ is a brilliant film, which gradually builds and builds in terms of world building, excitement and narrative tension. All of that climaxes in the arguably most well-known moment in modern pop-culture. But the impact of the infamous twist doesn’t come out of nowhere. There is some truly masterful filmmaking that leads up it – especially in terms of sound design.

Kershner decided to show an, for the franchise, extremely rare degree of restraint in terms of score. Instead; we get a audial texture consistent of Vader’s breathing, the humming of machinery and the sounds of colliding lightsabers. While there is dialogue too, there are moments, where human silence reigns, and we see these characters being subjected to the mystery of their surroundings, and perhaps to the circumstances, that brought them, a father and a son, into a situation that poses them as enemies to each other.

Mary Beth – Snokes’ Throne Room, ‘Episode VIII: The Last Jedi’

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Snokes’ Imperial Guards in ‘The Last Jedi’

I’m weak for monochromatic set design, so you can imagine how Snokes’ throne brought me to my metaphorical knees. Rick Heinrichs, production designer for ‘The Last Jedi’, said that the idea behind the design was “to make anybody looking at it, whether they’re Resistance or anybody else, go weak in the knees.” I would say that goal was achieved. Besides the production value, this scene is a turning point for Rey. Her struggles throughout ‘The Last Jedi’ challenge what we’ve seen throughout the ‘Star Wars’ franchise, where good and evil, Jedi and Sith, were binaristic ways of thinking; we always knew who to cheer for. But now, it isn’t so clear. As Kylo Ren raises his hand and asks her to join him, there is doubt about what she will do. But she won’t succumb to his manipulation, knowing that despite coming from nothing, she still has an important part to play in this story.

 

Llewyn – The Boy and the Broom, ‘Episode VIII: The Last Jedi’

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George Lucas, as infamous as he was for creating the prequels, once said that “[‘Star Wars’] is like a poetry, it rhymes.” Lucas’s Star Wars was about the Skywalkers, he centered an entire galaxy of characters on one specific family and their generational impact. Rian Johnson’s ‘The Last Jedi’ challenges all of those previous notions of legacy and patriarchy the prequels explored. In doing so, Rian gave the force back to the fans. Rey learns, same as we do, that you don’t need to come from a lineage of Jedi to become a hero. The ending scene to this subversive chapter in the ‘Star Wars‘ saga shows the abused child laborers we were introduced to back on Canto Bight, telling stories of the mythical Luke Skywalker before getting yelled at to continue cleaning. A boy, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, grabs a broom using the force while no one was looking. The force theme plays as he looks into the sky. Sound familiar? This moment is a perfect encapsulation of everything ‘The Last Jedi means. But as subversive as it was, it maintains the rhythm Lucas created.

Kareem – Holdo’s Sacrifice, ‘Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

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Rian Johnson’s franchise-redefining masterpiece ‘The Last Jedi’ has an overarching refocus of the narrative towards the purpose, goals and the urgency of the rebellion. Since the prequels barely had a narrative of systematic rebellion, and the original trilogy tried to rather use it as a set-up for it’s grand, character-focused adventure arc, this might be only the second time (after ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’, which sadly didn’t quite hit the mark), that the rebellion as a concept is pulled into the spotlight. Johnson tries to grasp, what rebellion against a system means. It’s a fight that is very slight in terms of perspective. But exactly that last spark of perspective turns out to be the essence, and the task of the rebellion. When Admiral Holdo, wonderfully played by Laura Dern, crashes the commanding ship of the rebellion as the last remaining person onboard, into the First Order’s Star Destroyer, she unleashes the biggest spark imaginable. It’s a major breaking point in the narrative, and it reshapes the story arc of every other character in the film completely. Her altruism during that moment is specifically what keeps the rebellion alive.

Review: In ‘Westworld’ Season 2, Robot Women Will Inherit the Earth

As ‘Westworld’ season two begins, and the first notes of Ramin Djawadi’s score are played, we see the credit sequence. Still familiar, but some things have changed. Instead of seeing two hosts having sex, there is a mother holding her baby; instead of machines creating a horse, a bison is smashing through glass; instead of an eye being created, it is being destroyed. This is no longer a show about pleasure and fantasy–it’s about death and rebirth. The senseless slaughter of hosts at the hands of humanity seemed without consequence. But now, it’s time to pay in blood.

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Thandie Newton as Maeve in ‘Westworld’ © 2018 HBO

*Spoilers ahead* Continue reading “Review: In ‘Westworld’ Season 2, Robot Women Will Inherit the Earth”