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First uploaded August 9, 2019
Updated August 12
PICKS OF THE MONTH
August 2019 Picks of the Month (so far)
The Handmaid's Tale's season 3 episode 11 promo video
"Liars". This eleventh episode of The Handmaid's Tale's third season premiered on Hulu at 12 a.m. on July 31 and was then broadcast within the 7-day period following that day, preceding the twelfth episode's premiere on August 7, on Hulu's partner channels including Canada's Bravo, the UK's Channel 4, Ireland's RTÉ2, Scandinavia's HBO Nordic, Brazil's Paramount Channel, among others. It was also made available almost simultaneously with Hulu on other video-on-demand services such as Canada's Crave, New Zealand's Lightbox, and Australia's SBS on Demand.
We've been intrigued by every outing of The Handmaid's Tale, especially in light of the debate instigated by articles that came out with titles like "How ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Villains Were Inspired By Trump" or "In Trump's America, The Handmaid's Tale matters more than ever". The series is a TV tale about the dystopian theonomic republic of Gilead, the directions of which seems to closely resemble those of the fundamentalist Christian Reconstructionism of some of Trump's religious supporters, as well as it does recall Nicolae Ceaușescu's Decree 770 (watch video link from 10:57 if it doesn't automatically go there). We'd like to tag this particular third season episode as one of the outstanding ones in this Margaret Atwood novel-based American web TV series for the following reasons:
The muffins. Hulu got Turkish-French Deniz Gamze Ergüven (of Mustang fame) to direct this and the 12th third-season episode of this series, and it was quite moving to see Ergüven and writer Yahlin Chang open "Liars" with neither an establishing shot nor a shot of a face or a room or an action, but with a close-up on all sorts of muffins on a wooden tray. We remember, of course, what the Martha (housekeeper/cook, named so after the biblical figure) told the "handmaid" June (the series' main protagonist) at the start of episode 10, when June entered the kitchen upon her return to her Commander's house (after being punished for a month, kneeling and praying, in a hospital in front of her dying walking partner). "Scones mean 'no'," said the Martha (Kristen Gutoskie), referring to the scones on the table as symbolizing a negative answer from the rebel network regarding further deliveries of contraband mood-stabilizing medications for Eleanor, the Commander's unstable wife. Eleanor, along with her husband, Commander Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), has been sympathetic towards the Handmaids and Marthas of Gilead, with Commander Lawrence being an active party to the smuggling of a couple of handmaids and a baby out of the country.
Later, during that 10th episode's last scene, June (played by Elisabeth Moss) enters the kitchen to witness the Martha staring at a table full of muffins. "Muffins mean 'yes'," the Martha said, referring to the baked product's signifying the news that some members of the rebel network are approving of June's plan to smuggle a number of Gilead's children (actually the handmaids' biological children) out of Gilead and into Canada.
The use of the muffins is interesting to us because, truly, American muffins (like the ones shown in this 11th episode's close-up on them) have a common rounded top. Even English muffins have a common flattened top. Compare this to scones, which have pretty much variable tops, some of them even sporting pointy, swirling designs on them. Although the episode's script doesn't say it, the more democratic scones could imply the presence of disagreement among the decision-makers of the rebel network. There's more agreement among cooks about how muffins should look like, and thus perhaps the network's use of the image to signal a common or united belief towards an action.
Scone also rhymes with 'no', while muffins rhymes with calmness. In Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, the character Jack asks the character Algernon: "How can you sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble? . . ." To which Algernon answers: ". . . Well, I can't eat muffins in an agitated manner. . . . One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them." In Gilead-rebel codification, therefore, muffins may signify a potentially calm consummation of an impending act, instead of an action that could go awry due to ongoing disagreements, among other factors of unease.
That number. June also narrates via voiceover that some in the covert network of Marthas and Handmaids have offered to smuggle a total of 52 children out of Gilead's households. One might recall how this number figured prominently in another revolution in history similar to the Gilead movement's fictional theonomic revolution that established the Republic of Gilead. The former toppled the Shah of Iran's regime, while the latter toppled the United States government and abducted non-followers' children.
The abduction of children by Gilead's government is highly similar to to Francisco Franco's abduction of his enemies' children and their deposit in state orphanages or monasteries; to Hitler's kidnapping of blonde and blue-eyed children from all over Europe, particularly Poland, for their Germanization in Germany; to the United States' previous abduction of children of Native Americans for adoption by white couples under the 1958 Indian Adoption Project; and to Donald Trump's separation of migrant children from their parents at the US-Mexico border for possible adoption by American families.
Incidentally, the Iranian Revolution is also similar to the Gilead revolution in its quick implementation of a policing act for women's proper clothing.
Anyway, during the progress of the Iranian Revolution, the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's Line invaded the US embassy in Tehran and held hostage 52 of its staff, demanding that the release of these hostages be conditional on the US' return of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi who the activists insisted needed to face trial in Iran. The hostage crisis lasted more than two months, with the hostages released only after the Algiers Accords.
As if paralleling the conservative political developments in Iran, Americans criticized the Carter government's perceived mishandling of the hostage crisis and elected into the US presidential office the social and political ultra-conservative Ronald Reagan.
The Big Plan and Big Regret contrast, as well as the Calm Planning vs. Panic contrast. Commander Lawrence and his wife would become The Handmaid's Tale's prime symbols of regret at the highest level, seconded only by the wavering Serena Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski), wife of the loyal-to-the-cause Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), June's earlier owner. This regret has, of course, a lot of references in world history, most notably in some of Joseph Stalin's followers who would succumb to their dictator's Duterte-esque paranoid obsession with lists as sole evidence of criminal activity or insurgence.
But Commander Lawrence has a regret far from ordinary. His is not similar to a general's regret at having followed an insane leader; as one of the architects of Gilead's system, Lawrence's would be more like Karl Marx's regret if Marx had lived to see Stalin's rise within the communist utopia, or had seen Mao's repressions during the Cultural Revolution as well as Fidel Castro's executions.
So, with the weight of this regret on their shoulders, Commander Lawrence and his wife produced an atmosphere in their household quite liberal towards other Marthas visiting their two Marthas as well as towards their new handmaid, June. This liberalism may have been inspired by the state of fragility that happened to the Commander's wife (whom the Commander is demonstrated to be very much in love with), a mental state that would require the sympathetic aid of Marthas and handmaids in the household.
The freedom (and relative power) that June would come to own inside the Lawrence house is also dramatized to its fullest in this 11th episode, when June becomes the Commander's crisis negotiator and savior during a scene where the Commander's wife points a gun at her husband's head. This is the culmination of Eleanor's having lost it, an iffy position at this stage that could pose a danger to her husband, the household, and herself, which in other narratives might require her elimination.
This occurrence provides the episode that stark contrast between depressed regret, on the one hand, and persistent planning (as in June's case) fueled by a desire for vengeance, on the other. Likewise, this scene, and June's announcement to the commander (in the following scene) of her plan to smuggle 52 kids out of Gilead, becomes the transition point wherein June becomes the Commander's co-leader in the household's quiet belligerence towards the Gileadian dystopia.
Another contrast would happen when the Commander panics and unsuccessfully heads for the border with his wife while June goes on to wait for a studied plan for an escape to form in her brain.
Incidentally, June's ability to "handle" to a degree her enslavers had already been established in her previous assignment with Commander Fred Waterford.
The push on the issue of a dystopia architect's coming out as hero. After her current Commander agrees to her plan, June says: "Wouldn't it be funny if you actually turned out to be a hero?" Yes, it'd be funny. But there are actually examples in history where such transformations occur, their outcomes not always a laughing matter. We Filipinos don't have to look far, with personas such as Juan Ponce Enrile, the alleged architect of Ferdinand Marcos' martial-law regime, turned into a hero in the EdlSA Revolution of 1986; although one might want to make it clear to everyone that Enrile did not become that hero from a position of regret.
"Liars" also makes us know that although Commander Lawrence's regret may have translated itself into a willingness to make it up to the world, it's also a compulsion that would prioritize family at the expense of everyone else's life (read: would be willing to leave and sacrifice those "everyone else" in favor of saving one's family first, which is entirely understandable). Not smart, as what the Commander would himself realize when the Waterfords are arrested at the border and brought to trial as war criminals, with him telling June in episode #12, "I guess they didn't bring 52 kids with them." Not heroic, either, from a collective standpoint. But this selectivity is consistent with what was revealed in episode 3. In that episode, we saw that Commander Lawrence also has a prerogative to regularly save a select five women in a prison camp (called The Cages) to become Marthas. After the Commander makes that selection, the remaining souls in the camp's regularly-changing roster are then sent to The Colonies, a Chernobyl-like place, which also happens to be the inspiration for one of Lawrence's brilliant designs for a slow-death punishment for sinning "criminals" in the Republic.
The presentation of when things are already irreversible, complete with a Judas fuck. The episode also serves as a demonstration of when things are too late for someone in history's progress. Before he is captured by soldiers of the Canadian government and the American government in exile in Canada for war crimes, Commander Fred Waterford made a confession to his wife. In the (Gethsemane?) tree garden of the extended country family that hosted him and his wife near the border with Canada, Waterford intimated a willingness to leave all things behind for a life in the country in order to watch their daughter grow up, the prelude to which confession was a long day of driving wherein he seemed to miss the excitement and liberal positivity of previous times. This, in spite of his acknowledgement of the good brought along by the new regime's environmentalist (Quaker-like return to organics) revolution, which he referred to as that "something to be proud of". At one point during the way, he even let his wife drive the Mercedes sports car they were in, with old rock and roll music playing ("Do you remember when / Things were really hummin'?"), terribly unimaginable back in the new city of Boston.
Serena Joy Waterford is ostensibly modeled after Phyllis Schlafly, as well as Tammy Faye Bakker, Ivanka Trump, Christina Hoff Sommers, Camille Paglia, Kellyanne Conway, and pro-life feminists (including those of Democrats for Life of America), and so it was a delight to watch this episode's treatment of the ultimate result of her regret towards her own book-written utopia when she did what is described in the two following paragraphs:
It was hard to tell while one watched episode #11, but looking back at it after watching the recently-broadcast episode 12, we can see now why Serena was being unbecomingly "nice" to her Martha (Amanda Brugel) when she bid her goodbye, why else she looked intermittently nervous during the whole drive to the border and then at the rural house and then during the meeting hour, and we see where her words were being deceptive. We see now why, on that evening at the country tree garden, she would be reminiscing about life before her life with her husband and Gilead. We imagine how her thoughts might have ran when he heard Fred in the garden sounding like the husband that he should always have been, saying things like "I didn't realize how much this would cost you," in light of the fact that she had already been disappointed not a few times in her expectations of him during their life in Gilead. We would also try to guess what she may have been thinking as she witnessed the innocent piousness of the loyal country family that hosted them at the border, there happily singing Dona nobis pacem instead of planning to take advantage of their proximity to this same border. The scene might have pleased her at first but may also have been the very same stimulus that reminded her (after a day at the wheels and then listening to Chubby Checker) of the urgent need to keep her daughter from living a life as a Handmaid or Obedient Wife in Gilead (look at how actress Strahovski's furtive smile would turn into a face of worry and resolve).
On the night before their morning meeting with their American contact (Sam Jaeger), we also catch Serena sadly looking at her husband from her bed. Fred would catch her looking at him so, holds out his hand, whereupon she asks him to come over to her bed, likely for a sort of Judas fuck. And when the Waterfords are finally arrested at the tree-populated Canadian side of the border, that scene also looked a lot like the Gethsemane arrest we all know, although we would insist that Fred Waterford is not exactly the kind of fundamentalist Christian that Jesus of Nazareth would be proud of. After all, Jesus of Nazareth was that kind of Jew who would say anti-fundamentalist things like "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."
The Big Message articulation. "Nothing can fix it," says Eleanor, still refusing to put down the gun aimed at her husband's head during the second scene of episode 11. "I have a plan, Eleanor," June tells her, "but I need him alive. I need his help. And I need yours. So, put down the gun. Please." Eleanor asks: "Will it make it better?" "Yes," says June. "How do you know it will work?" Eleanor asks further. "'Cause it has to," goes June, adding, "because all of this has to add up to something. It has to mean something."
'Cause it has to? You'd think that that was a lot of "hope" crap from June. But if you're in a similar landscape, you'd see her point, especially if you happen to have a good background of readings relating to the history of dystopias and how they usually end up, and might have a view that dystopias are all meant to exist and be put up with in order to teach surviving humanity a lesson, prompting this humanity to thence provide changes. After all, taking Aristotle's usual take on things, didn't Hitler need to happen so that Europe's and the rest of the world's collective brain would end its fetish for pogroms (remember the Limerick boycott and the Tragic Week)?
Last but not least, Art's still Currency. Christian philosophy (any religious philosophy for that matter) has been bastardized many a time, all of which versions would be used for the acquisition of power and privilege, thus naturally given to hypocrisy. So there's the presence of a legal brothel for Commanders in The Handmaid's Tale and a number of self-assigned exceptions to the Christian rules of the land. But this fragile devotion to a bastardized Christian philosophy gathered around a fundamentalist and pragmatic reading of the Biblical Bilhah has actually its upsides. Anti-art iconoclasm is nowhere to be found in the series, unless in relation to a previous political symbology. So, while the primary statue at the Lincoln Memorial would be seen grossly vandalized in the third season's episode 6, in episode 11 it would be revealed that Lawrence has actually hoarded Picassos, Cezannes, Rembrandts, and Pissarros collected from museum raids, not unlike Hitler's own forcible acquisition of art for his Führermuseum and friends. June offers these artworks to a bartender at the brothel who is working for the rebel network and has access to a cargo plane. "I trust his love of money," says the Martha.
Batman: Hush's official trailer
BATMAN: Hush. This new direct-to-video outing from the DC Universe Animated Original Movies line premiered August 6 in the US and August 12 in the UK.
Based on the 2002-03 top-selling comic book series that carried the Jeph Loeb-written epic Hush story arc, the first issue of which got 110,000+ preorders, this animated film version took a long time indeed to arrive. But fans just knew that an arc this big (that later saw the light as a two-volume hardcover and softcover) would one day emerge as another star in the DC UAOM line, especially as Batman films are almost always successful at DVD stores' cashier machines, globally that is. They―the fans―expected the film to come earlier, though, instead of as the 35th project in the UAOM collection (or the 12th in the newer Universe subset, continuity-wise). But we think it's a good coincidence that this direct-to-video Hush film has finally come out in this, our present era of real-life hushers, and has proven to be a must-have, especially the Blu-Ray that kept the original 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio and has those bigger explosion sounds with its 5.1 audio track. We don't know how this Hush film is going to perform at the cashier's desk, especially since it's already 15-rated, even if you tell us that the popularity of the UAOM line has always been due to its fun adult-driven content.
A caveat. The film is not faithful to the book, but it still gets to the right ending. Also not to worry, because it stands out on its own merits, coming out as one of the best in the DC Animated Movie Universe not only in terms of its complexity. It may be said to have turned the epic comics series into just one long short story (as feature films usually are seen as, unless they are advertised as "epic" themselves), but Frederik Wiedmann's orchestral score plays a big role in the dramaturgy and the cinematic expressionism of this project, especially during the parts where the bass instruments have to go forte, which all enables the loss of the comics' bigness to find an equivalent in the score's and sound effects' tangible aural drive.
So, what else is not here: Jim Lee's pencil art would just be impossible to translate to a relatively low-budget straight-to-video animation production, though his strong line details and his older costumes are here kept. The all-too-many orchestra of characters and villains in the grand comic book series had to be chopped into just a few to fit into the two-hour feature film standard, but we still get that sense of villainous abundance even at just 1 hour and 22 minutes, enough to get you confused at the start.
What's here, though: Yes, that new collusion is here, including corrupt villains Bane, Harley Quinn, Joker, Scarecrow, Clayface, and finally Riddler, as well as a hypnosis expert in Poison Ivy at the beginning who could conscript momentarily a Catwoman and even a Superman. Even with that reduced crop alone (decorated by cameo appearances by Lady Shiva, Batgirl, and Damian Wayne), it's already all-star enough to shame the Trump-Russia connection and the hypnotic propaganda expertise of Roger Stone, Steve Bannon, Fox News, and Russia Today, and Cambridge Analytica's hush-hush knowing ahead of everyone. "It's like they're all crawling out from under the carpets now," said Nightwing, to expand the villains' number in the film the way a large mirror would expand a small room. And it's as if each of these antagonists would be presented as the guest in a virtual chapter of the film (at one point, Superman would provide the chapter-ending signal with that "your job is done here" statement thrown at Batman and Catwoman). . . . Then the classic too-serious-about-his-hero-status Batman character (still voiced by Jason O'Mara) is here bolstered. The Batman-Catwoman love story is then made to become the plot's linking chain, one already tensive in its own right simply by its tenuousness. And Catwoman (voiced by Jennifer Morrison), along with the other major female characters, is here made more real by present-day linguistic mannerisms and humor sprinkled with the latest platitudes, also by a few sexiness updates and even a recall of a psychiatric quirk in her. The compatibility issue between the Batman character and Catwoman character, tenuous as we said, is offered as the film's deep problematic. The different motives of the two characters as human characters is brought to the fore. . . . Those are all what make this video a good study in combining the possibly conflicting elements of the superhero's angry, self-enforced sense of obligation to catch criminals (made philosophical by codes or scruples present) and his duty to love and friendship. Speaking of codes, Batman almost breaks his in anger at Riddler 42 minutes into the film. He checks himself only after hearing Commissioner James Gordon say, "I won't let you throw your life away. Gotham needs you." He gets back to the code with the Commissioner's statement as the sole explanation for his ceasing to strangle the Riddler, but we know how else breaking that code can mean in rule-of-law terms, which terms Batman may actually understand.
In the end, we see that Catwoman is all for torture and capital punishment right there and then, and we get her anger and point, even though we know she's not exactly a clean kitten herself. We also see that Batman is a far deeper sort of superhero, more philosophical, one might say in his own quiet way, and it all leaves us with something to debate over (the spirit of laws, today's lawless superpower regimes, and all that), which we can do while we're still democratically unhushed by the law-loophole invokers that Catwoman (and many other superheroes) would want to simply throw into the pit quickly without ceremony. Is Batman anti-capital punishment? And is the Batman-Catwoman quarrel going to be temporary? Well, we'll see.
Whitney Cummings: Can I Touch It? - Official trailer
Whitney Cummings: Can I Touch It? Can we let Whitney Cummings' latest stand-up comedy special speak for itself, untouched? Okay, let's do that for this gig on the topic of #MeToo and sex robots, among other interesting things, by 2 Broke Girls and Whitney creator Cummings, her fourth standup special, actually, after her two for Comedy Central and that I'm Your Girlfriend one for HBO. So, we'll go now, after just quickly noting here that this show, produced for Netflix and has been available on the Netflix site since July 30, actually happened not in New York or L.A. but in Cummings' hometown, Washington, D.C., the present home of one of the most sexist governments in American history.
Reality Queen! - Official trailer
Reality Queen! This film's due to be released 7 Sept 2019 in the US yet, but we already got a preview of it this month, so we're putting it up on our list for August instead of September.
So, Reality Queen! is a mockumentary. But it doesn't mock the documentary form, but instead takes the form to simulate a documentary filmmaker's coverage of one of the darlings of mainstream American media, the fictitious London Logo, and her struggle to compete with another set of celebutantes, the Kims. The film turns out to be a surprise B-movie from 2019 made by a bunch of relative unknowns (to most of us), completed with a meager $5M budget.
It's driven primarily by the acting of relative unknown actress-producer Julia Faye West (Slink, After School Massacre) as "ultimate celebutante" Logo. Debut-directed by West's husband, producer Steven Jay Bernheim (The Perception, Chaos, Redemption, The Backlot Murders, Gangland, Point Doom), the film takes us to a world of staged nipslips and "accidental flashing" and other faked situations by these self-indulgent, irresponsible, and talentless attention-seeking daughters of wealthy people.
Logo says about herself, "I don't read much of anything except things printed on t-shirts," and that instantly reminds us of a male celeb politician who could actually be saying the same thing, even if he probably reads his own 280-character tweets, because it's likely that he sees these as not needful of any knowledgeable person's editing anymore. And if Logo needed to say that to apologize for her intellectual lowliness and at the same time to proudly taunt the necessity of intellectual prowess, we are reminded of that other politician closer to home who often touts his own status over and above a staff of people with honors who are now just working for him, as he would put it a thousand times.
So Logo's sex tape A Night in London clearly points to Paris Hilton's 1 Night in Paris. There are so many of these details that have a parallel in reality (that's why it's a parody) that the "any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events or firms, is purely coincidental" disclaimer at the end of the credits becomes funny in itself. But while the film comes out as a strong parody of the likes of Hilton, the Kardashians, and the industry and media enablers of these self-marketing egos, in the end the film actually mocks someone else, actually a collective, via its tagline (culled from one of the lines of our fake documentary's host, played by Kate Orsini) that goes: "Is London Logo a business marketing genius . . . or is she simply the accidental beneficiary of an overwhelmingly ignorant American public?"
The Larry King-lookalike talk show host in the film (Charles Fleischer), interviewing (or was he the one being interviewed by) the supposed documentary filmmaker, had this to say about Logo and America: "London and The Donald, it's the same thing."
But it's not really America that the film ultimately blames. It's mainly the media, the very kind of media all over the world that would catapult a Donald Trump to power and would nearly catapult the jokes of Miriam Defensor-Santiago into the Philippine presidency along with her penchant for defending the corrupt. So Paris Hilton and the Kardashians are also the product of the (probably paid) decisions of the producers of such shows as Larry King Live. The same with TMZ, where even bad publicity would still be publicity, and E! News. These are all party to the crime, if these presences qua presences (working against absences) emit an automatic socio-cultural crime. "How have I accomplished so much in one lifetime?" :D asked Logo. Some of the writers of the film would also be writing the film's press releases, describing this "fantasy whirlwind of partying, mansions, yachts, private jets, pet psychics, and a celebrity posse" as what motors this billboard mythos inhabited by these celebs-for-no-reason.
Our salute to this "from-the-headlines comedy" on product endorsements, talent managers, and "America's infatuation with fame," then. For this becomes a portrait of a people as a horde operating from groupthink, manipulable to the eyes of media and marketing gurus, talent managers, and advertising personnel. On the other end, there's the celebrity, whose goal it is to be famous and then to keep that fame afloat through "performances" that maintain visibility ratings. It doesn't matter what he/she does, for as long as it keeps his/her (notorious) name afloat.
How have these people become the defining word, the logo, of our language? How did culture become reduced to just a bunch of brands to salivate over?
(MORE picks of the month later). [d]
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