The Bystander

[Extract from the book Erebus: Ten Stories by May-Han Thong and Yen-Kheng Lim,  Copyright 2016, Published by SRI Books. Visit the book’s webpage for more details on purchasing/download.]

Bus 19 was always late. Every morning I had to spend about fifteen to twenty minutes just waiting at the bus stop. Fifteen at least. For five days a week, that added up to seventy-five minutes spent just waiting at the bus stop.

That’s plenty of time to spend with a few strangers also waiting for Bus 19. So, even though I had never spoken a single word to any of them, it felt like I knew them extremely well.

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Fantastic Beasts and Its Not-so-fantastic Characters: MACUSA

(Plot details for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them will be discussed in depth, so spoilers alert. You’ve been warned.)

There may be hardcore fans who love the latest installment in the Harry Potter franchise, but to me, this movie is rather underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a terrible movie by any standards, but it certainly felt rather disappointing.

For me, the major problem of this movie is what I’d call the ‘likability factor’ of the good guys. Generally, people watch a good-versus-evil movie to root for the good guys. There might be some notable exception where the villain gets a lot of sympathy and fans (e.g. Loki, from Marvel’s Thor movie), but for most purposes, you’d want the audience to cheer the protagonist on. Look, I am not saying that the good guys need to be perfect. I am just saying that the audience needs to at least not hate the good guys, especially in relation to the bad guys. I feel that this is the major problem in this movie.

This is going to be a very long post, because I feel that there are plenty of problems with the good guys. Here, I will focus on Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA). One could argue that they are not very important characters, but I beg to disagree; MACUSA’s intervention and decisions drove a lot of the plot developments.

On a very surface level, the good guys are Newt Scarmander (Eddie Redmayne) and his friends, Tina and Queenie Goldstein and Jacob Kowalski. On the opposing side of this film are Gindelwald (Johnny Depp), Mr. Graves (Colin Farrell), and the Second Salemers headed by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton). ‘What about the MACUSA?’ you may ask. Good question; that brings me to the main point.

On the whole, MACUSA seemed to be the good guys mostly because they fight against Grindelwald, who we knew from the Harry Potter series to be a major villain. Also, they were supposed to uphold justice and protect the wizarding world from the No-Majs (Muggles, if you insist). Yet, for some reason, they behave like the villain in the whole movie.

Now, I watched this movie twice, and I can’t tell you how angry MACUSA made me feel. One of the first scenes we get of MACUSA was when Tina dragged Newt to the headquarters, interrupting an important discussion in the process. Here, we learnt that Tina was actually grounded and assigned to menial tasks. This by itself wasn’t terrible, but it was what happened next that gave me an intense dislike of MACUSA.

The next time we see MACUSA was after Senator Shaw was murdered, when Tina turned in the suitcase containing Newt and Jacob. Tina told everyone in attendance that Newt had let some creatures loose, which may or may not account for the attacks on the city. The following is roughly the exchange between Tina and Piquery, the scumbag President of MACUSA (summarised to focus on the important point).

Tina:Yesterday, a wizard entered New York with a case. A case full of magical creatures. And unfortunately, some have escaped.

Piquery: You’ve known for twenty-four hours that an unregistered wizard set magical beasts loose in New York. (Piquery then ordered the good guys to be arrested.)

Look, this is ridiculous on so many levels. For fuck’s sake, Tina tried to tell you guys about Newt the day before, and you remember how that went? She was dismissed! By you, Piquery! And now, Tina was punished for doing the right thing and turning Newt in. Come on, if anything, that woman deserves a pat on her shoulder; regardless of her motivations and her status, she was at least attempting to fix the problem. In contrast, what was MACUSA’s reaction to the attacks? Talk. Lots of talking. We have seen them twice now, and they were just endlessly talking about the problem.

Moments later, we were treated to an interrogation scene that ended with Graves sentencing Newt and Tina to death. Yes, to death, even for Tina, whose ‘crime’ was uh, collaborating with Newt? Did no one wonder why she turned Newt in if she was working with him? At this point, is anyone already horrified by MACUSA? One guy, just one guy… can hand out a death sentence, effective immediately. There was no fair trial, no jury system or a panel, or the need for anyone else’s approval, or a plea bargain or an appeal; it was just ‘oh, you caused this problem… now, die’.

I get that Graves is the bad guy, and he has every motivation to have Newt and Tina executed, but the fact that no one questioned his orders meant that this sort of things happened all. the. bloody. time. Worse, we found out that Graves was actually Grindelwald, so who knows how many good witches and wizards have been wrongfully sentenced to death?

Now, the most important part of all: the epic final battle. On one side, we have the emotionally unstable Credence, who caused all the destruction. We have Graves trying to persuade him to join his cause, while Tina and Newt were trying to calm him down. MACUSA appeared when Tina had Credence listening to her. Note that at this point, Credence showed no indication of attacking. What did MACUSA do? They murdered him! They murdered the poor guy!

Seriously, of all the things they could have done, they killed him. What, have they not heard of negotiation? Arrest? Incapacitation? Killing him when he was no longer posing a threat is equivalent to shooting a surrendering criminal, and if that doesn’t make you the bad guy, I don’t know what else would. Graves was enraged, of course, but at that moment, he was the one I sided with. Sure, Graves has ulterior motives for keeping Credence alive, but hey, anyone remembered how Credence got to this state? (Psst, it was Mary Lou’s abuse, and Graves’ betrayal). In other words, he could not help becoming the monster that he became. I don’t know about anyone else but seems like he needed help instead of a dose of murder.

For most moviegoers, when we watch a movie like this, we want to see the good guys win, and the bad guys get their comeuppance. This is pretty much what we get in the movie, with Grindelwald/Mr. Graves getting captured and the Second Salemers (at least the spine of the group) destroyed. But MACUSA got away with everything, particularly Piquery. There was no humility or guilt in her tone, despite the fact that:

  1. She let Grindelwald into her organisation for possibly… months, if not years. After all, Graves had a lot of power in his hands and was of a very high standing in MACUSA.
  2. Tina and Newt were almost executed because of her bad judgement. The very least she could do was to admit that she was wrong. But nope, doesn’t seem like it.
  3. She did not remotely feel guilty for giving the order to kill Credence. If anything, she appeared a little… proud.
  4. If it wasn’t for Newt and his convenient deus ex machina potion and beast, the wizarding community would have been in serious danger. Where’s the ‘thank you’?

At this point, I am completely baffled. Why does any of the good guys still want to be linked to MACUSA? That pisses me off so much. Doesn’t anyone have the guts to tell Piquery off? I would have said, ‘Hey, woman, you have been wrong so many times, I wouldn’t even put you in charge of a water tank. You don’t get to call the shots when you fucked up so badly.’

We were later told that Tina got her old job back, and she seemed happy, but why? Tina went against Mary Lou because she abused Credence, but she is alright with MACUSA murdering him? Where is the outrage?

People compare MACUSA to real life government agencies, but there’s a reason why we sometimes think of the CIA and FBI and other enforcement agencies with disdain. They are not the good guys in a long shot, and we get horrified when they get away with doing unethical things. This is bad enough in real life, but it enrages the fuck out of me when it happens in a movie with magical beasts too.

And worse, none of the good guys seemed to care.

Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Being possibly the only person who’s not into the Harry Potter hype, I suppose that my opinions here would come with a bit more objectivity than most people. Don’t get me wrong; I like the Harry Potter books, and a few of the movies were okay (Potterheads, please don’t lynch me), but I was generally ambivalent towards the Harry Potter franchise. Hence, I was slightly interested in this movie only because I happen to be working on a magic-themed story at the moment. I have to say that the result was… somewhat disappointing.

The story is based on J.K. Rowling’s book of the same title. I have not read the book (it’s more of an encyclopedia anyway), but the movie is about the adventures of Newt Scarmander (Eddie Redmayne), who accidentally let some dangerous beasts he carried in a briefcase loose in New York City. Along with a suspended American Auror by the name of Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a muggle who was dragged into the quest by accident, they had to find the culprit behind a series of attacks on the city.

I believe that while the premise of the story was interesting enough, the problem lies in a story cobbled together seemingly on the fly. There were plenty of plotholes and convenient deus ex machina (I will probably make another post about the problems I have with the story), and the nifty special effects can’t save the film. The movie works well as a mode of escapism, but once you start trying to apply logic to it, the plot crumbles.

Scarmander himself was another problem. Compared to his companions, he seemed to have little personality. He seemed shy and quirky, and more at ease with the beasts under his care, but besides that, he was barely relatable to the audience compared to the more complex characters he surrounded himself with. For example, he did not seem very passionate about the beasts (no big smile on his face or an awe at the majesty of his creature). One could argue that all these beasts are already well known to him, so there was little for him to be excited about, but I beg to disagree. Kowalski was a good baker, but the look on his face when he was presented with a beautiful strudel told us the depth of his passion.

This leads me to an important point: Kowalski was the highlight of the movie for me. In the first few scenes with him, I was already rooting for this guy. He was an ordinary man (just like us), stuck in a soul-crushing job (utterly relatable) and he wanted to pursue his dream (ditto!) to set up a bakery. Unfortunately, his loan was denied because he had nothing to offer as collateral for the bank loan, so his application was promptly rejected (some of us would know how that feels). By the time all this was presented to us, Scarmander was still miles behind in terms of character development. And oh, he also has some of the best lines.

Tina and Queenie were interesting roles as well. Alison Sudol was captivating as Queenie, who turned out to be very competent, and kudos to her for using her seductive front to her advantage. Katherine Waterston did her job well enough to get us on the side of Tina, who was torn between duty and doing the right thing. *Spoiler alert* Is no one going to address the fact that she went on a one-to-one duel with Grindelwald and survived? Or that MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) ordered her to be executed without investigating how she got involved with Scarmander? *End of spoiler alert*

Of course, in the end you can have a decent film despite plot holes and a main character who is relatively bland compared to the side characters, but that movie will just remain that way: decent. But then again, the last few Harry Potter movies have been just that, and Fantastic Beasts may be content to just follow their footsteps.

 

44 of #52FilmsByWomen: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015, directed by Marielle Heller)

[No. 44 of 52 in #52FilmsByWomen]

Almost everybody has an awkward teenage phase of self-discovery and understanding life. Minnie (Bel Powley) is no exception. Taking place in the hippie 1970s San Fransisco, Minnie is raised by a single mother who openly does drugs in front of her daughters. The 15-year-old Minnie gets into a relationship with her mother’s boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) and becomes obsessed with him.

43 of #52FilmsByWomen: 13th

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13th (2016, directed by Ava DuVernay)

[No 43 of 52 in #52FilmsByWomen]

13th in the film’s title refers to the 13th amendment to constitution of the United States. It is the amendment that abolishes slavery in 1865. This documentary examines the racial dynamics after the abolishment of slavery, in a country that still disproportionately imprisons minority Americans through mass incarcerations.

The 13th amendment is supposed to grant equal freedom to all citizens of the country, save for one loophole – criminals. According to the amendment, criminals are still liable to indentured servitude. To keep up with their financial interests, property owners find various ways to maintain their black slave workforce by charging them with various criminal offences, however petty and minor they are. This is perhaps the origin of the ‘black men are criminals’ stereotype.

The documentary shows how African-American communities are affected as times and politics change from the mid-19th century to the prison-industrial complex of the present day.

This movie is perhaps especially relevant in the aftermath of the US 2016 presidential elections, where nearly half the country chose a inexperience racist sexual predator to lead the country who based his campaign on xenophobia.

To non-Americans observing the recent elections, I would highly recommend watching this movie. Based on what I’ve seen in my social media circles, Malaysians, Singaporeans, and Europeans commenting on the elections seemed to be overlooking this issue. Most of us seem to be thinking that the von Clownstick administration is dangerous because he might accidentally start World War III. But as best I can tell, what’s truly worrisome to Americans  is the election of Drumpf shows that racism in the country is far from over, and that the administrative bodies of the country will pass bills and laws that will ruin the lives of many poeple of colour in the country.

The most gut-wrenching part of the documentary is where they brought up the issue of unarmed black people being killed by the police. Even though I’ve heard about some of these cases through the years, it was hard to watch the scene where the movie shows the footage from the various cases all at once, in a long montage.

This is a gripping documentary about an issue that very few people outside the US are aware of. It’s on Netflix. Watch it if you can.

 

Prepare to Try: Playing Dark Souls

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Dark Souls is a game that is famous for its intense difficulty. Yet, many gamers and critics alike seem to have nothing but love and admiration for its impressive game design. It is ‘tough, but fair’, as they say. Even the tagline of the game itself tells us to Prepare To Die. With the lore and opening cutscene that feels more epic than Lord of the Rings, I was intrigued enough that I picked up the game, took a deep breath, and Prepared to Die. I was surprised to find that I didn’t die as much as I expected…

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