Category Archives: Film

Sicario and Defining Strength: Laughing at all the wrong places

Did you ever go to a movie and wonder what the audience was thinking?

Sicario cast

Credit: Lionsgate

In Philadelphia, I had been to movies where the audience loudly booed.  Some of these are great to superb films — No Country for Old Men is the biggest one that comes to mind.  At the same time, booing at anything is somewhat of a pastime in Philadelphia.

Leaving Philadelphia and coming to the South, film-going audiences are generally more polite and genial.  However, I’ve experienced something arguably more insidious–inappropriate reactions at the wrong times in movies.  These reactions mostly go in the opposite direction and are overtly positive or outright jubilant.

My wife and I went to see the film Sicario at an advance screening last week and were disturbed and dismayed by the audience reaction.  In discussing this, I need to get into a few minor spoilers.

[MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD FOR SICARIO]

In Sicario, Emily Blunt’s character is a surrogate for the audience — an agent in over her head and often confused as to what is happening.  It’s a brilliant conceit to put the audience in the same position as the lead protagonist.  We are experiencing the horror that she is, step by step.  This includes confusion over the Spanish language, government/military verbiage, and what is happening at any given moment.

In the film, Blunt acts as a good counterpoint to the group she volunteers to serve with to fight the war on drugs.  She wants to get the job done, but doesn’t believe the ends justify the bloody, violent, unethical means.  It is a tricky balance that Blunt walks, but she pulls it off admirably.  The people she works alongside on the mission also do a great job in being despicable characters for the audience to reject.

Here’s the thing: despite Sicario being what the AV Club calls the “polar opposite of a crowd-pleaser”, the audience in this screening was highly pleased for all the wrong reasons.

They actively rooted against Blunt and for her morally bankrupt teammates.  Laughing and cheering was constant during the screening of the movie.  A movie that was meant to disturb and instill feelings of dismay over the futility of the United States War on Drugs instead made many people jubilant and energized leaving the theatre.  

An American crisis: confusion around a definition of “strength”

Walking out of the movie, a gentleman with a smile on his face summed up the overarching feeling in much of the crowd, “that girl was really in over her head, wasn’t she?”

She was, but it wasn’t a sign of weakness.  Her general unwillingness to kowtow to morally bankrupt, evil forces is admirable in the context of the film.  It is sad that people viewed these bankrupt characters as “cool” or “badass” in how easily they often were able to put aside any sort of moral fiber in their bodies to kill and torture others.

It’s a similar tough line that another drug-related piece of entertainment, Breaking Bad, walks.  There are many scenes in the show that are impressively staged and viscerally thrilling.  However, we can be seduced into rooting for a reprehensible man in the form of Walter White.  Breaking Bad–like Sicario–is brilliant in this way, making us reconsider what we think is valid and right when it comes to making morally bankrupt decisions.

We also see this with current presidential candidate Donald Trump.  His lack of a filter–and empathy–along with a pushy, bullying nature is viewed as masculine strength, when it’s anything but.

A larger problem manifests when people don’t engage with the material and laugh or cheer it off.

Good and bad is a series of greys

Put simply, I don’t feel as though many Americans can handle good and evil being a series of greys.  The nuance is lost. Physical intimidation and competency in killing is viewed as ‘strength’ and only a couple steps away from fascism.

It is the major problem I have with a movie like 300.  As a movie, 300 is very well made and pulls upon many reliable genre tropes like the underdog and revenge as motivation. However, its focus on Might Makes Right leaves a sour aftertaste.  There is no more emblematic symbol of this overarching ethos than Leonidas’ kicking of a Persian emissary into a well.  We don’t need to talk this through.  We need to be strong and kill whoever gets in our way.

Maybe this speaks to something bigger in the context of our country?  America is used to being #1 and being told we aren’t wrong.  American exceptionalism is at an all-time high during the presidential election campaign.  It is a horribly bitter pill to swallow to be told we aren’t good at something.  Sicario is that pill.  

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Art is Big Business!!!??

One of the hardest concepts for me to digest and understand over the past couple of months is the uneasy relationship between art and commerce.

The key question: how can one be true to oneself and produce art without being concerned about the business side?  Further, how is art sustainable without losing one’s creative flair and passion for what they are doing?

DJing in the Atlanta area made me realize this tension.  For all intents and purposes, it is hard to strike a balance, playing music that is more creatively adventurous, while becoming financially self-sufficient.  But, as with any creative pursuit, one must have faith that it will eventually pay dividends, whether those dividends are monetary or not.

I have always had an admiration for artists who are able to construct pieces of art that are uncompromising and willing to go to places others are not.  That are able to shine a light on truth and give an additional perspective to something that has gathered dust.  But, once again, is it possible to follow this track, remaining financially viable?

In my opinion, art is currently at a crossroads.  This couldn’t be more obvious than in film.

In the 1970s, there was the auteur period.  Directors were king and many nearly had as much power and clout as the studios.  Only in the 1970s could relative unknown Michael Cimino make the ambitious film The Deer Hunter, then be given countless amounts of money to make the bomb Heaven’s Gate, nearly bankrupting United Artists.

The 1980s were reactionary in a way, putting a greater emphasis on constructing blockbuster films and franchising.  However, films like Back to The Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Empire Strikes Back are pieces of pop art.  These types of films effortlessly balance adventure and entertainment with adept storytelling and some interesting insights on the human condition.

The 90s, aughts, and 10s have continued this trend to diminishing returns.

Watching the film Prometheus about a year ago reminded me of this uneasy balance.  The film starts out as an interesting treatise on faith and humanity but ends up being a b-movie gorefest best experienced in an MST3K-esque format.

But that’s the thing, what is the balance?  Is there a balance that can be found between art and business without sacrificing either?

In my opinion, Christopher Nolan is an excellent example of a balance between art and commerce.  The ability to make entertaining films like The Dark Knight and Inception that also pose larger intriguing philosophical questions about life.  But Nolan is a bit of an outlier.

So, where is this line and can it be somehow defined or crystalized?


“They Live” and the Occupy Movement: What is Social Justice?

The golden rule: He who has the gold makes the rules. – Keith David, They Live

If I were picking a favorite film director, it would most likely be John Carpenter.  In terms of film, my tastes run from the very peaks of cinema to the absolute depths, with a love for art and trash.  I completely, utterly appreciate attempts to make the most cohesive piece of art possible, but I also highly appreciate those that are able to entertain.  John Carpenter is one of the rare directors able to do that, balancing an artist’s hand with the panache of a modern-day P.T. Barnum.

Starring then-professional wrestler Roddy Piper, They Live is a scathing comment on the neglect of the working class in the United States, managing to wrap this message within the context of an alien invasion with aliens masquerading as politicians and those in positions of power. With They Live, Carpenter is able to sneak in jabs at Reagan’s conspicuous consumption obsessed culture while also making a piece of pulp science fiction entertaining to those who don’t even agree with the politics on display.

I recently watched They Live on Netflix and came to the realization the sheer amount of anger brimming under the surface.  Anger towards the incompetent, the greedy, and–perhaps most of all–the complacent.  They Live is, first and foremost, a comment on those individuals who let the world become one focused more on people being defined by product, rather than the moral integrity that inherently makes a person a person and separates us from the animals.

Roddy Piper and Keith David, They Live

A pair of black sunglasses changes everything...

That They Live got through the major studio system is a pretty major miracle (even if Carpenter had box office clout at one point, it was long gone here).  Even more so than that, the film represents an early warning shot to a current sentiment — fatigue from corporate greed and the resulting Occupy Movement.

For me, one of the more fascinating recent narratives has been the Occupy Movement.  What began at Wall Street amongst a small, but devoted group of  protesters has expanded nationwide.  Along the way, the Occupy Movement has fought for the idea of social justice, attempting to remove the barriers of injustice and greed and make many of these hidden barriers more apparent with sit-ins, protests, and commentaries, among other things.

This isn’t how many–including many of those in the media–have framed this pursuit, however.  To many, the Occupy Movement hasn’t been clear enough and represents some of the dregs of society — those who simply don’t want to work.  Others use codewords which imply entitlement or laziness resulting from substance abuse or other factors.

While this isn’t entirely untrue, it’s also simplifying what is being done on the ground.  The formation of any movement has growing pains; birth is always painful.  Occupy has largely been interesting in solidifying and clarifying their vision in moving forward to action.  Some of that action has already occurred in places such as Georgia, where many Occupy protesters have started organizing sit-ins at properties foreclosed on due to subprime and other unethical practices.

In defining the vision for social justice, much responsibility needs to be placed at the feet of the people themselves–those loans they decide to take out, where they choose to live, what they choose to eat, etc.

But we must also remain cognizant of the fact that not all Americans (or people elsewhere) are born with an equal shot, despite what we are told at a young age.  Redlining, gentrification, food deserts, cheap addictive and calorie-rich unhealthy foods, and predatory lending practices are all very real things.

Simply put, the Occupy Movement is more than youthful naivete.  Just like those black sunglasses in They Live, Occupy is bringing light to problematic policies and waking up the populace.  Well, at least those who are able to cut through the static.


I Sure Do Miss The Good Old Days…

In case you didn’t notice, there is a tinge of facetiousness in the title of this post.  People always seem to speak about how much better the old days are.  We as people tend to view memories through rose-tinted glasses, exercising revisionist history on a repeated basis.

A couple months ago, I saw the film Super 8.  I was not a huge fan of the film (I would probably give it 2 1/2 stars for the record), definitely not as much as many other critics attested.  That being said, the crowd I saw the film with ate it up.  I also noticed much of the audience was older, averaging my parent’s age.  It is no coincidence that the film is set in the 70s, painstakingly taking turns expressing the period of the film.  This includes musical cues (“My Sharona”), fashion, and references to films at the time (Dawn of the Dead, for one).  It also owes a large debt to Spielberg’s fetishization of the suburbs.

The film is a crowd-pleaser, but is it because of the quality or the ability to tap into the powerful phenomenon nostalgia?

When you think about it, nostalgia has a huge influence on American culture. Movies such as Super 8 use the feel of the era to create familiarity and financial security for studios.  The endless reboots, remakes, and sequels coming out of Hollywood these days also attests to this (as do the record box office grosses).

Recently, Nickelodeon came to the realization that 90s programming could be lucrative, cashing in on the nostalgia of generation x (and y).  Based on the suggestion of a few interns at the company, Nickelodeon’s TeenNick channel has begun to re-air many of these shows in a block of programming called Nick ’90s Are All That.  As a result, the channel has experienced record ratings.

Further, politics are guided by nostalgia, looking back at the strong family of the Leave It To Beaver era as a reference point (never mind part of the reason families were so “strong” was an ignorance of racial and gender-based issues).   Ronald Reagan did a brilliant job eschewing a back to basics approach, using the nostalgic tone of his “Morning in America” ads to a landslide victories in 1980 and 1984.

The interesting thing about nostalgia is its sheer strength.  Watching a film or listening to a song without the proper context can completely alter one’s opinion.

I’ll admit I never saw The Goonies as a kid.  Watching it in my twenties made me realize it’s a sheer chore to get through.  It’s somewhat akin to being locked in a room with a bunch of yelling, screaming kids.  For 1 1/2 hours.  Torture.

Nostalgia is such a strong tool.  Just look at some youtube comments for an older song.

Quality often doesn’t change.  People do…well, unless they’re handcuffed by nostalgia.

 

John is hoping that you don’t think he’s a grouch for thinking nostalgia is lame.  He also hopes you don’t think him saying lame is lame.  John can be reached via Twitter or watch him wax nostalgic on last.fm.


“Ikiru” and Leaving a Legacy Behind

Hey, folks.  In preparation for my upcoming trip to Japan, I decided to delve into a work by *the* master of Japanese cinema, Akira Kurosawa.  Particularly, one of my favorite films ever made, “Ikiru”.

As I stated in a previous post, I first really got into foreign films (and more obscure films) once I was able to break the chains of the big box movie rental stores that were in the rural area I grew up in.   These stores often had racks and racks of bland, processed, mass produced films, but never the obscure and interesting movies I was looking for. Once I had gotten Netflix, there was no going back.  The virtual cornucopia of films by the masters of cinema was eye-opening.

One of these masters was and still is Akira Kurosawa.  My first foray into Kurosawa’s work was The Criterion Collection version of “Seven Samurai” (Suichinin no Samurai).  I was impressed by the film, but found it a bit overlong.  The best part of the film was Toshiro Mufune, who remains one of my favorite actors to this day. 

Despite being a tiny bit underwhelmed by “Seven Samurai” (perhaps because I saw the American remake first; movie blasphemy, I know), I went into Kurosawa’s other films and found many of them to be even better.  “Throne of Blood”, “Rashomon”, “Stray Dog”, and “Ran” are all excellent, beautifully shot films and further cement Kurosawa’s place in cinematic history.

However, the film that firmly placed Kurosawa at the top of my list of favorite directors was “Ikiru”.  “Ikiru” isn’t as well known as “Rashomon”, “Seven Samurai”, or even “The Hidden Fortress” (which was an inspiration to “Star Wars”), but it is more touching on an emotional level.  Well, at least it was for me.

“Ikiru” (translated as “to live” in English) is about a man who works at an office job, emotionless and without passion.  He has a strained relationship with his son that haunts him and a wife who is no longer there.  These regrets paralyze him, preventing him from living life to the fullest. At a routine doctor’s visit, he finds out that he has cancer and a limited time to live.  He then decides he has to do something about it.

The most noticeable thing about “Ikiru” is not its brain, but its heart.  The film has so much to say about the human condition in the span of its running time.  Just like all great works of art, it makes you look at your life in a different manner.  The emotions are not only conveyed in the actions of the characters, but through the use of sound and vision, just as film should be. 

Witness this swing scene.  So spare and minimalistic, but so much emotion conveyed in the span of a little over a minute of screen time:

“Ikiru” inspired me as a high school student to do something good and infused in me an energy to go study biology in college to help others.  I now work in public health, but still have a passion for art and its impact on others.  This film is a reminder of that power, the power of emotion in telling a story and connecting to the public.  “Ikiru” also makes one treasure the time they have on this Earth and the importance of grasping opportunities and caring for others.

“Ikiru” is a rare film–along with “Wild Strawberries”, another masterwork–that can alter the trajectory of one’s life.  It is that good.

 

Yes, it’s true.  John Donovan will be in Japan for some time.  He is also a huge fan of Akira Kurosawa and talking in the third person.  John can be reached at his Twitter @jododojo10 or his new Tumblr blog New Wave of the Future (newwaveofthefuture.tumblr.com).


So Bad, It’s Good: My Obsession with Tommy Wiseau

So Bad, It’s Good is a column  focusing on why I enjoy what is typically called “bad” in critical circles.  Many critics thumb their proverbial noses at these pieces of media and trash culture in general.  Despite this, like a famous fictional person once said, frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

“You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!!!”

The man who wrote, directed, and acted in this scene is Tommy Wiseau and the film is called “The Room”.  Many, many stories have been written about the film and the phenomenon surrounding its cult fame.  The sheer awfulness of this film is in its purest form and unlike any I’ve seen.  “Troll 2” is a competitor to the crown (as are newer films such as “Birdemic: Shock and Terror”), but for my money, “The Room” is the all-time champ.

On every level, “The Room” is poorly done to an excessive degree.  Characters disappear and reappear, the music is grating and inappropriate in equal measures, the writing incoherent, cinematography ugly and muddy, and the acting is absolutely atrocious.

So, why do I like the film?  Why do I like pieces of pop culture traditionally called ‘junk’?  That is hard to define.  However, I think it can be distilled down into one word: Originality.

I truly prize originality in all pieces of art.  Films and music that somehow say something differently and take a different route in doing so are inherently more interesting than a mediocre, middle-of-the-road piece calculated to make money.  This can also be translated to people I meet.  I often find unique, individual people to be inherently interesting and worth listening to. 

“The Room” is a highly personal work, even if it is about as far from eloquent as humanly possible.  It is also a film that opened to scathing reviews and walkouts.  Wiseau spent approximately $3 million (!!) on the film and none of it shows on the screen.  Despite that, it shows how much the film meant to him and how much he was willing to put himself on the line.   With nearly no sympathetic female characters in the film, it also appears to be a bizarre treatise on his relationship(s) with women.

When you stare into the Wiseau, the Wiseau stares back

I first stumbled upon the film near the beginning of graduate school and I became hooked.  Some may even say obsessed.  I began to ponder the larger meanings behind various characters that appeared and reappeared, the reason for plotlines that were never resolved, and the constant panning shots of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.  I also began to watch videos of the film, unable to shake Wiseau’s visage from my brain, somewhat similar to my college obsession with Garbage Day.

I met the man when they had a screening this past year at The Plaza Theater.  Before the screening, I told him the movie (in somewhat hyperbolic fashion) “changed my life”.  His response:  “That’s what I like to hear.”

No, that’s what I like to hear, Mr. Wiseau.

I have spread the gospel of “The Room” to my family and friends.  I am hoping this post brings one person one step closer to understanding the cult surrounding this little film that could and, in essence, why people enjoy “trash” so so much.

 John doesn’t recommend you watch “The Room” more than three times in one sitting.  He knows from experience.  If you need to join a support group (or wish to comment), contact John at jodonovan1984@gmail.com


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