Monthly Archives: June 2016

Sticking To The Obvious

I put off watching Spotlight for a while. It had a lot going for it — talented cast and the subject matter — reporters investigating child abuse covered up by the Catholic Church — was charged, tragic, and topical. Way I saw it, this was gonna be a heavy, intense movie. Hence putting off watching a presumably gut-wrenching movie

Which is why it’s so frustrating that Spotlight wastes so much potential in favor of being painfully obvious at best, and poor melodrama at worst.

Spotlight is definitely about something: namely the Catholic Church covering up child abuse scandals. This is undoubtedly an important topic. The thing is, it doesn’t say anything about that, except that, well, it’s bad. Which it is, but that’s the obvious thing. It doesn’t say anything more about it, nothing about personal impact.

Since it’s hard to critique this movie in a vacuum, let’s compare it to The Big Short, shall we?  There are some similarities; both discuss recent happenings, and both are about a group of people looking into it and are proven right. In Short this is about finance people who saw the housing crash coming and invested on it happening (and they’re right).

Now, Short has an excellent moment when the main characters are finally proven right when the housing market crashes. But rather than just letting it be a victory, the movie turns it tragic when the protagonists realize just what it means. Yes, they’re rich, but the economy is screwed over. It’s not sad just because we know what it means, but it’s sad because the characters realize exactly what their predictions mean.

Conversely, Spotlight has no stakes: the coverup is never made personal. The abuse victims who step forward are supporting characters, plot devices with some great moments, but we aren’t really invested in them. As for the main characters? They’re all lapsed Catholics, which is touched on in one quick scene and never comes up again. The closest we get is when Sacha Pfeiffer mentions that she can’t go to Mass with her grandmother anymore. But we don’t see how the revelations about the Church has affected their relationship (as Sacha only goes to church because of her grandmother). Imagine if we’d been invested in Sacha and her grandmother and we’d seen the rift Sacha’s pursuit of the coverup created between them.

As the movie is, there’s precious little conflict in the film. The Spotlight team never argue amongst themselves and there’s no debate at the newspaper if they should continue pouring all their time into this story. Furthermore, for all the talk of the influence of the Catholic Church on Boston, they don’t really get in the way of the team at all. We’re told that there’s a coverup — and we’re even shown it happening in the first scene — but beyond that the Church doesn’t take an active role in stopping the uncovering. Thus the Spotlight team carries on their investigation without any major obstacles and with little personal/non-professional investment.

All this could be done well enough, but the thing is Spotlight doesn’t spend time unpacking what the cover up really means. Yes, it’s bad, but so what? The movie doesn’t go any further than the first thought. Herein is Spotlight’s biggest flaw: it’s obvious, safe. It’s a good portrayal of investigative journalism, but doesn’t do much to explore just how important it is. Say that covering up child abuse is bad, but don’t get personal with it. Have all the potentiality for negative fallout should the piece go to print, but instead have them getting it published be a plain, obvious, victory. Use ominous piano music to remind us that this is serious.

Now, much of my dissatisfaction with Spotlight stems with my own expectations. Having followed the more recent spate of news concerning the Catholic Church covering up child abuse, I was expecting a movie that really got into it, really explored the corruption and awfulness; I wanted a movie that stressed how much of a fight it was to get this to light. That Spotlight played it so safe was disappointing. So much more could have been done with what they had that the movie can’t help but to end up being a bit of a let down.

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Top Nine Movies of 2015

Woah, it’s June, and I haven’t done of these yet? Big reason is because there are some movies that I still haven’t seen. Like Carol, which I really need to get around to soon. Then there’s The Room, which I really should see, but am not sure if I’m ready for the toll of that movie.

So anyway, here are my, at current, top nine movies of 2015, with an extra space left for a movie that catches me in left field.

9. The Martian

It’s a well done movie about a Mars exploration; honestly that’s all The Martian needed. But that it’s dang entertaining and has a strong scientific (if not totally accurate) bent just makes it that much better.

8. The Big Short

This is a movie that made me not only understand, but laugh at the housing crash that may or may not screw over my financial future.

Yay.

7. Sicario

Woo, another movie about cartels. Except Sicario exists in a very gray world, where good and bad are hardly as clean cut as you’d want them to be. It’s a gripping story, where the lesser of two evils mayn’t be as much of a lesser evil as you’d hope. Plus, this is a movie that makes every freaking gunshot count.

6. Ex Machina

Ex Machina is a small movie that feels so much bigger. It’s tight focus on three characters really lets it explore them, and grapple with the questions of artificial intelligence. Plus, I love me some haunting science fiction, and that’s definitely what this movie is.

5. Infinitely Polar Bear

There’s a beautiful scene early on between the two leads as Maggie encourages Cam that he is capable of taking care of their daughters alone, despite his bipolar disorder. It’s heartbreaking, filled with a tragic honesty that goes on to permeate the entire movie. It’s not a story of recovery — that’d be too easy — instead it tells a story about not being alright. And it’s all the better for it.

4. Inside Out

I’m a Pixar nut; I’ve seen every one since Finding Nemo in theaters. What’s remarkable about Inside Out is how it handles a very grownup topic — depression — with such nuance. It, like Polar Bear is a story about not being alright; and though this one ends with recovery it is no less potent.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road

Dang, dude. This is an action movie. The movie’s outlandish spectacles and nonstop action grip you from start to finish. That it’s grounded with a strong feminist perspective is a bonus that makes it so much better. And that’s not even getting into the sheer craft of how it’s shot. I want more movies like this.

2. Creed

Watch this scene.

I can’t think of a movie as comfortable in its own skin as Creed. Filled with a youthful energy that fuels a terrific underdog story of identity, the movie is an expertly crafted fist-pumping, cheer-worthy movie. Plus, its use of motivated long takes shows The Revenant how to do it.

1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Could it have been any other movie? It’s a phenomenal follow up to the original, that captures the beautiful optimism that made the originals so special. But it’s the old movies updated with wonderful diversity and a worthy successor of a protagonist. This is Star Wars, this is a movie that reminds me why I like telling stories. This one wins, hands down.

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Visions of the Future

There are a lot of things I like about science fiction, chief among them the genre’s capacity for using metaphor to discuss bigger ideas. Like how the original Gojira explored nuclear fears and Edwards’ Godzilla discussed the question of the relation between humanity and the environment.

But another thing I really like about science fiction is the way it tries to guess what happens next. Ender’s Game saw the potential of computer networks for a user generated news network, though writer Orson Scott Card didn’t quite capture just how prolific the user generated and focused content of Web 2.0 would be. The divide that exists between the future that could be and the future that is is the source of so much fun.

It also says a lot about the concerns of society. Look at how many 80s films set in the near-future showcased crime-riddled New Yorks and Los Angeleses. Or New York as a walled off prison colony that Snake Pliskin has to escape from. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that rising crime was on the public consciousness.

So then it’s interesting to look at what today’s science fiction says about tomorrow. Now, the beauty of science fiction is that it doesn’t have to be accurate, just plausible. I doubt anyone seriously believed New York would become a giant prison, but the looming potential for crime was there. Take Firefly, which envisions a future where the combined might of the United States and China was able to colonize space in order to escape a decaying earth. A logical assumption, what with China on the rise in the early 2000’s.

The Expanse also features a spacefaring humanity, with one of the protagonists being part of a crew mining ice from asteroids. Which makes sense, since getting water would be an essential part of sustaining and off world colony. Another tiny detail of The Expanse that I love is the existence of a seawall around New York. It’s a small thing, but one that grounds the future in a certain kind of realism. Rising sea levels will necessitate some sort of countermeasure, and a seawall makes enough sense.

The Windup Girl takes things in a different direction. Rising sea levels consumed many cities (including New York — why’s it always New York?) and others, like Bangkok, sink a wealth of resources into keeping the ocean at bay. But Paolo Bacigalupi paints a grim image of the future, one where a scarcity of fuel has plunged humanity into a time when electricity as we know it now is a distant memory. Now genetically engineered domestic animals turn cranks to power machinery and store springs with potential energy. It seems old fashioned, but at the same time, all too likely.

It’s a bleak outlook to be sure, but Bacigalupi’s novel (which I’m still reading, as of this writing) is also set against a world where genetic modification and patented genes are rampant. Sure, it sounds like science fiction, but both are things currently being discussed. A world where rice itself is copyrighted isn’t as nonsensical as it would have sounded a few years ago. The Windup Girl just takes sends things to a pessimistic conclusion.

Maybe in a couple decades we’ll have solved the energy crisis and stopped the sea levels from rising and these futures will look as ridiculous as assumptions that the United States and USSR would still be at war in the 2030s (in space!). But it’s okay to be wrong, it’s fun to imagine what’ll happen next. Sometimes things turn out right, sometimes not. Still makes for a good read.

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Clever Stupid

Hot Rod is one of my favorite movies. I’ve got its poster framed in my living room, and it’a movie that I’ve analyzed on this blog for its presentation of Rod’s mustache as a symbol of self-actualization. It’s also not a movie you’d expect to be analyzed, seeing as Hot Rod is, well, incredibly stupid. It’s about a (bad) amateur stuntman who needs to raise enough money to save his stepfather’s life so he can beat the crap out of him (and earn his respect).

Like I said, incredibly stupid.

But.

But but but, what makes Hot Rod so flipping great is how well it harnesses that stupidity. It’s not a smart comedy, and has no intention to be, but it’s done really well. It’s not just dumb jokes, well, it is, but the dumb jokes are couched with a great deal of craft. The team behind the movie (which happens to be a pre-“I’m On a Boat” Lonely Island) know exactly what they’re doing throughout.

Because of this, laughs don’t feel cheap. Yes, there’ll be a throwaway gag involving Cool Beans or exactly how it is you proceed that elusive ‘wh’ sound, but the comedy is anchored in character. There’s a strong central story, characters are fleshed out and have goals; the comedy, stupid as it may be, exists in tandem with the story. The characters don’t feel like they’re just there to be funny or laughed at; it is, put simply, a clever stupid movie.

So why does Hot Rod work?

Hot Rod doesn’t talk down to its audience. Though the film’s humor relies primarily on slapstick, non sequiturs, and downright silliness, never once does it treat its viewers as if they are idiots. In that process, the movie establishes that the audience is in on the joke. The movie isn’t just trying to serve up something barely palatable for laughs. It also helps that Hot Rod isn’t particularly mean. For all its silliness, Hot Rod lets its characters live. There’s nothing vindictive about Rod falling in a pool, or Rod tumbling down a hill for an inane amount of time, or Rod getting hit by a van (again). We enjoy Rod’s pain, but we’re not interested in watching him suffer. Because, and this may be in part to blame on Andy Samberg’s performance, we actually like Rod.

And that’s the proverbial second shoe. Couched among all those silly jokes is that sense of character I mentioned earlier. Rod and his crew, Kevin, Dave, Rico, and Denise, don’t exist just for the sake of jokes. Yes, they’re funny, often outright hilarious, but amidst all that humor are genuine relationships. The characters feel real — well, as real as they can in such an odd world — and, as such, we get invested in them and their plight. We want these idiots to succeed, and we care about their relationships. Stupid as Hot Rod might be, it doesn’t dispense with the humanity of the story.

That’s the thing about Hot Rod, it doesn’t just coast by on stupid and silly jokes, it actually bothers to create a story and characters for those jokes to exist in. Even though they aren’t particularly groundbreaking, they’re executed with enough of a precision that it works on a narrative level. As stupid as it can be, there is a great intelligence in its creation. The movie knows when and how to be silly, there’s a deftness, a cleverness to its stupidity.

And that is how it’s done.

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