20 October, 2015

Design in Force

By all accounts The Force Awakens looks like it will be a good film. The new trailer seems to be one more exhibit proving that it will be a good film. Time will tell, yet, like most of the world, I am hopeful. The Force Awakens has every reason to be a good movie.

This, however, is a godawful.

What in God's holy name is that?  Star Wars: Laser Fuck? Are they at war with symmetry? With graphic design? Will this Star Wars finally complete the promise of the second Matrix movie by having a rave in every movies? Is the Galactic Empire centered around you not knowing exactly where to look? What the fuck is this shit?

Of course, it's a modern movie poster. This is what they look like now. You plop down enough money for a special effects franchise, you're going to get a poster full of people's heads looking mildly concerned.

Just go look up any of the Marvel movies that have come out in the past ever and tell me that I'm imagining it. I know one of you will and I'm here to say that you're a naysaying asshole.



You know what had good posters?

This movie.

And this one.

And this one.

I bring it up, because it's an ongoing problem. Not so much a trend as the shape of our world. For whatever reason, at some point, movie posters have become terrible.

I also bring this up because I can't help it. I just care too much.

This has been spoke of by smarter people with a deeper understanding of graphic design and art history (and don't forget this link, either). But if someone as dumb and poorly educated as myself can see this, I don't see why somebody with 300 million dollars in their pocket can't. Or maybe they can and they just don't give a shit. I mean, it makes sense.

There are plenty of bad movies with good posters and there's plenty of good movies with bad posters. The Force Awakens will probably fall in the latter camp, but that doesn't mean that it isn't worth talking about, if only for a few minutes. The art our culture produces is a direct result of who we are. If we're producing bad art, it's because we like bad art. If bad art, is ugly art, hell, if racist or sexist art sells, then that is a direct reflection of where we are. A bad poster or a series of bad posters isn't as bad as, oh say, the career of DW Griffith, but it still means something. It all means something. It's art. That's what it's supposed to do.

I'm not sure what the solution is. It isn't as though I'm going to "punish" Disney by not seeing their new Star Wars movie. I know you aren't, either. But as a culture, we should be better about what we look at and what we consume. Maybe it's a stretch, but I think that we can have an appreciation of the finer points of art and still enjoy laser fights. The Force Awakens will easily make a billion dollars. We know that. Most of this country is going to see this movie in one form or another. If we're going to see this movie, then why can't we also have a better understanding of aesthetics, of art history, and the knowledge that a bunch of floating heads over a bunch of colors is bad design? It's not like we have to choose.

Also, am I really expected to believe that Drew Struzan was so booked that he couldn't crank one out for us?


16 October, 2015

Mark Watney of Mars

A Review of The Martian (2015)
by James Kislingbury
The past decade or so of Ridley Scott's career has not been the greatest. Since the early 2000's successes of Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, his output has been one long run of questionable films that range from the half-baked, the butchered, the confusing, and the downright awful. During this period, his technical skills only seemed to remind us that he once seemed capable of making good films. And then we remembered that his last unqualified good film came out around ten years ago.

The Martian, thankfully, defies this trend. It's the best movie Ridley Scott has turned out in a decade.  It's fun, it's light, and despite lacking the depth of his best works, it's an eminently watchable film. Considering the amount of calories I've wasted defending Kingdom of Heaven and Prometheus, this is exciting for me.

The Martian is about Dr. Mark Watney, hunk and space botanist, who is stranded on the red planet after a freak storm. From there, it's a series of duct-tape drama, self-surgery, and, back on Earth, an oddly gripping story that revolves around resource allocations (that and conversations about how people should just, like, try harder). It's more Robinson Crusoe than it is Enemy Mine, more Apollo 13 than it is, uh, Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

It's tackles the science fiction genre in a way that I don't think I've ever seen. Namely, it's a movie that is about actual science. Films in this niche have always dabbled with this sort of thing. Interstellar jumps most immediately to mind and 2001: A Space Odyssey jumps most unfairly to mind (as though anything should ever be compared to a Kubrick movie, for good or for bad). Those films only use the science a starting point for the drama. With The Martian, the science is the drama. It is the end all, be all of the film. It's a film without a villain, where doing long division is more important than bravery.

For the most part it works. Seeing a guy, step-by-step figure out how not to die is pretty intriguing. You know, that's cool. The problem comes from the fact that there's no real emotion in the film. It's a long line of problems that need to be solved and smart people doing bloodless math in their heads about how it gets solved. I mentioned it in my podcast, but later on, I thought of United 93 and the thrills Paul Greengrass manages to eek out of bureaucratic procedure and couldn't help but realize that I've seen it done better than it was in The Martian.

The Martian is a perfect title, because nobody in the film ever seems to act like a human being. People assemble into rooms, assess a problem, and then all go to their respective corners like no collection of human beings in charge of multi-billion dollar programs would ever do. It's a movie where Jessica Chastain is stoic. I don't know about you, but stoic is not why I show up to a Jessica Chastain picture.

The film seems more interested in maintaining momentum than it does in creating individual moments where characters can be confused or upset or indecisive. Human beings don't fit into alegebra, so the film moves right past them.

As lacking as the film is in emotion or any sort of attachment, it does have its moments here and there. You have Donald Glover taking the set of skills he honed in Community to be the most obvious quirky scientist this side of The Big Bang Theory (which, like JPL, is also in Pasadena). Then there's you have Sean Bean and Jeff Daniels dueling in a series of industrial offices over who can appear the most affably schlubby without tipping over into "I have a puppy in my van" territory. Most importantly, you have a montage set to David Bowie's "Starman," which is important if only because it is only the third most obvious David Bowie song about space and someone deserves credit for that coup. Then, after these moments, the story kind of slides back to its steady, unwavering tale about a dude trying to figure out how he can, oh boy, "science the shit" out of his space car.

Beyond the drama and beyond its technical achievements, The Martian deserves viewing, because it speaks to the importance of space exploration. Between the various disasters that have plagued our space program and the various earthbound horrors we've witnessed over the past decade or so, we've lost our ability to stare at the stars and wonder what could be. We've forgotten what they mean. The Martian steadfastly ignores this sort of cynicism. Like its drama, there's no place for it. Space travel is an incredible achievement. It is something that represents the best of our race. In this film it isn't some asshole's talking point about how we should spend that money feeding people in America instead of sending people to space (as though we have to choose). Going to space is, in a very real way, the best we can do as a species. If this film can put us right on the importance of space exploration, to get us wondering about what could be, then The Martian will have done its job.

Imperfect as it may be, The Martian is one of the smartest blockbusters to come out since, well, Interstellar. It is a film that, despite its failings, manages to strike a balance between hard science fiction and populist entertainment. It's, you know, pretty cool for the most part. As many better films of this sub-genre as there are, there are few that are as well produced as this one and even fewer that are as technically accomplished. The Martian is a respectable, enjoyable film that is also about as overflowing with human feelings as the planet it depicts.

James Kislingbury is a writer, a podcaster, and an Explorion. 

04 October, 2015

Zero Narc Thirty

A Review of Sicario (2015)
by James Kislingbury

I've been burnt by films like this before.
The Counselor leaps most readily to mind. It had a perfect cast, a great director, a screenplay from the English language's greatest living writer, and it was a disaster. Top to bottom blegh. A front to back conveyor belt of vomit and fish heads that is was so perfectly constructed, you almost have to wonder if Ridley Scott was entering into some kind of a Fat Tuesday-like purge of his baser artistic instincts. More recently True Detective Season 2 pops to mind, but the less energy spent on that thing the better.

I say this because expectations can be a terrible thing, especially when your expectations are not only not met, but pulled forcibly from your arms and thrown into a well. Even when a film is good, your expectations can often sabotage your appreciation of that film. "Well, it could have been better," you say, walking through the parking lot, glumly talking to no one.

Sicario defies this tradition. It's a fantastic film, one of the best I've seen this year. It is a film that not only meets my impossible to define, solipsistic expectations, but it, more importantly, it is a film that is as good, if not better, than the collection of talent behind it. The end result is a film that is as horrifying and compelling as anything you will see in 2015.

A shorthand description of Sicario would pit it as Zero Dark Thirty* meets The Counselor (but if The Counselor was good). It's a nihilistic procedural that collides with reality. In this case we follow FBI door kicker Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) as she is recruited into the War on Drugs. The film also stars Josh Brolin as a suspiciously laconic OGA spook and Benicio del Toro, who seems to have channeled all of his typical scenery chewing into being as imposing as possible. Along with Macer's partner played by Daniel Kaluuya**, the team charges headlong into the underworld of Mexican (and American) crime.

As you can imagine, things go poorly for everyone.

This is a movie that begins with the discovery of over forty bodies packed into the drywall of a cartel-owned house. It doesn't let up from there on out. Sicario is a film that manages to use this setting without exploiting it for shock value. The desecrated bodies that hang from Ciudad Juarez's freeways are not titillation, they're facts of life.

Few movies embraces Werner Herzog's concept that "The poet must not avert his eyes" as well as this one does. To show what the current war on drugs looks like is sure to turn off many and hopefully piss off a lot of other people, but it's a vision that works. The story requires its characters to walk through this underworld and, like us, they walk out changed. And maybe not for the better.

One of the reasons Sicario stands out as a film about drugs is that unlike Savages or Scarface, it's a movie that nails the double-think of the War on Drugs. In order to beat brutes, we must become brutes. In order to stop crime, we have to let it carry on. In order to bring things to light we have to hide them. It's a film with all of the glamor and sheen of a head on collision. And each collision is couched inside of a thrilling, perfectly put together action sequence. You can have your nihilism and eat it too.

It reminds me of Zero Dark Thirty, not because of the driven female lead or the deadly bearded men running around in military kit. Both are films that steadfastly refuse to give you an answer. It simply shows you. These are the facts. Here is what a human being suffocated and stuffed into a wall looks like. This is what your government is willing to do for the sake of. . . justice? This is what happens to a man who has lost everything. No judgment, no music cues, no twists just the facts. It isn't a film that is looking to meet you half-way, which is why I like it so much.

Another bit of grounding in the film is Emily Blunt's performance. I would say she was a revelation if it wasn't already clear that she's one of the coolest actors in the business. She's the female Tom Hardy, which is to say that Tom Hardy is the male Emily Blunt and that I would watch them both in any movie that they appear in. Also they should both be James Bond***.

If you haven't seen her in Live. Die. Repeat, All You Need is Kill, The Edge of Tomorrow, you should. It's the best video game movie ever made and she's the best thing about it. Sicario is a very different kind of a film, but she carries it in the same way that Tom Cruise carries The Edge of Tomorrow. She has charisma. As bad as things get in this movie, as abused as she may be, you want to hang out with her while she is going through this. As much as she carries you through this film, she also carries the burden of the story in a way that is somehow mundane to the core, yet heroic in a way that all lost causes are.

Drugs are all around us and as a culture, as a species, we still don't seem any closer with grappling it today than when we did, well, ever. Beyond being entertaining, Sicario is a way to digest this complex subject in some way. That's what great art does. It leaves us with something more interesting than answers.

Twenty minutes into Sicario, we see Blunt's Kate Macer washing the results of a particularly brutal SWAT raid on a house. That is a thesis statement of the entire film. It's what you'll want walking out of the film or maybe you'll agree with Kate later in the film “I need a drink.”

Amen to that.

Sicario isn't exactly a fun movie. It's packed with tension, it's thrilling in places, and even manages a few laughs, but it isn't fun. It doesn't provide answers or edification. It points its lens at the Abyss for two hours and let's the camera roll. Sicario deserves to be seen, not because it's an uncompromising look into the War on Drugs, but because it manages to be, on the one hand, suffocating and heartless, and on the other, completely and utterly gripping. It's a film that needs to be seen. No, it's more than that. Sicario a film that needs to be witnessed.


* Coincidentally, Kathryn Bigelow produced a documentary about the border and vigilantism called Carteland this year. Obviously something is in the air and it's not just Don Winslow, who I imagine burns his typewriters after every novel to "free the demon.

** Oh, he's British? Of course he's fucking British.

***And also Idris Elba. Rotating Bonds. Can you dig it?

James Kislingbury is a writer, a podcaster, and DAREs to be drug free. You can check out his podcast A Quality Interruption here. You can support his creative endeavors on Pateron here. You can follow him on Twitter here. There are no wrong answers here.