Redhead Temper: Revisiting My Summer TV Picks (Includes Spoilers!)

Early last month, I wrote a post about three shows I was either loving or excited to love this summer: Penny Dreadful, True Blood, and The Strain. When I’d written the post, each show was at a different point in their respective series, and they were all at different points in their seasons (one had just begun and two had not). Now, Penny Dreadful‘s short first season is complete, while the final season of True Blood is a few episodes in, and The Strain just premiered on FX this past Sunday. So, I thought (since I don’t do recaps or reviews for any TV shows besides The Walking Dead) it would be kind of fun to reassess my expectations and opinions now that we’re at that different point– how was Penny Dreadful‘s first season as a whole, what are my feelings on True Blood so far, and what’d I think about The Strain‘s pilot episode? Well, let’s find out!

First, Penny Dreadful: Okay, I would be lying if I denied that the first season of this show was a bit of an incoherent, inconsistent mess. It was incoherent and inconsistent, yes, but I loved it unashamedly. Its main strength was its Frankenstein subplot. The main flaw?: The very fact that the series’ main strength was a subplot at all and that sometimes, that subplot was sacrificed for a plethora of other less interesting, less developed and less important subplots. The show jumped around at times, while at others it seamlessly weaved together the new characters and stories with the classic, familiar ones.

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With so many things going on, the series sometimes felt confused and unfocused, not knowing what, or how, to prioritize. For example, what ever happened to the Egyptian vibe concerning the vampires? Well, not a whole lot. Vanessa is possessed in a late episode, probably one of the most gripping and genuinely scary episodes of the whole series I will add. It seemed on the one hand that she was possessed, or would become possessed if something wasn’t done to stop it, by this sort of evil Egyptian goddess entity, but then even that gets muddled when we also learn that the devil wants her to be the mother of evil and witness Ethan Chandler, played by Josh Hartnett, perform a last minute exorcism on her.

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Again– a truly creepy and intense episode, but one which raised more questions that were not yet answered, and that in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. For one thing, the main storyline concerning Sir Malcom Murray’s daughter, Mina, is brought to sufficient closure; Mina is found but cannot be rescued, as Malcolm chooses Vanessa over her in a pretty climactic showdown. But, that storyline wasn’t always the most exciting in the first place. So while I do wonder what new classic literary figures will be introduced or what the new central conflict will be, the most exciting prospect for season two is, again, the Frankenstein arc, which looks like it’ll include the creation of the creature’s bride. So, no it’s not a perfect series, but the best parts of it are truly great and even the flaws are still intriguing exercises in Gothic-hodgepodge-horror.

Next, the final season of True Blood: I’ve been hearing less than positive things from fans about this final season, but I can’t say I agree with all the anti-hype. In fact, all the negativity is somewhat making me wonder, are we watching two completely different shows here? I am loving this final season, even though it is not without its usual flaws. Mainly, I think it is nostalgic in all the right ways. It has so far proven to be a reasonably fun, relatively shocking and acceptably action-packed season filled with funny-haired flashbacks and hyper-stylized fight scenes.

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I love that Anna Camp’s adorably conniving Sarah Newlin is back and that the Hep-V-infected Eric will presumably go after her for revenge as only he could– after he helps out a much jaded Sookie and the gang, of course. My only concern at this point is that the two seemingly central groups of antagonists have been eliminated within the first half of the season, and with such a quick set-up and resolution like that, what will the second half have in store? All in all though, I think for a show that has technically worn out its welcome a few seasons ago already with many fans, this season feels like a perfect way to go out– wrapping things up, killing them off, and making some kind of impact once more.

And lastly, there is FX’s The Strain: The pilot ran almost two hours long but moved swiftly and speedily through cheesy dialogue, gruesome visuals, and complicated, interweaving stories. As someone who is currently working her way through the source material(s– novels and comics), a big part of the fun for me was matching the episode to those texts, gleefully picking apart the adaptation choices and changes. Overall, the episode seemed very reverent, and it was directed by Guillermo del Toro himself.

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Many people were expecting it to be better, but I think it was exactly is del Toro intended it to be– after all, if anyone has read the books or the graphic novels, it is clear that the campy qualities and tonal shifts and shallowly-defined but still likable characters are drawn directly from those very things, as opposed to resulting from a poorly executed adaptation process. In a sense, this is Pacific Rim del Toro, not Pan’s Labyrinth del Toro– it is B- movie wonderful, part medical mystery and driven by a truly unique and mysterious and not to mention creepy approach to vampire lore. I have high hopes for the season and the series as a whole, and I’m perfectly content with the show as it is, instead of wishing it were something it never even intended or claimed to be in the first place.

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Well there you have it– a sort of recap/review of these three shows since last I talked about them on here. Perhaps if I deem necessary, I’ll write revisit this same topic yet again later in the summer. By then, I can write about whether any of my True Blood questions are answered… Or I guess I can always just reminisce about why the show has meant so much to me over the years, no matter how the series does or does not end, and to be honest, I’m not even sure if I know how I personally would prefer for it to conclude. Or maybe I’ll speculate more on whether we’ll get Jekyll and Hyde or more information about Ethan’s true identity as a werewolf in season 2 of Penny Dreadful. And it might be fun to take note of what has in fact been changed from book/comic to screen as we get further along into The Strain. Either way, I felt it was important for me to once more highlight and discuss these three horror shows all within their differing stages.

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Redhead Temper: My Summer TV Picks– Dark, Bloody, and Brooding

Most people who know me personally know that I find it extremely difficult to “bingewatch;” the phenomenon of retreating to a laptop and watching a series from start to finish in a short span of time was never something I was very good at or interested in, and that is a fact I’ve mentioned about myself here on a number of occasions. So, while everyone else uses the summertime to bingewatch a series streaming on Netflix, like Orange is the New Black, for instance, or Arrested Development (which was my failed undertaking of last summer, only having gotten through about half of season one), I have come to terms with the fact that I need my real television set, a tangible, physical cable box, replete with DVR and premium channels. With that in mind, I’d like to take the rest of this space to talk about a couple of TV shows that are already, or will be, airing this summer that I love or am looking forward to– and not surprisingly at all, they are all genre shows.

For one thing, I already sometimes (half-jokingly) consider myself the Scrooge of summertime– my pale, ginger skin merely freckles or burns in the sun, and my curly red locks basically explode with even the slightest percentage of humidity, and extreme heat basically nauseates me. Beyond all this though, my preexisting love for all things horror requires me to maintain a healthy dose of dreariness– the ultimate vitamin D, as far as I’m concerned.

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Penny Dreadful has, thus far, been this vitamin for me. I love its Victorian-era goth aesthetic, and the way it cleverly pastiches together a number of familiar characters from legendary horror literature, weaving their stories into one larger narrative that is similarly reverent and referential, while also unique and mysterious. Airing on Showtime at 10 pm on Sundays, the show is named after cheap and somewhat seedy serial publications that were produced in this era and which told tales of horror. This particular tale of horror contains Dorian Gray, Victor Frankenstein, and hints of Dracula, not to mention something vaguely Egyptian going on too. Then there’s Vanessa Ives, played by Eva Green, who seems to be a medium, but there is a lot we have yet to learn about her, and Sir Malcolm Murray, played by Timothy Dalton, whose daughter Mina has been taken– presumably by the show’s vampires.

So, there is a lot going on, and yet the show does a pretty good job of keeping a careful balance, even if not within each episode then definitely from one to the next, so far anyway. Next week’s episode seems to center mostly upon Vanessa, which is exciting because she is definitely the most intriguing of the original characters. I am, however, biased when it comes to the literary story lines: the show’s representation and adaptation of Shelley’s Frankenstein is simply amazing. I took an entire course on Frankenstein and have read the original text and have encountered countless adaptations, both literary and cinematic; I’m not saying I’m an expert, but I am a huge fan. This show has, so far, remained impressively and refreshingly faithful to so many aspects of the novel that are so oft ignored or forgotten about, while still changing things just enough to fit into this new patchwork.

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Speaking of a patchwork of horror creatures, I can’t abandon True Blood as we approach its final season on HBO. The series has wavered in the past few years, admittedly– last season was certainly better than that of two summers ago (all the Lilith stuff got really old for me, really fast), but allegedly, last season veered away from the trajectory of the novels way more than any previous season had. I cannot attest to this personally, because I did not read the novels, but I can say that the strange flash-forward of last season’s finale felt random and tacked on. This upcoming season appears to be as apocalyptic as ever, and I can only begin to wonder how they will choose to end the beloved series. That, and my level of commitment up until this point has been far too great for me to give up on it now; I have loved dearly almost every other season, and it has come to symbolize summer for me. I’ve always appreciated how campy it is, and that, at least, hasn’t changed much.

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Finally, a new show which has not aired yet but which I am immensely excited for is The Strain. Guillermo del Toro is, after all, one of my favorite human beings on the planet, and I have no doubt that his creepy, gory, twisted vampire tale will translate flawlessly to the small screen. I have read two out of four of the graphic novel adaptations, and intend to read the original trilogy of novels that initially sparked those comics and this new series. It will be airing on FX in early July, and I have high hopes for this unique, grotesque take on the classic creature, and look forward to seeing this wholly original vampire mythology unfold in serial fashion.

Well, there you have it. While normal season shows are on their summer vacations, these bloody and broody programs get to take center stage– which is just how I like it.

Redhead Temper: The Cultural Purpose of the MTV Movie Awards

I had a professor in college who taught me one of the most valuable lessons of my life as a media consumer, a film spectator, and an educated citizen. He told me to “value omnivorous consumption.” He exemplified this plea with a personal anecdote about taking a break from film scholarship and seeing a bloated action movie– and enjoying it. Ever since then, this idea– of embracing both the high and the low, the good and the bad, and the art and the business of cinema– has kept me grounded as a film student and as a moviegoer in general, and it has kept me grounded now as a film blogger too. Yes, I have a film education that is nearing its conclusion, and yes that may afford me at least the possibility or privilege of succumbing to snooty pretension. But when I think about my professor’s anecdote and my own varying film tastes, I remember that I am an omnivorous consumer, and that is, perhaps, how things should be.

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So, with that long-winded introduction, I’d like to say– completely without shame– that I watch, and enjoy, the MTV Movie Awards every year. The awards, hosted this year by Conan O’Brien, aired last night at 9 pm on MTV (and are bound to be repeated ceaselessly for at least a week). The opening was undeniably funny and centered upon celebrity cameos (already indicating the emphasis on celebrity this awards show exhibits, arguably over actual talent), while some particular highlights for me included pre-recorded sketches and exciting sneak preview scenes from the upcoming X-Men and Amazing Spider-Man installments/sequels. All of that being said, however, I do also understand this awards show’s function in our media landscape; but I do think that function might be shifting slightly in extremely interesting, albeit limited, ways. First of all, it’s we-the-people who vote for the winners, and the awards reflect this potentially problematic sense of democracy in a fun and fairly self-aware manner. I say potentially problematic in the sense that MTV’s demographic is mainly teenagers and twentysomethings, so the winners are, in some ways, just as predictable as those of the Oscars– if there’s a teen-movie franchise like Twilight or, in this year’s case, The Hunger Games, it’s going to win best picture.

That doesn’t bother me though. In fact, I’d say that this is still proof of something pretty democratic at work– we voted online, but we also voted with our wallets, after all. These films make a ton of money, and at least in the case of last year’s winner The Avengers or this year’s winner, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, they at least do have the potential of pleasing critics, as well, and these are critically successful films which could never get recognition at certain other awards shows. But let’s be honest– the average movie-going teenager doesn’t care about the merit of these films on a sort of critical level anyway, and in that sense, this awards show is the antithesis of the Oscars; there are no stuffy politics behind the scenes, just a more upfront and therefore unashamed predictability: if a film was popular with those who are most likely to watch the MTV Movie Awards, then that’s going to win an MTV movie award.

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I guess what I’m getting at is, there are two divergent trends in the realm of cinematic recognition, one being far more reputable even though the other is far more reflective of what audiences want– some audiences, anyway. So, by watching both kinds of movies and both kinds of awards shows, are we valuing omnivorous consumption? I’d say, we are. I respect (with skepticism) both of these very different awards shows for very different reasons. The Oscars are glamorous and, again, political but they’re still the biggest deal (at least outwardly) in the film industry. But, I still see it as a positive thing when someone wins a golden popcorn– the statue itself humorously and ironically glamorizes that which is already a symbol for mass appeal: popcorn is, of course, the ultimate icon of big budget blockbusters and chain multiplexes.

Another thing I’d venture to claim is that the MTV Movie Awards are doing a far better job than many other awards shows at valuing omnivorous consumption within themselves, doing some of the work for us so that we don’t necessarily even have to watch the Oscars (at least not in theory, for the intents and purposes of what I’m arguing here). For example, a few of the nominees of the night were also Oscar nominees, arguably the few that most teen-twentysomething audiences would have been most likely to see and enjoy. The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave were the three main nominees of this kind, traversing the awards-show-spectrum, even if their success at one end of it may have been better than at the other end. Did Chiwetel Ejiofor or Michael Fassbender really ever have a shot when pitted against fan favorites Josh Hutcherson or Mila Kunis? No, of course they didn’t. But I can’t help but feel like it’s pretty cool that they were nominated at all, as futile as it was. Lupita Nyong’o even introduced the first award of the night this year, looking as stylish as ever but less elegant and more hip, her dress reflecting the loud, colorful, boisterous atmosphere of this awards show. Jared Leto won for his on-screen transformation as opposed to his acting, but who are we to assume that his transformation didn’t factor into his Oscar win? As a fan of Jonah Hill’s, was I elated that he won best comedic performance for The Wolf of Wall Street? Of course. Did I understand, though, that many fans may have voted for him based on his other, less “serious” work? Yes, and I think he understood this as well, even bringing up This is the End in his thank yous.

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My point is this: I think it’s great that the MTV Movie Awards has included these “higher” films among the ranks of “lower” ones; I think it’s hilarious that Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated for best shirtless performance and predictably lost to the ripped Zac Efron, and that that’s even a category at all (not to mention best kiss and the slightly more meaningful trailblazer award); ultimately, I think it’s positive that MTV is valuing omnivorous consumption even if the value is certainly still placed more heavily on one end of the spectrum– it’s still more than the Oscars could ever say they’ve done. The MTV Movie Awards are more silly, less prestigious, and equally predictable, but they’re also less pretentious, more fun, and aren’t trying to be something they’re not. I’m not trying to bash the Oscars (because I feel as though I’ve done that enough in the last few months to last me until next year’s show) but to say that the MTV Movie Awards don’t mean anything in our cinematic world is discrediting and ignoring whatever it is that these awards do celebrate– the films and actors that the Oscars don’t acknowledge but which are immensely popular, even if they’re not necessarily “good.”

So, while I do think the balance can be struck even more effectively, and that an awards show needs to come along that will bridge this gap even more successfully, I think the cultural divide within cinema is so large that this is admittedly daunting and difficult. But I do think it’s possible, and I think it’s important that valuing omnivorous consumption becomes the goal at every level of our entertainment world, not just within individuals who watch both awards shows with equal interest and zeal– we are a good place to start, but it’s not enough, and I don’t see us as the end point either.

Redhead Temper: Baseball, Feminism and Comic Melodrama in A League of Their Own

When I was invited to participate in Forgotten Films‘ Baseball-themed Blogathon, I went with my gut instinct in choosing which film to write about: 1992’s A League of Their Own, directed by Penny Marshall. As someone who is neither well-versed in the sport itself nor movies about the sport, this film still manages to entertain me every time I watch it because, well, it sort of isn’t about baseball, at least not to me, not at its core. It’s about women during World War II. It’s about sisterhood. It’s about feminism… maybe? But, even knowing as little as I do about baseball movies, I can say with some amount of confidence that this film achieves a lot of seemingly conflicting narrative goals and fulfills a lot of varying tropes, including those of a sports film, but also those of a 1940s-set melodrama and a women-driven comedy. This post will be exploratory to some degree, as my Redhead Temper posts often are, considering the feminism of the film, as problematic and inconsistent as it may be perhaps, the sentimentality and comedy of it, and the way baseball is used as a device or channel for those other generic functions.

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The film stars Geena Davis as Dottie Hinson, the soon-to-be-VIP of the Rockford Peaches– one of the teams formed in an all new, all women’s American baseball league. Tom Hanks co-stars (in top billing though) as Jimmy Dugan, the drunken baseball all-star who is asked to manage the team. In other significant supporting roles are Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell, who are at their best here, I’d argue. One thing I love about the film is the sarcastic, playful, mocking tone it takes towards the socially constructed expectations of women’s appearances but at the same time, the film doesn’t really solve the problems it satirizes; if anything, baseball is the problem as well as the solution, at least within the context of the film. We hear a broadcast testament pretty early on in the film from some older women who claim that women are being masculinized, reaching the tipping point with the creation of an all-women’s baseball league. But, as we come to realize, women can’t simply be baseball players, probably partly due to that very concern: they also have to be “ladies.” Sure, the scene where they attend charm and beauty school is played for laughs, but Marla almost isn’t even taken to try out because she is unfeminine looking. Her father says he raised her like she were a boy and even claims that had she actually been a boy, he’d be talking to the Yankees right now. So it seems like there really is no solution or happy medium when it comes to athletic ideals and feminine ideals and the way they sometimes conflict or intersect. The attempts work some of the time– to combine these traditionally masculine and feminine traits– but it isn’t always so easy to do so and this certainly isn’t specific to the 1940s either; the issue of combining or negotiating or subverting gender expectations still prevails today in persistent and problematic ways. These women can only be in the league if they are athletic and beautiful– an unrealistic ideal that only some of the women naturally meet.

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Not to state the obvious but this focus on the feminine makes this film a pretty unconventional sports movie, but eventually, a lot of these more feminist questions are abandoned for the sake of baseball itself, and left mostly unanswered except for in the guise of the baseball games played in the film– all of this for better or for worse, which is open to interpretation perhaps. What I mean is, there is a sense of camaraderie that is based on sportsmanship and athleticism and baseball itself, while there also remains some basis for relationship building that is more typical or expected for the female gender. I would argue, however, that the game of baseball is made into a sort of symbol: professional sports as a microcosm of society. When the league is threatened to be shut down after only one season because the war is being won and no one will need it anymore, the question is asked whether that same thing is going to happen in the factories as well: the men are back, the women can leave the workforce and go back to the kitchen (because we couldn’t ask the men to go to kitchens, could we). Male athletes might face other melodramatic obstacles in playing or winning a game in real life and in cinema, but they never have to worry about anything quite so systemic or based on their gender.

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Throughout the film, as mentioned, women are forced to strike a very difficult balance, but in a way, I think it makes the triumphs in the film that much greater. For instance, they are asked to wear a dress-style uniform, and they all complain that they can’t play in something so frilly and skimpy (although no one mentions the fact that they shouldn’t have to; again, I’d blame it on the decade but I’m not sure how much has changed in the grand scheme of things). One player must take her son with her to all the games, and while his devil-child antics are funny, they also suggest to me that this woman has no choice between motherhood or playing baseball– she combines both, but again not easily and not fully by her own volition. Dottie eventually only plays one season because her husband returns from the war and they want children. So what does that say about our proposed heroine of the story, that she chooses the traditional female role entirely instead of, albeit difficultly, negotiating her two dreams? It is frequently mentioned that baseball is something she truly loves, but she feels like she must, or is expected to, give it up in order to start a family. I’m not saying a woman can’t or shouldn’t choose that path, but the film sets up this one season of baseball as a kind of space of innocence or even a the-one-that-got-away type situation, and I just wish she didn’t have to make the decision at all.

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All that being said, the film is still positive or at least self-aware in many of its representations. There are all kinds of women on the team, from Marla who eventually does find love (of course, post-makeover and with a man who is not normatively attractive either), Madonna’s character Mae who is sexually open and active, and Doris, played by Rosie O’Donnell, who is equally blunt and also finds male suitors in the stands just when she thinks she never will– she mentions that men always made her feel like a weird girl or not even a girl at all for liking and being good at baseball. I think the film is at least somewhat empowering then to say that these women did finally find a safe space to be good at the sport, even in those darn dresses they’re forced to wear while playing.

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I also love that Dottie and Kit’s sisterly relationship is the one that is focused upon, tested and strengthened throughout the narrative, as opposed to a romantic relationship. From the very beginning we see a competition between the two sisters, both athletically and otherwise, which transcends gender binaries I think, especially in terms of sports and sports movies. Also, I think the physical aggression the women frequently use with each other on the field (and, in some cases, off the field) is more masculine than feminine and I think that’s a good thing, actually. These women are ballplayers, not ballerinas (as is mentioned at one point). They should be varied in their reactions; I mean, maybe there can be crying in baseball after all.

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This is a sports movie that is highly accessible for both men and women because it successfully weaves all these different threads together. I chose to write about gender and history because, for me personally, they provide the reason we should even care about the baseball aspects in the first place; every great sports movie contains struggles, epic comebacks, and underdog characters who we have to care about, both on and off the field, rink or court. A League of Their Own has its feminist moments even if it sometimes grapples with how to actually follow through with them. The public laughs at first when the women play, but they prove themselves, even when they shouldn’t have to; I think the film proves itself too, as a baseball movie that can also function as a kind of WWII-era feminist melodramedy (an admittedly weird genre hybrid term I’m coining myself for the intents and purposes of writing about this movie). So yes, it is unfortunate that the female players must be both Gherig and Garbo wrapped into one unachievable entity: that to be in the league, they must be both masculine and feminine at the same time, when the only requirement should be their athleticism. But, the fact of the matter is, this was the 1940s and many similar expectations still exist for women in many spheres today. None of this negates the fact, though, that this is ultimately a fun, emotional, and intelligent sports movie that coherently and effectively uses elements from other genres, reaching a wider audience than perhaps the traditional sports film would.

Again, for some other really great baseball-movie related posts this week, please check out Forgotten Films and their Big League Blogathon!

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Redhead Temper: Money Horror- A New Subgenre of Desperation?

Yesterday, in gathering trailers for my Preview Review, I stumbled upon two that I decided to leave out; but, they seemed so related to one another and, in turn, so indicative of something greater, that I decided to center a Redhead Temper post around them. The two movies in question, which I’ll be talking about solely based on their trailers and plot descriptions, are E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills (trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPMKb2ubuDQ) and Daniel Stamm’s 13 Sins (red band trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HbfmUcXqAi4), both set for release within the next two months. Their premises seemed so similar that the scholar in me began to question, as I often do, what in our society might be manifesting in these horror films, and as usual, why and how is horror the vehicle for expressing those certain themes.

First, let me step back and explain the commonalities between the two films, and you’ll soon see what I mean. Cheap Thrills, a dark/horror comedy, stars Pat Healy as Craig– a down-on-his-luck family man, struggling with the loss of his low-wage job and facing a possible eviction as well. He and his friend meet a wealthy couple– David Koechner and Sarah Paxton– who offer them increasingly preposterous amounts of money to commit increasingly horrific acts. 13 Sins, Ron Perlman’s latest gig, is about a salesman who is drowning in debt and about to get married. But, wait for it: he receives a mysterious phone call informing him that he’s on a hidden camera game show where he must execute 13 tasks to receive a multi-million dollar cash prize.

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So, the tones may be different: the former is presented as humorous even if in a sick, twisted way, and the latter is a more straightforward horror-thriller. And the specific devices that catapult the meek, male protagonists into a guilt-ridden wealth full of questionable morality and even more questionable safety may also be different. But, what I’d like to argue is that there is an emerging trend of desperation to be found here, and a potential for a kind of “money horror” subgenre to emerge as well.

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So, my first question is why, or rather, why now and why in these particular forms? I did a little bit of research, using probably the most futilely specific search terms ever, into other films that might exhibit these same or similar qualities. One that I came up with strictly from memory that I thought worked well is Danny Boyle’s oft-overlooked Shallow Grave, from 1994. This movie, about three flatmates who discover their fourth, new flatmate dead but with a mysterious suitcase full of cash, is disturbing and psychological. It induces the kind of unease that prickles upon your skin and then makes itself at home heavily in the pit of your stomach.

But, it isn’t quite so violent or visceral as these two new films seem to be. Plus, none of the three flatmates are overtly desperate for the money. That is, they don’t really need the cash, but human nature and greed turn them against each other and eliminate all morality anyway. This lack of desperation in place of sheer horribleness inherent in humanity is perhaps what makes the whole film so unsettling; it begs the question of what we would do if we were in their place, but from our safe distance as viewers, we can make moral judgments with a cleaner conscience. Clearly you’d do the right thing… right? Well, you don’t have to worry about it– you’re not in their place, after all.

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What I fear about these newer films though is that some viewers might actually be in the same place as these characters: I don’t mean that the hidden camera game show exists or that David Koechner and Sarah Paxton are really going to find you in a bar and pay you to punch the bouncer or cut off a finger. But think about it: our economy is not in great shape, to put it lightly, and I don’t feel like I even need to qualify that with political facts or actual figures. All I need to prove this statement for the intents and purposes of this post is the mere existence of these two films.

Cinema reflects culture. I’m a firm believer in that. These films seem to be taking this trend of working-class fears and plights and turning them into something meaningful that we may look at and reflect upon. Horror has always been the most effective genre in doing so because, again, it is visceral. It is violent. It turns your anxieties into blood splatters and your quiet frustrations into brutal action and your pathos into terror and your everyday existence into high-stakes suspense.

In an academic seminar paper I wrote, I explored the way James Wan’s Saw (2004) and Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005), as representatives of torture porn, did this for viewers, particularly males, who were subconsciously looking to understand things like Abu Ghraib and 9/11 and the way masculinity had been threatened by these experiences. Isn’t it interesting that the protagonists of Cheap Thrills and 13 Sins are males? Maybe it isn’t just our economy; maybe these films are coming from some kind of perceived male crisis as well? Or, maybe I’m stretching it, but as failed breadwinners and husbands, these characters seem particularly compelled to do vile and vulgar things, including self-mutilation, for a little bit of dough that they can provide for their wives and children with. I think if the characters were females, the emphasis might rather be on sexuality than aggression, so I appreciate the way the Cheap Thrills trailer addresses that by an albeit homophobic drawing-the-line: “no matter how much money is in that box, I’m not sucking his–.” Because that too would surely complicate their masculinity, wouldn’t it: no matter how much money they’re earning to supplement and rebuild it.

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So what is a man without morals anyway? Will these films end up having any kind of moral for audiences to learn, even when their characters lose their own morals? Is this would-be subgenre presenting a distorted and dystopian view of what real men, real people in general, might actually consider doing for money in these tough times? I don’t foresee audiences actually stooping to the levels that these characters do. But, if anything, I see these films as remedying the deep desires that may exist, the subconscious understanding that we really do relate to those people on screen. The possible implications of that might be enough to scare us. I haven’t seen Cheap Thrills or 13 Sins yet, but I like to hope they offer a kind of catharsis by showing us the extremes of our own situations and the negative outcomes of going to those extremes. Then again, a part of me hopes that these films might also stand as little rebellions or exaggerated cautionary tales if you will; little nightmarish warnings within a larger system that is flawed, skewed and broken, of what humans are capable of when their darkest moments finally turn them into animals.

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Redhead Temper: Why My Favorite Films Never [Or Hardly Ever] Win the Best Picture Oscar

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The Oscars are still a little over a month away but for most, that probably seems extremely close, especially in context: Oscar season in theaters anyway starts in late October and heats up right around Christmas, when the last few contenders are released, just in time. And the buzz continues from then until the night of the show, if not longer. With that in mind, I wanted to consider not this year’s Oscar race so much but a little more broadly why some of my favorite movies, when nominated for best picture, often do not win the prize.

I’ll start with 1990: having seen Dances With Wolves, albeit for a middle-school social studies class with my teacher censoring the sex scenes by standing in front of the cathode ray tube television-set-on-wheels, I can say with some amount of unabashed bias that Goodfellas should have won. But, this is a case study for how the Academy just is. Most of the time, it proves to be a mostly conservative embodiment of what still remains from Hollywood’s old studio system’s values about what makes a film “good;” sentimentalized tropes and grandiose tones, the swelling music and pathos, epic historical sagas filled with hardship and triumph, etc. Goodfellas is violent, offensive (to some), subversive, non-linear– basically Martin Scorsese at his best in terms of bringing together his most characteristic themes and visual tricks yet still with the inherent ability to also entertain on a wider scale. 1990 is thus the sole reason I’m not predicting a win for The Wolf of Wall Street for this March.

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Martin Scorsese is not the only director whose style is somehow recognized by the Academy but not rewarded by it. One may argue that recognition in itself is something to be celebrated, but it feels too, pardon my colloquialism here, half-assed and empty of a gesture to warrant my satisfaction. The director I’m really thinking of here, seeing as Scorsese was at least given what many might consider to be a sympathy Oscar for The Departed, is Quentin Tarantino. Nominated in 1994 for Pulp Fiction but having lost to the sweeping charm of Forrest Gump seems to me to be Oscars-101. Pulp Fiction is even more non-linear and violent than the aforementioned Goodfellas, but it is also seen as a postmodernist masterpiece from the director. The problem is, there simply isn’t an awards show in the upper echelons of mainstream popular culture that is explicitly looking to honor any bit of postmodernism, at least not as such.

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The Coen brothers at least, with their singularly offbeat, darkly comic and disquieting film-making sensibilities, finally increased in Academy respect and honor but I’d argue for Fargo‘s (1996) sake that it came too late. And this year, with an unfilled 10th spot in the best picture race where Inside Llewyn Davis very well could have been, I find it sad that the now-veterans seem to have descended from some kind of peak with regard to the Academy’s perception of them, anyway.

Now, in the interest of going somewhat chronologically, let me digress and say not all “Oscar-bait” is bad, or rather, I am not immune to biting every once in a while. I love both Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind (2000 and 2001), and also, by my previous logic, Scorsese’s turn for a while there towards seemingly Oscar-friendly movie-making seemed to have not reaped any of the expected benefits (particularly in the case of The Aviator in 2004, a biopic with Scorsese’s distinct imprint but a biopic nonetheless).

It’s really beginning in the year 2008, however, when things start to take many turns for me as a movie fan, meaning that I often felt either very negatively or very positively toward the winner in alternating fashion or there were multiple candidates which I would have been equally pleased with including the actual winner. 2008 is when my current love for David Fincher began, first off, and it wasn’t until recently that I decided I probably should end the petty, personal boycott of Slumdog Millionaire, harboring a feeling of resentment that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button didn’t win. But, again, my previous logic might prove faulty here and I freely admit that– is Slumdog Millionaire more visually interesting and innovative, its story more unique and modern than Benjamin Button? Maybe. But what happened in 2010, in my personal opinion, cannot be explained with any such reversal or discounting of theory.

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The King’s Speech is a perfect example of an Oscar-worthy movie that fulfills the requirements but brings nothing new to the table, and for it to have beaten The Social Network— what had been widely praised as an important movie of our time– both in the best picture and best director race, is something that will never not deeply upset and baffle me. The Social Network was given some awards, all of which were also well-deserved of course, but was perhaps too new, too soon for the Academy members who favored the approach Tom Hooper took– one that I would argue is safe and therefore stuffy and drab– to a story that is rooted in feel-bad/feel-good British history. Not even the extraordinary 127 Hours and its talented director, Fincher’s previous adversary (in my eyes, I mean), Danny Boyle could take the win; Boyle also did something profoundly exciting and engaging with a story that, not unlike The Social Network, is very current and very atypical for Academy tastes.

And wedged in between and after these two years, we had 2009 and 2012 in which the other tendency that I mentioned occurred– I would have loved for Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained to have won in their respective years, but I think the redeeming fact about what beat them is that they weren’t beaten by something quite so predictably Oscar-y. Both revenge-filled re-imaginings of history play out as if in some parallel universe to an Oscar-winning historical epic anyway, so I didn’t expect Tarantino’s two latest films (arguably his two best) to win.

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I didn’t think The Hurt Locker or Argo would win either though. The former was somewhat of a critically successful underdog of a win. Its look at modern war and the men who fight it was intense and nuanced. It is the kind of film that gets under your skin without you really understanding or realizing quite when or how it got there, lingering and tingling within your psyche, physical being and your emotional core all at once in a way that is uncomfortable and haunting, with every bomb being dismantled feeling like both an action movie slowed down and a work of modern art sped up. Argo, similarly, told a very true story in a very artful fashion while also having traces of a Hollywood action movie, balancing historical fact (and the issue of presenting that fact in both a clear and entertaining way), humor, humanity, suspense, drama, and (I’ll admit) the drawn out climax leading to the much-awaited happy ending.

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Now, I haven’t seen many of this year’s nominees, unfortunately, but I will say that most/any of them seem to be anti-Oscar in at least some senses to me, so maybe we really are moving in a different, more progressive direction finally, one that favors the interesting over the expected and the odd over the ordinary. But there are still reasons– reasons that persist, immovably embedded in awards season culture– that the films I personally most often gravitate towards don’t win the Oscar for best picture nearly as often as the films that strike me as being more traditional and therefore less desirable for me to go out of my way to see. And that reason is that my logic, though defied some of the time for sure, still stands when certain films particularly threaten what the Academy is used to and comfortable with.

And it is a logic which helps me cope with the Tarantinos, Finchers, and Scorseses of the world getting a taste of the prestigious prize without ever or often enough being able to claim it fully. The other part of me likes to think that the movies I love most– the horror genre included (The Silence of the Lambs is a great step towards nothing, really, and we can’t go back and make The Exorcist win; we probably can’t even imagine some of today’s horror films being elevated to this realm of popular high culture)– are better left separate from something that very well may be increasingly overrated and riddled with outdated politics.

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Redhead Temper: The Hateful Betrayal of Quentin Tarantino

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In order to, as The LAMB so lovingly advised me to do via twitter, “release the ginger rage,” on yesterday’s breaking entertainment news, I needed to read the details of said news. So, the news is this: Tarantino let 6 trusted Hollywood colleagues read a first draft of his next ensemble film, a Western entitled The Hateful Eight, only to find that it had somehow been leaked. I think it’s best, since I have it at my disposal, to quote Quentin directly here (source:http://www.deadline.com/2014/01/quentin-tarantino-hateful-eight-leak-novel/):

“I gave it to one of the producers on Django Unchained, Reggie Hudlin, and he let an agent come to his house and read it. That’s a betrayal, but not crippling because the agent didn’t end up with the script. There is an ugly maliciousness to the rest of it. I gave it to three actors: Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth. The one I know didn’t do this is Tim Roth. One of the others let their agent read it, and that agent has now passed it on to everyone in Hollywood. I don’t know how these fucking agents work, but I’m not making this next. I’m going to publish it, and that’s it for now. I give it out to six people, and if I can’t trust them to that degree, then I have no desire to make it. I’ll publish it. I’m done. I’ll move on to the next thing. I’ve got 10 more where that came from.”

So, let’s debrief. Is this isolated incident indicative of a larger truth about Hollywood that I have been in denial about: that it is a cruel, ruthless and lonely place? Tarantino is a mad genius of an auteur whose particular mode and method of script-writing and film-making should seem particularly sacred to his inner circle who know him best. The very fact that his work was shamefully disrespected as something not sacred at all, among those he, and we, assumed would particularly know to honor that makes me think that Hollywood truly is a snake pit of selfish interests and that even the increasingly almighty Tarantino is powerless to that.

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Feeling “depressed” but clearly not defeated, Tarantino is shelving the project, for now anyway. The speculation is that the leak came from Dern’s agency; I find this to be a shame given Dern’s Oscar nomination. Feeling quite bitter myself, I want this to reflect poorly on him is what I’m saying, but the truth of the matter is that Tarantino said he may still write a part for Dern in whatever project he works on instead, blaming the agents more it seems. Plus, the breach is the kind that is more or less unsolvable. So this means, no matter how much I rant and ramble here, justice will not be served because justice simply cannot be defined.

I find it hard to understand, though, how the agents and bloggers who dispersed and disseminated the script, if that is truly what happened, could have done so without a guilty conscience? It has cost us, at the artist’s discretion, a film which the industry and the public were no doubt excited for. Like a corrupt government though, the unseen politics of movie-making are sometimes inexplicably devious, but we as innocent moviegoers are the ones who are perhaps most punished.

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I’m personally happy though that Tarantino has decided to publish the script at least and that its future as a film may be nonexistent but may also or instead be merely uncertain and distant. I think his decision is a good one despite its tortured motivation and overall unfairness of the situation surrounding it, especially because this whole occurrence has led me to question just how innocent we as moviegoers actually are. I’m sure many, many people found and took advantage of the script should it have been widely available online (which, in this internet age, I’m sure it was). We are a curious people in a convenient age to be so, and there is not enough mystery in cinema anymore, I think, at least on some level: cameos are spoiled, fake trailers are made, and behind-the-scenes photos tease us too readily and too early.

I’m okay with all of that to a certain extent– that is film culture today and it is a culture which thrives on the internet and which allows blogs like mine to even exist. But, if there is any sick and twisted positive to be gained from this scandal, it is that scandal always equates to publicity, and I’d be shocked if this publicity didn’t lend itself to extreme sympathy and support for Tarantino as a victim-hero of modern film-making. This gives us a story outside of actual, narrative film space that will, as roundabout and ridiculous as it may seem, be a part of the conversation up until Tarantino’s next move comes to fruition.

But, how much does that conversation then necessarily rely on this kind of tabloid fodder, the he-said/she-said and the shame-on-you, when it should, perhaps too idealistically, always be about the film itself? When did Tarantino– as much as I love him and am happy for his success– become something so mainstream, that there is even a smidgen of fear in my mind that the nuances and merits of his next actual work will be ignored in light of the work he had to forgo due to some kind of movie-business-Judas?

None of us know what his next move (out of his defiantly proposed 10) will be but am I justified in worrying that no one will care quite as much about the move itself as they will about the gossip of what it will be, rehashing the news of his betrayal in some kind of glamorous, glitzy tale that ignores what is truly important here? What, anyway, is truly important here? I’d argue that what should be important is his artistic integrity being stabbed in the back– a script that was in a draft stage that would have turned into another great work being dishonored– but I fear that people may be more concerned with who did the stabbing, and how he will come away triumphant in the industry despite being dishonored by others within it.

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However, I do suppose Tarantino’s triumph will be the redeeming factor in what I consider to be a really bothersome and sad, unfortunate saga. Maybe this will even lead to him making a horror film, something he recently mentioned he would want to do someday, which I’d love to see. His place in the spotlight does mean that he can come out on top still and prove that the flawed system and skewed value-set of the industry in which he operates cannot keep him and his crazy creativity down. But I can’t help but feel like justice will only be served when things like this stop happening completely; our pop culture is not ours to own prematurely unless the producers of said pop culture intended it to be that way. The internet gives us power that we shouldn’t have, and it gives industry insiders power that they should not have either.

So as usual, I cannot propose a solution, I can only hope that everyone starts to be more aware of the ripple effect that things like this will have on filmmakers and film-goers alike for a very, very long time. And this cautionary tale of betrayal, for better and for worse and probably unfortunately without truly solving anything at all, will not go away for Tarantino, or for his fans or his once-trusted cohorts, for perhaps just as long.