Tag: satire

Assassination Nation


Assassination Nation (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Sam Levinson’s well-intentioned but consistently firing on blanks “Assassination Nation” is the kind of satire that grabs you by the hair, slams your head against the wall multiple times until you see stars, and then rubs your face across the concrete floor. It is intentionally hyperbolic in order deliver its points regarding the dangers of technology, particularly social media, and the deep shallowness that many of us, consciously or subconsciously, define our lives by: selfies, #blessed, the illusion of perfection with every Instagram post, Tweet, and Facebook status update. Although masked by exaggeration, none of its points are particularly new, shocking, or surprising. It is merely drenched in empty shock value.

I was entertained by its brazenness—at least for about twenty minutes. Although clearly inspired by pictures like Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty,” Mark Waters’ “Mean Girls,” and Michael Lehmann’s “Heathers,” not once does it evince the high quality and class of its influences. The aforementioned works do not always function at an eleven and yet they are sharp, biting, even fiercely intelligent at times. We care about the characters—even the ones being skewered. We laugh at ironic turn of events. And by the end, we are inspired to look inwards: Why is it that although, some may argue, despicable figures are on screen, we relate to them anyway? But not here. During the end credits, I realized I could only name two of the four protagonists.

The two I remember are Lily (Odessa Young) and Bex (Hari Nef)—for completely different reasons. The former stands out because she is given one scene, the one where the high school principal (Colman Domingo) takes her into his office to confront her about her nude drawings, in which she is shown to have substance, a brain underneath the sex kitten facade. The latter is noticeable because of the performer’s physicality; she is not classically beautiful but she photographs like a movie star yet to snag a role so specific, one that is so made for her, doing so would elevate her to superstardom. Nef is green but I think there is potential there. Risk-taking filmmakers would be wise to take her on. Although Bex, the character, is not anything special, the actor is moldable.

The other half of the quartet—Em (Abra) and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse)—are mere decorations: to look beautiful and emote just enough for the film editors to be able to work around them. Nearly every time they are on screen, together or apart, there is a big question mark on my face, wondering, wracking my brain why is it they are necessary to the story. I am unable to remember their respective subplots at the moment. Did they even have any?

Moments of violence and gore are consistently gratuitous. While there is rising action that leads up to the hacking of 17,000 suburbanites’ accounts followed by a massive dump of information via texts and e-mails, a strong connective tissue is absent between cause of violence and effect of violence. Notice the “One Week Later” title card that appears in the middle of the film. Had this portion been elaborated instead of being treated as a footnote, the incomprehensible and highly repetitive mess surrounding the town’s extreme anger toward the four high school girls might have made more sense. Instead, during its climax, we are forced to watch sexualized teens sporting pink leather jackets either shooting guns or holding samurai swords. (These weapons, by the way, look cheap and fake… Is that the point?) It is supposed to be a critique of the male gaze, I guess.

Just because a piece of work’s aim is to hold up a mirror to our modern society’s hypocrisy does not make it immune to criticism, especially from a the perspective of storytelling. We get it: the town’s name is Salem and the project is supposed to be a spin on the Salem Witch Trials. But what else is there to it? While the film barrages the senses with split screens, electronic music, and blindingly bright colors, where are the characters worth putting under the magnifying glass? Effective satires command a strong center. Here, it is hollow.

Ingrid Goes West


Ingrid Goes West (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

It is a challenge to pull off dark comedy with people’s unhealthy obsession with social media being the subject to be prodded, but “Ingrid Goes West” manages to excel at it because it knows what it does not want to become. Credit goes to writers David Branson Smith and Matt Spicer for being aware that in order for black comedy to work, the story must have a dramatic core, not just parading a series of vignettes in which viewers must simply recognize the joke on the surface without looking within and asking what it is telling us or, even better, how it is criticizing us and how effectively. After all, movies function as a mirror of our society. Had the film been written less sharply, the ultimate joke could have been itself—being just another part of the idea or concept it wishes to skewer.

It is obvious that the screenwriters wish to communicate that there is a sickness in our modern society that cannot be solved by prayer or medicine. Ingrid is a representation of this ailment and the character is played with wonderful electric energy by Aubrey Plaza. Those saucer eyes command the screen with manic intensity. She dares you to watch her to the point where you feel uncomfortable. We stare at the screen as Ingrid prostitutes her worth.

As a comic who is aware of the importance of subtlety, even in a comedy, Plaza is in full control of every little emotion obsessive Ingrid must convey, whether she is looking at her phone for the latest evanescent trend or looking through a person because her mind is somewhere out there in the dreamscape of cyberspace. The titular character is fascinating because although she has convinced herself that she wants interesting experiences, it is ironic that she is rarely in the present moment. What is an interesting experience but a person being fully present with the very activity or person with which she is involved?

The most accessible level of comedy in the film involves Ingrid stalking an Instagram “star” named Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). While the situation likens that of a sitcom, Plaza and Olsen elevate the material when their characters interact. Plaza and Olsen trust that the viewers will be entertained by the situation and so they choose not to always exaggerate a line or how it is delivered. The quieter moments between them are surprisingly alluring… and yet somewhere in the back of our minds we know or suspect that their connection isn’t real since time and again both characters show, by action, that they are false. How do we connect completely with characters who appear unable to be honest with themselves?

But I admired the more dramatic moments even when these verge on silliness. Director Matt Spicer ensures that, without them, Ingrid would have been a one-note joke, artificial, robotic, detestable. I found it a strange feeling that even though Ingrid needs serious help, I still cared about her. I wished her happiness, to find a way to not get involved in one-sided friendships. In order words, the material has touched upon something real. That is, we all know how it feels like to be lonely sometimes. It’s just that some of us are lucky enough to recognize, or learn, that maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be lonely sometimes because it gives us the opportunity to focus our energy, to weigh what’s important, and to plan our next action. Ordinary comedies do not bother with the more difficult emotions or states of mind.

Wag the Dog


Wag the Dog (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Wag the Dog,” based loosely on the novel “American Hero” by Larry Beinhart, is supposed to be a satire but it works as a realistic unveiling of the circus that is politics nowadays. It is savagely funny in parts, very curious in others, and, in a few instances, it makes one think deeply about the layers of truth, if any, shown in the media.

Mere eleven days before the election, the president is accused of having sexual relations in the Oval Office with a local Firefly Girl (equivalent to a Girl Scout). Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), a master spin-doctor, is hired to perform damage control. “Change the story, change the lead,” he claims, and so he decides that in order to distract people from the president’s misconduct, the United States will be involved in a fictitious war with Albania. In order to accomplish such a feat, he requires the help of a Hollywood producer, Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), to produce highly manipulative clips that are meant to be leaked to various news sources.

The picture moves at a fast pace with rapid-fire dialogue that is both intelligent and entertaining. More impressive is the fact that Hilary Henkin and David Mamet’s screenplay maintains a level of silliness and elegance throughout—a challenging balancing act—in addition to the requirement that just about everything we are seeing and hearing must remain realistic so that the subject being satirized delivers a powerful punch on a consistent basis.

De Niro and Hoffman take the script and sell the tricky lines convincingly. In a way, their two characters must be larger-than-life—because comedies usually require extreme personalities—but at the same time they tend to ground their characters just enough so that we believe it is possible to meet a version of themselves in an airport or in a line at a coffee shop.

Their numerous verbal sparring, even when they are not on the same page one hundred percent, is highly amusing. They have a good sense of timing as well as the instinct to break from the expected beats, especially when delivering long lines of dialogue, to jolt us into paying attention. Not once do we forget that these are seasoned performers, ones who are not afraid to take risks, to do something wrong, or sound wrong. Part of the fun is their willingness to just go for it.

The film, directed by Barry Levinson, offers numerous memorable secondary and tertiary characters, from William H. Macy’s CIA agent who knows the truth about the so-called war, or lack thereof, to Kirsten Dunst as a young actress hired to play an Albanian orphan trying to escape from her war-stricken village… shot in a Hollywood studio. These supporting characters, all funny in their own way, elevate an already high-level, smart, black comedy.

The Cabin in the Woods


The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Five friends decided to drive to an isolated cabin in the middle of a forest for a needed weekend getaway. While playing a round of Truth or Dare, the cellar popped open. Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the athlete, said the wind must’ve done it. Marty (Fran Kranz), the fool, scoffed at the improbability of such a statement. Jules (Anna Hutchison), the whore, was just dared to make out with a wolf hung on the wall, tongue and all, so strange and comedic that it was almost erotic. As a dare, Jules chose Dana (Kristen Connolly), the virgin, to go down the cellar and investigate. Her eyes scanned over trinkets behind a shroud of black. She screamed. Holden (Jesse Williams), the scholar, came rushing to her assistance. Written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was drenched in irony and satire but it also worked as an astute criticism of the stagnancy of the kinds of horror movies released since the slasher-fest eighties. In this instance, the five friends were appropriately not given background information because we’ve familiarized ourselves, to the point of being inured, to their respective archetypes. Instead, much of the screenplay was dedicated to challenging our expectations of them as well as their rather unique circumstance. For example, with Curt’s impressive physique and propensity for holding onto a football like it was a requisite organ, we didn’t expect him to know much about books let alone cite a respectable author. There was a very funny joke about his and others’ stereotype, so we were constantly aware that the material was one step ahead of us. I watched the movie with a smile on my face because I found it so refreshing. Instead of me sitting there trying to psychically push the material to reach its potential, it was ambitious enough to set the bar for itself. It challenged its audience by thinking outside the box in terms of the inherent limitations of the genre. We’ve all wondered why characters in scary movies, after escaping an assault mere ten seconds prior, tend to drop their knife, gun, or whatever weapon that just saved their lives. The film acknowledged this phenomenon without flogging a dead horse. The first half took inspiration from Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead II,” although more tame with regards to the comedy and horror. The second half, on the other hand, was a surprisingly electric conflation of twisted originality that seemed to stem from a series finale of a television show, cartoonish gory violence, and exorcism of authority. What connected the two disparate halves was our curiosity about what was really going on. Notice the characters did not explain anything to us in detail. The filmmakers were smart enough to assume that we were capable of observing, thinking on our own, and putting everything together like a puzzle. By simply showing us what was happening without having to explain each step and why certain events had to transpire a certain way, as a dry lab report would, it was already one step ahead of its peers. I wish, however, that the last few scenes didn’t feel so rushed. So much tension was built up until the final confrontation but instead of milking our nerves, I felt like it was in a hurry to let go of the weight it collected over the course of its short running time. Directed by Drew Goddard, “The Cabin in the Woods” was a fun frolic in the dark forest of clichés because a handful of them were subverted with fresh ideas. I wouldn’t want to come across that towering zombie that used a bear trap as a weapon, though. He could give Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers a run for their money.

Battle Royale


Battle Royale (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★

Japan’s economy had collapsed which thrusted everyone’s lives into uncertainty. Since unemployment rate was at its worst, no one was happy. Some adults even killed themselves and left their children to fend for themselves. Students ceased to attend school which contributed to more violence in the streets. As a solution, the government introduced the Millennium Education Reform Act, also known as Battle Royale (BR) Act, where a high school class was to be randomly selected, kidnapped, and taken to a remote island. Their assignment was kill each other with various weapons. As a reward, the last person standing would be allowed to go home. The high concept of “Batoru rowaiaru,” based on a novel by Koushun Takami, worked best when its biting satire was front and center. The strongest scenes were found in the beginning as the students were forced by their former seventh grade teacher, Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), to watch an instructional video on how to survive in the island. The enthusiasm of the girl on the screen was similar to those late-night infomercials aimed to brainwash that what was being advertised had to be bought. But instead of an object being seen as a valuable commodity that had to be owned, the video convinced the students that the lives around them were commodities that just had to be taken. I wished that the screenplay by Kenta Fukasaku maintained that darkness instead of focusing on the romantic feelings between Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda). While their superficial interactions provided some heart to the story, they weren’t interesting enough compared to Mitsuko (Kô Shibasaki), a surprisingly ruthless girl who actually thrived on hunting for blood, Chigusa (Chiaki Kuriyama), the long-distance runner who stuck to her rituals despite the unfolding chaos, and Sugimura (Sôsuke Takaoka), desperate to find a specific girl to confess to her his true feelings before it was too late. As Shuya and Noriko unnecessarily promised each other multiple times that they were going to protect each other and find a way out, I found myself hoping that someone would sneak up behind them and put them out of their–and our–misery. Over time, though still watchable because the violence remained shocking and amusing, the film became more predictable. Since most of the scenes were tilted toward one or two groups of survivors, allowing us to warm up to them if they were “good” or getting us riled up if they were “bad,” we knew that they eventually had to face one another. The material failed to offer something special, perhaps a deep exploration of the hungry and vigilant animal in all of us when our lives were at a precipice, in order to overcome the plot’s necessary contrivances. “Battle Royale,” directed by Kinji Fukasaku, was at its best when it forced our eyes not to blink as the teens sliced, shot at, and pounded each other’s flesh like cavemen attempting to put down a lesser animal. At its worst, however, deep insight was set aside for lines like, “I’ve been in love with you for so long.” I sensed William Golding rolling in his grave.

Brazil


Brazil (1985)
★★★ / ★★★★

When an innocent man was taken by the police and tortured to death, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who worked for a passively tyrannical (and ultimately incompetent) government, was assigned to take a closer look at the computer error. Despite being aware that the many confusing bureaucracies that often led to dead-ends didn’t always serve the citizens’ best interests, Sam chose to retreat to his fantasy world when he felt overwhelmed. In his daydream, he was a powerful winged warrior who dueled a Samurai in order to rescue a beautiful woman. Reality and fantasy collided when Sam ran into Jill (Kim Greist), sharing great resemblance to the girl of his dreams, a woman suspected of terrorist activities like bombing public places. Directed by Terry Gilliam, “Brazil” was an adventurous satire that is worth viewing multiple times. There were heavy symbolisms, like a man being eaten by paperwork, and scenes that didn’t always fit into the big picture. For instance, the two electricians who seemed to gain some sick pleasure torturing Sam as they slowly took over his home. Granted, the scenes were very funny especially when Robert De Niro’s mysterious character appeared to lend Sam a helping hand. However, the picture was most fascinating when it tackled the absurd. Sam’s mother (Katherine Helmond) and her friends were obsessed with plastic surgery. Despite the many “complications,” they were willing to go back and endure the pain of having their skin cut up and stretched up to their scalp. It was almost like watching an addiction. It was hilarious but it held some semblance of truth in today’s obsession with youth and its relationship with the magic of science. What I found strange was how romantic the movie was at times. The film referenced Michael Curtiz’ “Casablanca” and its influence showed. The courtship scenes between Sam and Jill were silly and tender, yet it had darkness looming over the edge as something bigger than both of them threatened their budding relationship. It was interesting that Jill had the more masculine qualities, like driving a big truck that she called her cab, while Sam was the hopeless romantic who was hesitant to take action. Lastly, I found the final twenty minutes to be very hypnotic. While it didn’t make much sense as a whole, like in our dreams, sometimes the parts were more meaningful. What Sam went through personified the nightmare of the dystopian world that he and his loved ones happened to inhabit. “Brazil” was an ambitious and imaginative film which was not unlike watching someone’s dreams. It requires a bit of thinking from us and, more importantly, recognition that our government and society may be heading in a similar direction.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale


Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Pietari (Onni Tommila) and Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää) snuck onto a restricted mountain where so-called seismic researchers, some Americans, were assigned to excavate something mysterious deep within the ice. The two boys overheard that what was embedded inside was going to redefine the world’s notion of Santa Claus and Christmas. When Pietari got home, he began to research about Old St. Nick and his origins. It turned out that the legendary figure was far from nice and jolly. According to the books, every Christmas, he kidnapped naughty kids, put them in a cauldron, and ate them. Pietari was determined not to get taken. Written and directed by Jalmari Helander, “Rare Exports” brimmed with scintillating originality, enough to inject kids with increasing unease and force the adults to watch with fascination. It was fun to watch Pietari run around and put pieces together because there was something innocent and bold about him. Since he wasn’t taken seriously by adults and fellow children, he felt he had something to prove. His determination and thirst for adventure was similar to the beloved kids from Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” Richard Donner’s “The Goonies,” and J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8.” But like the aforementioned flicks, the film worked as a family drama. Pietari and his dad (Jorma Tommila) lived by themselves where interaction with others required a vehicle due to distance and safety issues. There was a moving scene during Christmas Eve when the two sat on the table and ate gingerbread cookies. Nothing else was prepared. The absence of the key woman in their lives was palpable. Even though it wasn’t fully discussed, we were able to infer that Pietari and his dad were still mourning from the death of his mother and wife, respectively. The son asked his dad whether it would make a difference to him whether he, too, would “disappear” and if he had been good this year. The father deflected the questions with a loud command of sending his son to bed. Sometimes it’s easier to circumvent the truth. On Christmas day, Pietari found that the bait for the wolf trap his father had set the day before was gone. Instead of finding a wolf in the pit, there was a skinny man with a beard. The film played with our expectations some more and threw around very strange red herrings like a kid opening presents with delirium. Our lack of knowledge involving the origins of Santa Claus in their part of the world served as a wonderful, magical, creepy source of tension. The man that the father and son found was critically injured and seemingly unable to understand language. He only responded, with extreme alarm, when Pietari was around. Pietari thought it was Santa Claus and he just had to tell his friends given what he knew. But none of them were to be found. Toward the end of the film, CGI was used profusely, but it was utilized to enhance the experience. “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale” was unafraid to tackle darker material yet it was quite satirical. Its brazenness and creativity in putting our little protagonist in the face of danger without coming off as exploitative was admirable.