A September weekend roundup of three very different films watched on a Saturday afternoon. Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario examines how the line between lawful and lawlessness are as easily crossed as a border. In one of my epic mismatched double features, I look at the pairing of Nancy Meyer’s The Intern and Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno.
Written by: John Matsuya
Art by: Ben Matsuya
Spoilers for Sicario, The Intern, and The Green Inferno
En Blanco y Negro: Sicario (2015) reviewed
A binary view of the world - one of black and white or right and wrong - is deceptively complex. We see this stance as zealous and dangerous when applied to fundamentalism, but simultaneously admirable or naive when applied to ethics. In Sicario, Denis Villenueve uses the Mexico-United States border to illustrate just how arbitrary and how blurry the line between law and order actually is.
Emily Blunt’s hard-nosed Kate Macer is continuously confronted with doubts as FBI agents, Drug Lords, Border Patrol Officers, and criminals slip between the lines of good and bad as easily as crossing borders and removing uniforms. Cops are killers; traficantes are family men. Law can only be enforced by breaking the law. Director of photography, Roger Deakins uses gray scale night-vision infrared to invert the black and white images for a labyrinthine scene in the coyotes tunnels to seemingly flip our perspective of white hat/black hat. Only Macer is an absolutist, doggedly adhering to her principles, but at what cost? She finds herself alone and isolated: her enemies, legion; her allies, untrustworthy. Her handler, a CIA consultant named Matt Graver (a game Josh Brolin) rationalizes that to bring law to a setting of complete chaos, one must allow for controlled lawlessness. When there is no "good" or "bad", what is left?
It’s very easy to praise the merits of Sicario. Blunt, Brolin, and Del Toro are unambiguously good. Roger Deakin’s American southwest is stark and unrelenting. But perhaps ethics is not the best prism through which to look at the director and his work. No, I turn to philosophy. Denis Villenueve in Prisoners, Enemy, and now Sicario has shown a propensity towards a dark nihilism. Borders mean nothing. Uniforms and ‘stinking badges’ mean nothing. The law means nothing. The system is a fraud. Sticking to one’s morality, as Macer does, is a fool errand’s bound for failure. Survival means compromise, which in turn means corruption. Villenueve is a filmmaker who does not offer easy (or any?) answers. Rightly or wrongly, as much as I admire his craft, I suppose that's why he is a director who has always been one to keep me at arm’s length.
Shades of Gray at 70: The Intern (2015) reviewed
I believe I have topped myself. You see, I love insane double features: ones that make absolutely no sense. Till now, my crowning achievement may have been a Julie and Julia / Inglourious Basterds twin bill, but tonight, I celebrate the new king: The Intern / The Green Inferno.
As a fan of classic Hollywood cinema, I find it very important to champion Hollywood studio films and genre films as well as independent cinema. While the superhero pictures are doing well enough without me, good ole-fashioned, star-driven, popcorn movies (once the coin of the realm) has fallen on tough times and I will gladly rally to arms. These are the films that my cinematic super-ego tsk-tsks, but let me tell you why you should embrace your movie id:
1.) Hollywood is a reflection of how the privileged elite tastemakers interpret what we as a societal mass want. Hollywood movies show us how THEY see US.
2.) Studio films are a reflection of our time and a reminder of our progress. Being relatively immune to ambrosial “outrage”, you can take a film like Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and see Mickey Rooney’s Mr.Yunioshi in context and view the "acceptability" of yellowface in its proper time capsule. Hollywood movies show how far WE have come (or not).
3.) Hollywood films at their best sell escapism: they transport us. Think Fred and Ginger during the Great Depression or the Duke’s Westerns and MGM’s musicals during World War II. Now more than ever, the Marvel Superheroes, Harry Potter, the residents of Middle-Earth, the Twilight vampires, and Captain Jack Sparrow have lovingly and Huxleyingly™ (not really trademarked) anesthetized us to a post-9/11 world.
But the audience for escapism is very different depending on demographic. At the risk of sounding retrograde, the Twilight kind of escapism is very different from a Transformers version of escapism or a Magic Mike form. Nancy Meyers, with her distinct voice and brand of escapism (60+ woman) is refreshing, welcome, and sadly lacking in cinema. While studios may not brand someone like me the target audience for The Intern, I’ve always loved when Hollywood does what it does best: put on a show.
Nancy Meyers sets her sights on the chasm between Millennial and Boomer. She has done her homework: the open office of “About the Fit” and a CEO succession crisis eerily mirrored my own startup experience at a scooter space/standing desk populated 9 to 5 (or 10:30 to whenever your work gets done). Meyers readily admits that her interest is in character over plot, and even some of her meandering tangents seem more like “taking the scenic route” rather than “missing the off ramp”. I looked forward to several of her fourth wall shattering, direct addresses to us that ranged from “Where are all the real men at?”, “what’s the deal with take your daughter to work day”, “millennials need to relax”, and "we undervaluing our elderly". But the unspoken message behind Nancy Meyer's film - is that you can have it all, regardless of age and gender as long as you lean in to others: you can't do it alone.
I’ve written a bit about how impressive Robert De Niro’s recent non-gangster roles are. These performances are departures from the troubled De Niro roles we’ve come to know. De Niro’s Ben Whittaker is how I imagine the real Robert De Niro - a sweet man, humble and hardworking. In the Intern, De Niro's primary trait is patience; patience with his high-strung CEO, but also patience with a hyperactive future intent on leaving the elderly behind.
De Niro’s performance channels legendary Japanese actor Takashi Shimura: quiet, humble, strong, and moral. In fact, The Intern (with its Tai-Chi-practicing Ben) resembles the spiritual descendent of Tokyo Story and Driving Miss Daisy (except with a 30 year old Miss Daisy learning from an older, white, driver and the fact that The Intern isn't a patently offensive, condescending best picture thief leaving my beloved Do The Right Thing empty handed). I’m always down to see De Niro as gangster, but De Niro as quiet elder statesman continues to surprise. The marketing tagline may even be applicable to our man himself: Experience never gets old.
Eat Your Greens: The Green Inferno (2015) reviewed
If this was a filmmaker other than Eli Roth, I would be interpreting Green Inferno as political commentary: Well meaning Americans venture into a foreign land, led by a clueless, fearful, and paranoid leader, misunderstand the locals and their culture, suffer tremendous casualties as torture is introduced into their national psyche, leaving the survivors to deal with a sense of nihilism, disillusionment, and ennui. But this is Eli Roth and Green Inferno is about (fuck yeah!) EXPLOITATION (fuck yeah!)!
Which... isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t feel like the exploitation genre packs the potency it did in its heyday. Perhaps between pornhub and 4chan, our hedonistic nature can drink readily from the well of the internet without seeing it projected in cinemas. Maybe shameless trend chasing no longer has the stigma it once had. Whatever the case, I often wonder whether the “exploitation” in exploitation film refers to exploiting the audience by luring us in with promises of sex and violence or (in this case) an exploitation of a native culture to present them in a sensational way. I have to admit my Poarietal-ltical Correctex Lobe was pinging and flashing away... but this is Eli Roth!
You see, Eli Roth loves exploitation films - that much is a fact. The films he makes are homage to a certain type of film. He pays loving tribute to the exploitation genre (Cannibal Holocaust, Make Them Die Slowly) right down to the stilted acting of some of the side characters. One thing is for certain, this must have been a hell of a fun film to make - the makeup effects and over-the-top dialogue exude a film school energy that extends even to the tribespeople playing nightmarish caricatures of themselves. Lorenza Izzo has such an expressive face that's classic 70's horror queen, with just the right modern edge to be a familiar 2015 coed. I think if you were to ask Roth, he would want the audience to squirm and react and have the kind of visceral reactions that he had when he first watched these films and in that - The Green Inferno is a great success.
For all of the intentional craziness of this pairing, my The Intern/The Green Inferno double feature had one great similarity: a great audience. The Intern was a packed show, Nancy Meyers' jokes and Robert De Niro's hijinks connected with my older crowd. While the Green Inferno's screening was less populated (still healthy and hungry at an 11:10 showtime), my audience whooped and reveled in Roth's intentionally grotesque meal times and one specific exaggerated performance by the film's ringleader - Alejandro - who chomps on the scenery. As different as they are, Nancy Meyers and Eli Roth target your internal organs - your heart and your stomach. When you give yourself over to these filmmakers flanked by their desired audience - they deliver on the escapism promised: an appeal not to your analytical mind - but to your gut.
- Director: Denis Villenueve
- Writer: Taylor Sheridan
- Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Jon Bernthl, Maximiliano Hernandez
- Producers: Basil Iwanyk, Erica Lee, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill, Edward McDonnell
- Music by: Johann Johannsson
- Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
The Intern (2015)
- Director: Nancy Meyers
- Writer: Nancy Meyers
- Starring: Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo, Anders Holm
- Producers: Celia D. Costas, Suzanne McNeill, Nancy Meyers
- Music by: Theodore Shapiro
- Cinematographer: Stephen Goldblatt
The Green Inferno (2015)
- Director: Eli Roth
- Writers: Guillermo Amoedo and Eli Roth
- Starring: Lorenza Izzo, Ariel Levy, Aaron Burns, Kirby Bliss Blanton, Ramon Llao, Antonieta Pari
- Producers: Hoyt David Morgan, Jason Blum, Sarah E. Johnson
- Music by: Manuel Riveiro
- Cinematographer: Antonio Quercia