SISTERS Review: Big on Laughs, Light on Substance

Sisters

Sisters, which comes to us courtesy of Pitch Perfect director Jason Moore,  is the kind of movie that makes me question how to properly evaluate a comedy. I say this because all of the parts that don’t work seem so inconsequential when considered against how damn funny the movie really is. Sure, the first and third act seem stapled on because they could not justify releasing the party sequence as a feature length film. If Sisters failed to bring the comedy, this would work against it in a big way. However, as someone who was wiping away laughter induced tears for a large portion of the party sequence, I can fully understand wanting to build the rest of the movie around it.

The plot, thin though it may be, at least pays lip service to the theme of the danger of prolonged adolescence. Amy Poehler and Tina Fey play Maura and Kate Ellis,  a pair of sisters who can’t quite seem to nail being an adult.  Maura  (Poehler) is a straight laced square who is too busy looking after other people to look after herself and Kate is the train wreck who can’t seem to hold a job or be a mom. It probably won’t surprise you if I tell you that (spoilers) the Ellis sisters sort out their respective problems and both become slam dunk successes before the credits roll.

As I’ve said, the film’s structurally wonky. We spend just enough time with our main characters to learn what their problems are to meet characters who will show up at the big house party that they throw, the party itself takes up roughly an hour of screen time and then we get a quick resolution where everyone learns valuable life lessons. The party itself justifies the screen time it takes up. Fey and Poehler both afford themselves admirably, especially Fey who is more out of her comfort zone (she is essentially playing the anti Liz Lemon). Poehler delivers endearingly awkward questions and phrases as skillfully as Fey spits venom and crassly flirts. The supporting cast is all game to bring the laughs and energy as well. John Leguizamo is great as a washed up old flame of Kates’, Maya Rudolph is pompous and even cartoonishly villainous as an old rival of the sisters but she plays off of both of them well. The real MVP is Bobby Moynihan as Alex, the guy at the party who is always on. If you worry that this is a one joke character when you first meet him, you will likely be pleasantly surprised by how much laughs they wring out of him by the end of the movie.   

So, I think I can comfortably recommend Sisters. The gags are a riot, the comedic dialogue is sharp and it does not overstay its welcome. Given that all of 2015’s major comedies (with the possible exception of The Night Before, which I haven’t seen) have been a bust, this is likely to be the hardest you have laughed in the theater all year. 

What is So Great About Cinematic Problem Solving? A Comparison Between THE MARTIAN and THE AVENGERS.

The Martian

I watched Ridley Scott’s The Martian a couple weeks ago and left the theater underwhelmed. It is not a terrible movie by any means but the strong positive reception gave me cause to think I should expect something special. It was not just about a high Rotten Tomatoes score either, I love the idea of The Martian on paper. A diverse group of people coming together for the simple, purely good act of saving Mark Watney (Matt Damon). This is a story that is practically tailor made to my sensibilities, which made it all the more strange that I was unable to engage with the film in any meaningful way. I have been thinking about this inability to engage with The Martian since I have seen it.

Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is a film that is thematically very similar to The Martian. Both films depict virtuous people coming together to solve a problem. Think of the whole second act of the movie, in which Captain American (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) put aside their differences to fix the helicarrier. For that matter, Tony Stark’s speech to Loki (Tom Hiddleston) before the big fight boils down to Stark saying “we were only weak because of our differences but now we don’t have them so you’re in trouble”. When we get the iconic shot of the assembled team finally ready to work together in act III, the movie is scratching exactly the same itch that The Martian tries to. The film invites us to be enthusiastic about what we can become when we put aside our differences and work together to achieve something. Essentially, both films are a fist pumping ode to exactly the same aspect of humanity.

At first I had an issue with the dialogue in The Martian. The characters are constantly busting each other’s chops and setting up elaborate jokes (I cringed at Mark Watney: Space Pirate). It is not just that the jokes are not particularly funny or that they take too long to set up. Instead, I was frustrated with how they got in the way of the actual human interaction the film could be giving us instead. What are the members of Watney’s crew going to talk to him about when they can finally speak with him once they have learned he is still alive? Nothing important, certainly. Instead they will just rib him about how there’s so much more room in the space ship without him. I get that these kind of beats are written in to establish camaraderie amongst the team but there is a limit. I am willing to bet that 80 percent or more of The Martian’s dialogue can be broken up into jokes and exposition. I found that this severely undercut the dramatic elements of the film and kept me at arm’s length as I watched.

I found that I had no such problems with The Avengers. The quip laden dialogue might not be for everybody but I find it effective because it is constantly pulling double duty. The jokes are funny but they also do work to articulate each character’s unique perspective. “I understood that reference” reminds us that Captain America is a man out of time, for example. The reason that the jokes in The Avengers pop while the jokes in The Martian fizzle is because there are no unique perspectives to articulate. This is partly due to it being an adaptation of a first time novel in which the author has trouble giving unique voices to his characters. Still though, this realization of the lack of unique perspectives in The Martian was the key that helped me figure out why the film did not work for me.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was a symptom of the problem more than it was a cause. These character’s constantly joking around makes sense because none of them are ever conflicted about whether or not they should do the right thing. This is the core of the film’s problems. It is not just that Watney is a saint (which would make sense because it helps us believe that all of his friends would be willing to go back for him). It is that every astronaut and most of the NASA employees are also saints. The moral dilemma in the film is not about rescuing Watney, which is a forgone conclusion. It is about whether NASA should tell Watney’s crew that he is alive or withhold that information to keep crew morale up. Shifting the ethical debate to this ultimately inconsequential issue is a huge mistake, since the decision they go with has no consequences in the world of the film at all. The people who chose wrong are not punished nor did choosing wrong produce a setback in any way. In effect, even the wrong people get to be as close to right as humanly possible.

I mentioned in the beginning that the film tells a story about a diverse crew of people coming together for the greater good. What I have ultimately found is the problem with The Martian is that it fails to capture the essence of why this situation is appealing. We like seeing people come together for the greater good because a group of humans can become something greater than themselves. We can leave our petty baggage at the door and say “let’s solve a problem”. The best of us pull the worst of us along so we all get a little further ahead. In The Martian, everyone is already the best of us. Our reaction is not of awe but of indifference. “Of course these people would come together for the greater good, they are already a dozen or so of the earth’s greatest human beings”.

The problem with The Martian is that it is like watching The Avengers except every character is Captain America. Where Whedon’s film depicted characters overcoming their individual viewpoints, biases and flaws Scott’s film has everyone agree from the word go and then have slight disagreements as to how exactly they should work together (which are ultimately inconsequential). I understand how this could potentially be a virtue of the film for some people but it is ultimately why the film fails in my eyes. Perhaps repeat viewings will change my mind but in the mean time if I need this particular thematic itch scratched, I’ll be firing up my Blu Ray of The Avengers instead.

THE VILLAGE and Being Critical of Not Being Critical

The Village

“Never google how anything you consume is created. Just never google it because it is going to bum you out”.

The above Aziz Ansari quote is from a great bit in which he encourages his listeners not to look up the origins of anything they use and enjoy. The joke being that when you find out how your favorite things get made, you will be disappointed by the often unnerving circumstances required to make them. The joke rings true and it is easy to see why that is. Did you buy those pants at Wal-Mart? Well, a truly ugly system of exploitation that we tacitly consent to the existence of allows us to get those cheap denim pants. Rarely are people so aware of these exploitative systems and circumstances that allow us to live a great life. Just think of the amount of people who provide only an incredulous stare upon learning that Wal-Mart or Microsoft engages in highly dubious ethical practices to bring them cheap clothes and computers respectively. They just don’t believe the world could be so ugly.

M Night Shyamalan’s The Village is a movie that asks us to confront the part of ourselves that does not question why our world is the way that it is. The world of The Village is predicated on a number of unbelievable circumstances such as humans being able to live comfortably in a wildlife preserve that no one enters, with even air traffic controllers being bribed to direct planes away from the preserve. The film was widely criticized for being too far fetched and unbelievable but I can’t help but think this is exactly the point. “How could they be not realize this!?”, the film invites its audience to shout at the screen as Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) slowly encounters more of what lies behind the curtain.

A key shift in perspective occurs as Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) is stabbed and Ivy Walker becomes the audience POV character. This is Shyamalan telling the audience exactly what he thinks of us. We start out from the perspective of a brave, honest and temperament leading man who seems capable and eager to go out into the woods and bring medicine back for his people. When our perspective shifts to that of the blind Ivy Walker’s, we learn that we have in a sense been blind the whole time and have not even realized it.

When the all of the cards are on the table and the mystery is totally understood by the audience is when Night reveals the Rosetta stone to understanding the film. The newspaper that (in case you doubted it was important) is being held in Shyamalan’s own hands. It is filled with tragedy after tragedy, including a story about soldiers dying overseas. This film came out in 2004, a time where a large portion of Americans were being fed a narrative involving Islam, the Middle East and justifying an invasion. When we enter modernity through Ivy’s POV, it is then that we truly see that each and every one of us does exactly what the characters in the village do. We don’t have a council of elders and looming monsters in the woods but we do have a serious problem of not scrutinizing anything involved with setting the status quo. We craft a narrative that justifies our actions because that’s easier than accepting our complacency and powerlessness in the face of tragedy. Whether it is accepting the warmongering narrative of post 9/11 retribution or failing to question how huge corporations can afford to charge us next to nothing for our latest fixations, make no mistake, we all live in the village.