Trumpalytics: How We Help Donald Trump Metagame Toward Power

by Gabriel Valdez

Hi, Donald Trump! Hi, real poll analytics! Why don’t I ever see you in the same room anymore? Are you secretly the same person?

Trump’s support has repeatedly hit a ceiling of about 35% in Republican polls, right? A full third of Republicans are shouting, “Yay, racism!” From the rest of the Republican field, it seems more like a tepid, “Er, go…go racism, I think. Aren’t we normally more subtle about this?” Which really puts Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in some difficult positions. It should do the same to Ben Carson, but this cycle’s Rick Santorum 2012 is destined to one day become Rick Santorum 2016.

So…America is obsessed with Trump, right? Everyone’s going to vote for him and he’ll win all 50 states, and ban everything but golf and gambling, right?

Here’s the thing. Trump’s support has hit a ceiling of about 35%, and that’s of registered Republican voters. Registered Republicans make up only about 25% of voters. Registered Democrats make up a bit over 30%, and the rest are independent.

Why hasn’t Trump been able to catapult himself over that ceiling of 35% among Republicans? Because of his ridiculous negatives. His unfavorable rating consistently hovers near 60%. We’re talking about a candidate who might not even be able to win the presidency in an up-down referendum wherein he’s the only candidate.

Furthermore, if you look at the polls being made of Republicans thus far in the cycle, most of them are of any adult or registered Republican. Most of them are internet polls. Most of them are not of the most accurate metric polling can offer: likely voters in live phone polls. These are voters who vote regularly, and Trump’s support among them has been lower by anywhere from 6-10 percentage points throughout most of the campaign.

Why avoid live polling of likely voters when it’s the most statistically accurate metric? Because people click on Trump. I’ll click on him, you’ll click on him, we’ll all click on Trump just to see what crazy, racist, deport-my-born-and-bred-U.S.-citizen-ass bullshit he comes up with next. We click on that bastard like there’s no tomorrow, and that means more ad money for the sites being clicked on. We’ll hang on channels showing him, and that means higher ratings for the networks being watched.

Among likely voters in live phone polls, Trump has never crested 28%. Despite little opposition, his ceiling is fairly established. Why would he struggle to increase that number when other candidates who are polling lower wouldn’t? They aren’t saddled with his negatives. As the Republican field narrows, candidates like Rubio and Cruz (or even dark horses like John Kasich and Chris Christie) will absorb far more of the voters freed up when other candidates drop out.

That doesn’t mean Trump can’t win the GOP primary if the Republican field fails to winnow down. It does mean that, in order to win, he needs most of the 14 candidates still in the race to stay in the race without giving ground through most of the primary cycle. There’s a better chance of that than in most primary elections, but it would still be fairly unprecedented.

Why should all these metrics matter? If Trump is hammering out a maximum of 28% of Republican voters, and Republican voters make up 25% of all voters, that means Trump is polling a whopping…drum roll, please…7% of likely voters. Ooh.

We all wonder why polls are so inaccurate. They really aren’t, if you know which ones to pay attention to and how to read them. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox have no interest in presenting them accurately, giving context, or teaching people how they work. They spit out statistics, no matter how misrepresented, so that others will repeat them ad nauseum. In recent years, there are fewer and fewer independent pollsters. Most now have a patron, and that patron is always in the form of a news network, a newspaper, a think tank, or a PAC (political action committee). The shape of the kinds of polls we take has changed according to what these patrons need to drive their story lines. That’s how we end up with months of coverage about future presidents Herman Cain, Wesley Clark, Howard Dean, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, and Santorum.

These organizations have an interest in creating the most exciting story lines, the ones that’ll make you click on their sites, change to their channels, or share an interview that goes off the rails on YouTube.

Yes, we should continue protesting the ugly things Trump says. What he says encourages and endorses hate crimes, racial violence, and sexual violence. We need to speak out against it, but not just in regards to Trump. What much of the Republican field says encourages these same things.

But we shouldn’t freak out, and we shouldn’t buy into much of the information being sold us about the shape of this election. We should educate ourselves about polls. If you post a news story about a poll, have you clicked on that poll and actually looked at the questions being asked? Do you know if a poll’s questions are worded in a leading manner? Do you know how the poll was taken – online, automated phone, live phone. Was it of all adults who responded, registered voters, or likely voters? Was a particular demographic relied upon to supply answers? Is the sample size even realistically viable? Chances are, you don’t know any of those things when you post a poll, so why are we posting them as if they’re facts?

We’re so quick to post articles about how Americans are getting less education, about how we’re understanding less and less by generation, about how facts are becoming more malleable than they once were, about how specific groups of people are being less represented in our history books. Polls and the story lines created off them are all this in a nutshell, but we post them as if they are fact. We need to stop thinking that we are immune to understanding less and relying on fact less. We have our blind spots, and we succumb to them just as much as a Trump voter might.

We are no better, and we are no worse, but we can’t keep posting these kinds of things without understanding them, and then pretending they’re real representations of how this country thinks. That doesn’t just feed into the networks’ narratives, it feeds into the narratives of people like Trump. It feeds into the narratives that give him more air time, that lets him cause more damage, and that feeds his campaign.

If there’s one success in Trump’s campaign, it’s that he’s the only candidate who understands this. This is the metagame Trump plays, and this is how we feed it. By pretending he’s a front-runner, he becomes more viable in the minds of voters as a front-runner. By pretending the things he has to say, good or bad, are worth listening to, the things he says become more interesting in the minds of voters. By pretending that he’s a serious politician, he becomes a serious politician. The emperor has no clothes, but we are all so convinced he does that we share it as fact, as something impending, as a main attraction instead of a side show.

Without understanding the nature of the stories we post, all we do is drive Trump’s most advantageous narrative – that he is a serious candidate. We’ve done it enough that we’ve made it true, and by doing so, we’ve aided his campaign.

We can oppose the things he says without being afraid of him, without treating him seriously. I’ve written a good amount on polls and how we read them. People always ask, “Why does it matter, they’re just polls?”

Because we share them as fact and treat their realities as fact without bothering to understand them. That makes their realities our own. That means our political reality is now one that helps Trump, even when we oppose him.

Their Desperate Arsenal: Beasts with No Leashes

by Vanessa Tottle

The gall of them:

The gall of some little bitch with a bowl cut, son of some proud lineage of death in South Carolina.

The gall of a Chicago cop who treated his trigger finger like that of a Ferguson cop or a Cleveland cop.

The gall of a man in a movie theater with a gun and the anger to use it.

The gall of Roseburg, Oregon. The gall of San Bernardino, California. The gall of Houston, Texas. This is the 355th mass shooting this year.

The gall of a man who once lived in a town called Black Mountain, like a beast from mythology. We best not return him there, in the fog of a cabin lonely in the woods where police will hear a man has hit his wife and shot at dogs and do nothing because that is the purpose of living in the fog of a cabin lonely in the woods.

Dear Colorado Springs,

Here’s my body, dictate it.

“No more baby parts,” he said.

We fight a war of remembrance, the names too many. Across the nation, victims will be remembered for their relation to others, for cruel fates, for last moments spent wanting to be a child again hiding under covers.

I want to hide under the covers. I don’t want to be saddled with memory now.

“No more baby parts,” he said, like a Fiorina or a Cruz. Like a Rubio or a Trump.

We tell the shooters this: I swear to God I will forget you. I swear to God I will forget you. I swear to God I will forget you.

Yet I can’t. We strive to keep terrorists out, but their sponsors hold debates on CNN and say that women bleed too much to ask questions on national TV, that a woman’s body is given too much freedom, that we must be kept, or dangerous if escaped, or shot if dangerous, or forgotten if shot, or meaningless if forgotten, so why spend so much time on women at all?

They are beasts with no leashes, they are footsteps coming closer in the hall outside with the lights off. Hiding under the covers won’t prolong what comes next. I know.

Which is more dangerous, the gun or the camera? The gun points one at a time. The camera points 45 million men with guns in the U.S. alone.

He once lived in a town called Black Mountain, like a beast from mythology, and beasts beget beasts, and to return these beasts to myth is to make them myth, is to beget beasts, is to hide under covers at night with the lights off and footsteps coming closer in the hall.

We are not crafted of hiding under covers. We are not crafted of anticipating our own pain. We are not crafted of covering this over with Star Wars and Christmastime and ‘It will get better: because.’

We are made of voices, all. Support what they hate. Support feminism with a fury. Support freedom of religion for Muslims and Christians and everyone else. Accept and offer asylum for refugees, whether victimized by ISIS across oceans or a man with a fist who lives in your own town. Ban guns and fucking mean it. Get the KKK out of our police departments. Haul everyone you know to vote.

We can ignore them endlessly, we can hide under covers endlessly until the day it’s not our problem anymore, and the young look up and see us hiding under covers and think it must be a good example to follow. Or we can make them obsolete. And we can make them obsolete.

“No more baby parts,” the gunman said. Just body parts.

To him, that is all we are.

We are crafted out of so much more than that.

 

For more:

“Their Desperate Arsenal: Isla Vista and the War at Hand”

“Silent All These Years – American Terror Story”

“If Only She’d Had a Gun”

Secretly a Hell of a Lot of Fun — “The Last Witch Hunter”

Vin Diesel in The Last Witch Hunter

This weekend saw the wide release of a movie about a strange cult threatening the world. They worship an unnatural god who thinks humans are here only to serve. But enough about Apple users and “Steve Jobs.” Instead, let’s talk about a movie based on Vin Diesel’s Dungeons & Dragons character: “The Last Witch Hunter.”

The film’s opening is visually stunning. We find Kaulder (Diesel) and his band of medieval warriors launching a last-ditch assault on the fortress of the evil Witch Queen. This fortress is a vast tree that stretches across the entire horizon, and the warriors are faced with strange magics and shapeshifting beasts once inside. From the beginning, “Witch Hunter” lets you know it’s not quite playing by the same rules as other action movies.

Kaulder achieves his goal but is cursed with immortality in doing so. Fast-forward 800 years to present day, and he’s working as the enforcer to a secret alliance between the Catholic Church and the Witch Council. He helps keep the balance between magic users and humans.

The world-building at play here is very good. The film takes time to explain things, but the real standout here is the way magical battles incorporate outlandish spells. Most of the “Harry Potter” series is better overall, but too often that franchise devolved magic battles into faux gun fights. Wizards just shot sparks at each other as if they’d whipped revolvers out at a saloon. It hardly felt powerful.

Last Witch Hunter's Witch Queen

If witches and wizards are so powerful, they should be calling tree limbs out of the ground, teleporting, partitioning rooms into different parts of time, turning into swarms of flies at the drop of a hat, and trying to trap each other within dreams and memories mid-battle. “Witch Hunter” gets this very right. It’s one of the only films I’ve seen treat magic this ambitiously. It also does a stellar job of making this all accessible without slowing down the pace of a fight. For this alone, it’s worth the watch.

The exceptional makeup design by Justin Raleigh, Danielle Noe, and their crew is also worth mentioning. The Witch Queen is a fantastic practical creature design and, somehow, Vin Diesel doesn’t look ridiculous as a Viking. Well, he looks ridiculous, but in just the right way. Director Breck Eisner also manages to get the practical special effects and the CGI visual effects together on the same page. It all feels part of a world. The two are blended very well.

The film’s other elements are here and there. The set design is occasionally visionary, occasionally ordinary. The costuming contains personal detail, but is often ill-advised in concept. There’s a single, needless line of voice-over narration when the film’s already 20 minutes old. That narration never comes back. Michael Caine is completely wasted in his role as a priest who advises Kaulder.

Diesel himself is uneven at best. His anger only knows one level, and that’s shouting. There are scenes where Kaulder can threaten a witch by his very presence, essentially playing good cop while his 800-year old reputation plays bad cop. He’s charming and funny during these moments. There are other scenes in which Kaulder just resorts to yelling at someone. These don’t fit, and make the character seem much too immature for his centuries-old age.

Last Witch Hunter Vin Diesel and Rose Leslie

It’s up to Rose Leslie and Elijah Wood to hold the scenes down around Diesel. Despite her youth, Leslie’s a veteran of costume fare, via “Game of Thrones” and “Downton Abbey.” As the witch Chloe, who grudgingly allies with Kaulder, she creates a character we’re able to invest in more than Diesel’s. Wood gets limited screen-time, but riffs off of Diesel when he gets the chance. As a young priest charged with recording Kaulder’s history, he manages to create the kind of quirky character he’s known for outside of “Lord of the Rings.”

Roger Ebert often wrote that a movie needs to be judged on whether it accomplishes its own goals. “Witch Hunter” isn’t trying to be anything earth-shattering. It’s just trying to be fun, and you know what? It is. If it were part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it would be smack dab in the middle in terms of quality. It’s a satisfying film with some very vibrant moments and some disappointing ones.

If you liked “Blade” or “Constantine” and you’re looking for similarly dark superhero-styled fare, “Last Witch Hunter” is for you. Vin Diesel isn’t as dynamic as Wesley Snipes or self-aware as Keanu Reeves, but he gets the job done. The closest comparison to “Witch Hunter” may be “John Wick.” Although the two are in completely separate genres, they share a similar ability for hinting at deeper worlds beneath a glossy presentation. They also share a creative knack for presenting action in ways we haven’t seen before. They do both lose some steam by the end via formulaic climaxes.

“The Last Witch Hunter” is getting slammed by many critics, but it doesn’t really deserve it. As a viewer, trust your gut on this one. If the concept or actors intrigue you, go see it. If you watch the trailer and the visuals impress you, the rest of the film is just as inventive. If you think this kind of B-movie sounds ridiculous, this won’t do anything to change your opinion. There are certainly far better (“Sicario”) and more visually creative (“Crimson Peak”) movies in the theater right now.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “The Last Witch Hunter” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Rose Leslie plays Chloe. Rena Owen plays Glaeser, the leader of the Witch Council. Julie Engelbrecht plays the Witch Queen. Bex Taylor-Klaus plays a witch Diesel helps on a plane, Bronwyn. Dawn Olivieri plays the tricky Danique. Lotte Verbeek plays Kaulder’s wife Helena. Sloane Coombs plays Kaulder’s daughter Elizabeth.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Briefly.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes.

The number of speaking roles for women is about on par with the number of roles for men, especially considering that most of the incidental male roles take place in just a pair of scenes in the past. I’d say there’s more room for “Witch Hunter” to make these roles more consequential, but that’s true of pretty much every character.

Given that everything’s so Diesel-related, and that there are almost no scenes requiring more than one person to interact with him at a time, I’d say the movie sits on a fine line when it comes to the spirit of the Bechdel-Wallace Test. It technically passes, though only in the briefest moments when Chloe threatens Danique or is threatened by the Witch Queen. Spiritually, it’s not a sale. Chloe is a strong character, and Leslie gives her an admirable mix of courage and gumption. She lacks Kaulder’s skill in battle, but that doesn’t exactly stop her from jumping in and doing what she can. The film makes some conscious effort to avoid making her a romantic interest, an ingenue, or a pet. There’s a bit of complexity to her back story, and Kaulder treats her as an ally instead of a damsel.

The core group is Diesel, Leslie, Wood, and Caine. Leslie doesn’t enter into the fray until at least a third of the way through the film, so you can see how opportunities for women to share scenes are further limited.

Overall, there’s some modest success with Chloe as a character who doesn’t succumb to the normal pitfalls of women sidekicks in films like this. There are also a number of speaking roles for women, though many are brief or contained to a single scene. “Witch Hunter” makes some effort, but could have made much more.

Where did we find our awesome images? The feature of the burning tree is from Comic Book Resources. Viking Vin Diesel up top is from Screen Rant. The Witch Queen is from Bloody-Disgusting, as is the image of Diesel and Leslie facing camera.

Ghosts, Bloodshed, and Jessica Chastain — “Crimson Peak”

Crimson Peak ghost

Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film is a very old-fashioned ghost story, albeit with a modern sense of bloodletting. “Crimson Peak” is a fairly perfect fit for Halloween, equal parts tense chiller and delectably intentional melodrama. It’s also one of the most beautiful looking films you’ll see this year.

We follow young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an idealistic writer who is swept up in a whirlwind romance by Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Being the end of the Victorian era, he whisks her away to his lonely mansion on a windswept hill. They are joined by his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and a bevy of ghosts with dire warnings.

Del Toro’s critically lauded for his quieter, profoundly haunting Spanish-language films such as “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone.” He’s loved by audiences for zanier, louder English-language endeavors like “Pacific Rim” and “Hellboy.”

Few directors can successfully make films across such a broad spectrum. To which does the English-language “Crimson Peak” belong? It’s altogether something different, neither quiet and meditative like his smaller films nor brash and cheeky in the same way his big-budget fare is. Instead, Del Toro has crafted a riff on Gothic romances like “Jane Eyre” and “Rebecca.”

“Crimson Peak” treads increasingly into that genre’s deliberately melodramatic mood, while dressing everything as if Edgar Allan Poe had imagined the sets into existence. “Crimson Peak” is scary, yes, but it’s not interested in the overwhelming terror of which Del Toro is capable. Instead, mystery and atmosphere are front and center. While all of Del Toro’s films have enjoyed fantastic designs and incredible atmosphere, “Crimson Peak” reaches even greater heights of macabre beauty.

Crimson Peak hall

All that said, this is a very particular kind of movie. It has the same fun with its material as “Pacific Rim,” but instead of riffing on the giant robot movies we know all too well by this point, he’s riffing on Gothic romance fiction. It’s not territory that will seem as fresh in many viewers’ minds, but if you’re willing to go along with Del Toro, this is his best job yet of treating genre as his playground.

To understand the movie is to understand Chastain’s role as Lucille. You may recognize Chastain as the lead from “Zero Dark Thirty,” the grown-up Murphy in “Interstellar,” or Matt Damon’s best chance at rescue in “The Martian.” From whichever role you know her, she’s something altogether different here. Her very first scene, Lucille is introduced playing the piano. Her fingers dance across the ivories with both a practiced skill and a flexed rigidity. The camera travels up the back of her dress, not evocatively, but to show that the design on its back resembles a satin vertebrae.

This is the level on which “Crimson Peak” works. Every scene holds a new detail if you’re paying close enough attention. Every piece of design and every edit hints at something crucial. Even the lighting in a painting quickly glanced can tell you whom to trust. The design is stellar in how it’s all put together to subtly direct the viewer. The way it’s filmed understands every nuance of that design. You could pick apart certain shots like you would paintings.

“Crimson Peak” will suffer with viewers somewhat because it’s been advertised as straight-up horror and there isn’t necessarily a large audience with a well of knowledge regarding Gothic romance. That’s really how you might best enjoy the film, recognizing how it exists both inside of and as a commentary on Gothic and Victorian literature. Without that background, the film may seem beautiful but outlandish. Fans of such literature, lovers of costume and set design, those who appreciate old-fashioned ghost stories, mystery fans, and even (perhaps especially) fans of giallo filmmaking will love “Crimson Peak.” Those expecting a more modern horror, or something particularly oppressive or jumpy in its scares, may be disappointed. “Crimson Peak” is a creepy film with beautiful tone, not really a scary one designed to make you leap from your seat.

Crimson Peak Hiddleston Chastain

In an odd way, “Crimson Peak” feels close kin to Tim Burton’s 1999 take on “Sleepy Hollow.” Both movies are gorgeous to take in, featuring some of the best set and costume design ever put to film. Both are filled with performances that are more clever in their melodrama than seeking to be real, although Chastain’s master-class performance in “Peak” somehow manages to encompass both extremes. “Sleepy Hollow” is more action- and comedy-oriented where “Crimson Peak” is literary-minded. They are both utter joys to watch, but more for the sake of their stunning craftsmanship and the fun the actors are having than as complete crowd-pleasers. Suffice to say, I plan to make them into a Halloween double-feature one day. Perhaps “Clue” can be the chaser for that cocktail.

On one last note, I very occasionally have synesthetic reactions to films. It’s not often – I can count the number of times it’s happened on one hand. I don’t imagine it’s a reaction most viewers will have, but to describe just how complete and different “Crimson Peak” is as an exercise in design, it brought me to that place in a powerful and overwhelming way. The woodwork felt tangible. The colors haunted me. You could feel the suits and dresses, taste the cold in the air, huddle at the dark of its night. It didn’t give me goosebumps through its scares, but rather because I could feel the temperature drop and the drifts of its blizzards on the back of my neck. If you are at all interested in seeing the film, don’t wait for a second. See it in the theater, see it on the big screen.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “Crimson Peak” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing. Jessica Chastain plays Lucille Sharpe. Leslie Hope plays Mrs. McMichael, Emily Coutts plays Eunice, and Sofia Wells plays Young Edith. Briefer speaking parts include Joanna Douglas as Maid Annie, and Karen Glave and Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as a pair of unnamed maids.

There are also women ghosts with speaking parts, but these are played by men, including Doug Jones, who is Del Toro’s go-to creature actor.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes.

“Crimson Peak” is a film with feminism in mind. Edith is a writer who isn’t taken seriously because she’s a woman. She even types a manuscript up because she believes her handwriting betrays feminine qualities. Her father has faith in her ability to do as she will, but the rest of the world doesn’t understand why she rejects the game of suitors and marriage prospects. Wasikowska plays her as a smart mix of idealistic yet practical, and she’s most often in the hands of saving herself.

Lucille is a challenging role that could’ve gone rather badly in lesser hands, but Chastain absolutely obliterates the part. She’s not just threatening, she is the very idea of threat itself. You’re not waiting for the other shoe to drop here, you’re waiting for Chastain to close jaws on your jugular. It is a testament to Chastain that inside of three weeks, she’s delivered my favorite hero of the year (via a supporting role in “The Martian”) and my favorite villain in “Crimson Peak.”

Crimson Peak Jessica Chastain

Yes, Tom Hiddleston matters and gets more screen time than Chastain, but he’s really in the middle of things here. (Wasikowska easily gets the most screen time.) This film is really about its two women leads, the agency they exert over each other and their surroundings, and the game of cat-and-mouse they play.

This includes the dialogue they hold, the nature of it, and the topics covered. Equally importantly, it covers the way they’re portrayed, especially as the film inhabits something of a commentary on the nature of Gothic romance, the studio system of filmmaking, and the expectations of women within each.

Where did we get our fantastic images? The feature image with the yellow dress is from Slip Through Movies trailer article. The house and ghost images are from The Busybody’s Review in Pictures. The last two images, both with Jessica Chastain, are from a Bloody-Disgusting image feature.

“Sicario” is a Beautiful, Vicious, Primal Slow Burn

Emily Blunt in Sicario tunnels

A pulsing, foreboding sense of threat. A festering thought you can’t quite pin down, that you know will come back to bite you. Realizations of something sickening and bad you’ve gotten yourself into. “Sicario” is all these things and more. It’s a rare thriller of powerful patience and primal rhythm. It will hook you and keep you strung out so far along its line that you’ll never see where you’re being taken until it’s too late.

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leads a SWAT team for the FBI. After her team suffers losses due to an IED planted in an Arizona home, she’s recruited by an adviser to the Department of Justice. They’re going after the leader of one of Mexico’s largest drug cartels. It becomes quickly apparent that she can’t trust this adviser, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Is he CIA? Something else? How legal is their operation? Why is she along when her only purpose seems to be getting babysat? Incursions into Mexico, highway firefights, desperate struggles, and hidden politics throw Kate back and forth as she grows increasingly suspicious of the mission for which she’s volunteered.

You will feel terrible for Kate. She’s risking her life for something idealistic and she’s pulled from that into doing something that only contributes to elongating the cycle of violence she’s trying to stop. She’s a warrior fighting for her ideals in a war that never had any to start. She becomes a victim of what’s expedient, what pushes the problem down the line for someone else.

“Sicario” is a vicious movie. It’s not overly gritty. It’s very distanced and removed at points, making you care for Kate by holding you back from her. This only adds to the film’s viciousness. There’s little release, and yet there’s a primal energy pulsing through it all. Director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) is a master of the slow burn, of waiting for the other shoe to drop. He utilizes exacting yet heartfelt detail in every scene. How light plays off Kate’s face, the rhythms of editing, when to cut to an actor’s tic all contribute to shaping for us the worlds of other people’s lives.

Here, he’s created something ugly and threatening, yet there’s so much attention to the details and texture of each moment. There’s the contrast of the looming clouds. There’s the sand as colored by the light of the morning. Even different forms of night vision are used at one point to evoke something otherworldly, as if descending into Hell itself. There are beautiful moments even amid such viciousness. The characters don’t notice, but it’s impossible as a viewer to avoid them. Minor details embrace the feeling of the moment in contrast to the over-arching, cold, dispassionate reality of it.

Emily Blunt in Sicario highway

Then there’s Emily Blunt. She is remarkable. This is performance-of-the-year territory. She will break your heart not because she tries, but because she tries so hard not to.

The entire ensemble follows suit. Brolin is grimy, hard to pin down, some evolved form of the most easygoing yet manipulative characters he’s played. Benicio Del Toro plays Alejandro, who – well, you’re not really meant to be sure who he is. Daniel Kaluuya is Kate’s SWAT partner Reggie, loyal to a fault. Theirs is a compelling and very real friendship.

The musical score by Johann Johannsson contributes incredible tension. It plays its most intense moments as muted, far off. It’s like hearing a hunting party beyond a hill, or relentless drums around the bend, their reverberation growing louder than the sound itself, sudden silences creating more anticipation than relief.

This is a film that plants itself in your head and simmers there. It gives you consequences and then lurks. “No Country for Old Men.” “Zero Dark Thirty.” “Traffic.” The list of films that resemble “Sicario” is a list of tonal high points in cinema, and yet none of them fully captures quite what “Sicario” is. If there’s a movie it reminds me of most, it’s “Silence of the Lambs.” It’s patient in closing its trap. It presents the treatment of a sole woman amid a group of men in particular and subtle ways. Nothing’s ever said out loud, but a moment of derision, being made to feel extraneous to the moment, and certain visual cues all combine to make a point of her treatment.

In its own way, “Sicario” would fit right into gothic horror. It’s trappings are as far away from the genre as you could get – sand, cigarettes, and assault rifles. Yet at the same time, the madness of how our drug war has evolved, fighting the very monsters we propagate – there’s nothing more gothic in theme.

That’s where “Sicario” gets you. It’s not the threat to Kate’s life that is most compelling. It’s the threat to the idea that Kate’s life matters. The notion that it doesn’t, that what she does with it, that what truth she chooses to hold is inconsequential…that’s why “Sicario” is such a vicious thing. These are ideas that can be vicious without ever making themselves apparent. They just wear you down. And “Sicario” presents this masterfully. It is easily in the conversation for Film of the Year.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “Sicario” have more than one woman in it?

Not really. Kate is played by Emily Blunt. There are two other women who feature in moments, but neither speaks a line.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Not applicable.

3. About something other than a man?

Not applicable.

My own read on “Sicario” is that this is very purposeful, but mine is not the only read, so take it with a grain of salt. I compare it to “Silence of the Lambs” in the way that the film purposefully isolates a woman amid men, yet even “Silence of the Lambs” manages to pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test.

Emily Blunt easily owns more screen time than any other character. She is, essentially, the only main character. “Sicario” feels like a Greek hero myth gone terribly wrong. Her being one of a kind, an outsider in another world, is the entire point. In some of the same ways “Silence of the Lambs” visually laid into the treatment of a professional woman in a field of men, “Sicario” uses specific actions to isolate Kate amid the men with whom she works. It’s not always comfortable. In fact, “Silence of the Lambs” is a bit of an upper compared to “Sicario.” Kate’s partner, Reggie, is the only black character. That’s no mistake either.

Normally, I’d criticize a film for making decisions to isolate women or black characters in such a way without stating a clear message as to why, yet “Sicario” is undeniably aware of these two characters, making a point of their treatment without ever saying it aloud. The isolation itself is a commentary. The violence other characters are willing to let Kate suffer is a commentary. “Sicario” reveals itself to be angry about very specific things later on, but to describe them would enter spoiler territory.

Kate and Reggie are, essentially, our only two good characters, the only ones who stay true and heroic. Kate dominates the story. Sometimes she is tough. Sometimes she comes out on the losing end anyway. This is the story of a hero meeting something that can’t be beaten, not because of her shortcomings but because of everyone else’s. If she can’t beat it, no one can. She’s a role model and a hero, but she’s also alone.

Again, take this with a grain of salt. I am a man. It would not be the first time I let a film off more lightly in this section than I should. With certain films, it can be difficult to balance my reading of it against its feminist qualities. If I always knew which films those were, then it wouldn’t be so difficult. I come with my own subjective limitations, though I do my best. This section is never meant to present me as an expert in feminism. It’s meant to do something that critics should be doing more often, but aren’t. It’s meant to provide a place to discuss these things, not decide them altogether.

I feel “Sicario” uses Kate’s isolation and the visual language inherent to certain moments of violence directed against her to consciously acknowledge and portray an aspect of the difficulty she faces: as a woman in a field where the men around her dismiss her usefulness. I could be wrong on that point. It could instead use those elements as shortcuts. I may let the bias of how good I feel “Sicario” is influence my reading of those elements.

I left the film considering Kate the kind of hero who would make it far as the protagonist in 1970s cinema, as a beset outsider trying to ferret out a truth. Others may feel differently about her treatment and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.

That may or may not be helpful, but something that critics need to do more often and something that men in particular need to be open to doing is admitting when we just don’t know something, even in our field. When some aspect of a particular film lies outside my realm of knowledge or expertise, I will tell you how I feel, what my inclinations are, but the most honest thing I can couch that in is, “I don’t know.”

“Sicario” is challenging. It will be a film I think about and pick apart for a long time. I may write about more realizations down the road. As of this moment, whether it’s feminist or not – the best answer I can give is: I think so, but in such particular, subtle, and experiential ways that I might be misreading it. If those ways translate through the experiences of a woman, then as a man, I’m not the best qualified to assess them. Sometimes that happens. As a critic, it’s not my job to give you my best guess when an aspect of a film reaches outside my realm. It’s my job to recognize what’s in and out of my realm, to give you my best guess knowing that, and to be clear to you about what qualifications I both possess and lack in making that assessment. “Sicario” reaches outside my realm in certain ways, and it drives me to understand those ways better.

Where did we get our amazing images? The last shot of Emily Blunt, in the car, is from The Film Stage’s article 8 Films to Watch Before Sicario. They have some very good recommendations. The feature and top images are from Fox Force Five News’ review of “Sicario.”

“The Martian” is Everything You Want it to Be

The Martian and its astronaut cast

An astronaut in the third manned mission to Mars becomes stranded during a storm. Believing him dead, his crew aborts their mission, abandons the planet, and launches back toward Earth. A botanist by trade and trapped in a harsh climate, the stranded Mark Watney (Matt Damon) has to figure out how to collect water, grow plants in unfriendly soil, and survive the harsh temperatures of Mars.

All the while, NASA must figure out how to help him, communicate, and (perhaps most interestingly) navigate the needs of a rescue mission through a politically aggressive media.

At the center of the story, Damon balances desperation with a sort of positive, confident, self-deprecating attitude, as if playing Chris Pratt with a dramatic range. It’s a superb display of trying to remain mentally healthy and positive in what would otherwise be a depressing and hopeless survival situation. Even if the focus of the film isn’t on big moments of acting, Damon textures the role with a great deal of nuance. The film doesn’t use elongated, weepy moments as a crutch. Watney loses his cool, enjoys success and failure, and struggles to remain stable at points, but this isn’t “Cast Away.” Damon is excellent, but his emotional state isn’t the focus here; his actions are. In this way, he carries the film’s momentum on his shoulders.

Damon is something special in the film, but he’s not the only one. As his mission commander Melissa Lewis, Jessica Chastain (“Interstellar”) continues conveying entire character histories with just a glance. Her ability to be an emotionally open book and a consummate professional all at once is recognizable to audiences because most of us struggle with that balance in our daily lives. Even if Lewis gets a fraction of the screen time Watney does, everything about her is humanity at its best and most responsible. Few actors could command so much loyalty in the space of a handful of scenes.

On the ground, NASA is in the hands of administrators played by Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Kristen Wiig. Decisions range from assembling another supply mission to keep Watney fed, to whether to tell the crew who left him that he remains alive. Surprisingly, these decisions hold as much intensity as Watney’s unique struggle. Balancing the practical with the political on Earth becomes as life-or-death for Watney as things like food and water.

There’s an incredible translation of science happening in the film. Watney relies on his scientific know-how, on knowledge of botany, chemistry, electronics, and astrophysics that are masterfully translated for the audience. Complex ideas are skillfully communicated in simple, practical ways.

This plays into one of the most remarkable things about “The Martian.” It is by far the least “Ridley Scott” of director Ridley Scott’s movies. After a string of films that’s gone from “Prometheus” to “The Counselor” to “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” each one more trapped inside of its own style than the last, it’s refreshing to know Scott can still just tell a story. “The Martian” isn’t subject to strange visual experiments or odd editing. If anything, its visual storytelling errs on the side of safe. That works for a film like this. The story is so compelling, the actors so commanding, too much extra style might have ultimately become too distracting. Scott instead relies on techniques he’s often avoided in his career: rapid jump-cut editing, voice-over, point-of-view shots, fast-motion, and a relatively still camera.

The easiest comparison in subject matter would be the most recent stranded-in-space film, “Gravity.” These are two very different movies, however. “Gravity” envelops viewers in a visceral experience reminiscent of horror movies. “The Martian” offers a very different kind of intensity. It evokes something less existential and more practical. If anything, “The Martian” takes on a very matter-of-fact tone that resembles one of the most realistic portrayals of space disaster, “Apollo 13.”

One extra note: Ridley Scott has become one of the premier directors of 3D. As many other problems as “Prometheus” and “Exodus” had, their 3D was downright sumptuous. “The Martian” is no different, and its otherworldly setting offers up a lot of opportunities both before and beyond the screen. Flying dust, bits of debris, and a looming spaceship all feature. So do vast Martian canyons and valleys, calling upon the haunting beauty and loneliness of being stranded in a strange wilderness. His 3D is exceptionally detailed and makes tremendous use of the foreground. Nausea’s not a problem because there’s not a ton of fast movement, but if you get headaches, that’s from the foreground detail. In this case, sit a little further back in the theater, so that you’re at least the height of the middle of the screen. Of course, the film will play exceptionally in 2D as well without losing its beauty.

There’s language, brief rear nudity, and a scene of injury, but it’s very safe for children and I’d highly encourage it as a family film that can help spur discussions about science and space.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “The Martian” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Jessica Chastain plays Mission Commander Melissa Lewis. Kate Mara plays astronaut Beth Johanssen. Kristen Wiig plays NASA Public Affairs Officer Annie Montrose. Mackenzie Davis plays specialist Mindy Park.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. There are points when it could be read either way – in talking about rescuing Watney, are they talking about him or are they talking about a rescue operation? Either way, there are other things discussed outside of this.

In space, women seem to be in charge, and I detailed just how well Jessica Chastain delivers her role as the mission commander. It’s also worth noting that – after Chastain’s Lewis – Kate Mara’s Johanssen seems to have the most agency within the crew.

On the ground, it’s a different story. Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Sean Bean exert more power and enjoy more agency in their characters than Kristen Wiig and Mackenzie Davis do. Wiig and Davis play characters whose jobs involve being answerable to these men (well, at least to Daniels and Ejiofor).

It’s therefore a mixed bag, and because the focus of half the story is on Watney alone, it makes the film difficult to judge along these lines. In other words, it features three storylines, in order of screen time given to them:

  • Watney surviving alone on Mars, which does not pass the Bechdel Test for obvious reasons.
  • A male-driven corporate structure in NASA, which briefly passes at least the first two questions of the Bechdel-Wallace Test, but not really their spirit.
  • A kick-ass group of astronauts powered by two strong, intelligent, and decisive women leaders and role models that passes both the rule and spirit of the Bechdel-Wallace Test, including an incredibly heroic leader in Chastain’s Lewis.

Jessica Chastain in The Martian

The only other thing I’ll note is that I appreciate how much Chastain’s performance gives us someone who can lead without being emotionally closed off. The unfortunate perception among many is that women cannot share emotion in the way a man can and still be trusted to lead; a woman leader has to be cold in order for many to think she’s qualified. It’s bullshit, of course, but it’s also a perception that many women have to at least acknowledge and be aware of when taking on leadership positions in the U.S. I appreciate that Chastain threw that on its head. She delivers an engaging, inspiring, emotionally forthright leader who commands not through coldness and aloofness, but through collaboration, communication, and a refined and experienced sense of moral, logical, and emotional judgment.

On another note, I have read some accusations of race-bending many of the roles. I have not read the book, so I cannot speak to this. “The Martian” does feature people of color more than most films, but that’s not necessarily saying much. For NASA especially, it does seem heavy on white characters. I don’t know how accurately this lines up with its source material.

Yes, we do get Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, and Michael Pena in very positive roles and positions of responsibility, but that’s still merely 3 of the top 12 actors billed.

Where did we get our awesome images? The feature image comes from Collider’s review. The top and bottom images (both with Jessica Chastain) come from Collider’s interview with Chastain.

Pineapple Grosse Pointe Kiss Bang — “American Ultra”

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in American Ultra

American Ultra is the rare case of two stellar actors elevating material that could get lost without them. Those two actors would be Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. I know, it’s popular to despise them both or think they’ve gotten where they are due to luck and limited skill sets. That thinking is wrong.

American Ultra follows Mike and Phoebe, an impoverished pair of lovers doing what they can to get by. She is patient with him; he has panic attacks at the mere thought of leaving town. Just as we’re getting to know them, viewers are whisked away to C.I.A. Headquarters, where Yates (Topher Grace) is shutting down a program of brainwashed operatives once run by Lasseter (Connie Britton). Mike is on the hit list, and to save him, Lasseter has to trigger him into remembering his agency training.

Events spiral out of control, and Mike is soon using everyday objects to murder his would-be assassins. I counted a spoon, a dustpan, and I think even a package of tortillas as deadly weapons. After the violence, Mike returns to being panicky and unsure of himself. Phoebe handles and helps him through it, getting a few punches of her own in along the way.

Eisenberg earned an Oscar nomination for his leading role in The Social Network, but being cast as Lex Luthor in the upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice seems to have turned many back against him.

Think what you want, but there’s one scene in American Ultra where Eisenberg cuts through the blood and the tears with just a look. His performance becomes a creature all its own, something pulsing and angry and confused and viciously dangerous. The film can’t rely on this – it needs Eisenberg to pace back and forth nervously between action scenes and make us laugh. Yet Eisenberg knows when to step on the gas and when to let off.

Stewart is even more complicated. She’s treated as toxic by an industry in which she launched two major franchises (Twilight and Snow White and the Huntsman) by the age of 22. We’ve covered why before, and it’s one of the most egregious double standards Hollywood’s offered in recent years.

Hate Stewart if you want, but you’re missing one of the most dynamic shifts into independent film in recent history. She is slaughtering dramatic and comedic roles left, right, and center, finding the chemistry, timing, and emotional nuance that was drained from her characters in mainstream roles. With Camp X-Ray, Clouds of Sils Maria, Still Alice, and now American Ultra, she’s in the middle of an impressive two-year stretch. She’s good. She might even be great one day.

Eisenberg and Stewart sell this off-kilter material beautifully together. They believe in the movie’s reality so intensely, they cover up for many of the film’s seams. They’re assisted by comedy veterans like John Leguizamo as Mike’s drug dealer and Tony Hale as a C.I.A. agent torn in his loyalties.

If you watch American Ultra as a straight action movie or comedy, you’ll find it uneven. It’s a film you can’t take too seriously. If you watch it as a romance and a chance for two actors to power their way through a mash-up of a half-dozen genres, it may leave you touched and impressed.

American Ultra ends up doing many things that The Man from UNCLE couldn’t get right. The chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart is palpable. While their styles are vastly different, this film is more consistent and coherent. It’s a violent, occasionally comedic metaphor for the struggles we go through in opening up and learning to trust during relationships. On that level, it works beautifully and it can hit the heart in strange ways. If anything, it’s a sly update on a film like Grosse Pointe Blank, using spy movie tropes as a way of talking about the growing up we have to do in life.

In many ways, this is what I wish films like Kingsman: The Secret Service, Wanted, Pineapple Express, and Shoot ‘Em Up could have achieved: a reason for being. While they were focused on slick explosions and fancy choreography and other things I’ll admit I love, none of them left me thinking positively about them later that day. They were wastes of time and, though it lacks their level of polish, American Ultra is a better film with more heart than all of them combined. It even achieves that brief, “Look at what they make you give” moment better than The Bourne Ultimatum did (though that’s a better film in almost every other regard).

It won’t be for everybody, but for those willing to jump on a violent indie action comedy that would fit at home in the late 90s or early 00s, this is your cup of tea.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section uses the Bechdel Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film. Read why I’m including this section here.

Does American Ultra have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Kristen Stewart plays Phoebe. Connie Britton plays Lasseter. Monique Ganderton plays Crane. Other unnamed speaking roles include Rachel Wulff as a CNN reporter.

Do they talk to each other?

No. (They do help beat someone up together once, so there’s that.)

About something other than a man?

The question doesn’t apply if women don’t talk to each other in the film, but when they talk to men, they’re usually discussing the plot or plans about what to do next.

American Ultra could’ve and should’ve done a lot better here. Stewart gets the chance to talk to many supporting characters who are men, but none who are women. The movie simply fails here, and it’s not very consistent about how tough Stewart’s and Lasseter’s characters are.

Very minor changes could have made this film more balanced and more communicative between women. The world of the film is also overwhelmingly populated by men.

Topher Grace’s Yates is incredibly misogynist, to boot. While it’s fun to hate Topher Grace and it makes us want to see him get his comeuppance that much more, the movie relies on this facet as a shortcut to building a fairly thin villain.

It’s a problematic movie when it comes to the representation of women. As always, one can still like a movie that has problems of any sort, but being aware of and discussing those problems and why they exist is an important part of being a viewer. American Ultra needed to do better here.

Where did we get our awesome images? The feature image is from a Gizmodo piece. The in-article image is from Collider here.

Movies and how they change you.

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