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“Monsters” and the Question of Context in Criticism

“Monsters” and the Question of Context in Criticism (photo)

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I was a guest on this week’s /Filmcast, where I joined regular co-hosts David Chen, Devindra Hardawar, and Adam Quigley to discuss Gareth Edwards’ indie monster movie “Monsters.” I always have fun chatting with the /Filmcasters, but I thought this episode was especially thought-provoking. At least it was for me; half a week later, I’m still mulling over the issues we raised, in particular the question of context in criticism.

Context was already on my mind while I was watching “Monsters.” From a technical perspective, the film is a marvel: expansive without being expensive, made for well under a million dollars by a tiny crew (Edwards himself did all of the film’s numerous alien special effects on his own computer using off-the-shelf software). It presents a creative and convincing post-apocalyptic world where aliens have landed, taken control of the area around the US-Mexico border, and human life has, rather believably, picked up the pieces and moved on. The same way you glance at images of war atrocities on CNN then go out to Dunkin Donuts for a cup of coffee, the people in “Monsters” just carry on their lives ignoring the “creatures” as long as they possibly can.

All that stuff is great, but the movie, from my perspective, isn’t perfect. In telling a really unorthodox monster movie, Edwards wound up making a fairly orthodox mismatched lovers road trip movie — “It Happened One Night” set in the world of “Cloverfield.” The dialogue is trite and the relationship between the main characters is unconvincing. As remarkable as the world of “Monsters” is, the film set in that world isn’t particularly compelling.

Thinking all of this as I was watching the film, I began to wonder: to what degree do the flaws “Monsters” deserve a pass simply because of the ingenuity of its creators? How much does how a movie was made affect what a movie is? If “Monsters” had cost $30 million dollars — and the movie looks so good, you could believe that it might — would we be less forgiving of its flaws?

The topic of the world outside the frame’s influence on the world inside it came up on The /Filmcast before we even got to “Monsters.” During the show’s news segment, we discussed the trailer for Mel Gibson new film “The Beaver,” which is about a man who has a mental breakdown and starts speaking to people through a beaver puppet he finds in the garbage. I thought it was interesting how the trailer seemed to hint at Gibson’s real life problems, and to speak to a potential audience’s desire to see him redeemed cinematically. Adam Quigley disagreed:

“I always find it kind of unfortunate when actors’ outside lives start to factor in to how people perceive them onscreen. I really wish you could just separate those two things… I want to be able to watch [a] movie completely separate from that outside context and just be able to appreciate it as a story about this guy.”

I understand what Adam is saying. Plenty of movies never get the fair shake they deserve because of infamous events that surround their production or scandals linked to their stars. Before it was ever released “Proof of Life” was notorious as the film that broke up Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid’s marriage, and the fact that Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, then a real life couple, were appearing together nude in “Eyes Wide Shut” dominated the early conversation about Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” a movie that’s worth watching for a lot more than the nudity.

But on the other hand, watching a movie “completely separate from that outside context” can also limit our understanding of it. It’s hard to fully appreciate the impact and importance of “On the Waterfront” without knowing the culture that produced it, or the personal experiences director Elia Kazan confronted during the HUAC investigation. “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” stands alone as a marvelous Western, but it stands even taller when watched in concert with the earlier films from director John Ford whose philosophies it examines and critiques. Arguably, the later dissolution of Cruise and Kidman’s marriage makes the marital difficulties they play out in “Eyes Wide Shut” even more fascinating to watch.

Mel Gibson won’t be the first guy to play a role with eerie echoes of his own personal problems, either. Just next week Stephen Dorff plays a actor adrift in his own success in Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere.” I don’t know that Robert Siegel wrote “The Wrestler” for Mickey Rourke, but his own career travails only intensified the character’s heartache. Part of what makes Robert Downey Jr. so perfect to play Tony Stark in the “Iron Man” films is the fact that Downey Jr. has lived Stark-ishly at times in own his life. And I don’t think it’s as simple as “these guys have led lives similar to their characters and that’s kind of fun to point out.” I think it’s “these guys have led lives similar to their characters, which they draw on in order to give rich and personal performances.”

In the case of “Monsters,” I think our review of the film was fair. The film has strengths and weaknesses, and I don’t think the extraneous matters surrounding the former compel you to simply ignore the latter. You don’t need to see other Ford films to dig “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” You might need to know about its production history to really love “Monsters” (if you don’t believe me, read the online comments from viewers who clearly didn’t know much about the movie outside its trailer and were disappointed by the film).

I can also think of examples where you might need to not know a movie’s context to really enjoy it; Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” is a charming movie about determination, pluck, and the love of moviemaking but it’s got very little to do with the realities of Wood’s real life. If you hear how Wood’s career really ended — destitute, alcoholic, making porn — you might not enjoy Burton’s movie quite as much. But that brings up the subject of whether a biopic has an obligation to the truth, and that’s a whole other can of worms.

Context can be a sticky thing. Important in some cases, a nuisance in others. Its implications can be crucial. Or they can be monstrous.

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Final Countdown

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…