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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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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…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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