Tropes and absolute truths

Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth— Simone de Beauvoir

It might be a little early to be talking about Sicario: Day of the Soldado since it just opened this past weekend but that’s what I’m going to do. There might be spoilers for those who haven’t seen it yet. For those who don’t care about spoilers, keep on reading if you like.

I spent Friday night watching Sicario: Day of the Soldado. I enjoyed the first film, Sicario, so why wouldn’t I like the sequel. I did like the sequel. But it’s not without some issues.

I had heard about about the criticisms surrounding the film brought about by film critics of colour. We know that Hollywood/entertainment industry has a problem with representation on the silver screen and how people of colour (POC), women and the LGBTQ are portrayed on film. There is also a problem where the majority of film critics are white men.

Having found some Latino critics who saw the film, they all took issue with the portrayal of anybody who wasn’t white. Stereotypes and tropes were used to move the story forward. All stuff that I had heard before.

I’m not saying the film’s screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan can’t write because he can. An Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Hell or High Water proves that. Yes? No? He has worked hard to get where he is right now.

One film critic has said Sicario: Day fo the Soldado suffered from lazy writing. And I would have to agree. For example, the opening scene showed a terrorist illegally crossing the Mexico-U.S. border with other migrants. The initial premise was presented that the cartels are assisting terrorists get into the U.S. and that was the impetus for the film. It turns out this premise is a red herring. A couple of seemingly throw away remarks by Cynthia that two of the ‘terrorists’ were actually from New Jersey, makes the film’s opening scene kinda wasted. What we basically have is a film about the American government illegally operating in Mexico stirring up shit between the cartels for no legitimate reason. This action is not without consequences in the long term because this will increase the bloodshed in that country. America will never own up to instigating more blood being spilled in another country.

Way to go, U.S. government. Way. To. Go. Where the fuck are my pompoms?

The fact that the terrorists were home-grown and that it was dismissively swept under the rug in the film, mirrors the reluctance by a percentage of Americans who refuse to consider the idea of domestic terrorism.

It’s hard to say if this red herring was intentionally written by Sheridan. But the way the throwaway remarks were made by Cynthia makes one think they were inserted into the script to save a storyline that might have gotten out of hand in the writing process or during film production.

After I watched the film, I came across an analysis piece written by Isaac Butler for slate.com about Sheridan, who also wrote the first film, Sicario. To be honest, I agreed with everything in Butler’s analysis.

Some of the highlights from his analysis:

1) Sheridan’s lack of agency for his female characters (Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer, Catherine Keener’s Cynthia Foards and Isabela Moner’s Isabela Reyes) which plays into the idea that the male characters holding all the power and the knowledge of what was going on the two films.

Yes, Blunt’s character, Kate, was the lead in the first film but Kate always seemed to be a step behind and kept in the dark by Josh Brolin’s character Matt Graver. The character had a specific role, was a particular archetype within Sheridan’s narrative. Maybe it wouldn’t have been as noticeable Blunt’s character was portrayed by a male actor. But it is noticeable when the character is female. The politics of gender colours everything.

Keener’s character, Cynthia, is a representative from the CIA and supposedly carries some weight. Well, I think she’s from the CIA. I wasn’t quite clear on her position. A second viewing of the film would solve that problem. Anyway, her character seems to be nothing more a mouth piece for the President and when the shit seems close to hitting the fan, she is lumped with the task of administratively cleaning up the mess. Pretty much the men around her end up doing whatever they want.

Then we have Moner’s character, Isabela, the daughter of a cartel leader. Isabela showed a lot of spunk getting into a fight with another student at an all-girl private school. But after that, she’s a victim and a pawn in the game the CIA plays with the warring Mexican cartels. She’s an interesting character with not a of room to maneuver within the narrative.

2) Aside from the lack of agency for the female characters, POC don’t seem go beyond the tropes of criminals. Heck, even the white characters don’t seem to go beyond their assigned tropes either. Everyone is a little more than two dimensional but never really reaches three dimensional territory.

3) What does Sheridan’s America look like? As Butler puts it, Sheridan’s America is where “men do manly-man things.” A guy’s guy is another way of describing it. Any female protagonist in Sheridan’s screenplays is somehow sidelined by the men around her or is in need of their help because of some self-perceived weakness that they acknowledge to having. And we’re back to the issue of Sheridan’s female characters lacking agency.

After reading through Butler’s analysis, there are some things I’d like to say.

It’s pretty clear Sheridan is critical of the American government. And he tries to work in the grey area that exists between good and bad. But when you work with tropes, that grey area sometimes doesn’t get explored very well. Sheridan tries in Sicario. Any grey area he hints at or tries to touch on is mitigated by Kate’s lack of agency. The male characters lack grey area. del Toro’s Alejandro comes closest to being a complex character. His motivations for being a sicario are explained and his interactions with Kate are coloured by his motivations.

In my opinion, adherence to genre, stereotypes and tropes are part of the reason for the problems that exist in Sicario and Sicario: Day of the Soldado. But the second film suffers from a screenplay that quite doesn’t match up to the first film. I think it suffers too from the fact Denis Villeneuve, Emily Blunt and the late cinematographer Roger Deakins were not part of the production of the second film. There were moments that I thought were really interesting and thought-provoking. But the reliance on stereotypes and tropes in order to tell the story is problematic. I can’t stress that enough.

It’s stuff like this that motivates me to try to avoid in my own writing. I don’t know how successful I will be in avoiding it but I can certainly do my best to not fall into that rabbit hole.

Apparently, Sheridan had said that the screenplay for Sicario: Day of the Soldado wasn’t intended to be a sequel to the first film. It was supposed to be a standalone. But before the film hit theatres nationwide, there were stories reporting that the idea of a third film is being discussed, with Blunt returning to reprise her character, Kate Macer, to finish the trilogy.

Well, I have a few thoughts on the idea of a Sicario trilogy and if the third film is actually made.

1) If there is a trilogy, the final film must include the characters Isabela Reyes and Miguel Hernandez, the boy/man who is recruited by Alejandro to become a sicario at the end of the film. Given what the second film hints at as their fates, their individual story arcs need to be played out in the third film.

2) If Miguel returns (and the film certainly hints that we probably haven’t see the last of him), I would like to see how the relationship between Miguel and Alejandro has evolved from the second film to the third film. Are they still student and mentor? Are they working together? What are Alejandro’s motivations for taking Miguel under his wing to shape him into a sicario?

Considering how Miguel and Alejandro first lay eyes on each other and how it escalated to Miguel being forced to shoot Alejandro, it is interesting Alejandro is giving Miguel to the opportunity become a hitman. Does Alejandro know that Miguel was the one who shot him before he made the offer to show Miguel the ropes a year later? Hard to say how Alejandro would know this since those who knew Miguel was his ‘executioner’ are all dead. Does this become a surrogate father/son relationship? Depending on what both characters know about each other, this is a relationship that can end up being very good for the men or turn into a complete disaster. The interesting thing is both characters were inherently good men before cartels and gangs entered their lives and changed them. The potential of this relationship and how it will play intrigues me a lot.

3) What happens when Matt Graver discovers Alejandro survived his execution? Or does he know Alejandro is alive before the start of the third film? How will their relationship play out?

4) If Blunt returns, what is her narrative now? Will her character, Kate, finally have agency instead of questioning everything and being seemingly a step behind everybody she works with? Can she finally play the game everyone else is playing while inhabiting the ‘good guy’ archetype? Or maybe she’s not the ‘good guy’ anymore. Maybe Kate inhabits the grey areas between good and bad. The fluidity of changing sides is one of the most interesting ideas to explore and play with. This is why Kate’s character development from first film to third film could be so rich if written to take this direction. The potential for her character to become one of the most interesting and dynamic characters in the third film is limitless.

It’s clear that in Sheridan’s world, everybody is flawed. There are no outright good guys. But he still follows certain tropes. For the third film to succeed, not being a slave to archetypes and tropes, showing more complexity of the characters through subtext will be paramount.

There is a bit to unpack in the Sicario films. There is no denying the fact the screenplays were written by a white man. I don’t think that is a problem if the story and the characters are handled fairly. But, the definition of ‘handled fairly’ can be subjective. Maybe we need to understand Sheridan’s perception of the world. Or maybe not. But it is a specific kind of world Sheridan puts down on paper. It is a world where men’s experiences and views of the world are taken as absolute truths. From those absolute truths is a particular viewpoint with regards to women and POC. That viewpoint will rub some people the wrong way. As a storyteller, it really is impossible to make everybody happy. You just tell your story no matter what.

It’s also a given that that particular viewpoint can (and usually does) go against having an honest representation of those whose skin colour is not white. We all have our own viewpoints and truths. But one specific viewpoint should not always repeatedly be presented as the absolute truth.

Revisiting youthful obsession

It’s hard to get hot over a painting; there’s no equivalent for teenage obsessiveness. Art obsession is ideology. Ideology can be made sexy but it’s easier in music — Kim Gordon

My latest obsession is listening to Gaby Moreno perform the Spanish version of Blondie’s classic, Call Me.

The song isn’t available to download until this Friday (April 28) which is also the same day the movie How to be a Latin Lover — a comedy starring Eugenio Derbez and Salma Hayek — hits theatres in the U.S. The song was recorded for the film.

And since I don’t have Moreno’s version to listen to any time I damn well want, I’ll listen to the Spanish version Blondie did for their 1993 album Blonde and Beyond. I didn’t know they did a Spanish version until Moreno mentioned it in an interview regarding her interpretation of the classic.

This also goes to show you how long it’s been since I last kept track of the band. I was in my 20s figuring out what the fuck to do with my life so childhood heroes and inspirations were tucked away in the back of the mind. I’m still figuring out what the fuck I’m doing with my life. Hasn’t changed at all.

Anyway, I have the bloody song looped. I’m listen to it at home, in the shower, in the car… before I go to sleep. Maybe after I listen to it a thousand times, I’ll be fine. Of course, once I get Moreno’s version onto my playlist, the madness will continue. If you must, ignore the cheesy image that comes with the link to the song. Punch up the volume and give ‘er:

Unfortunately, I’m a little miffed. I can’t seem to find a Canadian release date for the film. April 28 is the U.S. release date. I’ve read somewhere the film might start off in limited release on the same day here in the land of poutine and Prairie skies before going nationwide.

Right now, I don’t see a upcoming listing of it for the local theatres. Heck, I didn’t even see it in the theatre trailers the last time I watched a feature film. Arrgh. Seriously, I want to see this film. I suppose my other option is to wait and see if it’ll show up on Netflix. Maybe I’ll resign myself to that for now. But, iTunes had better have Moreno’s Call Me available for download this Friday. Hell, I’ll download the entire soundtrack.

Now, that I’m done ranting (I think), I should explain that Blondie is the first band whose music I avidly listened to in my formative years. Parallel Lines was the first album I bought with my accumulated allowance. I might have played that album to death. I also might have bought a second copy because something happened to the first. Then their next album, Eat to the Beat, was quickly added to my one-album collection. Then I heard Call Me.

I never saw American Gigolo, simply because I was twelve at the time. I knew what a gigolo was but it wasn’t a solid enough reason for me to sneak into a movie theatre to watch it. My hormones weren’t raging yet and even if they did, I still wouldn’t have been interested enough to see what the scuttlebutt was over the film. I think it might have had something to do with Richard Gere. I don’t know. I just remember there was a fuss about him when the movie came out. Maybe I should try to find a copy of the film and watch it, once and for all (oh hey, it’s on iTunes. I know what I’ll be doing this week). But fuck, I loved that song. I’d dance around and lip-synch to Call Me. Yep, I did that shit. I’ll admit it.

Now that Call Me is back in obscenely heavy rotation on my iPod/iPhone, I’m back to lip-synching, in English and in Spanish, and jumping around the kitchen like a 12-year-old without a care in the world. Just living in the moment.

Call Me, without a doubt, is my favourite Blondie tune of all time. The Hardest Part is a very close second.

One of the things I love about them is how experimental their music was and how they never stuck to one style of music. There was punk, pop, disco and hip-hop all thrown together without a concern what anyone else thought of them. What they did seemed completely normal to me (this probably explains some of my creative and artistic endeavours — past and present). If there were debates about the different musical styles they dipped their collective toes in, I never heard it. And that was because I was too young to care or get caught up in those kinds of conversations. The fact the band recorded a French version of Sunday Girl is beyond cool. When I heard there was a French version of the song, I had to listen to it. I wasn’t aware of anyone else on my radar doing what they were doing. Not that I was geeking out in that way at the time.

Their latest album, Pollinator, is scheduled to drop May 5 and the scuttlebutt is it’s their best album in years. Definitely looking forward to listening to it.

Another thing I love about the band is Debbie Harry. She was my first female role model, outside of my mother. When the band broke out with Parallel Lines, Harry wasn’t a neophyte 20-something singer. She was in her early 30’s and to look at her, you wouldn’t know it. Yes, she is photogenic as fuck. Still a striking woman at 71. Yep, that’s how old she is right now. She has always understood and embraced her sexuality. She has never hesitated to flaunt it as the band’s front woman.

But I have always loved her voice. I love how she throws in a little sass and attitude into her vocals and how she phrases a lyric. Aside from being a singer, she’s an actor, a lyricist and a philanthropist. Regardless of the success or failures of her creative endeavours, she has always done things her way.

To be honest, she was my first woman/girl-crush.

The one thing you would never describe her as, is delicate. In my eyes, she has always been badass. And is still a badass. It’s one of the reasons, if not the MAIN reason I love and respect the woman. She led by example for me. She still leads by example.

I guess my goal, subconsciously, has always been to be a badass. Not sure how well that’s working, but I’m gonna keep trying, in my own little way. And I won’t stop trying.

Well, I better get back to blaring some music and not giving a shit.

Popcorn for breakfast? Maybe not

The force is with me, and I am one with the force — Chirrut Îmwe (played by Donnie Yen), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story 

Last Friday, after getting to bed after 3 am, I hauled my ass out of bed to see the 10:30am showing of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in IMAX 3D. Wasn’t too difficult getting out of bed since I couldn’t wait to get to the theatre.

I’m not much of a fan of 3D, probably because the last time I saw anything in 3D in a movie was a few years ago and it really didn’t leave me wanting to experience it again. But since we’re talking about a film from the Star Wars universe, why not go see it in 3D. I was surprised to discover it wasn’t bad at all. I’m not sure if all films shown in 3D are created equal or if the quality of the 3D technology is still dependent on the technology provider the movie company hired to do the work.

Nonetheless, I still prefer to watch a film without the 3D effects. It’s still a bit gimmicky to me. Still don’t see how 3D makes for a more pleasurable viewing experience over your standard 2D experience.

What’s even stranger was to see fellow movie goers buying popcorn, candy and sugary beverages at 10am. Breakfast food? For those with high metabolisms, I’m guessing popcorn and candy for breakfast is a viable option. Thankfully, the ratio between Starbucks coffee and pop beverages being carried into the theatre was pretty even. I had breakfast before arriving at the theatre so stomaching hot buttered popcorn wasn’t all that enticing. I consider popcorn a late night indulgence. But I did pick up a chai tea latte. I love tea lattes. So yummy.

Okay… so what did I think of Rogue One? Two words — fucking awesome. Best movie in the Star Wars universe. And I’m not backing down from that statement. I was stunned. I was speechless. And yeah, I was a little emotional. Not in the theatre, though, because I was too overwhelmed by what I saw. The emotional stuff came after I started properly processing what I saw which was just before I went to sleep that night. That also coincided with my brain finally leaving the movie theatre and scampering back into my head. I’m still processing it, to be honest.

It’s taken the entire weekend to recover from it, but it still reverberates with me on an entirely level from Moonlight. Moonlight is one of a kind. It reverberates with me of entirely different reasons. As far as I’m concerned, both movies co-mingle in my thoughts very comfortably.

The way I see it, Star Wars films are not known for its ability to intentionally make the viewer feel bereft considering the protagonists are usually left still standing at the end of the movie (minus a limb or two). Although, having Han Solo die in Star Wars: The Force Awakens did rile a number of fans. But in defence of the writers — Larry Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt — to move a story along, something has to happen and usually that means someone dies or the stakes get higher. Sometimes, they are one and the same. That’s an important part of storytelling. Besides, Harrison Ford thought Han should have died in The Return of the Jedi because he thought his character had outlived its purpose in the trilogy. The suggestion was pitched to George Lucas. Obviously, he nixed the idea. His story, his film, right?

I think it’s pretty clear in Star Wars: A New Hope (aka Episode IV), the Death Star plans were stolen by rebels who had given their lives to the cause and that Princess Leia was the one link to those rebels. Yeah, I might be going into spoiler territory here. I think it’s safe to say most fans believe the most likely and obvious outcome for the characters in Rogue One is that they die. But it doesn’t stop fans from becoming very attached to Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor, K-2SO, Bodhi Rook, Baze Malbus, Chirrut Îmwe and yes, Director Orson Krennic.

And for those who read James Luceno’s Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel before the movie opened, they got to discover the history between Krennic and Jyn’s parents, Galen and Lyra Erso. It also shed some light on the antagonistic relationship between Krennic and Grand Moff Tarkin, as well. I don’t think Tarkin was a Grand Moff back then. More like admiral, perhaps? It was either that or a rung or two lower. I read the book (finished it the day before I saw the movie) and it’s interesting to be informed of the backstory between Krennic and the Ersos, and Krennic and Tarkin, before seeing the movie. It made watching the film a slightly different experience from that of someone who hadn’t read the book. It also made me despise Tarkin all the more after the the film ended.

In interviews leading up to the film’s release, Diego Luna (Capt. Cassian Andor) said that Rogue One is the most grounded film in the Star Wars universe. And that is why I’m so taken with this film. Because it’s not part of a trilogy. It’s not a space opera. No jedis, except for Darth Vader and his appearances are limited since he isn’t the focus of the film. It’s a war movie with a heist thrown in. Because it’s a war movie, the idea of sacrifice is ultimately in your face. Sacrifice means the idea of a happy ending for your new favourite characters probably won’t happen. And for some that may be too close to real life… that lack of a happy ending. But sacrifice leads to hope. And that is all the Rebellion has with the stolen Death Star plans before we move to Star Wars: A New Hope.

I’d rather watch a movie where sacrifice leads to hope at the end of a movie over a movie with the typical happy ending. Happy endings are a dime a dozen. I prefer movies that make you think long after you’ve watched it. I love that Rogue One subverts what one has come to expect from a movie coming out of the Star Wars universe. Director Gareth Edwards and writers Chris Weitz (screenplay), Tony Gilroy (screenplay), John Knoll (story) and Gary Whitta (story) did a fantastic job telling the story about the unsung heroes, the rebels who risked everything to give hope to a rebellion.

I love the fact the nameless rebels originally mentioned in Star Wars: A New Hope finally have names. They are now canon in the Star Wars universe. And what I would like to happen in either Episode VIII or Episode XI, is to hear Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor and the rest of their ragtag team mentioned with respect and reverence from someone like Princess/General Leia, perhaps. A detail like that would be a huge thrill for fans. I know I would be thrilled to hear their names and know that they were not forgotten.

Needless to say, I’ll be watching Rogue One again. Two more times this week and without the 3D effects. Maybe I’ll finally get around to eating some hot buttered popcorn, too.