Thursday, August 18, 2016

Sausage Misnomer: When a Movie Misses the Point

Comedy’s subjective. It’s specific to context, and it has to strike a chord with its intended audience. It also has to juggle the tightrope of being relevant and aggressive enough to stick, while simultaneously general enough to not be unhelpful. This is especially true for biting comedy, except this time there’s the additional obstacle of being offensive enough to remove people from their comfort zone, yet clever enough to not insult the wrong group in the process. In other words, comedy is tricky, and it can fail if delivered the wrong way or by the wrong person/group of people.

This leads to Sausage Party, a movie I recently saw and have mixed opinions on. Essentially, I’m amazed it functions at all. The concept was initially marketed like a direct-to-DVD movie, and not even a good one, and its trailers were horribly misrepresenting. It wasn’t until I looked at its R-rating that I began to take it seriously, and even then I was bewildered. Why would an animated movie in the West be R-rated? And who in their right mind would enjoy it?

To answer the second question, the reception speaks for itself. But outside of that, the movie definitely earns its R-rating. To give a general gist, Sausage Party takes place in a supermarket where food has sentience. They’re under the impression that the “gods”, aka humans, take them to “a better place”, when reality states otherwise. So when a lone hot dog discovers the truth, he makes it his mission to warn everyone that their utopia is a lie. This sounds like it could have potential commentary on how humans are the top predators and eat lower life-forms without thinking of the greater implications.

Before I go into my spoiler-filled analysis, I’d like to state right now that I did enjoy it. I got many laughs from its writing, even though 75% of its dialogue contains unneeded expletives, and it took advantage of its premise. The anti-PC stereotyping in the film didn’t bother me that much either, as, ignoring the fact that I usually think of computers, Canadian politics and a food brand when I hear “PC”, it makes fun of everyone equally. In other words, it’s hard to be offended when everyone's a target.

No, what really bothered me is the message. Remember how I said there’s potential as a commentary on humanity’s relationship with food? That’s not what it’s about. You’d think it’d be about that, what with the humans buying food, but nope! Instead, the movie uses this as an opportunity to comment on religion.

So we’re clear, I’m not against commenting on religion. It’s a layered subject with a lot of room for introspection and analysis. In the same breath, religion is frequently used a tool for oppressing and suppressing the masses by those in power, so criticizing that doesn’t bother me either. What I’m against is blanket critiques of religious institutions. It seems to be socially-acceptable to do that these days, and it annoys me because it fails to acknowledge nuance.

See, religion is complicated. Like any social structure, it exists to help maintain civility and order. It also gives the spiritual side of an individual, which does exist, an outlet to express itself in a controlled manner. It may seem like it comes with “needless” rules, and to an outsider I can see why that’d be, but those rules, like any other, are meant to maintain that order. I don’t even consider them rules, more like necessary guidelines.

I’m well-aware that religion can be and has been oppressive. It’s human, and like any human system, it’s prone to misuse and corruption. We’ve seen it through The Crusades, The Spanish Inquisition and the repression of LGBTQ groups in the US. Religion can be a weapon of harm, and it’s done a lot of damage throughout history. In that sense, I see why someone might be offset.

But it’s a tool that can be used for good in the right hands. I know that on the Jewish side, for instance, there are laws like those from harvesting, which are meant to help the poor and needy. When you harvest, you’re supposed to leave a corner of your field, and well as loose droppings and the odd grain you missed, for the poor, as it’s a reminder that the food you have isn’t really yours. It’s something people wouldn’t appreciate without a religious structure, and it, like many other “rules”, are actually somewhat brilliant. Religion is what you make of it, essentially.

Which is why Sausage Party’s message doesn’t sit well with me, as it attributes everything wrong with the world, even that which has no easy answers, to the shackles of religion: pedophilia? Religion’s fault. Bigotry? Religion’s fault. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict? You’d better believe it’s religion’s fault!

Here’s a secret: it’s not really. Pedophilia exists because people are aroused by children. Bigotry is based in ignorance. And the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can’t be explained without a formal lecture. None of these are inherently religion’s fault, because, again, religion is a tool that can be used for good or bad. To shirk the blame on something that’s, inherently, neutral, is…dishonest. Besides, people like Josef Stalin weren’t religious, and they were monsters too.

I’m not sure why this movie argues that anyone who’s religious is some repressed, horny jerk who’d blindly believe something toxic even if it doesn’t make sense. Sure, there are people who are like that, no doubt. But in my community alone, there are many religious individuals who are worldly, successful and incredibly happy with their lives. They’re not “repressed”, they’re the exact opposite.

There’s also a really over-the-top orgy scene in the finale that rubbed me the wrong way for that exact reason. Ignoring that this is most-likely why the film got an R-rating, it makes it look like religion holds you back form pleasure, and freeing yourself from it is natural and healthy. It trivializes sexuality, which is a natural and healthy part of the human condition, and that sort of extreme is more hedonistic than natural. I understand it’s supposed to be funny, but I was more wincing than giggling.

There’s also missed potential for a balanced argument with the human “gods”. They’re not given humanity, they’re monsters. Considering that humans eat food to survive, that’s doing them a disservice. I’d have liked to get into their heads more, instead of that one druggie who gets his head chopped off in the third-act. It’d have been interesting, clever and, above all, nuanced.

Ultimately, Sausage Party is another film that, like Life of Pi, over-trivializes religious beliefs to make a statement. Except that, unlike Life of Pi, it acts like religion is something to reject instead of something to collect. That not only bothers me a religious person, it also bothers me as an intelligent human being. Why make such a petty argument about something so complicated? What, are we 5 years-old?

But I digress. For all my faults, I did enjoy the film. Which is possible, seeing how art isn’t a science. You can enjoy something without agreeing with it. I simply wish Sausage Party recognized how juvenile its message is, instead of treating it like something profound. That, and not fanning the flames of ignorance and bigotry.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Suicide Bros.-The DCEU Conundrum

Good Lord!

So Suicide Squad finally was released in theatres. In a move many didn’t want, yet somewhat expected, it was panned by critics. This makes the third consecutive film in a row, right after Man of Steel and Batman VS Superman: Dawn of Justice, to be trashed, leaving little hope for the DCEU (that’s what DC’s franchise is being called) to gain traction against the juggernaut that’s Marvel. It’s also already caused backlash amongst die-hard fans, reviving the tinfoil hat conspiracy of reviewers being biased. But that’s something I’ve already covered.

So that we’re clear, I’m not a DCEU fan. I’ve never seen a DCEU movie in its entirety, nor do I intend to. The weird, aesthetic blend of Nolan’s Batman movies and DC comic books doesn’t mesh in my mind, and nothing I’ve seen has really convinced me otherwise. All the more upsetting because I’m a bigger fan of DC’s superheroes than Marvel’s, having grown up with the former through Saturday morning cartoons. But I digress.

What’s surprising about Suicide Squad is rumours of behind-the-scenes footage revealing that a major subplot involving Harley Quinn and The Joker’s relationship was cut to skirt questionable material. For those unaware, Harley Quinn was an Arkham Asylum psychologist who fell in-love with The Joker, to the point of assuming the guise of villainess to appease him. Their relationship has often been depicted as shaky, but amidst the rough patches it’s been stressed that the two do love each other, even having sex on numerous occasions. Harley’s path to villainy has been retconned and modified over the years, but that much has remained the same.

Before covering the deleted scenes, I should make it clear that the DCEU’s basing its origin of Harley Quinn off of the Nu52 run of comics that started several years ago. In them, Harley becomes crazy after being shoved into a vat of chemicals by The Joker. I don’t like this decision, as it robs her of her most-compelling aspect: choosing to become Harley Quinn. Up until Nu52, Harley became who she was because she wanted to, making her infatuation with The Joker, who was clearly abusive, all the more tragic. The “vat of chemicals” origin is lazy, but I guess laziness is canon now.

Anyway, the deleted scenes reveal a much larger presence of The Joker. Initially, The Joker was alleged to have shoved Harley into the vat of chemicals with the intention of killing her because he saw her as a cheap gag. After realizing that she’d survived, he dove in to rescue her. He then developed a psychological fascination for her, and he began treating her like his, to put it bluntly, “bitch”. It was only once she got arrested that he realized how much he needed her, so he began stalking her when she joined the Suicide Squad in an attempt to “win her back”.

Sound familiar? It’s because that’s similar to the relationship Jessica and Kilgrave had in Season 1 of Jessica Jones. In both cases, the two ladies were in abusive relationships with men who used them as pawns. In both cases, the two ladies broke free of their relationships as a result of outside circumstances. And in both cases, their former lovers became obsessed with them shortly afterward. There are differences between the two, Jessica wasn’t a psychologist thrown in chemicals who got arrested, but the underlying theme of abusive, stalker-like men controlling their lives is definitely a common link.

And yet, Warner Bros. axed this relationship, one that could’ve added layers to Harley Quinn, because the subtext was “inappropriate”. Instead, we’re left with scenes involving The Joker and Harley that appear and disappear so fast you’re left wondering where the missing reels went. That’s a shame. True, the missing footage might’ve been uncomfortable, but it’d have added meat to this clearly-emaciated film. It’d have been interesting, in other words.

It also would’ve probably helped Suicide Squad fare better critically. I doubt it’d have been by much, the behind-the-scenes complications speak for themselves, but it’d have at least given it a bit of an edge. I know that reshoots and cut material are commonplace in film, especially when there’s a studio agenda, but given that the DCEU is already struggling to gain traction after three movies…this seems less about necessity and more about asserting dominance. David Ayer would’ve been in a lose-lose situation regardless, but he’s not an idiot. Tampering with his vision for the sake of it is more harmful than helpful, especially when your “brand” is about promoting the “filmmaker’s vision”.

It also adds further concern over the future of the DCEU. Ignoring that Zack Snyder and David S. Goyer have already botched two movies, Suicide Squad being panned indicates that the problems with the DCEU are bigger than them. Suicide Squad was supposed to be David Ayer’s baby, and it failed despite containing two elements the previous films lacked: characters and humour. It also makes me less-than-hopeful for Wonder Woman, a film slated for next year, because I don’t trust Warner Bros. anymore. I don’t trust that they’ll respect Patty Jenkins’s vision for the titular Amazonian, nor am I hopeful the end-result will be good. I could end up being wrong, there’s always that, but it seems doubtful at the moment.

Finally, since this needs addressing, I’m aware that the MCU is a studio-driven franchise too, and that many people who’ve participated in it, be it directors, writers or actors, have come out frustrated by the lack of creative input. But I’m willing to let that slide because the head of that universe, Kevin Feige, knows what he’s doing. He has a clear goal, and so far it’s worked to his advantage. Until the DCEU proves that it knows what it’s doing, I’ll forever be turned off. It hurts to say that, but it’s true.