Review: Wind River

Wind River
Release: 2017
Genre: Crime Thriller
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Rating: R
IMDb Score: 7.7/10

Wind River is not your typical “white outsider” film. The first thing it does with its white characters is basically make them NPCs or extras to the Native community as a whole. They are not saviors, they are not the ultimate enemy, nor are they the guiding hand dictating the story. Even though the film follows Elizabeth Olsen’s and Jeremy Renner’s white characters, they are only tools for the Native community to use.  The FBI agent Jane Banner (Olsen) is not a “Cherokee Princess” and has no prior ties to the Wyoming Reservation.  She is just a rookie who is doing her best to solve the case that lands in her lap.  Cory Lambert (Renner), however does have ties to Wind River through his ex-wife and by his day job as a game tracker.  He is neither a celebrity nor a nemesis, but rather a familiar face who occasionally provides a service to the community.

The second thing Wind River does right is the choice of crime.  A missing person’s case is something that can happen in any community, and that broaden’s the film’s appeal.  A reservation is similar to other close-knit towns, it does not turn into a mystical village just because a certain ethnic group lives there.  That being said, while missing persons are a non-unique crime, it disproportionately affects indigenous women.  There is even a Wikipedia article solely on that issue.  Therefore there is both broad appeal and a call to attention on a social issue.  Wind River‘s message is both about finding vengeance and peace on your own terms, and is about how the system fails those who need it most.  The scope is both societal and personal.  Every other motif covered falls into one category or the other.

When watching this film I was reminded of Louise Erdrich’s The Round House and Tony Hillerman’s mysteries with Detective Leaphorn and Officer Chee (as shown in American Mystery! Specials by PBS).  These come to mind as crime thrillers set on Native American Reservations.  There is a blend of cop procedural with the cultural flavor that comes from the represented nation.  What it does not remind me of is Thunderheart (1992), which is too overt in trying to erase white guilt or show Natives with a white lens, even with a “Native” protagonist.  I feel Wind River shows people who have to fight everyday to keep what they have and are tired of fighting, but that they are people instead of “them”.  Wind River is a film about the difficulties of solving a crime that the government does not care about in a community that the government also does not care about.  In my opinion, I think that more films like Wind River need to be made, both in the Native American community and diverse communities elsewhere:  a genre film that just happens to include a cultural element. -NicoleMV5BMTUyMjU1OTUwM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDg1NDQ2MjI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_

Advertisements

Sound Design: A breakdown

I love to watch film critique YouTube videos, but I found that they were lacking in talking about anything other than cinematographic or storytelling elements of film.  Film scores are covered in droves, but that is not the only element that makes up the sound of films.  I thought I would deconstruct different sound design elements (including the musical aspects), and share some of my favorite examples in the meantime.

Sound Design Concept

The way a film sounds is more than just the music.  Yes, the soundtrack is a big element, but how that layers with the dialog and sound effects creates at atmosphere that can either compliment or juxtapose the visuals.  In Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) directed by Sergio Leone, Ennio Morricone’s score is sparse and haunting when following our harmonica stranger, and through the sound effects the outlaw gang is viscerally antsy swatting flies while the creaking of the rusty windmill cycles on.  In more emotional scenes the score becomes more orchestral.  Altogether we get a picture of a dusty, crude landscape with a variety of characters who pass through, either fitting in or standing out.  You can almost close your eyes and still get the same experience as the film itself (not to belittle the beautiful landscapes).  This is what sound can do.

Music Composition

Generally when people think about film soundtracks the music is the first thing that pops up.  There are tons of lists and many arguments over the best original scores and best soundtracks.  Everyone knows at least one film composer’s name or has a favorite film soundtrack.  The Lord of the Rings series directed by Peter Jackson has a gorgeous orchestral score that compliments his epic masterpiece at every move.  Here is Howard Shore’s composition introducing the industrial Isengard and Gandalf’s escape.

Music Mixing

Now that the score is composed, how does it fit in with what is going on screen.  Is it in the world of the film (diegetic) or is it purely for the audience’s emotional benefit?  Music mixing is similar to its non-film counterpart, but the stylistic choices are made to benefit visuals instead of being in its own sealed world.  This example is from The Blues Brothers (1980) directed by John Landis and with John Strauss as the music editor.  Here we have the lines blurred between the in world music and the idealized version of the music, and while we are sometimes fully in Cab Calloway’s head, we also are following our two protagonists’ antics.

Music Orchestration

Nearly every composition in film begins with a “sketch”, or a melody idea.  From there it needs to be fleshed out:  counter melodies added, harmonies assigned to various instruments, and motifs added representing characters or moods.  John Williams is a master of this, so here is the main theme to Harry Potter in different incarnations.  Think about why different instruments were used or why the mood changes between films.

Location Sound vs. ADR

Location sound is sound that is recorded on set during the main shooting of the film.  The main focus is dialog, but other sounds such as background noise are recorded too.  This scene from Hugo (2011) directed by Martin Scorsese is shot as a long take that winds through the set, and following close behind the camera is the boom operator capturing the relevant conversations, all without making any sound themselves.  What a dance it is.

ADR stands for automatic dialog replacement.  When location sound is filled with unwanted noise, then the actors come in during post-production and re-record their lines with the same diction and cadence as before.  Voice-acting and narration can are similarly recorded.  In this scene from Glory (1989) directed by Edward Zwick, there is no way on a windy beach that that dialog would be legible.  Instead the dialog is edited to fit the idea of the scene, with the chant loud and the dialog quietly personal.

Sound Mixing vs. Sound Editing

Sound mixing and sound editing are two categories that are usually paired together during Awards Season.  Either the same film wins both, or judges cannot decide between two films and divy up the awards to two close contenders.  They are really two different animals, which is why they are two different departments on larger film productions.

Sound mixing is how different components of sound relate to each other in the same period of time:  their stereo image or panning (where in the room are these sounds playing), and their volume (how loud or quiet these sounds are to each other).  There is more to it than this, but for the layperson this is sufficient for understanding.  Dunkirk (2017), directed by Christopher Nolan and with the sound mixing done by Mark Weingarten (and a whole crew of sound effects recording mixers and mix stage engineers).  has great examples of sound mixing.  In this first scene we have the first dogfight which is mainly sound effect driven.  The pilot starts confident and focused and he only hears the sounds in his cockpit and the sounds from his radio, but as the other plane evades and the light shines in his eyes we feel tension as the sound effects get quieter and the musical drone tones grab our attention.  This balance is restored at the end of the fight and draws our attention to the silence from the radio.

The next example, while also a dogfight, starts with a different balance of tension and focus, and the balance between the music, ambience, and sound effects changes to reflect that.  Note how the two scenes feel different, even though the basic structure of the scenes are similar.

Sound editing is where sound design elements are placed in time and how they interact with each other chronologically.  This is where comedies and horror films shine with their play on action and reaction.  Get Out (2017), directed by Jordan Peele and with sound supervising editor Trevor Gates (and a crew of sound effects editors) is a mix of both of these and relies on a sound cue as a particular character’s calling card.  The scene I chose is the introduction of this cue, and it is the amount of sound verses silence that shows the initial tension in the scene.  Then when the spoon scraping the teacup is revealed as the “focus point,” then the sound effects are under the control of the hypnotist and not the real world.

Sound Effects

Sound effects are what make the visuals feel real in a film.  A good sound effect often goes unnoticed, but a bad sound effect is jarring and unsettling.  Comedy and horror, once again, bring attention to sound effects when playing with expectations.  Snatch (2000) directed by Guy Ritchie and Sound Design by Matthew Collinge already brings attention to the incompetent thieves, the sound is just icing on the cake.  With the diamond invisible, how can the audience keep track of it?  The dog has an idea.

Sound effects do not just have to be for gags or scares, they can be the score in their own right.  In The Godfather (1972) directed by Francis Ford Coppola and sound effects editing by Howard Beals, the already perfect score was not used in this key scene.  Instead all of the tension felt in the main character is manifested by the diegetic sounds of the train.

Foley

There is a subcategorization for sound effects, and that is foley.  These sounds occur when the actors interact with the scene, they are footsteps and body movements.  Early foley artists were referred to as “steppers”, although that term was not one of endearment.  Foley effects can show intimacy between characters, like in the bath scene in The Handmaiden (2016) directed by Chan-wook Park and Jung-ho Lee as the sound effects editor (part of a relatively small sound department).  This scene is of the two main characters realizing their growing affection for each other, which we feel through the little sounds of the sucking of the lollipop and bath water splashing.  The real subtlety is from the thimble rubbing on the tooth.

 

There are many other films that I enjoy the sound on, and I want to share them all.  I might get to that eventually.  Hopefully this answered your questions on film sound.

 

 

Rogue One: The Perfect Star Wars Side Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Director: Gareth Edwards
Release: 2016
Genre: Sci-Fi
Rating: PG-13
IMDb Score: 7.8/10

 

The original trilogy of Star Wars is arguably the most iconic sci-fi franchise in film history.  Using the classic plot-line of the hero’s journey to show us a rivalry between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire in a vast galaxy.  Even though we travel to multiple planets and showcase epic battles in open space, we only see a small portion of the Star Wars universe.  Our main characters directly interact with both factions leadership, and we are restricted to following these characters, but since the Empire is known to be vastly powerful and the Rebellion is still a force to be reckoned with, who supports either side? There must be planets who supply resources to each faction, and smaller organizations that fit into their respective hierarchies.  This is where I believe Rogue One fits in.  As a note of warning, there are spoilers and I will be focusing on the film franchise over the novelizations.

Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) is the leader of a small group of insurgants that is allied with the Rebellion, without actually falling under its main leadership.  Under his care is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) who is abandoned as a child when her father is held captive by the Empire and her mother is killed in the crossfire.  Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) invites Imperial wrath when he abandons his post as an Imperial scientist after a change of heart.  With all of the world that Star Wars builds it is still jarring to see anyone from the Empire as human.  There might be one person from each rank that we are allowed to see compassion from, and here we see something even rarer.  Galen Erso no longer wants to support the Empire, but he knows if he escapes, then someone else will take his place.  This choice is something that would happen in a world with such a divide, as it happens in our own world (see Einstein during World War II), but there are a lack of these choices in Star Wars.  Heroes often have a black and white choice that might be difficult for their character, but only on a superficial level, and generally there is only one choice that is morally right.  Neither choice is “right” for Galen, but he choses the one that is right based on what he knows at the time.

Jyn Erso’s story is also set in the confluence of the Empire and the Rebellion.  She lives for herself, and rejects both of her father figures:  Galen who is the imperfect manifestation of the Empire, and Saw who is the imperfect manifestation of the Rebellion.  Her eventual acceptance of both creates a grey area that the Star Wars universe needs.  She ends up helping the Rebellion, because they align with her beliefs, and not because she believes in the Jedi.  Even though Jyn’s mother (Valene Kane) was a follower of the Church of the Force and gave Jyn a kyber crystal as a parting gift, Jyn was not shown to be religious and the crystal had other significance to her.

However, religion is shown elsewhere in Rogue One.   Guardians of the Whills is introduced as a new religious order with Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) as its main practitioner.  This is the first religion we see that is loosely tied to the force, but does not rely on the Jedi themselves.  Here it is suggested that there are people who can channel the force through them to enhance without having full blown superpowers.  Zama-shiwo is the martial arts practiced by the Guardians and recalls Donnie Yen’s other roles, but is useful in showing nuance in the force.  Everyone cannot be the chosen one, right?

Finally Rogue One shows the importance of sacrifice and of failure.  In a mission with many criminals and unseasoned soldiers, perfection is unattainable.  Each step of their journey is filled with setbacks, changes of plans and tests of faith.  No Han Solo (Harrison Ford) blind luck or Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) plot armor saves our team.  This is the true stakes of a war movie, where our heroes are truly the everyman.  There is a very real possibility of losing, and even though we know that they do succeed in the end from the original trilogy, this film still pulls the rug on us with the end.  We have the ultimate sacrifice of people we care about, some of whom are young and could give more, but instead become martyrs in a fight they only recently adopted.

If I had to choose only 4 Star Wars films to have ever, I would choose the original trilogy and Rogue One.  Stylistically they are a matched set (coloring, swipe effects, beautiful cinematography), and they cover a similar set time period.  Together they have the story of good triumphing over evil, and the sacrifices made along the way.  There is a complete world with the leaders of both sides and the people caught in between.  The whole cast of all four films is a diverse collection of characters and viewpoints.  More than Alderaan, Rogue One gives me a reason to care about the Rebel Alliance.

Chirrut_Îmwe_prepares_to_fight_Stormtroopers

 

What’s so special about Netflix Stand-up Comedy?

If you are anything like my household, figuring out what to watch on any given day is a chore. Do I watch an old favorite? Or how about a new release? Am I really invested in that TV show? When all of these answers are ‘no’ it is time to look for a different platform of watchable media: the Comedy Special. Stand-up comedy in the United States is mainly dominated by straight white men. I am saying this as an observation, and as a way to establish what is considered the baseline for the human experience as presented to the viewing public. Through their comedy we are familiar with anecdotes of uptight wives/girlfriends, breakups, rejection, and how society is every malignant trope of your freshman philosophy course. There is nothing wrong with that, but the purpose of my hypothetical search is for fresh and new. Netflix delivers with it’s Comedy Specials.

I was first introduced to these in the early 2010’s when my friend showed me Russell Peters: Notorious (2013). For those who are unfamiliar, Peters is a Canadian of Indian descent and uses this as a focus of his comedy. For a moment he allowed me to step into his shoes and see through his eyes at how India was foreign to him, but important as well. Netflix has a collection of Specials that touch on the immigrant and non-white experience in the United States. In Trevor Noah: Afraid of the Dark (2017), Noah covers the way people speak both in accented English and their mother tongues. The majority of Americans are monolingual, but his delivery is more paraverbal and he provides translations to allow the whole audience to experience his punchlines. Intertwined with the laughs are stories of the strength of his mom, who suffered from racist South Africa. From growing up in a Texas border town Cristela Alonzo addresses the ways immigrant mothers provide the best they can for their children, even if they are not perfect. Her Special, Cristela Alonzo: Lower Classy, also recounts the internalized racism when she dreams to be a maid of her teenage idol. Racism is a common thread, because these Specials are so personal. Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King uses this motif too, but his story conquers it with love instead of hate. Hate is at the core of Hannah Gadsby: Nanette. While it festers and destroys, she shows us how it wounds and distorts all of us. She informs us why comedy might be a bandaid instead of a needed tourniquet. Not all of Netflix’s Specials cut as deep at Gadsby’s and Minhaj’s, some take a spin at more common experiences. Ali Wong provides her own guide to pregnancy and motherhood for the non-Mrs. Cleavers. She has not one, but two Specials where she is visibly pregnant: Ali Wong: Baby Cobra (2016) and Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife (2018). And for those willing to put on subtitles for a more visual comic is Augustín Aristarán: Soy Rada. This Argentine, better known as Radagast, is a younger brother who throws in his sibling rivalry between feats of magic, music, and physical comedy.

Netflix’s Comedy Specials are worth watching for their diverse humor, but also their humanity. They educate by making you laugh, but also by making you uncomfortable. Netflix, in it’s push for more original content is making us the winners. No other channel has the breadth and depth of comics. Here I mentioned my favorites, but current and classic stars also fill their roster. Also there are more in languages other than English, and many of these are on my watch list. So next time you are in a browsing loop, check out a Comedy Special. -Nicole

The Iconoclasts of 9 to 5

9 to 5
Release Date: 1980
Director: Colin Higgins
Genre: Comedy
Rating: PG
IMDb Score: 6.7/10

Last week I watched feminist classic 9 to 5 for the first time. What took me so long? The main stars Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton are even going to reunite for a sequel (they are old enough to be my grandmothers). Really. I hesitated, because I was worried. As the original is from the ’80’s I thought it would be dated and myopic on the issues of middle class white women. It was surprising to see three well written characters (thanks in no small part to co-writer Patricia Resnick) be able to both have agency and the ability to make mistakes, not to mention the social reform concepts promoted in the background. I want to explore Judy Bernly (Fonda), Doralee Rhodes (Parton), and Violet Newsted (Tomlin) in how they buck tropes and expectations.

We are introduced to “Consolidated,” the company’s moniker, through Judy Bernly, a recent divorceé, who is a new hire to the mega-firm. Judy stands out in a bright blue dress and white wide-brimmed hat, she is a fish out of water. She admits to only having experience as a housewife, but is determined to not flounder in her new role. Fonda gives Judy more than just the expected naive incompetence. Judy begins as a timid, well meaning goody goody, but grows in confidence and skill to become the solid foundation for the trio. We learn that Judy’s initial bumbling meekness comes from her sheltered marriage to a cocky ex husband who cheated on her to reaffirm his own masculinity. As Judy learns to stand on her own at “Consolidated,” she also begins to stand up for herself against her ex. Her strength is her perception and her confidence. During their social revolution she rights her previous wrongs: asking about salaries got her coworker fired. This same coworker complains about the need for childcare and part-time hours, these become new benefits as well.

Doralee is Dolly. Buxom and blonde paired with her Tennessee drawl, everyone discounts her as a born yesterday floozy. Instead she is level headed, clever, and loyal. She know the power play in the office and lets just enough slide to keep her position without compromising her morals. Because of her proximity to the boss, and the liberties she is given to complete tasks as a secretary. She is the one that makes things happen in our dream team. Her compassion is both her gift and her curse. Doralee’s contributions to the revolution are the forged signatures and access to the boss’s finances. I also feel that the relaxing of the desk decor regulations was her crusade. Not to mention the film’s title song could be considered canon, based on the post-film “Where are they now” segment.

Violet, no doubt is the leader, a widowed mother of four (as far as I can tell) who has been the backbone of “Consolidated” longer than her current boss. In fact, it was her accomplishments that gave him his rise to power. She is too focused on her life to be too bitter. She is not the uptight power suit dominatrix, instead she is an ally to those who need it. This is socialism for all, instead of just white working women. During the revolution the mail-clerk who gets passed over for promotions (hint: his skin color) finally works at a desk, and there are policies put in place that employ differently-abled people. These policies help herself as well with the obvious childcare and flexible work hours. And every policy change she pushes has the productivity numbers in support. Violet’s efficiency and practicality comes out of necessity. Her work-family balance is a work of art. She is there for her kids, but has a more laid back parenting style than what is usually seen in a relatively successful on-screen family. But Violet is human. She snaps under unfamiliar pressure. This is what makes her compelling. She has to learn to rely on Doralee and Judy to vanquish their dragon.

I never thought that I would see 3 such multidimensional characters in an ’80’s romp. Judy is the tank, Doralee the mage, and Violet the paladin (correct me if I am wrong). I feel more empowered by this film than Office Space (1999), but watching these back to back would make for unstoppable cubicle wars. Nevertheless, I would say that 9 to 5 is part of the intersectionalist feminist film canon, and essential study for well-rounded female character development. -Nicole

James Baldwin and Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black
Show Creator: Jenji Kohan
Genre: Comedy
Rating: TV-MA

Let me first lay out that I have a love-hate relationship with Orange is the New Black (OITNB) on Netflix. I love the diverse characters, their backstories, and how the show tackles a wide variety of social issues. What I hate is the forced intertextuality and the show’s neurotic insistence that Piper is their most marketable character. Both of these issues stem from a predominantly white writing and production team. To be fair, I catch most of their references, but I find it odd that Hunger Games is on the list of approved films for the Litchfield inmates. One reference that is appropriate, however is from this newest season (therefore mild spoilers ahead). James Baldwin.

If you reacted like Freida (Dale Soules) in the scene: “Is he one of the Baldwin brothers,” James Baldwin is a poet and author. He was part of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s by way of his connections with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, but did not see himself as a leader. Go Tell it on the Mountain and Notes of a Native Son are his best known works. The quote Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) chose “Freedom is not something anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take. People are as free as they want to be,” was meant to apply to her incarceration and her life on the outside, and also applies to her coming out as trans. This is from Baldwin’s essay Notes for a Hypothetical Novel. This quote feels natural coming from Burset (and Cox). Yes, Baldwin is black and LGBTQ, and Burset name drops black social icon Jean-Michel Basquiat in the same conversation, but Baldwin’s personal journey feels similar to Burset’s this season. In interviews Laverne Cox mentions James Baldwin as an inspiration, so I can imagine it is her influence that brought forth this quote, and what it brings to Burset as a character.

While James Baldwin had influence and standing in the Civil Rights Movement, he was never the cross-cultural icon that his friends were. His refusal to join the NAACP, and his expatriation to France solidified it. He knew his sexual preferences and race made life hell in the United States, and he was not afraid to move to more welcoming ground to pursue his writing. He wrote about his guilt at abandoning his brothers in arms, but he knew what he did was in self-preservation. Burset has a similar choice brought to her by way of Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow). Should she aid a fellow inmate’s case, and in the process improve the rights of inmates across the country, but she has to drag out her story of injustice at the hands of guards and inmates, while facing the risk of retaliation? Or is her own personal freedom, and reunification of her family more important? Burset chose Baldwin’s path, but in quoting Baldwin, she is giving the audience context for her choice. Not everyone is a MLK or Malcolm X. By invoking Baldwin, she is also suggesting a possibility for her future: writing her personal story on her own terms.

If anyone wants to read more from James Baldwin, I started with a collection of poems called I Am Not Your Negro curated by Raoul Peck and the companion documentary of the same name. And here is a debate that I found striking, and sadly still relevant:

https://youtu.be/oFeoS41xe7w

-Nicole

Book Review: Us Conductors

Us Conductors

Author: Sean Michaels

Published: 2014

Genre: Historical Fiction

Pod Punk Rating: 2.9/5

Theoretically I am the target audience of this book, a somewhat fictionalized biography of Lev Termen, creator of the theremin, and his relationship with Clara Rockmore, a theremin virtuoso. My music and electronics background aside, I was familiar with both names before picking up this novel, and a tearjerking romance is supposedly suited for my femininity. Before I dive further, let me lay out the scene: a brilliant Soviet Scientist recounts his life story from precocious child to celebrity to ruin as though he was talking to the protegeé that got away. His biography is taken in stream-of consciousness snapshots assembled in arbitrary order to fit the development of his obsession.

With the stylized circuitry on the cover, I anticipated a story of a troubled genius and sometime spy who helps his student overcome the loss of her previous livelihood with romantic tension thrown in for good measure. Instead Michaels writes solely from inside Termen’s head as a conversation to Rockmore, who is absent during the majority of the story. Even when she does appear, it is only as a ghost, seen through rosey shades alá 500 Days of Summer. Nearly every single woman who appears in this story is a one-dimensional object, and often only there as fodder to Termen’s excesses. In his time of excess, Termen wines and dines with America’s Golden Age Elites, and it reads like self-stroking of ego hidden by a thin veil of false modesty. When he fell, I was ready, and this is where the novel became rewarding. He tried to forget his luxuries, and he focused on his own development. His story and relationships became nuanced, and there was no blind loyalty. It became the story I wanted to read. Admittedly, I did come in biased and balked at the nonchalant misogyny, but I feel like Clara deserved better in a story that sought to include her.

Overall, this is a uniquely written narrative of two incredible people. I see the care taken in the words chosen, and the events remembered. Michaels’ embellishments even help mold deeper characters. That is why I am at a loss at the disservice done to the female portion of the story. Maybe next time. -Nicole