Film Review: The Trip to Italy

The Trip to Italy (2014; Directed by Michael Winterbottom)

The sequel to The Trip consists of, well, another trip. Following the surprise Stateside middlebrow arthouse success of Michael Winterbottom’s feature-length edit of his BBC2 comedy-drama-travel series starring Britside jacks-of-all-media-trades Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, another season-long vacation and resulting theatrical cut version was an obvious step. Once again accompanying Coogan and Brydon (or rather slightly fictionalized versions of themselves) as they drive through gorgeous landscapes, eat delectable gourmet cuisine, visit historic sites connected with long-dead British poets, and bust each other consistently up, The Trip to Italy transposes this successful formula that never feels formulaic to the sun-baked western coast of the Italian Peninsula.

Brydon, a Welsh television and stage personality known in Britain for his vast array of impersonations, is the initiating force of this particular sojourn, taking over the reins from the slightly more famous Coogan in that regard with a narrative conceit of a series of newspaper columns to be written about their travels. Brydon is also the beneficiary of the majority of the plot developments in The Trip to Italy. Coogan spent their prior trip through the north of England laboriously breaking up with his long-distance girlfriend, bedding photographers and inn employees, and being rewarded for his struggles with a lucrative primetime TV drama gig in the U.S. Meanwhile, Brydon drifted along, content in his marriage and fatherhood and happy to eat, drive, and joke with his buddy Coogan. In Italy, however, it is Brydon who has trouble relating to his family at home, engages in a sexual rendezvous with an attractive sailing expat, and auditions for a high-profile role in a Michael Mann gangster drama (he does a bald-faced Al Pacino impression, and the casting people love it), while Coogan tentatively reconnects with his son.

Incident keeps The Trip to Italy from feeling too casual, but Winterbottom is a smart enough filmmaker to recognize that the casual conversations between these two men is the core appeal of this concoction. Much of the competitive tension between Coogan and Brydon that gave The Trip hints of an edge is gone; they take it easier on each other, and are more comfortable with one another’s company. They’re also a little older and feeling it, as the hints of mortality thrown in their path by the sites associated with Byron and Shelley and their Romantic entourage make the slow march towards death even harder to ignore (when they meet up with Coogan’s son, it’s in a catacomb full of skulls and palpable Oedipal echoes).

But let’s not overlook the busting up, of which there is plenty. A fine dinner at a white-tablecloth restaurant (Winterbottom indulges some food-porn tendencies, with loving shots of chefs crafting their exquisite meals and waiters serving them) rolls into a comedic riff about Michael Caine, Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, and the rest of The Dark Knight Rises (as well as Pacino, Marlon Brando, and I could go on, because they do). Even on holiday, we understand, these funny men can’t ever turn it off.

The Trip to Italy is not just an amusing bourgeois road movie undertaken by a pair of comfortable and talented friends, mind you. It’s a film about the modern middle-aged male’s search for meaning, connection, and purpose in a fast-paced world that leaves them behind even as it affords them extraordinary privilege. If it isn’t as overtly about that as, say, Alexander Payne’s Sideways or Coogan’s own Showtime dark comedy Happyish, it’s much more enjoyable and subtly sophisticated in its approach to the subject. Its touch is light and renewable, where a heavier tread in dealing with the existential angst of wealthy, aging white men would have demanded criticism and even dismissal.

There’s a mild ironic reflection in the journey of Coogan and Brydon when compared to the Romantic quest for truth of exiled Lord Byron that Winterbottom is slyly aware of, for certain. But an ironic contrast between the middle-aged masculine crisis and another more aggressive strain of disaffection provides The Trip to Italy with its most memorable and strangely resonant moments. Coogan shoots down Brydon’s well-laid plans for a driving soundtrack of Welsh music (most likely to spare himself interminable Tom Jones impersonations), but proves more tolerant of another proposed musical selection: Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. Cruising along winding Italian roads in a Mini, singing along to Alanis’ passionate sonic diary entries of encyclopedic angst like “Hand in My Pocket” and “All I Really Want”, these creative, likable, funny British men find a weird form of universal catharsis by contextualizing their uncertainty and anxiety in comparison to a classic of overdramatic existential disquiet. Things aren’t really so bad as all that, for these guys or for anyone else, The Trip to Italy comes around to admitting along the way.

Categories: Film, Reviews, Travel

Film Review – Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015; Directed by George Miller)

The climactic action sequence of filmmaking impresario George Miller’s first Mad Max film in three decades is a thing of kinetic, overwhelming spectacle. Referencing but greatly expanding on the closing chase battle in previous franchise highpoint Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Fury Road‘s showpiece pits haunted, hunted Max (Tom Hardy, replacing Mel Gibson from the films that made his name as a movie star) and a ragtag band of fellow sympathetic survivors on board a big-rig tanker truck hurtling through an arid, post-apocalyptic wasteland (which has always formerly been Australia but maybe not this time).

Harrassing them with fatal threats of violence and an all-out cacophonous sensory assault is a motor-mounted phalanx of fanatic warriors serving at the malevolent absolute will of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, also the villain in the original Mad Max). Roaring through the desert in modified Frankenauto monsters, Joe’s “war boys” are chalked white and tattooed, armed with projectiles, fire-lances, blades, and a zealous strain of fundamentalist war-religion. Joe stokes the fires of their masculinized aggression with martial rituals, hammerstrokes of propaganda, and spray paint in their mouths that activates their berserker mode; the war boys even have a travelling soundtrack in the form of an ayatollah of rock n’ rollah rig, equipped with half-a-dozen drummers and a demented bungee-strapped metal guitarist surrounded by amps and speakers. Immortan Joe’s war boys are post-civilization suicide bombers, the disposable foot soldiers that enforce their dictatorial leader’s fascistic dominion.

So when Max and his cohort defeats Joe and his hateful legions in an impressive conflagration of fiery explosions and twisted metal (that’s not such a spoiler, come now), audiences will cheer in vicarious triumph: “Down with Patriarchy!”

That’s right: Mad Max: Fury Road is a rip-snorting action adrenaline-fest that is also an absurdly satisfying feminist revenge fantasy of the overthrow of a harsh regime of exploitative, misogynist male privilege. This impossible-to-miss dimension (Eve Ensler, playwright of The Vagina Monologues, consulted on the screenplay) has earned it the ire of the ever-insufferable Men’s Rights Activists (when I was younger, we just called those dudes chauvinist dicks) as well as the praise of enthusiasts of a more populist feminism. In more thoughtful circles, it has been debated whether or not the film is truly feminist in nature, despite its clear narrative and thematic intent in that direction. Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency internet-fame doesn’t think it is, and the last time I checked she was in charge of feminism, so who is this penis-hampered critic to question the assessment?

How is Fury Road feminist, and how is it not? Immortan Joe’s stronghold of the Citadel is built on using and abusing all of those under his power, from his war boys and the “blood bag” donors (this is how the captured Max enters the picture, with his universal blood type) who speed their recovery from battle wounds to wheel-turner slaves to throngs of parched peasants who desperately endure in expectation of an occasional ceremonial release of a fleeting gusher of Joe’s hoarded water supply. But women are exploited with special dehumanized nastiness: some are milked like dairy cows, and the most attractive are kept untouched as “brides” for Joe’s own pleasure and use as breeding stock. The one exception is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who drives her own war rig to collect necessary gasoline from a nearby refinery.

But Furiosa is no loyal vassal. Abducted as a girl from a matriarchal tribe who dwell in a fertile “green land”, Furiosa smuggles Joe’s mistreated brides out in her truck on a putative gas run with only her verdant memories as a roadmap to freedom. Joe’s hordes, along with his oil-vendor and arms-dealer allies (all of the ravenously greedy patriarchal order is thus represented), follow in hot pursuit of the women, who get some firm but understanding masculine support from Max (Hardy mutters and grunts, perhaps to hide the fact that his Max doesn’t have an Australian accent like Gibson’s established version) and a de-conditioned war boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult). There is thus a pretty clear indication of a feminine revolt against misogynist patriarchy built into the narrative, although the women are alternately objectified as sexualized figures and masculinized as violent action figures in the process.

So Fury Road is not a sophisticated feminist text. Well, it isn’t sophisticated at all, or rather brings such ingenuity, visual skill, and gritty, imaginative grandeur to the deeply unsophisticated vehicular action genre that sophistication seems almost beside the point. George Miller is now 70 years old, and though he’s spoken about continuing the franchise (this fourth installment comes precisely 30 years after Gibson last played Max in Beyond Thunderdome, and was in protracted development for half that time), Fury Road feels like a legacy statement, a swashbuckling display of all the cinematic mastery that he’s accrued over his long career.

That it plays like an edgy, risky, and original artistic turn is testament to Miller’s prodigious abilities as an action filmmaker. Political undertones aside, Fury Road is a cracker of an action flick, with furious sequences of unruly, rococo magnificence of motion (much of it accomplished not with CGI but with practical effects and stunts), sturdy, efficient character beats and interludes of stunning visual beauty (sunsets, sunrises, blue-tinted twilight, blazing daylight, desolate landscapes, and a massive dust storm seemingly pulled from a Turner painting). Miller shows an evolved sense of geography not only in the midst of kinetic, chaotic action scenes but also in terms of establishing space and distance for dramatic effect. Like Max and the Gyro Captain observing warlords’ moto-attacks in The Road Warrior from afar, there are palpable senses of accurate proximity and separating space throughout the near-movie-long chase that has the effect of both orientating the audience but also unsettling and even frightening it.

The film was mostly shot in Namibia, and feels less specifically Australian in character than its predecessors, and not simply because only a few of the actors speak with Antipodean vowels. Mad Max up until this film was a franchise of Down Under westerns with the titular character as a simply-spoken cipher with a past of tragedy and a future of grim, solitary survival. His redemption, like many a wandering individualist cowboy antihero in Hollywood westerns, invariably stems from overcoming his selfish grief-driven distrust of forging connections to work with others to achieve a collective good, to protect oases of human decency in a grasping, dangerous context of desperate looting and pervasive, predatory plunder.

These are popularly-conceived Australian thematic values just as they are American ones, and like the Hollywood westerns it is in intertextual conversation with, Mad Max deploys them at least partially to discursively settle a forbidding, vast land (a terra nulius symbolically and even legally, if never quite physically) that once belonged to prior indigenous tenants who were decimated and removed to make room for a majority white European society. Forever at war with bands of savages, Max is a violent but fitfully righteous defender of these values of civilization even if the civilization built upon them disintegrated long ago. Max’s Outback outlaw identity, as well as the persistent visual design intrusion of harsh, constricting metal into wild, unfriendly landscapes, also evokes another frequently disavowed part of Australian history: its origins as an often brutal penal settlement. Max begins Fury Road in chains in the wasteland, his own body not under his control as his blood is taken from him against his will to sustain those who enslave him. What a resonant metaphor for the convict experience in the time of the System.

Considering the Mad Max films’ associations with dark, buried cultural heritages as well as with colonial discourses of disavowal of mass crimes, harnessing this ideologically-troubled rig for the purpose of even a compromised narrative of feminist liberation feels like a tremendous progressive leap forward. That Fury Road is also a visionary, exhilirating thrill ride in a singular aesthetic package achieved predominantly with old-fashioned practical daring and inventiveness rather than with glossy computer effects, a glorious redemption of that frequently misapplied geek culture descriptor “awesome”, are more strong points in its favour. The presence of at least one or two of these factors would make for a film worthy of superlatives in our blockbuster age of maximized imagery but minimized originality. But all of them together makes Mad Max: Fury Road a strong contender for the year’s ultimate cinematic experience.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Election

Election (1999; Directed by Alexander Payne)

Election represents a lot of peaks for many of those involved in this spiky, wonderful little social satire of the unswerving American drive to succeed. It was an early peak for its young star Reese Witherspoon, whose career has been defined by roles as more developed (and probably less interesting) versions of the manic go-getter Tracy Flick. It was unquestionably Peak Adult Matthew Broderick (a low bar to clear, to be sure), and without a doubt Peak Chris Klein (he’s still an awful actor, but here his doofushood is channeled into funny material). And even director/co-writer Alexander Payne, who went on to make some critically beloved arthouse indie dramas about various sad white people, has maybe never topped this deceptively simple, subversive comedy that made his name as a filmmaker.

Witherspoon’s Flick is running for school council president in her Omaha, Nebraska high school, and is fully determined to win, just as she insists upon winning at everything else in her young life. Broderick’s Jim McAllister, her school’s dedicated civics, current affairs, and history teacher, is rubbed the wrong way by Tracy’s aggressive achieving. His narration remains steadfastly positive about his life, career, and accomplishments, but his crappy car, his plain wife, his slow students (they can’t tell morals from ethics and Mr. M doesn’t clarify effectively, a failed distinction that foreshadows the film’s events), and his secret porn collection combine to suggest that he’s ended up as a bit of a loser. Tracy’s pursuit of excellence starkly exposes his lack thereof, and the resentment boils to the surface. This resentment is no doubt amplified by Tracy’s affair with McAllister’s fellow faculty member and best friend Dave (Mark Harelik), who loses his job and his marriage when the dalliance is exposed while the underage Tracy gets off scot-free.

McAllister is in charge of the school council election, and begins to scheme to choke off Tracy Flick’s inevitable ascension to its head. McAllister’s mission to stop Tracy is all down to a frothy swirl of envy, revenge, displaced anxiety, and maybe even frustrated attraction (okay, not maybe but for certain: McAllister sees Tracy’s face in place of his wife’s while they’re having sex). It’s to Payne’s credit (he co-wrote the screenplay with Jim Taylor, based on Tom Perrotta’s novel) that he never makes Mr. M’s motivation totally explicit, leaving his reasons open to suggestion and interpretation.

Whatever his motivation, Mr. M persuades the popular football team quarterback Paul Metzler (Klein) to run against Tracy. When Paul begins going out with the ex of his adopted lesbian sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), Tammy joins the presidential race as well. Their campaigns speeches to an assembly in the gym contrast sharply: Tracy is polished and on message, Paul reads atonally and uncharismatically from a jock-ish playbook of cliches, and Tammy decries the entire faux-democratic charade and preaches apathy, to thunderous applause. When merely pitting the popular football star against Tracy doesn’t appear to be enough to achieve McAllister’s aim of thwarting his imagined nemesis, and with his attraction to Dave’s ex-wife Linda (Delaney Driscoll) destabilizing his life, the teacher preaching morals and ethics contemplates disregarding both quite flagrantly.

The rapid downward spiral of Mr. M as the election approaches is excellent, direct comedic filmmaking with plenty of hilarious touches. There’s no particular plot or charatcer need, for example, for McAllister to get stung in the eyelid by a bee while attempting to find Linda for an illicit tryst, but it’s a cruel twist of fate, the bitchslap of an unfeeling karmic universe. After Tracy justifies her election button blitzkieg on the school by referencing Coca Cola’s massive advertising budget maintained despite its top-dog status in the soda market, McAllister is shown drinking Pepsi exclusively. Payne has Broderick register the dark irony, but the observant viewer will register it before that happens.

There is a rich vein of allegory to Election that makes it applicable to the adult public life of the country and not just to the often-idealized American high school, as well. The sparring voice-overs of McAllister, Tracy, Paul, and Tammy are all of them delightfully unreliable as narration, the quintessentially modern American delusions that precondition their perspectives crossing paths and interweaving freely. This little film is anything but little; it covers a tremendous amount of satirical ground before most of its audience can even realize it. It’s a high-point for nearly everyone involved, and one of the great American comedies of the 1990s, bar none.

Categories: Film, Reviews

The End of Mad Men: The Compromised 1960s and Schrödinger’s Advertisement

After seven seasons on the air (or maybe eight, properly speaking, what with the yearlong gap between the two halves of the final season), Mad Men, AMC’s prestige drama about the American advertising world during the 1960s, dropped its finale episode last night. Mad Men‘s conclusion came a few years after the expiry date of its cultural currency, it must be said. Delayed along its run by writers’ strikes, contract disputes, and creator and mastermind auteur Matthew Weiner’s drawn-out serialized storytelling tendencies, the show retained its core audience and critical discourse to the end but had undoubtedly lost much of the cultural frisson that it once flirted with. Although the line-by-line, moment-by-moment quality of its writing never really dipped, the dominant themes of Mad Men were well-established and cast in stone by the end of its second season at the latest (and maybe much earlier that). Only so much elaboration and re-assertion of these themes was necessary or desirable, and the repetition of its major messages, more so than odd magic-realist touches or newly-introduced major characters, made the show feel spent more than anything other particular element.

But let’s accentuate the positive as we gaze over the still-warm body of Weiner’s magnum opus of television’s lauded new golden age. Mad Men was a sharp, intelligent, sophisticated narrative whose every scene (nearly its every line) was pregnant with signification, meaning, and social and cultural politics. It was also funny and outrage-inducing, often in the space of a single scene, capable of encapsulating and skewering the invisible cage of social expectations in the capitalist order even while it parroted the bourgeois assumptions and privileged perspective of socioeconomically-advantaged White America. Brief instances of minority outlooks were offered, but the trajectory to the vaunted Caucasian neoliberal mythos of the seismic “change” of the 1960s was firmly entrenched in the perspectives of the progenitors of that very class itself.

Mad Men zeroed in frequently on the received image of the counterculture in the 1960s and challenged our assumptions about the primacy of its social influence and the purity of its mission of fundamental cultural change. From the first season, the self-made (or self-remade) man in a suit Donald Draper (Jon Hamm) would often clash with hippies and underground types who dismissed him as a mere square. He would not dismiss them so summarily, though he would question the nature of their engagement with and investment in alternative social mentalities before, well, dismissing them. He has a more resonant final encounter with the counterculture, which we’ll get into in a minute.

Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) enter into the social justice and psychedelic hedonism segments of the counterculture, respectively, but both emerge from them a bit chastened to the abandonment of ego and ambition required to truly escape the implications of their square milieu. Each finds a measured approach preferable in the finale, “Person to Person”: Peggy sticks on at industry giant McCann-Erickson to further her rising career but finds potential romantic companionship with longtime art department co-creative Stan (Jay R. Ferguson), who exudes some limited longhaired chill and calm in the midst of the coporate environment, while Roger commits to the Quebeçois Marie Calvet (Julia Ormond), the mother of Don’s ex Megan (Jessica Paré), who takes a relatively open view to monogamy.

Other principle characters have little investment in the changing nature of American society beyond what business opportunities it can offer them. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) literally jets out west to Wichita, Kansas with his reconciled family to start anew, a big old-money fish in a small new-money pond in the New West. Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) jettisons the condescension of both patriarchal office culture and controlling sugar-daddy male sexual partners to forge her own future as an independent businesswoman. Mad Men is notable as a text of 1960s America for its focus not on fundamental change but essential continuity. For this particular slice of the New York elite and counterparts from other locales that cross their paths, social shifts are felt more incrementally, if at all. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Mad Men episode recap grand champions Tom and Lorenzo have long maintained that Weiner’s basic view of human nature is that it is essentially static. People don’t change, no matter how hard they try to or hope to or pretend to. Don Draper is this truism’s ironic epitome: even though broken, unloved, sexually and emotionally and philosophically insecure Dick Whitman assumes another identity and migrates to New York City to become a leading light in Madison Avenue’s advertising epicentre, he can’t leave behind the orphan in the whorehouse, furtively eating a chocolate bar alone just to feel briefly, fleetingly normal (whatever that’s supposed to be). It surely isn’t such a stretch to extrapolate that reading onto Mad Men‘s view of social conditions, that they ultimately do not change either.

In its already-controversial closing scene, Mad Men embeds what can only be understood, however it might be read, as a critique of the promise of enlightenment and progress central to the myth of the Sixties. Mad Men has, from the very beginning, been powerfully on-point concerning the power of advertising in shaping post-war public American life. The pursuit of happiness has been enshrined in the essential character of America since the Declaration of Independence (and indeed before that), but happiness is relative, defined in different ways at different times by different people. In 1960s America, despite the objections of the counterculture, advertising defined happiness and associated it with whatever product it was convincing consumers to buy. When it suited the product and the image being projected, the corporate world of Madison Avenue would gladly co-opt the ideas and emotions of the hippie movement or any other subculture, no matter the rebellious intent of such a group, to sell those products or advance that image.

This process was in operation in concert with the hopeful upheavals of the Sixties and internalized its messages and emotional content for subsequent application, so much so that our collective memory and received impression of the era is inextricably tied up with the compromised, commodified image of it. The idea of the Sixties, the utopian dream of love and peace and collective happiness and inclusion, was compromised and tainted by monied interests from its earliest expressions, therefore.

Mad Men makes this clear in the closing sequence of its run. Don sits cross-legged next to the ocean cliffs of Big Sur, California, meditating along with the other attendees of a hippie self-actualization retreat that he did not really want to intend but has found useful in helping him in recognizing his limitations and weaknesses. As he lets out a long, un-Don-like “ommmm”, his face cracks into a smile. Weiner (who directs the episode) then cuts to the famous Coca Cola commercial “Hilltop”, produced by McCann-Erickson (for whom Don still technically works, fictionally), which marshalls the global dream of unity and happiness central to the hippie counterculture to sell millions of bottles of carbonated sugar water.

However you read this closing juxtaposition, it comes across as a canny depiction of the progress-subverting power and influence of advertising. The emerging debate over this moment has been taking the following either-or form: Did Don really find some form of fulfilment and contentment in California, with the appearance of “Hilltop” providing an ironic commentary on the terms of those concepts as defined by the consumer capitalist discourse which he helped to direct for so long? Or was his experience in this commune retreat not transcendent but merely a bit of inadvertent research leading to serendipitous inspiration? Did Don Draper conceive of the iconic “Hilltop” as a mining of his countercultural experience, co-opting the authentic emotional realization he felt to regain his stature in the creative world of advertising with a dynamite commercial?

There are compelling reasons to believe either of these readings, although much more textual material seems to have been planted to suggest the latter interpretation. Like a lot of open endings, Mad Men‘s has taken on a philosophical test dimension, a glass-half-full/glass-half-empty litmus test for positive outcomes to vie with cynical exploitation for case-by-case psychological supremacy. But I think the ending is much more compelling, because it is both an authentic emotional realization for Don and the kernel of future commercial exploitation, if not by him then by others like him.

Consumer capitalism does not preclude its subjects from true feelings or experiences, it merely channels them into specific commodifications. The experience of living within it is one of simultaneous, persistent compromised contentment; it’s set up to be that way, of course, because who’s going to buy something to make them content if they’re completely contented already? In this way, the “Hilltop” ad, and whatever association is being suggested between it and Don Draper, is both a real (The Real Thing) and fake discursive expression at the same time, forever. It is Schrödinger‘s Ad. In ending his seminal television narrative in such a position of eternal flux, Matthew Weiner makes a resonant final statement on the nature of the pursuit of happiness in American consumer capitalism.

Film Review: The Emperor’s New Groove

The Emperor’s New Groove (2000; Directed by Mark Dindal)

Driven by a rapid-fire pace and snappy sense of visual and verbal wit, The Emperor’s New Groove is a canny paring-down of Disney’s increasingly bloated (and occasionally controversial) late-1990s animated musical epics into a lean and sharp buddy comedy, perhaps Disney’s best and funniest kick at the genre, animated or otherwise. Originally planned as a much larger production transposing Hans Christian Andersen’s folk tale of privilege-checking “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to the pre-Columbian Incan Empire of the Andes, The Emperor’s New Groove is much more enjoyable in this form than it possibly could have been as a species of South American Pocahontas.

The Emperor in question is Kuzco (voiced by David Spade in surely his funniest film role, with all apologies to those legions of die-hard Joe Dirt fans out there). Kuzco is supremely spoiled, extremely frivolous, and casually cruel in his self-involved wielding of absolute power. He tosses an old man (John Fielder) out of a palace window for “throwing off” his “groove” during an opening musical number (the songs only bookend the film, are sung by Tom Jones, and are thus wonderful rather than a tedious Broadway slog like in so many Disney musicals). He summons llama-herding peasant Pacha (John Goodman) to his chambers to inform him that his entire village will be uprooted and demolished to make way for a hilltop royal summer palace called Kuzcotopia. And he summarily dismisses his longtime advisor Yzma (Eartha Kitt; awesome casting) simply for being old, earning her everlasting emnity and spurring a plot to remove him from the throne so that she herself can take over.

Kuzco is a megalomaniacal prick, in other words, and The Emperor’s New Groove is couched as a clear narrative of his moral and social correction. Yzma intends to poison the Emperor, but through the bumbling of her muscular, endearingly dim-witted sidekick Kronk (a flawlessly hilarious Patrick Warburton, stealing the film so thoroughly that the character later fronted a maligned direct-to-video sequel) accidentally transforms him into a llama. Kuzco, in ungulate form, winds up back in the the village he intended to level for his pleasure mansion, and by degrees enlists the help and eventually the friendship of the hefty and resourceful Pacha in his quest to recapture the throne and restore his human form.

The plot is the wire hanger for some magnificent, multichromatic late-period Disney traditional animation robes and a clever comedic sensibility. The Emperor’s New Groove injected some much needed energy and verve into the studio’s increasingly creatively moribund outings (forgettable or lamentable efforts such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, and Tarzan were among its immediate antecedents). With its screwball pace, fine vocal comedic work, oddball casting (Tom Jones and Eartha Kitt, kiddies!) and smattering of unreliable narration and post-modern self-reflexivity and fourth-wall-breaking, this is a fun, uncomplicated, and sometimes laugh-out-loud effort that also manages to look pretty fabulous while it’s at it. Stuck in a pattern of trying far too hard creatively and narratively that eventually sealed the decline of its traditional animation studio while CG-animated Pixar films grabbed the brass ring, this movie saw Walt Disney Feature Animation briefly get its groove back. In retrospect, it seems almost like an accident, but at least it can be said to have been a happy one.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Unknown Known

The Unknown Known (2013; Directed by Errol Morris)

Errol Morris’ The Fog of War was a direct and memorable document of the open and regretful remiscences of Robert McNamara, the aged former U.S. Secretary of Defense who presided over the fateful, doomed escalation of the Vietnam War under the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations in the 1960s. McNamara knew that the war was wrong when he spoke to Morris for the film, and is shown talking through his guilt over the decisions that made it happen. What was most galvanizing about The Fog of War, most challenging and compelling in the film, was McNamara’s assurance that consciencious, informed rationality was not the panacea for destructive conflict but could often be its proximal cause. Even the best data, the most expert assessments, the most careful and deliberate of actions can lead to billions of dollars being spent to achieve thousands of deaths for doubtful ends. The most unforgettable and unsettling of his subtitular eleven lessons was “Rationality will not save us”.

The Unknown Known is The Fog of War‘s equally well-crafted but much less satisfying and much more ambiguous sequel. Morris’ subject this time is a subsequent Secretary of Defense who was the architect of a subsequent morally suspect, financially wasteful, and needlessly deadly American war: Donald Rumsfeld, under whose watch the United States invaded Iraq, toppled Saddam Hussein, and unleashed an unstable quagmire of a situation in Mesopotamia that is no closer to effecting positive change in the Middle East region a dozen years after the Bush Administration went to war with that ostensible goal in mind.

As is perhaps appropriate to the still-unresolved conflict that he ran and that eventually ran him out of the Pentagon, Rumsfeld offers no clear answers, no McNamara-esque numeric list of bullet-point lessons that he learned from his unwise and unjust war. The Unknown Known suggests that Rumsfeld might not have learned anything at all beyond a wealth of new ways to manipulate language and meanings in the service of ideological propaganda. McNamara was prepared to face up to hard truths; Rumsfeld is prepared to face the challenge of evading the condemnation of reality with grimly amused anticipation.

Morris includes excerpts of government memos written by his subject, as well as clips of his legendary Pentagon news conferences. This supplemental material doesn’t so much expand on Rumsfeld’s interviews with Morris (unnervingly looking into the camera, right at the audience) as parry with them, probing for a weak spot in his impeccable facade of dissembling semantics to land a argumentative blow. Morris finds a few gaps in the armour near the end of the film, including Rumsfeld’s acknowledgement of his own misjudgement and hypocrisy that disarms with its unexpected simplicity. But The Unknown Known is not well-served by this sort of “gotcha!” documentary journalism, and does not dwell on them overlong.

The film’s title stems from Rumsfeld’s best-known press conference epistemological definition during the Iraq War period. Slavoj Zizek added this final, ideologically-tilted formulation to those detailed by Rumsfeld, and Morris shows the former Secretary of Defense considering the possibilities of “the unknown known” at the conclusion of his film about the stateman’s life and achievements. It’s a moment of odd philosophical convergence that focuses on an ill-acknowledged point about the American neoconservative elite of which Donald Rumsfeld has long been a major figure. Conservative intellectuals are frequently fretting over the shocking, irresponsible moral relativism and non-realist absorption in the terms and concepts of political correctness, anti-discrimination, and cultural tolerance that characterizes the rhetoric of their counterparts on the academic left. Zizek, indeed, is a favoured target of such critiques.

Yet it is neoconservatism, fundamentally grounded in disseminating grand lies to the populace “for their own good”, that substitutes elaborately constructed fantasies for concrete, complicated realities. What, after all, is an “unknown unknown” in Rumsfeld’s delineation but a garbled Orwellian euphemism for a fevered fantasy, an invention of the paranoid imagination? Watching Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known, repeatedly retreating to semantics and terminological pedantry when confronted with intractable problems at least partly of his own making and indeed study up for each time that he must do so, makes this right-wing intellectual projection stand out all the more starkly. The inherent paucity of his belief-system of choice when it comes to accruing tangible, positive real-world results is the core “unknown known” lurking unacknowledged in Rumsfeld’s reality. Errol Morris’ film does its best to make this case, but its subject will be damned if he will be dragged kicking and screaming into any admission of its truth.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

The Historic Alberta Election and the Question of Albertan Identity

For as long as I’ve been capable of remembering, my home province of Alberta hasn’t really had anything that could be called “politics” or “democracy”. There were political parties, there were policy debates, there were regular elections, yes. But the needle never shifted, not in any significant way. The apparatuses, frameworks and processes of democracy were all in place and practically everyone from the Premier on down to regular Albertans talking about taxation at truck stop Tim Horton’s performed the role of the politically engaged citizen. But whenever each election came about, another majority government for the same governing party was dutifully returned, almost as a rebuke to the appearance of democratic openness. Change, that democratic potentiality both forever compromised and forever tantalizing, was impossible, practically speaking.

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Alberta Legislature, Edmonton

The Progessive Conservative Party was less an elected (and thus de-electable) government than it was Alberta’s hereditary ruling class, deeply implicated in the running of the province and with its ever-booming economy, in particular with the lucrative oil industry. Alberta was less a democratic entity than a species of corporation, swapping CEOs every decade or so but maintaining a continuity of profit-driven mission. As long as energy money flowed, the Alberta PCs were untouchable; if Alberta was not broke (in either common sense of the word), why fix it? So it had been for forty years, longer than much of the province’s young-on-average population had been alive.

Until a few days ago, that is. The PC government under Jim Prentice was roundly defeated by Rachel Notley’s resurgent NDP, resulting in the first democratic regime change in Canada’s prairie petrocracy in nearly half a century and the first progressively-tilted government elected since before the Second World War. This historic political turn happened, ostensibly, for a variety of reasons, running the gamut from changing demographics to sudden economic disequilibrium to the rapid rise of a reasonable, likable alternative on the Left to the PCs’ scandal-ridden mismanagement of public funds and open contempt for public trust. Opinion pieces on the subject are in no short supply, and though most observers seem to agree that it took a series of major screw-ups for the PCs to blow their generational dominance of the Alberta polis, what it means for Alberta itself hasn’t been as easy to formulate.

The image – indeed the very concept –  of Alberta in the rest of Canada is inextricably tied up in its identity as a politically conservative province. Albertans themselves, especially those of a left-leaning bent, may chafe at the stereotypes that stem from this perceived identity but must have likewise admitted that there was little firm evidence to gainsay them. A progressive mayor or two, some vibrant annual cultural festivals, or a clutch of shaggy-dog hipsters and academics clinging to enclaves in central Edmonton could not, in and of themselves, rewrite 80 years of political narrative. Alberta was defined not only by its provincial power realities but in the federal projection of the Albertan ideology via the conduit of the Conservatives of Stephen Harper, a socially conservative revolution of long-term radical intent conceived in the reactionary bastion of the University of Calgary political science department in the 1990s. Alberta is not only an exporter of oil, it’s an exporter of conservative ideology.

What is Alberta if not right-wing? This question will need to be asked for the next few years at least, as Notley’s NDP negotiate a governing context that has not so much been hostile to progressive legislation and its wider social and cultural effects as it has been arrogantly secure in its complete immunity to it. But what of the wider context? Can the results of a single election, historic though it may be, recalibrate a traditional cowboy identity in a single fell swoop? Few would hazard to suggest that. The rise of the Wild Rose Party, a sort of Tea Party North that makes the PCs look like rabid socialists in comparison, as the new opposition, with particularly strong support in the rural areas of the west and south of the province, bodes ill for a major leftward turn. It suggests, indeed, that the sort of general polarization that has characterized North American politics over the last several election cycles has entered the Albertan context as well.

Perhaps this election suggests that Albertan identity, such as it is, is changing. But perhaps that identity is, and indeed always was, more flexible and capable of admitting alternative viewpoints and pragmatic shifts than the arch-conservative, oil-rig-and-pickup-truck stereotypes that predominate outside (and even inside) the province have allowed. The possibility of change in the Albertan political sphere is no longer merely a fantasy; this election has proved that it can happen, and will. But change in the Albertan identity? It is either possible, already underway, ultimately unnecessary and undesirable, or all of the above. And a single mere election cannot tell us which one applies most readily.

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