Get on Up (2014; Directed by Tate Taylor)
“Don’t tell me where, when, or for how long I can be funky!” exclaims the Godfather of Soul, James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) to a flustered USO officer in late 1960s Vietnam, where Brown and a reduced remnant of his 22-piece band have just landed to perform for American troops rowdily anticipating the music superstar’s arrival. Their plane has come under enemy fire and is forced to land with one engine aflame. Despite Brown’s fondness for incendiary theatrics and grand entrances, he’s not thrilled about the danger he’s been placed in, excoriating the USO man further: “You want to go down in history as the man who killed the funk?”
This scene, coming very near the start of Get on Up, Tate Taylor’s semi-nonlinear narrative of James Brown’s life and career, taps entertainingly (but fleetingly) into the characteristics that made Brown so great: swaggering, electrifying, death-defying, self-aggrandizing, hilarious, and more than a little dangerous. Unfortunately, Get on Up touches that live wire only briefly, in moments rather than sustainedly. Brown endured and even thrived in his life on the edge for quite a long time, but Get on Up retreats to the safer, stabler environs of musical biopic convention more often than not, despite a blazing central performance from its star Boseman and gestures towards an artfully fragmented narrative and metaphoric structure.
Taylor’s cinematic narrative of Brown’s life (from a script by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth) generally progresses chronologically along his common-enough rise from rags to riches, filthy anonimity to blazing fame in the burgeoning 1960s popular music world. Brown came from dirt-poor beginnings in the 1930s and 1940s South; there he is abandoned by his mother Susie (Viola Davis), beaten and then traded off on relatives by his Army-bound father Joseph (Lennie James), and inculcated into performance by the charismatic local preacher of the ecstatic African-American church and at the brothel run by his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer). Possessed with a keen eye for maintaining a swag appearance from a young age, James Brown filches a fine pair of shoes from a lynched corpse (the film’s rare and thus conspicuous nod to the reality of mortal terror for black people in Brown’s younger days) and is later thrown in prison at 17 years of age for stealing a man’s suit.
There, James Brown’s easy charm and evident talent catches the eye of visiting gospel singing group leader Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), whose family sponsors Brown for his parole. The two men become key allies through the gradual but boiling rise in fortune to come, first with Byrd’s group the Famous Flames and then under the later concert-hall-owning band fronted by Brown. Managed by wily industry vet Ben Bart (a nice supporting role for Dan Aykroyd, who had Brown himself as a guest performer in Blues Brothers), Brown’s odyssey winds through showstopping performances, creative and business trailblazing, identity crises, political tensions, personal struggle and change, and Brown’s legendary volatility and reputation for difficulty.
The latter fraught aspect of his identity receives a strong push, as Brown is shown clashing with his talented band (his lead saxophonist Maceo Parker, played by Craig Robinson, is in consistent conflict with him in the film), smacking his second wife Dee-Dee (Jill Scott) around for slight perceived offenses, and eventually breaking with longtime collaborator Byrd. Taylor prefaces his film with Brown’s dangerous unpredictability, opening with a scene depicting a dramatic and notorious episode of Brown’s well-known behavioural troubles (no, not that time he allegedly struck singer Tammi Terrell with a hammer, nor any of his drug arrests): a 1988 incident involving firearm discharge and armed threats at his Augusta, Georgia offices.
Get on Up is primarily focused on Brown and Byrd’s relationship, at times a partnership of equals but increasingly a hierarchical arrangement with the mercurial Brown as petty dictator. Their interactions and stubborn friendship, one supposes, are intended to reveal something essential in Brown’s character, something deeper and less guarded than the direct, fourth-wall-breaking, narrator-like statements about his career and life that Boseman’s Brown makes to the camera. I’m not sure it does tell us much about James Brown’s soul, ultimately.
It hardly helps that Brown’s idiosyncratic political views – he believed fiercely in black pride and self-determination, but supported and expressed admiration for U.S. politicians as diverse as Democrats Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy as well as Republican President Richard Nixon, to say nothing of his high regard for segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond – get distinctly short shrift. These are reduced to his aggressively neutral peacekeeping during a tense Boston concert after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and inviting black school children to sing on the recording of “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”, trading the ski chalet sweater he donned for a white-audience-aimed Frankie Avalon Show performance earlier on for politically-conscious African-style garb in the process. Far more running time and effort is spent detailing how he and Bart broke the concert promoter cartels by using local independent radio to drum up interest in his shows, or his innovations of the rhythmic grooves that would define funk (and later hip-hop and modern R&B, genres that would sample his music extensively). The implication, and not an inaccurate one, is that for James Brown, laying down the funk was itself as profound a political act as he could envision or enact. Anything else was mere electoral theatre.
Questionable thematic balance aside, Boseman is spectacular as Brown, nailing the small details of his dancing, his impassioned vocals (though Boseman doesn’t do all of the singing), his volatile swagger, his gravelly seductive Southern bark of a speaking voice, his swelling pride and confidence. One might nitpick that Boseman doesn’t vanish utterly into the role as, say, Jamie Foxx did as Ray Charles in Ray, or that the lean six-foot-tall actor can’t truly approximate the physical impact of the compact, muscular five-and-a-half-foot-tall Mr. Dynamite, imparting a sense of flowing grace to a performer who was much more an explosive dynamo of demon energy.
As good as Boseman is and as entertaining and even insightful as Get on Up can be (young James’ dream-fantasy encounter with the sweaty, movement-heavy African-American church congregation is especially effective in establishing a recognizable model for his stage persona), the cocksure promise of that Vietnam scene is never quite delivered upon. For all of its gestures towards fragmented non-linearality and metaphorical illustrations of James Brown’s peculiar genius, appeal, and faults, Get on Up skews consistently and with mounting disappointment towards tired musical biopic cliches. Like Taylor’s 2011 Oscar fave The Help, Get on Up can tip into the uneasy feeling of a patronizing white-centric depiction of African-American culture when it isn’t inordinately careful. It won’t go down in history as the movie that killed the funk, but it’s hard to say that it doesn’t water it down more than one might have wished.
Star Trek Beyond (2016; Directed by Justin Lin)
I admit to being grateful for a certain degree of critical distance when considering Star Trek Beyond, the third film in the venerable science fiction franchise’s reboot series and the thirteenth in the series overall (although it still feels off to place the last three films alongside the previous ten without involved disambiguation). I remain relatively firm in my consideration of J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek as a sublimation of the director’s consuming desire to make a Star Wars film (which he finally got to do with The Force Awakens) at the cost of many important elements of its alternately-focused rival franchise. But my assessment of its 2013 sequel Star Trek Into Darkness, which I found to be a relentlessly exciting space adventure that intelligently synthesized contemporary American politics into a sci-fi narrative in the established Star Trek tradition, was so glaringly at odds with the negative reaction of the Trek community and genre fandom in general to the film that I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing something. That something, for many, was primarily the whitewash casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as a hidden Khan Noonien Singh (the film franchise’s alpha villain thanks to Nicholas Meyer’s The Wrath of Khan) that didn’t need to be hidden and, in terms of the film’s internal logic and dramatic impact, didn’t need to be Khan either.
Perhaps, with more time to ruminate on Into Darkness or even another viewing to consider how it was (or wasn’t) working, my take may have aligned more with the fan-watching consensus. On the other hand, perhaps the tendency to such alignment with consensus is an argument against such critical distance and for immediate reviews. Whatever the case, missing Star Trek Beyond in theatres and catching up to it well after its release is, most likely, beneficial. Justin Lin takes over Abrams’ Trek reboots and mostly fulfills the promise of the closing moments of Into Darkness to adjust the course of the Enterprise back to its storytelling and thematic roots of deep-space exploration, soft-power diplomatic contact with different peoples, and the strength and unity to be found in tolerance and cooperation.
It’s a sad comment on the tenor of our precarious times that such fuzzy progressive themes have become politically contentious, and Star Trek Beyond is, like Star Trek Into Darkness, not unaware of its relevance and applicability to the current moment. Lin’s film, from a script by Simon Pegg (who once again plays resourceful and humourous chief engineer Montgomery Scott) and Doug Jung, isn’t heavy-handed with its messages, but firmly rejects ideologies of resentment, fear, and hatred for generally more democratic ideals. Said negative belief-systems are represented by the film’s cruel, megalomaniacal villain, Krall (Idris Elba). Krall is a former soldier stranded by his superiors and, thanks to a magical space relic called the Abronath that has unnaturally extended his lifespan, has had many lifetimes to plot a comprehensive revenge against those he blames for his dispiriting predicament.
The crew of the Enterprise, led by Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), encounters Krall and his unstoppable swarm of wasp-ish attack ships about three years into the five-year mission of deep-space exploration heralded at the end of Into Darkness. Kirk’s captain’s log reveals the strain of the wearying mission, and a recharging stop-off at the Federation’s new enormous space station Yorktown (a cornucopia of vertiginous city-of-the-future visuals) gives him the opportunity to apply for a promotion to Admiral, away from his limited command. Though he recommends Spock as the Enterprise‘s new captain, the Vulcan has other things on his mind, having broken up with Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and mulling an exit from Starfleet to dedicate himself to the rebuilding of the diasporic Vulcan race in the wake of the passing of his older, alternate-timeline self Ambassador Spock (the late Leonard Nimoy, to whom the film is dedicated).
These internal strains and escape-hatch plans are swept suddenly aside by the catastrophic contact with Krall and his minions, and the value of the crew’s collaborative unity is reinforced by their struggles against him. Stranded and separated on an isolated planet in an uncharted nebula, with much of the ship’s crew dead or captive and soon to be killed to feed Krall’s continued self-renewal process, Kirk and his officers uncover their foe’s troubling history and attempt to first free their crew from his clutches and then foil his destructive plans for revenge on the Federation. They are aided by two survivors of Krall’s traps: Kalara (Lydia Wilson), who claims to have lost her crew to Krall’s forces as Kirk fears might happen to him, and Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a survivalist scavenger on Krall’s base planet who lost her family at his hands and becomes a prickly foil to Scotty (no filmmaker outside of Edgar Wright gets Pegg as a lead, but I’ll be damned if he isn’t the finest comic-relief blockbuster sidekick working in Hollywood today).
Narratively, Pegg and Jung smartly construct the core section of Star Trek Beyond as an extended away mission on that planet, emphasizing character arcs and sparking interactions, drama, and action by splitting up the prominent crew members: Kirk and Ensign Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin), Spock and Doctor McCoy (Karl Urban), and Scotty and Jaylah all coupled up, with Uhura and Sulu (John Cho) imprisoned with the rest of the ship’s crew. When they reunite after a brazen, clever rescue involving phasers, transporters, holographic distractions, hand-to-hand combat, and Kirk bombing around on a motorbike, the film builds towards its more predictable climax at Yorktown, with Kirk and Krall slugging it out in a classic-Trek-film final fight.
It’s worth noting how much of Star Trek Beyond works and how well, with the action-oriented Lin (who directed no less than four Fast & Furious movies) synthesizing the expected blockbuster effects sequences while indulging his unabashed Trekker side with nods to and intelligent employments of more familiar franchise elements and themes. This synthesis bears the most fruit in the film’s giddiest, more joyful sequence, during which the Enterprise crew (with an assist from Jaylah) incapacitate Krall’s swarming fleet by combining science-wonk tech solutions with rebel-cool rock n’ roll brashness to the propulsive rhythm of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” (“classical music”, as Spock and McCoy observe) If the scene is more Fast & Furious than Star Trek, perhaps Lin can be forgiven for the indulgence; in a reboot series that has never lacked for fun, this moment is Peak Fun.
Star Trek Beyond, like its two reboot series predecessors (collectively known in the Trek community as the Kelvin Timeline, after Kirk’s father’s ship in the 2009 Star Trek), succeeds wildly in Making Star Trek Fun Again, not to mention making it profitable on a scale it never had been before. This swallowing of the popular but commercially modest sci-fi universe with its cerebral tangents by geek-empowered Hollywood and its prerogatives for flashy, easily-marketed entertainment has exacted a cost on the product, which purist Trekkers will be glad to expound about at length if you ask them to. But it has also renewed and re-energized Star Trek, which had become creatively and commercially moribund, and given it a sizable (if not as discerning) new fan base.
The reboot films have also provided the necessary momentum to bring Star Trek back to its ideal medium, television, which has belatedly caught up to creator Gene Roddenberry’s ambitious storytelling vision and the innovations in serialized screen storytelling that his followers (especially on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) felt secure enough to push to their devoted fan base. The Trek movies have always emphasized adventure over ideas (this is part of the reason The Next Generation movies were mostly middling, and why DS9 never crossed over to the big screen), but ideas and themes have taken consistent precedence on the small screen. With future Star Trek films providing the adventure and the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery show likely to tackle ideas, the future of this vision of the future looks as bright as it’s ever been.
Suicide Squad (2016; Directed by David Ayer)
Suicide Squad is bad, and I don’t mean “bad” as in “good”, as the kids like to say these days. Murky, violent, and disavowing any lingering sense of morality or discernment or empathy, David Ayer’s comic-book-villains-act-the-hero action pornography has the visual aesthetic of a dime-store faux-punk-rock poser spewing obscenities and vomit while sinking inexorably into a tar pit. But this movie is ugly on levels deeper than its leprous skin. Beneath the visible cankered tumour on the surface is a diseased biomass of retrograde sexual and gender politics, authoritarian assumptions, and (comparatively benign) lazy, shallow, and incoherent characterization and storytelling. Suicide Squad is to superhero blockbusters as Donald Trump is to public life: so manifestly incompetent, demonstrably dishonest, patently disgusting, and robustly objectionable in so many different ways that it’s difficult to even apprehend them all, let alone detail them in any comprehensive manner.
The latest entry in the hastily-erected DC Extended Universe, Suicide Squad makes one long for the proportionally mild transgressions of Zack Snyder’s gracelessly ponderous Superman films. At least those juvenile fascistic power fantasies are generally pretty to look at. This one is a gurgling, miasmatic bog of hideous misbegotten design, unsightly cinematography (its colour palette varies from baldly necrotic to the hue of regurgitated bubblegum), and terrible, nasty ideas cannibalizing each other and then clubbing the desperate surviving concepts to death with cudgels of stripped bone. I may exhaust my supply of metaphors of decay and repugnance before even wading into a synopsis of its plot, such as it is, but no amount of descriptive bile can change the fact that, despite (because of?) its nauseating nature, Suicide Squad was a firm box office success. Were it not for the disheartening election of its splenetic, syphilitic tangerine of a spiritual confrère to the White House in the same year, the American public’s decision to anoint Suicide Squad as a hit movie may have been the most lamentable national mistake of 2016.
The concept of the titular team of psychopathic criminals, cold-blooded killers, and anti-social freaks dispatched as expendable special forces on nigh-on impossible and likely lethal missions (based on the DC Comics titles) is introduced surprisingly quickly and with unsurprisingly little practical justification. The Squad is the brainchild of U.S. deep state hardass Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who’s so tough and no-nonsense she makes Stalin look like a triggered snowflake in comparison. Waller argues that deploying a team of incredibly dangerous wild cards to safeguard American power interests is defensible because the ineffably powerful and inherent uncontrollable Superman is out there in the world (although, as of the end of Batman v. Superman, he’s also dead, but she may know what we all assumed: he isn’t really) and therefore other such powerful beings might be too. No one else effectively pushes back against this Cheneyite paranoid nonsense, “art” (those air quotes are so necessary) thus reflecting life. Not only does Suicide Squad take the total triumph of the One Percent Doctrine and War on Terror zero-sum-ery in the U.S. intelligence and military community (or at least this cartoon version of it) for granted, it considers itself serious and even wise for embracing the use of the blackest of black-ops skullduggery in the supposed defence of beknighted liberty.
And so, at the snap of Waller’s fingers, waves of armed and armoured foot soldiers swoop down on the grimy ultra-maximum-security facilities holding these dangerous and reluctant commandos to set them loose on the enemies of the republic. The key pair of Suicide Squaddies that we’re evidently supposed to find somehow sympathetic are skilled sharpshooting assassin Deadshot (Will Smith) and mascara-smeared, screw-loose manic nympho-clown Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). Deadshot, being a Will Smith character, has a beloved daughter whose innocent disapproval of his contract-killing ways gives him soulful pangs of guilt. Harley, being a Margot Robbie character, is hyper-sexualized and objectified to an obscene extent, all while pining with twisted Stockholm-Syndrome-ized longing for her Insane Clown Sugar Daddy guru, the Joker (Jared Leto).
Deadshot and Harley Quinn are joined by a rogue’s gallery of antihero blackguards: Jai Courtney as a dirtbag Aussie thief and lethal boomerang-hurler, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as the super-strong reptilian Killer Croc, Jay Hernandez as a fire-summoning Latino gangbanger, and Adam Beach and Karen Fukuhara as even more minor tag-alongs. Entrusted to the supervision of Special Forces Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and compelled to obey orders by Waller’s threats of immediate termination if they don’t, the Squad is dispatched to the evacuated Midway City (actually urban Toronto, where the film was shot) to neutralize the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), an ancient evil magical spirit that has possessed the body of Flag’s archaeologist love interest and is causing some large-scale supernatural havoc.
This adventure involves lots of shooting and punching and kicking, mostly half-glimpsed in the nocturnal setting, as well as the requisite explosions. For all of the frantic, overwrought activity and quick-cut pseudo-subversive insanity that Ayer deploys on his cinematic canvas, Suicide Squad is stunningly boring. Things simply happen, not because of believable character choices or the logical progression of events but because things happening is purportedly cool. Smith and Robbie, enervated and charming star-level performers as they are, find themselves repeatedly let down by the dialogue: they seem game for transgressive fun (especially the peppy Robbie) and positively beg for dagger-thrusting one-liners after particular acts of violent grace, but the punchlines are uniformly flat and recycled (Ayer wrote the script too, so he can’t even shift the blame). Hernandez is the only supporting Squaddie allowed to make any sort of impression, his El Diablo holding back his fiery powers after they caused an unfathomable personal tragedy, but his features lose expressiveness under a mask of tattoos (so much ink in this damn movie) and casual assumed racism diminishes him as well. It’s sad, as well, to remember Akinnuoye-Agbaje on Lost, when his Mr. Eko portended the actor as the next Idris Elba, and see him hidden beneath prosthetics and growls here.
There’s layers of failure to Suicide Squad. We now know about its disappointing incompetence, but beneath that is its active, deplorable offensiveness. Much of this deplorability seems to swirl around and even emanate from Leto’s tackily gangsta-fied Joker. Despite the actor and character’s high billing, Leto is only in the movie for an extended-cameo fraction of its running time, and plays a very minimal role in the narrative. But his Joker is a flame for the misshapen moths of the movie’s ugliness to swarm to, dark shadows and the foul stench of burning wings abounding.
Greasy, spiky, leering, and utterly non-frightening, Leto plays DC’s iconic supervillain as a sadistic but preening kooky prick who seems like he could be toppled by a mildly-determined parole officer, or even a stern stepmother. The press coverage of Leto’s performance was an unintentional comedy goldmine for details of his irritating, amateurish Method approach. He never broke character during production (Smith drily claimed never to have met him, though perhaps he meant to say that he wished he hadn’t), annoyed his fellow cast members with grating practical jokes, hung out with mental patients, watched Alejandro Jodorowsky movies, read about shamanism, and listened exclusively to 1920s gospel music (Leto hilariously explained this last nonsensical indulgence by sharing his impression that the Joker “may be much older than people think”). Despite immersion in such eccentric material, Leto’s Joker is almost perversely derivative, recombining the vocal deliveries of the iconic Joker actors (Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, and of course Heath Ledger) into something thoroughly unshocking and unsurprising.
But Leto’s Joker is in the film just long enough to fatally infect it, especially as regards Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. The character’s presentation as a coquettish corporate-punk-rock jailbait sex object, her body subject to the invasive male gaze of Ayer’s camera as of the eyes of every man in the movie, just wasn’t enough, it seems. Her addictive devotion to the Joker, her sole balancing motivation, is shown to have been compelled by harsh and manipulative psychological and physical torture. Suicide Squad attempts to emphasize the fun in their dysfunction, but the relationship between Harley and the Joker is simply too disturbing, flaunting its trauma-triggering queasiness with too much irresponsible petulance, to qualify as entertainment.
This is how bad Suicide Squad is. It is not content to simply pollute movie screens with repellent visual excrement, disfigure escapist superhero fun with needlessly mean politics and nihilistic violent abandon, or ruthlessly objectify every person in its orbit. No, it must also recklessly exploit the power politics of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse for a nasty vicarious thrill, paining victims and flippantly diminishing that pain as a subversive lark. Suicide Squad is an ordeal for the senses, the mind, the soul. Many people paid to see it, many of them loved it. That’s not good, it’s bad. And, contrary to what this movie believes, bad does not mean good.
Love & Friendship (2016; Directed by Whit Stillman)
Whit Stillman’s stinging, practically deadpan cinematic take on Jane Austen’s early novel Lady Susan is a little marvel. Starring Kate Beckinsale as the unabashedly self-interested, acerbically intelligent, and masterfully manipulative Lady Susan Vernon, Love & Friendship is a welcome left turn in the recent trajectory of screen adaptations of Austen’s work. Often emphasizing bosom-heaving romance at the expense of the late 18th-/early 19th-century novelist’s biting wit and subtly subversive satire of the manners, standards, and social mores of Regency England, popular Austen adaptations of recent decades reside (in the hearts and minds of their mainstream chick-flick fans more so than their creators, if we’re being fair) in a gauzy space of gentlemen and ladies fulfilling their romantic hopes as well as their socioeconomic requirements within a set of well-defined rules that everyone recognizes and gladly abides by. In the face of the post-Sexual Revolution free-for-all of modern courtship, many women (and probably a lot of men, too) locate in Jane Austen’s depiction of the society of her time a simplicity, innocence, and intelligibility that is comforting.
At the risk of sounding like a pedantic literary critic, such conclusions, valid though they may be in the stirred soul of the viewer or the reader, are nearly the opposite of Jane Austen’s abiding intent, as much as it can be descried at our historical remove. Austen’s novels so unerringly reproduced the byzantine and frequently unspoken standards of behaviour that governed every element of public interactions in the comfortable classes of her time and place in order to probe them, puncture them, and find them wanting, even to label them as patently ludicrous. Her prose is precisely balanced to destabilize the mannered assumptions of England’s landed gentry via its own polite discourse. Romantic fulfillment and moral equilibrium are maintained in her novels as literary conventions, but Austen’s agile mind and compositional dexterity are doggedly turned to demonstrating the weakness of reliance on convention.
Stillman’s Love & Friendship gets this truth about Austen more correct than any recent adaptation of note (even the beknighted BBC costume dramas have displayed a soft-focus tendency lately). It’s a sharper pure comedy than any Austen film adaptation I’ve ever seen (with the possible exception of Clueless), treating romantic love as just another delicious punchline. It’s debatable whether Stillman selects a lesser-known minor Austen work (Lady Susan was likely written before Austen was 20 years old, and is thus sometimes classified as juvenilia, much like the separate story whose title it borrows; it also was not published in her lifetime, unlike her big six novels) in order to push her sharp wit to the foreground via material not so canonically rigid and planted in the public mind, or if the material itself, less beholden to literary convention and even freely rebellious in the face of such standards, demands such an approach. Either way, Love & Friendship constructs a convincing simulacrum of proper social etiquette and mediated courtship behaviour before primly revealing its hypocrisy and ridiculousness with dry delight.
Like other Austen novels, Love & Friendship involves the marriage relations, social interactions, and romantic entanglements of a compelx web of landed gentry, aristocrats, and occasional lower-register figures. Stillman, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed it, does a bang-up job establishing his dramatis personae and their intereweaving connections, so I won’t approximate it with an involved synopsis in print. His technique for introducing characters is clever and often amusing: characters pose in subtle post-produced oval frames with their names and brief (sometimes mocking) descriptions of their role, like descriptive portraits. He also ably approximates the epistolary nature of Austen’s novel on occasion, advancing plot and character (and even wringing out wry laughs) by displaying in onscreen titles the words being read in letters between the characters.
Plot-wise, it’s worth detailing at least that Lady Susan, a young widow without an income of her own, is simultaneously seeking an advantageous marriage match for her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) and for herself. Suddenly rushing away from a previous living situation with the lordly Manwarings after a scandalous dalliance with the Lord, Susan lands at Churchill, the estate of her brother-in-law, Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards). She becomes ever more intimately acquainted with the dashing young bachelor Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), the brother of Vernon’s wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell), while her daughter seems to be destined for a match with a hilariously dimwitted but unfailingly cheerful baronet, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). The abiding disapproval of DeCourcy’s family, shocked by Susan’s unsavoury reputation and lack of wealth, ever threatens her contact with Reginald, and similar disapproval by the husband of her American best friend Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny; Stephen Fry is Mr. Johnson in a brief cameo) consistently dogs their conspiratorial conversations.
It’s evident from very little exposure to Beckinsale’s charming and clever puppet-mistress that her smarts and insight into the psychology of others around her will win her the day. It’s a modern conceit, perhaps, that Lady Susan’s blithe unconcern for the ruling mores of her society and her sly manipulation of social assumptions and sensibilities results in great success rather than a conclusive moral upbraiding. Austen’s text reserves more punishment for her transgressions, but even then it’s mild compared to the fates of similar intriguing women in her other novels.
The dominant impression of Love & Friendship is that conceptions of romance are useful only to direct outcomes, to position people in a desired manner, as the sweet carrots utilized in lieu of a firmer stick. Stillman’s film is a minor wonder for this subversion of romantic comedy convention, yes. But it’s also sharp and funny on a consistent basis, and respects Austen’s subtly acerbic barbs with a febrile reverence. The film’s comic timing is exquisite. Stillman and his editor Sophie Corra hold the pauses after end-of-scene punchlines for just a brief beat before Mark Suozzo’s chamber-music score cues in at just the right moment, like a sophisticated, inherently satisfying laugh-track. Finally, you will find yourself thinking with every finely-modulated and impeccably delivered quip, a screen version of Jane Austen’s work that understands and intelligently conveys the scalpel-sharp wit of her writing to full effect.
Kon-Tiki (2012; Directed by Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg)
Thor Heyerdahl’s famous, semi-mad Kon-Tiki expedition of 1947 is of a piece with the intrepid history of the seabound trailblazing of Norwegians going back to Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen, to say nothing of Leif Erikson and the Vikings. The brave voyage saw the self-promoting adventurer/ethnographer and five crew members build and sail a traditional Peruvian balsa-wood raft from the South American coast halfway across the Pacific Ocean to French Polynesia to prove that those remote islands could have been settled from the east rather than the west and Asia, as goes the (still-prevailing) anthropological consensus.
The subject of an Oscar-winning feature documentary in 1950 and several best-selling books, the Kon-Tiki expedition receives a semi-fictionalized big-screen glorification from Norwegian directorial duo Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg. Starring the lanky, piercingly blue-eyed Pål Sverre Vanheim Hagen as an impacably determined but notably quixotic version of Heyerdahl, Kon-Tiki aggrandizes a remarkable feat of daring, ingenuity and endurance into a quest of mythic heroism. As impressive, exciting, and beautiful as the film can be, it doesn’t engage honestly with the inconclusiveness of what the expedition truly proved about the history of Polynesian migration, not to mention the European imperialism that underscored the romanticized scientific quest narrative favoured by Heyerdahl and thus by the filmmakers.
Kon-Tiki earned a Best Foreign-Language Film nomination from the Academy following its release, although the English-language version I viewed stumbles with painful inelegance and linguistic awkwardness through its establishing act. Heyerdahl, first seen courting danger as a child to impress his friends and requiring their rescue after falling into a frozen lake in his native Norway, begins formulating his still-controversial theory that the remote islands of Polynesia were settled by ancient sailors from South America rather than from Asia while living with and studying the native peoples of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas along with his wife Liv (Agnes Kittelsen; Heyerdahl’s adventurism away from home sabotaged their marriage and led to divorce, which the film hints at). Noting similarities in the traditional statues of pre-Columbian South American and Polynesian cultures, Heyerdahl becomes convinced that a migratory voyage from the east over thousands of kilometres of open ocean was not only possible but likely, brushing aside the island-hopping travel patterns of the westward hypothesis, along with the volumes of solid evidence for an Asian origin for Polynesian settlement.
With a book detailing his theories rejected by academic publishers in New York City, Heyerdahl desperately pivots from one of their dismissals to his seemingly-suicidal but publicity-friendly plan to build a balsa-wood raft without any modern materials and drift it himself across the inhospitable Pacific to prove his point. Reputable scientific-exploration societies shut him down as well, but a chance meeting in a Manhattan bar with an expat Norwegian engineer and refrigerator salesman named Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) who believes in the wild scheme gives Heyerdahl the impetus to travel to Peru and assemble a crew and a raft to attempt the voyage.
One jaunty team-introducing scene and an assemblage montage later, Heyerdahl and crew push off from a Peruvian harbour on their raft, dubbed the Kon-Tiki, and are alone on the wide Pacific at the mercy of the ocean currents that they hope will convey them to their Polynesian target destination. Kon-Tiki the film launches at this point as well, becoming more taut, more involving, better-written, and even intermittently visionary. Heyerdahl & Co. encounter a drenching storm, an enormous, docile whale shark (the revelation shot of which is worthy of Jaws), and wondrous bioluminescent jellyfish; they contend with the waterlogged degradation of their raft, boredom and isolation, (largely fabricated) interpersonal conflict, and stalking, ominous sharks.
A riveting shark attack sequence indeed constitutes the central fulcrum of the crew’s perilous voyage. It begins with an imprudent pet parrot, shifts to a gravitas-laden long holding shot of one crew member’s apprehension of their dangerous encirclement by the ocean predators that is like something out of the work of fellow Scandinavian director Ingmar Bergman, explodes in a burst of gore worthy of Peckinpah or Tarantino, and maintains a frayed-nerve disquiet through its (not unpredictable) concluding predicament. The entirety of the raft-borne scenes (which take up most of the running time) greatly elevate Kon-Tiki after its patchy, near-alienating opening, and this engrossing, masterful scene in particular seems torn from a much grander, finer Herzog-meets-Spielberg ocean epic of man’s emotional and existential precariousness and isolation in the face of nature’s indifferent lethality. A tremendous astral god’s-eye-view pull-back effects shot, the camera retreating skyward from the raft through the clouds and into atmospheric orbit before plunging back to our ocean-going heroes, emphasizes the solitude of their plight and the smallness of their accomplishment in universal terms.
Kon-Tiki‘s gradually-won quality as a visual stunning and purely entertaining nautical adventure, its sheer, irresistible sweep, elides any number of artistic-license alterations, inventions, and intellectually dishonest omissions in the structuring of the narrative of Heyerdahl’s expedition (the screenplay is by Petter Skavlan). As if the truth of such a daring voyage, captained by a blond Norwegian academic with little sailing experience who couldn’t even swim, wasn’t incredible enough, Skavlan must embellish innumerable small details and plot conflicts. An ominous, threatening, and almost completely imaginary “Galapagos vortex” heightens the Kon-Tiki‘s peril as it drifts helplessly, in desperate hope of catching the equatorial currents that will take it to Polynesia; the “vortex” is a fantastical invention, and the illustration shown to Heyerdahl by a crew member comes from an Edgar Allen Poe story (and is even captioned as such in the book shown). Heyerdahl was in fact more concerned that the highly-maneuverable raft’s failure to catch the requisite currents would lead it to the Central American coast and thus fail to support his theory.
Watzinger suffers particularly from the scriptual inventions: in real life a formidable physical specimen, former athlete, and WWII Norwegian resistance veteran like three other crew members, Christiansen plays him as a pudgy, worrisome burden on the others, a laughably poor match for the adventurous life whose engineer’s concern for the structural integrity of the raft nearly undermines Heyerdahl’s fanaticism for maintaining a historically-accurate recreation of the ancient Peruvians’ raft technology. Conflicts on board the raft were evidently rare, the relative harmony of the operations usually attributed to Heyerdahl’s planning and steady leadership.
A more subtle but perhaps greater transgression lies hidden in Kon-Tiki‘s inspirational surge of score-swelling triumph at the success of Heyerdahl’s quest. Despite Heyerdahl’s assertions that the Kon-Tiki expedition proved that at least some of Polynesia was settled by South American travellers, what it proved was only that the voyage could have been made by indigenous peoples circa 500 A.D. A wealth of cultural, anthropological, linguistic, geographic, botanical, biological, and genetic evidence supports the Asian settlement hypothesis, which remains the scientific consensus. Kon-Tiki does not acknowledge this as it would feel like admitting that the Kon-Tiki‘s remarkable feat was a quasi-empirical folly, impressive as derring-do but inconclusive as science. There is also no mention of Heyerdahl’s massively dubious, ethnocentric (indeed, nearly Aryanist) belief that the South American voyages to Polynesia were undertaken by tall, white-skinned, red-haired people of European ancestry, which flies as flagrantly in the face of everything known about Pre-Columbian Andean civilization as, say, the Book of Mormon does.
Perhaps one might hope that Kon-Tiki was more upfront about some of this, or that it recognized the imperial arrogance at the heart of Thor Heyerdahl’s paternalistic regard for ancient Peruvians and indigenous Polynesians and his quest to demonstrate their kinship through a practical demonstration of seamanship. Like the Kon-Tiki expedition itself, this film embraces the romance of adventure over the cold, rational aggregation of scientific truth. Heyerdahl was canny enough to understand that the sweeping appeal of such romance would gloss over the weaknesses of his studies, and Rønning and Sandberg are canny and skilled enough to grasp and to demonstrate that principle as well.
The Wolverine (2013; Directed by James Mangold)
The Wolverine is now a largely forgotten entry in the X-Men film franchise/extended universe octopus, and technically a retroactively erased one, if the timeline-altering machinations of Days of Future Past are considered strictly canonical. It’s a bit unfortunate, as James Mangold’s Japan-centric story of the reluctant return of Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to active moral action-heroism after self-imposed exile is better than some of what came before and after it in this uneven but often rewarding superhero film series.
Jackman’s Logan begins the movie’s contemporary narrative living alone in the vast, chilly Canadian wilderness. He’s retreated into the lonesome wild to simmer in his grief and guilt over the death of fellow X-Person and subject of unrequited love, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, appearing to him in gauzy bedroom visions). Her end came at his hand (or, rather, at his adamantium claws) in X-Men: The Last Stand, Brett Ratner’s best-forgotten, out-with-a-whimper conclusion to the original trilogy of X-films, and although it was a tragically necessary act to save the world from her uncontrolled Dark Phoenix telekinetic powers, he’s understandably not close to getting over it.
Logan is pulled back into the messy human world when his only furtive companion, an old bear whose proud, grizzled seclusion is a metaphorical mirror of his own, is killed by callow, dishonourable hunters. In the midst of a bar-fight confrontation over this, he’s aided by Japanese martial-artist and future-glimpsing fellow mutant Yukio (Rila Fukushima). Her appearance in the remote Canadian north is far from random: she’s been sent to solicit Logan’s presence in the Land of the Rising Sun by her boss, wealthy industrialist Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi).
Yashida was seen in the film’s WWII flashback opening sequence (played as a young man by Ken Yamamura) being saved from the atomic blast of the Nagasaki bomb by POW Logan and his fantastic healing ability (I’ve said so before, but the X-Men films have never shaken their addiction to invoking the horrors of 20th Century history to make thematic points since Bryan Singer kicked off the franchise at the gates of a Nazi concentration camp). Now a dying old man at the end of a long, fruitful life that Logan’s choice gifted him, Yashida claims to want to thank the Wolverine personally before passing away. But the potential of the mutant’s healing capacity might be of more interest to the old man, and he offers Logan, with his increasing angst at his inability to age and eventually pass on himself, a chance to end his pain as well.
Yashida’s apparent death soon after launches an involved succession battle over his lucrative and influential business empire, drawing in his preferred heir and granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), his power-hungry samurai-wannabe son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), her Justice Minister fiancée (Brian Tee), an athletic archer bodyguard in Yashida’s employ (Will Yun Lee), treacherous poison-breathed mutant femme fatale Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a horde of Yakuza thugs, and a towering robotic samurai. Logan, intermittently haunted by the past, hesitantly principled about the present, and gruffly ambivalent about the future, is of course stuck square in the middle.
Mangold’s film, written by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, has an orientalist tinge to its setting and themes, relying on a postcard Japan of bustling cities, rolling rural hills, bullet trains (an amazing fight and pursuit sequence takes place in and on top of one of those), high technology, pagodas and zen gardens, shōji houses, and samurai fixations aplenty. Like many Hollywood blockbuster depictions of the country, Japan presents in The Wolverine as a contemporaneous floating world, infused with the exquisite romantic and/or sensationalist idealizations common to Edo-period Japanese painting. If you want quotidian Japanese reality on a cinema screen, I suppose you’d go to Ozu rather than a Marvel Comics actionfest, but such persistent stereotyping certainly grates nonetheless.
Still, The Wolverine is reasonably exciting when it needs to be and delves thoughtfully, if not too deeply, into its central character’s superheroic internal conflicts. Logan’s mind, heart, and soul is forever at irreconcilable odds with his body; the latter is indestructible and alienatingly foreign to his understanding, but the former are very much not. Placing this man at literal war with the implications of his own corporeal reality in a foreign setting, especially a land of mythic alterity and closed-system cultural inscrutability like Japan, is a canny way to throw Logan’s internal dilemmas into the sharpest possible relief. Mangold and Jackman are getting another swan-song shot this year at exploring this character’s unique agonies in the buzzed-about Logan, and it’s worth keeping the solid psychological and thematic consistency of The Wolverine in mind when thinking about what that new film hopes to accomplish with the character.
Hannibal (NBC; 2013-2015)
Bryan Fuller’s ornately gory and boldly intriguing take on the world of Thomas Harris’ serial-killer novels is magnificently stylish and written with simultaneous obscuring sophistication and bloody-minded brutality, much like its titular genius psychologist and murderer-cannibal, played with coldly-controlled unpredictability by Mads Mikkelsen. Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s viscera-splattered psycho-dramatic pas à deux with FBI criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy, an average-to-good actor who appears woefully inadequate next to Mikkelsen’s magisterial work) unfolded over three seasons on NBC, and the impressive feat of sliding quite so much artful gore (not to mention so much gory art) onto American network television was tempered by the critically-favoured but insufficiently-watched show’s cancellation, which unfortunately truncates its narrative.
Though perhaps three servings was enough of this particularly rich dish. The flavours were suitably changed after each season: Season One took the fundamentally generic form of a murder-of-the-week procedural, Season Two batted that form around before moving into more baroque thriller-horror territory, and Season Three went in whole other directions entirely. Despite its variation, its fearlessness, its visual invention, its evolving symbology and slippery metaphorical implications, Hannibal is a dinner guest that wears out its welcome to some extent by the end of its second season, in my estimation.
But until then – and even mostly after that point, if we’re being honest – Hannibal is engrossing and frequently gorgeous television that genuinely draws blood. It can take itself too seriously by half, and the morbid gallows humour of its early episodes (mostly the domain of the crime scene lab rats played by Aaron Abrams and Scott Thompson) drains away as the psychological duel between Hannibal and Will gains in dimension and importance, pivoting ever more into the involved inner mythology of the show. It increasingly relies on recurring guest stars (most prominently Gillian Anderson, Eddie Izzard, Michael Pitt and Joe Anderson, and Raúl Esparza as various figures in the Lecter-verse) for new narrative direction and thematic impact, as well.
But the ingredients of the remarkable cinematography, acute writing, and Mikkelsen’s impeccable, dangerously unreadably Lecter are so consistently strong and uniformly constant that even a misguided episode or two can’t embitter the intoxicating brew. Hannibal may not be truly great, but it’s about as close as a show can get without grabbing that top rung, especially on network TV, with its peculiar artistic constraints.
Trapped (RÚV; 2015-2016)
Created and partially directed by Baltasar Kormákur (Everest), Trapped is a moody, darkling murder mystery drama set in a remote Icelandic town full of dark and deadly secrets. Seyðisfjörður (not going to help you pronounce that, sorry) might seem like a sleepy, isolated settlement at the end of a fjord on Iceland’s east coast that only springs briefly to mild life when a regular international ferry from Denmark via the Faroe Islands docks at its small port and disgorges a pack of passengers. The town doesn’t need much of a police force, subsisting on a mere three members of the national police (Lögreglan) to keep the order: the hefty, bearded Andri (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), a former hotshot Reykjavík detective hiding out in the boonies after a failure on a past case and struggling through a divorce with Agnes (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir), the mother of his two daughters, and his deputies Hinrika (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir) and Ásgeir (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson). Still, whispers of past traumas haunt Seyðisfjörður, namely a fire at the local fish factory seven years before the start of the series that claimed the life of Agnes’s younger sister and lead to the imprisonment and ostracizing of her boyfriend Hjörtur (Baltasar Breki Samper), who was blamed for the blaze.
Those ghosts of the town’s past and the demons of its present, which sees the town’s prominent citizens scheming with government figures to buy up fjord-fronting land in anticipation of a potential moonshot deal for a Chinese-funded shipping superport, surface uncomfortably along with a headless, limbless torso found floating in the water in conjunction with the arrival of the Smyril Line ferry. A simultaneous snowstorm closes the only mountain pass road into town, forcing Andri and his overburdened team to alone investigate the murder of the mutilated body and the increasingly sprawling web of crime around it.
Trapped controls its visuals and its keen sense of place with confidence, and fits snugly into the contemporary, internationally-recognized renaissance of Scandinavian television mysteries known as Nordic noir. It draws you in with its impressive scope and tantalizing unknowns, but the interest it earns withers disappointingly on the vine well before its final tenth episode. It’s at least two and maybe even three or four episodes too long, and fills the extra time with subplots (often pointless or perfunctorily resolved ones), misdirections, and half-related scenes of danger and peril: Andri gets stuck in a freezer, Andri gets stuck in an avalanche, Andri wrestles with the most dangerous man in the Faroe Islands (a character actually gives the guy that title, which sounds laughable but might actually be pretty impressive, if you consider what they do to pilot whales on that remote archipelago).
The dialogue, at least in English subtitled translation, also leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to expressiveness and subtlety. Perhaps some nuances are lost from the Icelandic, I can’t rightly say, but the cast of domestically-based Icelandic actors don’t exactly plumb the depths of the script’s possibilities either. Few of them stand out and demonstrate distinctive personalities, let alone constitute memorable performances, and with a cast of characters as large as this one, this can lead to confusion and uncertainty about their relationships to one another and therefore can muddy the wider plot.
Trapped isn’t great, and is often no better than passable. What it does provide is a resonant (if not precisely attractive or tourism-encouraging) portrait of its setting, though it could do with some greater depth of social context in this vein: for example, the clutch of deaths and law-breaking acts that afflict the town would equal several years’ worth of total criminal output for the whole of Iceland, a country with an incredibly low violent crime rate. As with so many mystery shows from international television, Trapped is best as a prismatic view into life in a different, unique place well apart from our own location and experience.