“The Terror” and the Consuming Horrors of British Imperialism

September 18, 2018 Leave a comment

The Terror (AMC; 2018)

There’s a moment in the graphically baroque climax of AMC’s compelling Arctic survival horror/drama The Terror that gives in to temptation and drags the burgeoning anthology series’ grinding subtext about the costs of ravenous British imperialism into full-throated text with amplified bravado. Fair warning, though, that to discuss this moment (and indeed the entirety of the series, which the strong-stomached viewer is sure to devour regardless) involves venturing into spoilers.

Engineering a fateful confrontation with the avenging polar-bear-esque monster that has been hunting down and consuming the dwindling remnants of the ill-fated Franklin expedition in the Arctic for months, sociopathic mutineer Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis) takes leave of the shackles of respectable Victorian reason, order, and hierarchy. He addresses the spirits of the windy wastes, renouncing the anchoring mainstays of the Empire that spanned a third of the world but whose best technology and ingenuity proved no match for the inhospitable cold and difficulty of the North. “Our empire is not the only empire,” Hickey monologues as the beast known as tuunbaq lumbers towards his band of terrified expedition survivors. But his attempt to appropriate the role of indigenous shaman to the creature fails in a spectacularly gory fashion, even as tuunbaq succumbs to its sustained unhealthy diet of diseased British sailors. This predatory emissary of the hostile native environment that the imperial subalterns seek to conquer consumes them, but that consumption likewise poisons and destroys that emissary.

The visceral explosion of this climax is a sweeping thesis statement of a series of themes and ideas about imperialism, masculinity, and military hierarchy that had built their impact prior to that point in The Terror with slow (perhaps too slow, at first) incremental aggregation. The ten-episode narrative begins with the entry into the Arctic waterways of the polar exploration voyage led by Sir John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds). It takes its time establishing the various characters onboard the two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, among them leadership figures such as Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris) and Commander James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), as well as surgeon and naturalist Harry Goodsir (Paul Ready) and men lower down the ranks like Hickey, with their own tensions and concerns interwoven with and separate from those of the officers. With the vicious Arctic winter coming on and the Erebus and the Terror stranded in constricting ice, Hickey urges Franklin to abandon his plan to weather the season on board the ships and begin travelling on foot towards settlements in order to survive. Their disagreements on this point are complicated by the appearance and attacks of tuunbaq, as well as by the presence of an Inuk woman they call Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen), who might exert some influence or at least possess some important connection to the monster that might safeguard the crew from its wrath.

Based on Dan Simmons’ best-selling novel of a decade ago, The Terror is built on the imaginative uncertainty underlying the horror of the Franklin expedition’s cataclysmic end (not a man who set out from the last port of call returned alive, but only fragmentary clues suggest the causes). Simmons’ addition of an element of supernatural horror served to dramatize and account for a disaster that history and the isolated hardness of the land, sea, and ice had left tantalizingly under-detailed, and combined with a flash-forward ending emphasizing climate change’s terrible effect on the polar regions gave this tale of Victorian heroic folly some contemporaneous relevance. History, science, and questionable notions of Canadian arctic sovereignty have since combined to alleviate more of the mystery around the Franklin expedition’s fate with the discovery in recent years of the wrecks of the Erebus and the Terror. But this still leaves major thematic and metaphorical implications to Simmons’ fictionalized narrative of the destruction of the expedition, whose television adaptation was supervised by Dan Kajganich and his team of writers (and executive produced by Ridley Scott as well as by Simmons himself).

The Terror doesn’t merely park the Franklin expedition’s demise on the premises of a (slightly goofy) gigantic all-devouring behemoth. The unforgiving elements, hostility to and misunderstanding of indigenous peoples who could have aided them, encroaching disease, lead poisoning from the cheaply-tinned canned food, and despair among and in-fighting between the men contribute to the disaster, as do a litany of unwise command decisions, first from Franklin (played by Hinds as an ineffectual booster too rigid in his ways and too far out of his depth), but later from Fitzjames (Menzies excels at playing men of assumed dignity who find themselves sinking into disastrous and fatal self-doubt) and even from the series’ putative protagonist and most sympathetic figure, Harris’ layered, savvy, brave Crozier, who proves as susceptible to weakness in the face of the howling Arctic wastes as any other man.

But the grander point of The Terror is that this well-supplied and capable band of British adventurers could not have helped but met lonely, cold, gruesome ends in the frozen north of the world. It is the logical end of their grandiose imperial hubris. Franklin’s team seeks to penetrate the Arctic waterways in search of the fabled commercial throughway known as the Northwest Passage, but when Goodsir attempts to explain to Lady Silence the vital importance of finding this passage for British economic and prestige concerns, he not only comes across as incomprehensible to her but ridiculous to us. There are numerous examples early in the series of that breed of confident-to-the-point-of-arrogance imperial/patriarchal/hierarchical masculine order that enervates their quest and provides the men with a sense of unity of purpose that is often the only thing that binds them to one another and keeps them alive. But that same binding sense of order also contains the seeds of the expedition’s demise, growing brittle and unenforceable as numbers dwindle and authority can no longer compel obedience with brute punitive force.

Cornelius Hickey is the nexus of authority’s impotent impunity. An Irishman and a homosexual, Hickey is already doubly othered in relation to the British imperial centre and its identity markers. He is privately chastized by a straight-arrow bible-thumping lieutenant for his penchant for buggery: in one of the series’ funniest scenes, this Lieutenant Irving, played by Ronan Raftery, suggests alternative outlets for these sublimated sexual energies, including “climbing exercises”. Hickey conceives of his Irishness, meanwhile, as a potential bridge to favour from fellow Irishman Crozier, but it mostly gains him epithets from his crewmates (it is never gestured to, but it’s hard to ignore that as Franklin’s men were starving to death in the Arctic between 1845 and 1848, the British Empire stood by as a million or more Irish starved to death in their own food-exporting country).

Punished for insubordination (ironically, for acting on a plan without orders that the command group was on the cusp of ordering anyway) with painful and humiliating lashes, Hickey is not cowed but emboldened. Crozier orders his punishment in recognition of the necessities of chain of command and the need to protect authority to preserve order, but ordering the whipping of Hickey is the one decision that most directly leads to the expedition’s disastrous demise. Otherwise canny and open-minded when it comes to strategies of survival, Crozier falls back on the imperatives of pitiless imperial authority and masculinized command strength in this instance and it costs his men dearly. This is not to diminish Hickey’s mutinous choices, which are deplorable and increasingly monstrous and entirely of his own terrible volition. But the punishment prods him in a dangerous direction that leads to a frozen vision of hell.

This hell, of course, involves cannibalism (oddly ritualized, in a carnival-mirror inversion of imperial etiquette), a possibility initially denied by a Victorian public culture that painted Franklin and his men as fallen heroes but now basically accepted as the evidence-supported horror of desperate survival that had to have been the expedition’s only end-point. There are layers of meaning to consumption of nourishment in The Terror: the men become sick from eating the lead-poisoned preserves, tuunbaq becomes sick from eating the men. Seal meat in a man’s stomach unveils Hickey’s treachery. When Hickey’s faction begin eating each other, a moral or spiritual sickness reduces them, especially the anatomist Goodsir, who is compelled to become their designated butcher against his will.

“Tell me what you eat,” declaims Lt. Hodgson (Christos Lawton) in anticipation of the final meeting with the creature, “and I will tell you what you are.” What Franklin’s desperate men eat is what they constitute as agents of imperial expansion and dominion: poison, corruption, cannibalistic self-destruction. Tuunbaq, superficially a vengeful spirit representing diminished and exploited indigenous peoples that strikes satisfyingly back against British colonial hubris, eats these corrupted bodies and is poisoned by them too. Even when utterly annihilated in microcosm, imperialism leaves an indelible mark. If Victorian Britain saw jingoistic masculine endurance and heroism in the Franklin expedition in the immediate aftermath of its loss, The Terror reflects a worldview more jaded and wary of imperial chest-beating and the long, cruel tail of its consequence.

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Categories: History, Reviews, Television

Film Review: Swiss Army Man

August 26, 2018 Leave a comment

Swiss Army Man (2016; Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)

In a way, Swiss Army Man is an easy movie to describe, textually and subtextually. In its simplest form, it’s a quirky bromantic comedy about socially-awkward loner Hank Thompson (Paul Dano), a man stranded on his own in the wilderness who finds companionship and a kind of salvation in the unlikely form of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), a farting, water-retaining, karate-chopping, projectile-spitting, and eventually talking corpse (a kind of “multi-purpose tool guy”, as Hank calls him, the closest the film comes to uttering its own title). On another level, it’s an extended and casually philosophic metaphor for depression and the condition’s often amplified hyper-awareness of social approbation.

But in another way, both more and less accurate, Swiss Army Man is a practically indescribable movie. Its humour is utterly idiosyncratic, whiplashing from the gallows variety of its core premise to loopy hipster-ish absurdity to bizarre conversational discourse to furious DIY creative inventiveness. Sometimes, this whiplashing occurs all in a single sequence: witness the deliriously funny central montage of Hank and Manny’s joyous friendship of makeshift civilization-substitutes and discovery of Manny’s myriad wacky and wonderful corporeal abilities, scored by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell’s hilarious scene-describing pop lyrics, which cross the line between diegetic and non-diegetic throughout the sequence. Swiss Army Man crosses other lines, too, of taste and comfort and seriousness. It basically crafts a tone and even a genre all its own out of discarded elements of other films, just like Hank creates a junkyard simulacra of the world he knew from trash in the forest to show Manny what life is like.

Swiss Army Man is the work of unique and fantastically imaginative writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who are credited in the opening titles as just “Daniels”. Add a third Daniel, the erstwhile Harry Potter who has become a left-field indie film spelunker of growing note, and another star with “Dan” in his surname (who has quietly grown into an actor capable of carrying even the most unwieldy cinematic weights), and that’s a great deal of Dan-tosterone for one little movie (and despite its non-traditional adorkable conception of masculinity, Swiss Army Man is a homo-centric film, make no mistake; women are either sex-object magazine pin-ups, or enigmatic passing-glance focuses of desirous idealization like the central figure of Sarah, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead).

In all seriousness, Radcliffe’s physical performance in this movie needs to be seen to be properly believed (I flashed back to seeing him as Cripple Jimmy in a London stage production of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, a precisely-observed use of his body that now looks like a warm-up for roles like this one): when not rocketing on the surface of the ocean like a jetski propelled by his own shuddering flatulence or afflicted with divining-rod erections, his body is flopped around like a filthy ragdoll by Dano’s Hank, unable to move under his own power. He deploys a twisted rictus of a smile with superb occasional effect, and Manny’s blank-slate mind leads him to question Hank with childlike curiosity and idiot-savant-hood about social customs and practices and taboos. Hank’s answers and Manny’s reactions to them often expose society’s rules as the absurdities they truly are, before segueing into Hank’s personal history and the anxieties that stand in between him and happiness.

As mentioned, Swiss Army Man is a compelling text on the subject of depression and social anxiety, embedding Hank’s internality and fear of social judgement into the narrative itself, right up to the ending. Hank’s literal journey out of the wilderness is also a figurative journey out of the no-man’s-land of his crippling anxiety, with the very weird Manny acting as his naïfish inadvertent mentor in the hard-won acceptance of his inherent weirdness, and thus of his own identity as a human being of some worth. Crucially, the Daniels tease a painful closing revelation that Manny’s specialness was entirely in Hank’s troubled mind, a corollary of that most obvious yet often hugely damaging response to displays of depression. But finally, Hank and Manny’s happy yet bizarre experiences are allowed to be real, not merely as a closing note of satisfaction for the audience but also an important recognition of the tangible reality of mental illness. Swiss Army Man is a loopy out-there delight, but it also carries a stronger and more rounded message about these issues than many a more serious-minded film.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp

August 3, 2018 Leave a comment

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018; Directed by Peyton Reed)

Ant-Man and the Wasp, like the generally fun trifle of a introductory film that it serves as a sequel to, is an amusing and diverting but ultimately shallow and inconsequential doodle on the margins of the gargantuan Marvel Cinematic Universe. This position is made even more starkly evident by its release a mere two months after the seismic superhero-caust of Avengers: Infinity War, whose (temporarily?) MCU-altering climactic events do not touch this predictably slick action-comedy (at least until its mid- and post-credit scenes, which I will not detail in any way). Though not outside of the larger narrative stream, Ant-Man and the Wasp is absorbed with its own concerns. Like most MCU films, it balances action, humour, character arcs, emotion, and mythology with a keen equilibrium that never feels like it’s following the formula it relies upon. Unlike the best MCU films (the Captain America trilogy, Thor: Ragnarok, the remarkable Black Panther) but very like its predecessor Ant-Man, it foreswears any sort of political themes or applicability. This movie is a lark, the very embodiment of a summer popcorn movie. And yet the (highly-constructed) rupture in the Marvel movie world that awaits it (the film’s events occur just before the events of Infinity War) casts a pall over the frothy brightness of Ant-Man and the Wasp nonetheless.

In its very establishing premise, of course, Ant-Man and the Wasp is integrated into the larger events of the rhizomatic MCU. Erstwhile Ant-Man Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is on the verge of completing two years of FBI-mandated house arrest for his cameo appearance in the intra-Avengers battle royale at a German airport in Civil War (he was kind of hard to miss, seeing as his Ant-Man suit allowed him to grow to 50+ feet tall and he fell on an airplane). He’s looking forward to spending time with his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) outside of the house (although in a cute opening scene, he constructs a cardboard-box playtime wonderland for their amusement), as well as to a new legitimate security business with his chatterbox buddy Luis (Michael Peña) and the rest of his former burglary crew (Tip “T.I.” Harris and David Dastmalchian).

Outside of his mild case of cabin fever and irritation at the FBI agent (Randall Park) constantly striving to catch him violating his house arrest, Scott is also feeling guilty about the consequences of his Avengers sojourn for his one-time mentor and prior Ant-Man Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his one-time flame and Pym’s daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). Hank and Hope are wanted for giving Scott the power suit (which he is supposed to have gotten rid of after his arrest but of course has not) and have gone on the run from the law, but they have also built a high-tech lab in a shrinkable office building in the hopes of solving a decades-old disappearance.

Pym’s wife/partner and Hope’s mother Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) vanished years before into the Quantum Realm (which Scott visited briefly in Ant-Man), and her family has built a high-tech tunnel in their lab in the hopes of going subatomic to find her and bring her back, a mission which they realize they will need Scott’s help to complete. Unfortunately, news of the lab and the many potentially lucrative technological goodies within has trickled out to shady arms dealer Sonny Burch (an oleaginous Walton Goggins), to whom the experimenting fugitives have turned for illicitly-obtained parts for their project. Burch and his henchmen thus join the FBI in pursuing Hank, Hope, Scott, and their size-fluctuating lab building around the San Francisco Bay area.

Another more personally-motivated pursuant is Ava Starr a.k.a. Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), the latest in a recent line of more shaded and complex MCU villains. She’s the daughter of a former S.H.I.E.L.D. colleague that Pym had fired and blacklisted for his dangerous experiments, one of which makes Ava an orphan and gives her the painful and soon-to-be-fatal ability to phase in and out of material reality. Trained and gang-pressed into a role as a spy and assassin, Ava now seeks to remedy her curse of a superpower with the help of Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), another ex-colleague of Pym’s at S.H.I.E.L.D. and a father-figure protector in her life, in a manner that will threaten Janet’s fate in the Quantum Realm.

This is a super-sized plot, but as in Ant-Man returning director Peyton Reed doesn’t allow it to get in the way of his lean, fun blockbuster potboiler. He retains the prior film’s general light tone and clever shrinking-and-growing action-comedy beats, the latter gags involving a salt shaker, a Pez dispenser, and ravenous seagulls, among other items and scenarios this time around. He also revisits Ant-Man’s signature comedic montage sequence (albeit in a fairly shoehorned-in manner), in which Peña‘s Luis narrates past events in a breezy, inimitable motormouth style while the characters involved act them out, right down to mouthing his Latino-bro colloquialisms (he’s a delight in general, one of the MCU’s best humble normal-human sidekicks once again).

Lilly revels in her line delivery in this sequence particularly; it’s all part of her expanded and beefed up role as befits the title, her winged Wasp acting as equal (if not superior) partner to Rudd’s Ant-Man. Rudd himself, still low-key one of Marvel Studios’ most offbeat but successful casting decisions, is not one to be outdone in charm and good-natured pluck; he gets a showcase of his un-self-conscious skills of comic mimicry, as well, when Pfeiffer’s Janet possesses his body remotely from the Quantum Realm to point Hank and Hope in her direction. Douglas does well with more withering dismissals (Hank Pym is given ample reason to disdain Scott Lang by the latter’s actions), although he and Pfeiffer are saddled in early flashbacks with uncanny-valley digital de-aged versions of themselves and it does their larger performances no favours to start that way. John-Kamen brings a different, intense, hard-glance energy to the film, meanwhile, but hopefully she and Ava will be back on the other side of the Infinity War Thanos snap-ocalypse.

Ah, there’s that sobering reminder of the recent telegraphed heavy turn that the MCU has decided to take again. Honestly, Ant-Man and the Wasp, already stripped of literally any political dimension whatsoever, would be a more uncomplicated and purely enjoyable experience if it ended without the usual mid- and post-credits stingers. Beyond being downers to the light tone and good-natured mood of the film, the decision to drag Ant-Man’s milieu into the Thanos cataclysm undermines the storytelling of Ant-Man and the Wasp as well. Not only did this controversial zero-sum cliffhanger disfigure the affect of Infinity War, it’s now causing problems in the MCU’s more carefree corners as well (one could argue that Thanos snapped away plenty of good thematic and character development in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther as well, but that’s a discussion for another day). For most of Ant-Man and the Wasp, that problematic game-changer is forgotten. And frankly, it felt kind of nice. But such happy escapes, the MCU is now at pains to remind us, are only fleeting. Art (albeit highly commercial) imitating life, I suppose.

Categories: Uncategorized

Film Review: I, Tonya

I, Tonya (2017; Directed by Craig Gillespie)

Caustic, fourth-wall-breaking, and unreliably narrated, Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya is an apt biopic approach to the sordid tabloid tale of American figure skating’s most iconoclastic and controversial figure. Spearheaded by a fiery and spiky but layered and sympathetic turn from Margot Robbie as former women’s singles champion Tonya Harding, who became infamous for her role in a brazen assault on her U.S. skating rival Nancy Kerrigan prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics, I, Tonya is a hilarious, scabrous film that cuts deep like a sharpened skate blade and, like its subject, mixes bracing, uncomfortable honesty with clumsy, self-justifying disingenuousness.

Its thesis is that Tonya Harding was a multifarious abuse victim, beat down psychologically and physically by her driven mother LaVona (Allison Janney), her insecure doofus husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), even by her sport’s governing body and its weird, deeply conservative, beauty-pageant-on-ice gender-image assumptions. More than anything, though, it understands Harding as being abused by her country, by its pitiless socioeconomic trajectories, by its wild-eyed, hysterical desperation in pursuit of fame and success, and by its inevitable hairpin turn towards puritanical moral scolding when confronted by a brazen, ambitious fast riser who takes its manifest destiny imperatives all too seriously and besieges its ramparts of class and status with all of the crude self-fashioned weaponry at her disposal. Indeed, Robbie’s Tonya stares down the barrel of the camera at one point and accuses the audience, the ravenous viewing public, of using her, of being just as complicit in her crimes as she herself was, let alone her disavowed idiot operatives.

I, Tonya divides itself between Harding’s personal tumults and skating sequences of kinetic dynamism, showcases of stunning technical and choreographic bravado by Gillespie, his cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, and his Oscar-nominated editor Tatiana S. Riegel (not to mention Robbie, who trained on skates for months in preparation, her skating doubles Heidi Munger and Anna Malkova, and her coach and choreographer Sarah Kawahara). In the later stages, the film is understandably taken over by what is referred to as “the incident”, the hapless Kerrigan caper and its shambolic aftermath establishing infamy for Harding, Gillooly, and Gillooly’s friend and Harding’s sometimes-bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser). Hauser’s Eckhardt is a ludicrous figure and consistent scene-stealer, a delusional loser living with his parents convinced that he has impressive, clandestine ties to international intelligence agencies and access to a network of secret operators (who prove in the breach to be even stupider than he is). Depending on who is asked about it in mockumentary interview inserts, Eckhardt either went rogue and turned intended psych-out threats into a physical attack on Kerrigan, or this was the plan Harding and Gillooly were making all along. I, Tonya might be criticized for choosing to be ambiguous on Harding’s involvement in the assault and thus absolving her, but its approach feels right, erring on the side of Harding’s self-absolving equivocation and simultaneous excusing and accepting of complicity.

Tonya Harding’s psychology and personal associations are tied into her persistent abuse by LaVona (Janney, who won an Oscar and a BAFTA for the supporting role, is a verbally vicious fireball with a streak of ends-justify-the-means self-righteousness) and by Gillooly by Steven Rogers’ screenplay. She repeatedly says that events as they unfolded were not her fault, but also blames herself for her mistreatment by others, in the commonly-observed way of abuse victims. But Robbie’s incandescent performance, at once iron-hard and heartbreakingly brittle, makes the skater’s experience and perspective compellingly real. Even in a movie like the horribly misbegotten Suicide Squad, Robbie showed a keen interest in women’s experiences of abuse. If David Ayer’s film proved unwilling (or more likely constitutionally unable) to explore Harley Quinn’s deformation of personality and Stockholm Syndrome manic-obsessive investment in her clown-painted abuser, it wasn’t because Margot Robbie was unwilling to do so. That willingness pays dividends here with a character and thematic package that deserves it.

While Harding’s domestic-abuse-ridden on-and-off relationship with Gillooly plays more directly into the collapse of her promising skating career, her relationship with her mother is the more important one in formative terms. Even after Harding cuts ties with LaVona after years of mistreatment (and a last-stray knife in the arm), they each seek the other out once more apiece, but the hint of reconciliation is in both instances a mere pretense, only pursued because they need something specific from the other to get what they want. Every relationship in I, Tonya operates on these transactional, acquisitional grounds (with the possible exception of Gillooly and Eckhardt’s strange friendship, which doesn’t much benefit either of them, ultimately), predicated on fulfilling some requirement that is basically never love.

Harding’s figure skating prowess is tied up in and ultimately poisoned by these abusive relationships and the public-eye glare that results from them, as the film’s depiction of her meltdown during the 1994 Olympic competition firmly implies: her purported skate-lace problem is suggested to be a pretense to disguise the roiling psychological turmoil that she ineffectually attempts to forcibly bury and that truly hijacks her performance (Robbie is tremendous through this entire sequence, carrying the weight of communicating all of these subtle and complex implications). But before she falls apart, skating is her passion and her love, her refuge in the glittering stars from the wearying mud of a painful life. I, Tonya‘s peak skating sequence is its dynamic take on Harding’s skate at the U.S. Nationals in 1991, when she became the first woman to land a triple axel in competition (the movie takes the time and effort to explain why this is a big deal in the context of the sport and even in fundamental athletic-mechanics terms, which is good because I can’t really be bothered). It’s presented as her high-water mark, her signature accomplishment, the best things ever got for her in spite of the worst she had to deal with. It’s meant to be inspiring, and it is, if fleetingly.

But I, Tonya understands figure skating as more than an escape or an outlet for dedication and accomplishment amidst a dearth of meaningful opportunities for Tonya Harding. It’s a conduit for aspirational wish-fulfillment, a fast-track to an exalted plateau of idealized, privileged American femininity for a young woman denied other routes to that promised land by circumstances of birth and nurture. This is keenly symbolized by her father (Jason Davis), unable to afford a real fur coat to emphasize his daughter’s femininity in the milieu of a sport that unspokenly requires such image-making, shooting rabbits to make her a fur coat from their skins (his departure upon separation from LaVona is young Tonya’s first and perhaps deepest trauma).

Robbie’s Harding is abrasive and confrontational, a cussing, drinking, smoking tomboy who attacks the ice with feral energy. This is what she knows from her upbringing, yes, but she also leans into these touchstones of the salt-of-the-earth white working class as a reaction to her lack of access to the upper echelons of her athletic discipline, which are (or were, at least in the period she competed in) defined as much by effective projection of a sort of elite gender ideal as they are by pure technical athletic performance. The latter might be democratically accessible to all, regardless of socioeconomic level, but the former is more ephemeral and a function of assumptions of privilege, thus effectively policing the boundaries of access. Harding’s resentment towards the elegant ice-princess Nancy Kerrigan, and thus eventual focus on her as a despised arch-rival who stands in the way of her success, is merely a function of giving this more generalized frustration and resentment a specific individualized target.

I, Tonya is a tad reductive when it comes to the heteronormative imperatives and in-born gaudy weirdness of the figure skating world, probably because that isn’t where its interest lies (the Will Ferrell-led farce Blades of Glory is far more invested in the deeply bizarre insular world of this quasi-sport, even if it can’t always effectively negotiate the pervasive politics of gender projection therein even for comic effect). What it is much more interested in is American women’s figure skating as a stand-in for American society, with its limiting expectations of its competitors as only a slightly cartoonish exaggeration of American social and cultural expectations of women. Tonya Harding does not make for the purest and least problematic working-class countercultural heroine, for sure. But in the hands of director Craig Gillespie and star Margot Robbie in I, Tonya, she’s a lens filtering pervasive conceptions of beauty, class, and conduct that all women, prodigious ice athletes or not, must negotiate every day of their public and private lives.

Categories: Film, Reviews, Sports

Film Review: Wind River

Wind River (2017; Directed by Taylor Sheridan)

Grim and stark like its snowy, spartan setting on a Wyoming Indian reservation, Wind River is the third and least of double-Oscar-nominated screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s heavy, violent crime dramas set amidst the socioeconomic margins of America. This is a bit unfortunate, as the core political issue that it seeks to spotlight – missing and murdered Indigenous women, an epidemic made worse by the complete lack of statistics about its frequency Stateside – is given far less attention than the push button issues of previous Sheridan scripts Sicario (the Mexican cartel drug trade at the border with the U.S.) and Hell or High Water (the financial system capitalizing on the struggles of poor whites).

At the centre of Wind River is a hard man acclimatized to the remote wilderness. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a Fish & Wildlife hunter and tracker, separated from his wife (Julia Jones) and son (Teo Briones) by the solitary demands of his job but also by a painful family tragedy in his past. Called onto the Wind River Reservation (the deprivations of its inhabitants are seen in standard-issue drive-by panoramas, one of which includes a heavy-handed upside-down U.S. flag) by his former father-in-law (Apesanahkwat) to track down livestock possibly snatched by a mountain lion, Cory finds a young woman’s dead body frozen in the snow, miles away from any human habitation.

There is evidence of rape and murder, which would constitute a criminal investigation beyond the stretched resources of the Tribal Police (their chief is Ben, played by veteran Aboriginal-Canadian actor Graham Greene, and it is noted that he has only five further officers to keep the peace in an area the size of Rhode Island, a true fact). FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, Renner’s Avengers co-star) arrives to evaluate the case, but is disappointed to learn from the medical examiner that the woman – named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), daughter of Cory’s good friend Martin (Gil Birmingham, who was in Hell or High Water) – died from the cold and that her death cannot be classed as a homicide. Procedurally, this means that no investigative team will be sent from the Agency to take over. If Jane wants to find the perpetrator of Natalie’s death, she’ll have to solve the case herself, with Ben’s team and Cory as her only collaborators.

Sheridan no doubt learned from the directors of his previously-penned pictures, probably Sicario‘s supremely skilled Denis Villeneuve in particular, how to stage a tense and visceral bloodbath of a shootout scene. Wind River includes two, first a nailbiting sequence of Jane creeping through a reservation junkie flophouse, then the centerpiece, a memorable massacre in the snow between law enforcement and the bad men behind not only the death of Natalie but of her boyfriend Matt (Jon Bernthal) as well. Unfortunately, Sheridan’s hand is not as steady with the use of flashback, utilizing one to reveal the circumstances of the murders at a juncture that he no doubt thinks is clever but comes off as clumsy and awkwardly placed.

Cory’s intervention in the big shootout with his high-powered hunting rifle is graphic but satisfying, if rather telegraphed. Indeed, Cory’s role in the proceedings is always realistically couched in terms of his hunting and tracking capabilities, and Renner gives a strong performance as a man used to a hard life of hard choices who has nonetheless not abandoned his sensitivity, empathy, or moral compass. But he’s a bit too much of the rugged plain-spoken hero with a heart of gold, a stock figure that Sheridan has thus far avoided deploying so uncritically in his work.

The events of Wind River are based on the foul-play deaths of three teenaged girls on the reservation about a decade ago. These deaths were similarly borderline murders, but with drug-use involvement, with both the victims and the responsible parties being Native American. Sheridan crafts Wind River‘s murder mystery as not an internal tribal matter but a case of outside forces (colonizers, if you will) both bringing predatory violence and redressing the wrong done in the name of justice. Government agents avenge the most obvious ills visited on the reservation residents by subalterns of acquisitive corporate capitalism, but as with many social problems in America, they can do little to alleviate base-level suffering and struggling to survive in parts of the country that make majority-Caucasian Appalachia – that locus of demonstrative political hand-wringing over endemic poverty in the States, the place where it counts to be poor, unlike reservations or majority-black or Hispanic urban communities – look like the Hamptons in comparison.

Wind River, its good intentions interwoven with unflinching but vaguely nihilistic hard-edged realism, can do little either. Canada’s First Nations reserves face similar problems as those of the U.S., but concerted efforts by Indigenous groups and political activist allies in this country have at least convinced the federal government to convene an official inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women (albeit an inquiry rife with problems already). The situation for American Indians seems that much more dire for the lack of government resources and concern, especially in a time of a federal administration actively engaged in worsening the conditions for anyone who isn’t identified as white (and plenty who are too, while they’re at it).

Still, Wind River might have at least lessened that burden with a story of Native American agency and self-reliance, with representational casting at its core. As good as Renner is in the role, did Cory need to be white? Could not a Native American actor (Zahn McClarnon, a mixed Lakota-Irish actor currently doing superb work in prestige television, would have been inspired casting) have played Cory, adding a further element of personal cultural conflict to the character by having him be caught between two worlds, on and off the reservation? Far be it for a mere internet critic to question the creative decisions of a twice-Oscar-nominated screenwriter, but such a choice might give an opportunity for meta-commentary about and deconstruction of the common Hollywood western stock character of the Native American tracker.

The possibilities are fascinating, but Wind River is a movie closed off from fascination. More than competent and often tense and evocative, with some lovely widescreen cinematography from DP Ben Richardson, Wind River comes across as too grim and paternalistic. Opening with a chest-puffing piece of grandiose poetic voiceover and closing with pulpit-ascending onscreen titles lecturing about the ignored issue of missing Native women, it’s a movie that can’t get out of its own way. Given the representational, thematic, and narrative good its messaging could have done if presented better, Wind River has to count as a disappointment.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys (2016; Directed by Shane Black)

The opening sequence of Shane Black’s rough and rowdy action/comedy/neo-noir is a sort of initial thesis statement for the project of subversion of genre violence and sly confrontation of audience perspective and expectations that The Nice Guys (like most of Black’s work) represents. On a clear night in Los Angeles in 1977, after ensuring that the dog is safely inside and the family is securely asleep, a boy named Bobby (Ty Simpkins) sneaks off excitedly to ogle a nudie magazine featuring popular adult-film star Misty Mountains (Murielle Tellio). The lurid pubescent rush of Bobby’s horny yet detached voyeurism becomes uncomfortably real and immediate, however, when a car carrying Misty herself crashes with sudden devastation through his house. In the aftermath, face to face with the idealized object of his youthful desire’s naked but torn and broken body, Bobby is overcome with sobering shame and covers her corpse with his nightshirt.

This scene is not the example from the film cited by the Nerdwriter, Evan Puschak, in his video-essay consideration of Black’s unique and defamiliarizing application of “awkward violence”, but it is a fuller summation of Black’s treatment of the elements of the film noir genre. Black delights in staging the dark, anti-social, vicarious thrills of hypermasculine action/detective movies with a sort of eruptive, direct realism that presents them as more painful and less safe than the generally empty spectacle of Hollywood blockbuster destruction. In this way, he challenges the audience to shake loose their assumptions about (and above all their numbness to) depictions of violence, to confront their voyeurism and realize its fundamentally problematic nature.

The Nice Guys overturns those assumptions and destabilizes Black’s favoured detective noir genre at every turn. The death of Misty Mountains (a perfect fake-pornstar name, complete with amusing cultural reference, from Black and his co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi) and the expanding conspiracy around it becomes the central mystery probed into by a mismatched duo of private dicks. Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is an aging hard man who beats up and threatens people for money, and takes a commission from a young activist protestor named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) to dissuade a strange man from following her. This man is strange and is also Holland March (Ryan Gosling), an alcoholic ex-cop P.I. and single father to Holly (Angourie Rice), a teen girl who is probably more savvy than her father. Looking for Amelia in connection with Misty’s demise at the behest of the latter’s elderly half-blind aunt, who he is milking for as much money as he can while making a bare pretense of investigating, March is beaten and left with a broken arm by Healy.

Despite this inauspicious beginning to their acquaintance, the two men soon semi-reluctantly join forces to find Amelia and learn more about her connection to Misty via an porn flick with potentially inflammatory information about collusion between the government and the big Detroit automakers. From a indie filmmaker’s burnt-down home to a porn producer’s fanciful house party, from a Burbank Airport hotel to a final confrontation at the LA Auto Show, Healy and March, reluctantly with Holly’s aid, chase down Amelia and the film just ahead of a trio of criminal henchmen (Beau Knapp, Keith David, Matt Bomer) of increasing levels of competence and deadliness.

Black’s plot, like his application of violence, is surprising and even subversive, leaning into sharp turns and ironic reversals. As detailed by Puschak, March’s early genre-standard attempt to punch through a glass pane to open a bar’s back door in order to obtain Amelia-related information leads to a sliced wrist and a rollicking ambulance ride. Holly attempts to subdue an armed antagonist by throwing coffee on them; the coffee is unexpectedly cold, but her enemy slips on the spilled liquid and knocks herself out anyway. And a spectacular shootout with Bomer’s menacing hitman John Boy in defence of Amelia is made suddenly, stunningly moot after its conclusion.

The script’s jokes are fine-tuned, and its call-backs in particular are a joy, especially one involving Richard Nixon’s face being the last thing a man once saw before dying. References to gas shortages, the growth of the porn business, media-fed anxiety about killer bees (a man-sized version of which hilariously appears in the backseat of March’s car in a dream), and anti-smog die-in protests ground the film in its historical milieu while imparting a sense of instability and decay of morality and security that make the period and place an ideal setting for the stress-tests of noir. Crowe is solidly in his element as a gruff, violent man whose best years are behind him but who fleetingly wishes to be better. But Gosling’s unethical, grifting, mostly hapless and quietly guilt-ridden March, with his perpetual Chinatown-like injuries, lack of a sense of smell, and high-pitched, unmasculine shriek of alarm, steals the show, while also carrying Black’s reflections on the difficulty of moral conduct in a societal setting of dishonesty, exploitation, violence, looting, and subterfuge.

Shane Black understands well the appeal of violently transgressive content in such a genre setting, and could very well summon it in a manner commensurate with expected convention, pumped full of triumphant testosterone and audio-visual adrenaline. But from its opening scene, The Nice Guys dares its audience to interrogate their own complicity in the lies, danger, and violence of this cinematic milieu. It complicates the veneer of the ideal by making the violence on display and its clear costs undeniable and even difficult to digest.

This approach goes compellingly beyond mere screen violence into an open challenge to American idealized self-conception. The eventual object of the detective characters’ quarry is not Amelia but her film (How Do You Like My Car, Big Boy?), an exposé in more ways than one that outlives those who made it. Its sociopolitical challenge is explicitly targetted at the car culture of the auto-centric metropolis of Los Angeles and its notorious smog (killing birds and threatening public health), and by extension at the centrality of the automobile in narratives of American freedom, mobility, and gender hegemony. Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger), Amelia’s mother and the nexus of the corrupt government-automaker conspiracy, states that Detroit’s power and permanence cannot be challenged (a winking irony is obvious in this argument, given the city’s precipitous urban degradation and depopulation in our era), and that “what is good for Detroit is good for America” (a paraphrase of a former Secretary of Defense and major stakeholder in General Motors). Big gas-guzzling automobiles, like violent Hollywood action movies, are consistently sold by corporate interests as being good for you, but Shane Black’s The Nice Guys stops you in the midst of your consumption to suggest, without pedantry or tiresome lecturing but with crisp, funny subversion, that they’re as bad for you as you would imagine, and that you think twice about the choice to consume them.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review – Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018; Directed by J.A. Bayona)

For all that the movies of the franchise-rebooting Jurassic World trilogy are not turning out to be very good, they are offering ample opportunities to consider and discuss the ideas and themes at the centre of Michael Crichton’s surprisingly resilient concept of a theme park featuring genetically-recreated dinosaurs. These latest movies in Universal’s lucrative blockbuster series don’t always manage to explore these ideas in fresh or intriguing ways, and they increasingly take place in a comic-book version of our world where people continue to do the exact same things with regards to dinosaurs and invariably expect a non-catastrophic result (which is maybe not so unlike our textbook-definition-of-insanity world after all). But with the exception of some fleeting, film-homage-drenched moments of visceral thrills, Jurassic World and its new sequel Fallen Kingdom don’t have much else to offer the committed moviegoer. Certainly not developed characters with relationships that we can invest in (with one slightly odd exception) or snappy, amusing dialogue or plot turns that make sense and amplify the impact of character arcs and script themes.

Jurassic World made heaping piles of money at the box office, but it was hardly a great (or even consistently good) movie even as summer popcorn-movie fodder. What it was, however, was a suprisingly complex if often self-contradictory and messy recontextualization of the ideas at the core of Jurassic Park, combining the original Frankenstein-descended thought-seed of corporatized science bringing prehistoric monsters to life (with disastrous physical and moral consequences) with troublingly Hitchcockian gender politics. Where Steven Spielberg’s glorified (but only really just above-average) 1993 Jurassic Park did build a re-socialization of Sam Neill’s child-hating paleontologist Alan Grant into its conflict between idealistic capitalist vision and crusty rational cynicism, Colin Trevorrow’s 2015 Jurassic World re-situated that association to career-driven woman Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). Claire’s professional authority and ambition is associated directly with the turbulent sublimated maternal/oedipal all-devouring violence of the Indominus Rex, a super-predator whose genetic creation she authorized as the new star attraction of the theme park she ran and whose escape precipitates that park’s disastrous destruction. Through the crucible of disaster, Trevorrow pushed Claire towards a more traditional path of a forged-in-crisis family unit with her ever-imperiled nephews and heroic man-of-action Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), a combat veteran and animal behaviourist who trained a pack of velociraptors from a young age to bond with him and respond to his commands.

As Fallen Kingdom opens, this promised family unit has dissolved. Having broken up, Claire and Owen are brought back together by a mission to return to the ruined park on remote Isla Nublar and rescue as many creatures as possible from a volcanic eruption that threatens to destroy the whole island and the entire population of genetically-crafted dinosaurs with it. This effort is funded by ailing old rich man Benjamin Lockwood (a wheelchair- and bed-bound James Cromwell affecting a baffling bad Mid-Atlantic accent), who collaborated with original Jurassic Park head honcho John Hammond on the initial genetic experiments that brought dinosaurs back to life. Claire, who heads a bustling animal-rights-oriented NGO that is campaigning for the preservation of the remaining dinos, meets Lockwood, his business aide Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), and his precocious young granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon) at his neo-gothic estate, museum, and laboratory in Northern California. They need Claire’s handprint authorizations to access the system in the old park that will allow their hard-as-nails big-game hunter Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine) to track and capture the dinos, and she jumps at the chance to fulfill her organizational goals. Owen needs a little more convincing to go back, but is persuaded to do so with the promise of a reunion with the prized alpha female in the raptor pack he trained, the intelligent and imperious Blue.

This adventure (whose description after this point includes deeper spoilers, to give fair warning) involves plentiful dinosaurid peril and a spectacular, sustained, impossibly apocalyptic escape from a massive volcanic explosion. It also involves increasingly incredible situations, as when Owen and Claire are tasked by feistily pragmatic ex-Marine paleoveterinarian Dr. Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda, who would make a better human lead in these movies than either of the top-billing stars) with drawing blood from a half-sedated Tyrannosaurus Rex in order to save the injured Blue with a therapod-match blood transfusion. Fallen Kingdom gallops over the edge into truly goofy but viscerally exciting genre-movie homage territory as the mission is revealed as a recklessly duplicitous scheme by Mills to raise millions of dollars by auctioning off the rescued dinosaurs to wealthy private bidders and then use the resulting funds to develop genetic super-dinos as even more lucrative weapons of war. The auction is hijacked by Owen and Claire with the help of an ornery headbutt-happy Pachycephalosaurus (I spelled that right first time, I swear), but as a result the prototype dino-super-soldier Indoraptor gets loose and chases the screaming Maisie through her grand-dad’s rambling quasi-Victorian pile in an enervated gothic monster horror episode on steroids.

Fallen Kingdom‘s director is Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona, a Guillermo del Toro disciple with an applicable resume of fright-fests and disaster movies who orchestrates the requisite frightening dinosaur pursuits with verve, intensity, and baroque visual flourishes. One compelling pastiche image of the Indoraptor’s curved claws reaching menacingly for Maisie as she shivers in terror in her four-post bed is already a defining image (one aesthetically worthy of his Oscar-winning mentor, even) for an otherwise-disposal film, it seems.

But Bayona’s adeptness in these genre sequences is constantly let down by a horridly misbegotten script, from Trevorrow and Derek Connolly. Texturally, it’s powerfully lame, full of unrealistic character motivations, dialogue that vacillates between awkwardly expository and painfully leaden, and flat, telegraphed jokes galore. Owen Grady is the more serious-visaged prong of Pratt’s blockbuster leading-man fame and thus less-beloved than Guardians of the Galaxy‘s more sarcastic Peter Quill, but Pratt’s comedic gifts are not anathema to Grady’s thinly-drawn character but rather buried in piss-poor lines and dubiously-timed deliveries. Pratt does manage one funny scene of physical comedy, at least, as a semi-tranquilized Grady rolls gradually away from inexorably advancing lava. Howard’s Claire, meanwhile, is not saddled with a character arc that attempts to send her back into the kitchen as a 1950s housewife (or any arc at all, really), but she has little enough to do but run from danger here, which she does magnificently well (pounding out a full sprint in heels is Ron Howard’s daughter’s superpower).

More problematically, like Jurassic World, Fallen Kingdom shoehorns in a child in peril to satisfy certain Spielbergian tropes in reflection of the master’s original work (Bayona includes a few direct tribute shots to the franchise’s father, and I swear I even spotted a stealth reference to a memorable Jurassic Park lampoon from the short-lived animated comedy series The Critic). It should be said, however, that the trauma that Maisie is put through in a single night over and above being pursued through her home by a ravenously vicious carnivorous reptile is frankly a bit much, and would doubtlessly lead to psychological scars of a remarkable magnitude requiring years of therapy to even begin to mitigate. As if this wasn’t enough, the screenwriters also feel the need to drop a much-teased bombshell twist about Maisie prior to the climax. But it’s weirdly perfunctory (a dino attack tramples over any hope of a reaction to it) and furthermore essentially weightless in its implications, as if Trevorrow and Connolly didn’t so much study and dissect shocking plot twists in order to produce an effective one of their own as they were vaguely told about their general existence by an aunt on Facebook.

Fallen Kingdom has these problems and more on a moment-to-moment basis, but loses the plot that much more completely in macro thematic terms. Five films of diminishing quality into the franchise, there appears to be little left to say about humanity’s dinosaur-creating hubris and how it is fed by corporatized avarice and compromised science. So little, indeed, that Trevorrow and Connolly retreat to that eternal safe ground of Hollywood critiques of capitalist exploitation and deploy cartoonishly nasty arms dealers (one of them even has a broad Russian accent, Slavically calling out his multi-million dollar bids in lurid closeup inserts). This would be only half-effective even if The Last Jedi hadn’t gone to the same well much more prominently and forcefully, and with a touch more nuance, a mere half-year ago, and the subplot even wastes Toby Jones (the Wayne Gretzky of sad, smarmy little men) as the smirking rodent-like broker to the ultra-rich bidders.

The new idea that is introduced into the Jurassic Park cinematic realm in this movie is one that has subsisted on the margins of the films so far. Namely, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom goes all-in on an in-text debate about animal rights for the dinosaurs, and more subtly flirts with the idea of empathy for them and how they are deserving of a chance to survive, whatever cost that chance might have for human civilization. Claire’s organization is only the spear’s head of a wider political debate about saving the dinosaurs or letting them go extinct again.

The film grounds the intellectual and moral case for their survival in empathetic moments: Bayona recuscitates the wondrous appearance of the Brachiosaurus from the 1993 film and then bathes it in sad elegy, having the same majestic creature cry out to the last departing ship from the Isla Nublar dock as the island is consumed by volcanic activity; the film’s climactic dilemma concerns a direct choice between releasing the surviving dinosaurs or preserving civilizational order by letting them die, and is resolved with the simple loving quasi-wisdom (and perhaps buried genetic solidarity) of a child. More than anything else, though, Owen Grady’s bond with the velociraptor Blue, the only relationship in the film that carries any weight or emotional power (and even then proscribed to fleeting moments), makes the empathetic case for dinosaur rights. As deadly as she can be, Blue is basically treated like Owen’s imposing but touchingly loyal dog, an impression strengthened by keeping her injured and in risk of dying in the care of the vet for much of the film, as well as incorporating video of Owen forming a bond with her and other adorable little raptor puppies years before.

Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom firmly puts forth and supports this idea of dinosaur rights, and the appeals to empathy work fairly well, aided as they are by excellent CG character work on the creatures that demonstrates how far the fine details of the technology and craft have come since Jurassic Park acted as a watershed for CGI effects in 1993. But it’s hard not to go along with the characteristically dire warnings of Dr. Ian Malcolm, played again in cameo by the incomparable Jeff Goldblum, testifying before a Congressional committee considering funding the ill-fated dinosaur rescue mission that Owen and Claire perform on the Lockwood dime instead. Having ignored his prognostications of doom and persisted on the path of a post-modern Prometheus, Malcolm considers mankind’s only rational decision concerning this self-created dilemma to be the one of enlightened self-preservation: Let a volcanic act of God erase the error of a man-made act of God. Not to be heartless, but it’s hard to say, given what happens between humans and dinosaurs in this film as in all of the others, that he isn’t right.

Watching dinosaurs rampage and devour humans is the core thrill of the Jurassic Park franchise, but the explanatory reasons for those humans’ stubborn and unwise persistence in keeping these deadly beasts around are becoming spread ever-thinner. Again and again during Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, you’re left wondering why people who know as much as these characters do about the dangers posed by dinosaurs keep getting into the cage with them, figuratively but very often quite literally. You need not wonder that about the film’s audience, protected as they are from the violent ends of their violent delights by the semi-permeable membrane of the movie screen. We keep getting into the cage with the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park because it’s undeniably appealing, even in the diminished doses offered in the Colin Trevorrow-headed Jurassic World trilogy (which will be concluded by a third film once again directed by Trevorrow). What the Jurassic World films should be working harder to achieve is to give us better reasons to want to get into the cage. They have one more shot at it. Make it count.

Categories: Film, Reviews