Film Review: The Report

December 9, 2019 Leave a comment

The Report (2019; Directed by Scott Z. Burns)

A sober, no-nonsense political message film of laser-focused outrage, The Report plucks out one of the most heinous instances of moral and legal degradation perpetuated by the post-9/11 national security apparatus of the United States of America (and there were more than a few) and goes hard at it with even-keel righteous anger and quietly thunderous factual force. Casting as its protagonist Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver), staffer for California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) who was head of the Senate Intelligence Committee for much of the Obama Administration, The Report details an attempt to craft and release a comprehensive and damning committee report on the CIA’s infamous “enhanced interrogration techniques” employed on high-value Islamist terrorists captured by the U.S. Known by their shorthand of EITs, these “enhanced interrogation techniques” amounted to little more than torture thinly cloaked in Orwellian euphemism, which despite being illegal under U.S. and international law were sanctioned for use on detainees by the highest levels of the CIA and the White House.

Jones, who took a hard turn towards national security issues when 9/11 went down just days after he started graduate school, leads an Intelligence Committee investigation precipitated by the suspicious destruction of CIA interrogation tapes in 2005. This investigation lasts a decade, only seeing light just prior to the end of Obama’s Presidency in 2015, when the final (heavily-redacted) report’s exhaustive and well-documented portrait of the CIA’s employment of torture (and its attempts to cover up both the fact of its use on detainees and the inescapable truth that it did little good in providing useful intelligence) provided the impetus for an amendment co-sponsored by Feinstein and Senator John McCain (for all of his many faults as a legislator, leader, and ideologue, his own experience of torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese set him implacably against the practice for life) banning the practices, which were already largely struck down by an executive order issued by Obama days into his Presidency. Jones’ team is whittled down to himself and basically one other staffer by the end, as firm resistance from the Agency, lack of cooperation from the Department of Justice (who were also investigation CIA conduct, although no charges were forthcoming), and political forces of partisanship and public messaging take their toll. But Jones persisted, and the progressive-minded The Report sees in his persistence a low-key, obsessive, impressive, quiet behind-the-scenes heroic patriotism.

The Report was written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, a frequent screenwriter/producer collaborator of Steven Soderbergh, who is one of the film’s producers. The duo also made the vastly inferior exposé of global elite financial malfeasances The Laundromat, and it’s interesting to compare the way that the recently-released Soderbergh-directed The Laundromat dilutes its political message with flat attempts at humour and self-conscious deconstructionist conceits while the less-seasoned Burns nails the grounded and direct infotainment punch of Soderbergh’s politicized masterpiece Traffic. The Report is a mildly fictionalized drama film (the CIA might argue it is extremely fictionalized, but then it’s always been an important part of their institutional function to spread damaging misinformation), but it organizes its revelations with the persuasive effectiveness of a great documentary on the subject.

Perhaps some viewers will find The Report to be a cold and unsympathetic experience because of this. Indeed, although the still-unlikely movie star Driver plays Jones as relentlessly, carefully moral and professional and therefore all the more capable of directing excoriating indignation at those who lapse in those capacities, Burns’ script barely gives him time for a personality or a life outside of his consuming labour. “Don’t you ever sleep?” the security guard who scans Jones in and out of the office asks, to which Jones replies, “It gets in the way of work.” The Report treats this line as a thesis statement in its approach to its protagonist. There’s a brief early mention of a relationship ending early in the process of compiling the report due to his constant long hours, and a less serious and information-rich movie may have peppered at least the first act or so with scenes of a worried and disapproving girlfriend (they’d cast Elizabeth Olsen or someone equivalent in the role) telling Jones that he’s getting in too deep, to be replaced in the latter acts by concerned phone calls from Mom. As it is, Burns has colleagues notice Jones’ obsession in passing, with subtle alarm (“How long have you been here?” asks one fellow staffer when Jones smothers her first thing in the morning with new discoveries in the CIA documents as she enters their windowless basement office; he admits to having been there for a few hours).

One element of dramatic license that The Report does indulge in with relish is the employment of exquisitely hateable villains. No, not the career CIA bureaucrats played by the likes of Michael C. Hall, Maura Tierney, and Ted Levine, who stonewall Jones and Feinstein and even engage in framing and character assassination in order to prevent the truth of not only the Agency’s use of torture but its awareness of its wrongness and its doubts about its effectiveness from coming to light. The Report‘s villains are CIA contractors and psychologists James Elmer Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) and Bruce Jessen (T. Ryder Smith), who sell the CIA on their program of EITs (based on the military’s SERE program) despite a complete lack of experience in interrogation, a weak knowledge of intelligence gathering, and a dearth of firm criteria in determining whether or not their cruel, violent and sometimes deadly approach is working at all. The Report understands Mitchell and Jessen to be hucksters and charlatans but no less sinister and dangerous because of that (if anything, they are more so). Motivated by the fearful paranoid vengefulness of post-9/11 America and of course by greed, Burns leaves the duo at film’s end toasting each other with martinis on their private jet, having made millions from their work while being indemnified from prosecution by the CIA. If this final touch is slightly too on-the-nose (“Gentlemen: To evil!”), the outrage whipped up by this image of the guilty escaping justice and indeed enriching themselves from literal torture of other human beings carries an undeniable force.

The Report is full of such righteous force, and Driver (as well as the steely Bening as Feinstein, who is a far more complicated and compromised political figure than is acknowledged here) proves an ideal tool for delivering its persuasive blows. Jones’ fixed outrage is contrasted with the semi-smooth, half-exasperated attempts at political spin and pre-emptive management of potential damaging elements of the report by Obama’s White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm). McDonough presents the perspective of the man who dubbed himself (with a catastrophically naïfish folly that only seems greater and more terribly misguided in the Age of Trump) the first post-partisan President, who strove to erase the history (and future) of torture from the national security ledger but not to hold anyone who was responsible for it criminally accountable in any way, in much the same manner as he declined to pursue any credible accusations of war crimes against the George W. Bush White House or its national security command structure. Because partisanship = bad. If only the Republican Party ever deigned to agree.

In the absence of legal remedies for such crimes, the movies step ambitiously but inadequately into the breach. The Report may have only minor surprises in store for political junkies (I learned more than I knew about the role of contractors in the program, as well as the CIA’s internal awareness of its issues and efforts to keep a lid on them), but for the lower-information viewer to whom the showily shocking photos of detainee abuse from Abu Ghraib prison and vague recognition of the term “waterboarding” (which Burns depicts in agonizing detail, along with other EITs like walling, stress positions, rectal rehydration, and sleep deprivation) constitute the entirety of their awareness of the U.S. torture program, it may well prove an eye-opener. That’s not unimportant, but movies like The Report, however good they are, cannot do all the work of winning justice for heinous moral and legal crimes that the politically powerful refuse to do.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: The Irishman

December 5, 2019 Leave a comment

The Irishman (2019; Directed by Martin Scorsese)

Martin Scorsese made some headlines and drew some social media and hot take attention a couple of months ago when he told Empire Magazine out of the UK that the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, pop cultural juggernauts that they are, were not “cinema”. Scorsese later expounded on this remark in a New York Times opinion piece that was more thoughtful on the question and expanded his feelings on how Marvel movies and blockbuster franchises like them were soaking up all of the cultural and commercial oxygen, to say nothing of filling precious screen spots, that might have allowed more artistically mature and daring auteur-centric cinematic offerings to find an audience and flourish. Whatever one might think of the point Scorsese was making (and one must take serious pause and consideration before even contemplating arguing about film with a cinephile of his calibre), it isn’t hard to fathom what it is about big-budget superhero movies that he finds distasteful. Martin Scorsese, we might be able to infer, does not much like movies that are indulgent, epically-scoped masculine power fantasies featuring emotionally-blocked male protagonists and marginalized women whose storytelling relies heavily on digital effects. Presumably this is why he decided to make one.

The Irishman might not be a superhero movie, but it’s a story as aggrandizing and likely disconnected from reality as Avengers: Endgame or Thor: Ragnarok. Based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, The Irishman weaves the almost certainly tall tales of union leader and Mafia hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro) about his decades ensconced among the shady secret power-brokers of fading old-guard America. A Teamster truck driver from Philadelphia, Sheeran begins skimming off sides of beef for smaller-time crime bosses like Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale), before coming to the attention of more prominent city mob bosses like Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel) and especially Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), with whom he becomes close. A WWII vet hardened to killing and other forms of coercive violence, Sheeran becomes an ideal assassin for the Philly mob, and his union ties bring him into the orbit of Teamster union head Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the most important and well-known labour leader in the country through the 1950s and 1960s before becoming the most notorious disappeared person in the world in 1975. Sheeran claimed to have been the man who pulled the trigger on his close friend Hoffa, a claim that could neither be confirmed nor disproven. The Irishman gives his account of how it got to that point, and how it all went down.

Directed by a septeganarian and starring three more of them, The Irishman is perhaps unsurprisingly a legacy-minded film of aging, patience, and contemplation (a colleague on Twitter aptly dubbed it No Country for Old Gangsters). This is a narrative framed as the lonely, perhaps half-delusional reminiscences of the aged Sheeran from a wheelchair in a retirement home common room, a location approached through the facility’s corridors via a oner tracking shot probably meant by Scorsese as a wry ironic inversion of his famous long take through the Copacabana in Goodfellas; it isn’t clear who he’s telling his story to, so it’s fair to assume that he’s telling it to us in the audience, confidantes to his epic of probable bullshit. It’s a story that can be read as the outpouring of an unreliable narrator with ample incentive to exaggerate and fabricate a position of importance and vitality for himself. Sheeran’s relationship with his family is detached, distant; he leaves his first wife (Aleksa Palladino) for a second (Stephanie Kurtzaba), and his eldest daughter Peggy (Lucy Gallina as a child, Anna Paquin as an adult) keeps her distance, silently rebuffing his attempts at fathering as well as the beloved-uncle ambitions of the quiet, menacing Bufalino. She does adore the gregarious, talkative Hoffa, with his childlike love for ice cream, as a fond alternative to the silent, dangerous men who try to buy her respect and love (and bully those who don’t show it to her, thus unwittingly alienating her further). Her well-founded suspicions of her father’s involvement in Hoffa’s vanishing precipitate the final break in their already strained relationship. Peggy’s pointed questions to Sheeran in the wake of the news of Hoffa’s disappearance are the only lines Paquin speaks in the film (and Scorsese has come in for some criticism for this and other choices that sideline women in this narrative), but Peggy’s doubtful-then-disapproving gaze represents the silent judgement of a more moral segment of the world on Sheeran’s way of life.

The mob way of life has, of course, occupied Scorsese’s creative energies many times before, most directly and successfully in GoodfellasMean Streets, and Casino, but also in Gangs of New York, The Departed, and the Prohibition-era HBO series he exec-produced, Boardwalk Empire (numerous cast members from that show fill in the supporting roles here, from Cannavale and Palladino to Stephen Graham, Domenick Lombardozzi, Kevin O’Rourke, and Jack Huston). It would be tempting to call the director out for the irony – if not the outright hypocrisy – of publically criticizing Marvel movies for their aversion to risk as he put the finishing touches on yet another film about mobsters mostly starring actors that he has worked with numerous times before. But if The Irishman does not exactly tread brave new ground in Scorsese’s oeuvre, then it gazes wistfully but harshly back on that oeuvre, as on an era of the American underworld’s ascendance that defined the country that lives in its long shadow.

Scorsese has been credibly accused in the past of allowing himself to get swept up in the sensuous aesthetics of the realm of criminal immorality that he is able to summon with his mastery of filmcraft wizardry, and thus to romanticize and even to render mythic the antisocial destructive nature of his antiheroes and their reprehensible deeds. If that was ever the case, then The Irishman sees the scales fall from his eyes. Its 209 minutes manifest as a penance for any hint of past sin in this direction, a form of guilty devotion that the lapsed Catholic Scorsese would understand well. There is nothing romantic about what Frank Sheeran does, and the way this film follows him as he ages (we see him as a youngish man during the war in the 1940s up until his retirement-home dotage in the 1990s) emphasizes the elegiac disappointment that colours his life as it draws on. Scorsese employs ILM’s digital de-aging technology (pioneered, in another irony, in the MCU movies) in order to preserve DeNiro, Pesci, and Pacino in their roles across decades without recasting or relying on only half-convincing makeup work, and it’s not only an artistically valid use of the effect but sometimes a revelatory one, seemless and quietly, forcefully effective.

The effect stays out of the way of the performances, which is remarkable and allows them to remain remarkable. DeNiro has often phoned it in throughout the latter stages of his august career, but he is focused and blunt here, crafting Frank Sheeran as a hard man who is disastrously incapable of evolution or change, a man defined by loyalties to men of a similar profile like Bufalino or Hoffa but not far-sighted or keen enough to anticipate or adequately prepare for how they might come into conflict with each other. He is reactive always, never proactive. Pacino is often loud and hammy, which fits for Hoffa, who was likewise in real life; he’s often fallen into this scenery-chewing mode in the latter part of his also august career, rarely venturing close to the calculating internalized viciousness of Michael Corleone in The Godfather films of Scorsese’s contemporary Francis Ford Coppola (you’d never have guessed it considering both men’s long history in the Mafia genre, but Scorsese and Pacino have never worked together before). Pacino’s Hoffa has subtler moments of simmering suspicion and anger, but they’re drowned out by his portrayal of Hoffa’s (probably fatal) megawatt hubris. It’s Pesci, however, who gives the finest turn in The Irishman. Another actor known for blabbermouth characters and showy big-personality gestures, Pesci has been essentially retired for years and had to be coaxed back to the set by Scorsese to play a soft-spoken, composed, terrifying man who can shift the axis of a scene (or a life, or a country, or the world) with a look, an inclination of his head, and a quiet, devastating word. DeNiro and Pacino add to their legacies with these characters, but Pesci’s Russell Bufalino constitutes a radical, fascinating realignment of his own. If there’s award season gold to be had in any of The Irishman‘s performances, it would be a safe bet to say it will belong to Joe Pesci.

The Irishman is not only about these men and the ways they fail themselves, but also the way that their underworld ways fail America. The screenplay by Steven Zaillian mostly credulously follows Sheeran’s dubious but tantalizing claims about his central involvement in labour union corruption, notorious mob murders, the Bay of Pigs raid, and even the Kennedy assassinations (Sheeran strongly implies that the virulently anti-Kennedy Hoffa and mob allies spooked by Robert F. Kennedy’s Department of Justice prosecutions of organized crimes offed JFK). What The Irishman finds in these mob myths is the weathered roadmap of a nation losing its way. The film touches on the degradation of labour in America via the corrupt graft of its leadership, with Hoffa predicting corporate bosses’ domination of working people even as he skims from those working people’s pensions to enrich himself and others. And the tentacular influence and grandiose high life of top Mafia figures is also consistently, witheringly proven to be tragicomically vainglorious: Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker (his collaborator for over a half century) freeze-frame various real-life mob characters as they appear and give their names along with their dates and (often violent) modes of death, a sharp ironic undercutting of their projected confidence and vitality (the funniest such onscreen title notes one mobster who was beloved by all and died peacefully in bed, as if an indictment of his worth).

In the end, however, Frank Sheeran carries no regrets about his long life of power, violence, and loyalty, or at least that’s what he says to spiritual and law enforcement confessors in the film’s closing scenes. DeNiro’s wrinkled face and weary eyes tell a different and sadder story. For as old-fashioned as The Irishman is in its casting, themes and ideas, setting and genre and subject matter, it’s also about something very contemporary: toxic masculinity and its costs, for the men who perpetuate it, the women subject to it, and for its many victims across society. Martin Scorsese’s first film made in the Trump Era unflinchingly examines the careworn visages of men shaped by an old order of ruthless power and deadly loyalty and finds in them the darkly settling ravens of a corrupt, lawless, and fraught future which is our present world. My wry introduction likened these men to superheroes, and Scorsese’s films have made that comparison in tonal, aesthetic, and thematic terms before. But The Irishman sees them as terrible but human, with flaws greater than their dark powers and darker deeds. Cinema is about forward motion, and The Irishman ultimately finds Martin Scorsese moving encouragingly forward, embracing his legacy while interrogating, complicated, and even deconstructing it.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Jojo Rabbit

November 30, 2019 Leave a comment

Jojo Rabbit (2019; Directed by Taika Waititi)

I’m almost sorry to say that Jojo Rabbit is probably Taika Waititi’s weakest film. It’s not as visually ambitious or tonally inventive as Thor: Ragnarok, it doesn’t immerse itself in a strong, familiarly unfamiliar sense of place and in the eccentric characters who inhabit it like Eagle vs. Shark or Boy, it’s not as funny as What We Do in the Shadows, and it doesn’t manage to mix humour and loss with quite the unforeseen grace of Hunt for the Wilderpeople (for my money, his best movie when taken whole). It isn’t a step back for New Zealand’s quintessentially quirky and self-effacing auteur. Nor is it a miss, or a bad film by any means, containing as it does fine moments both comedic and dramatic as well as a heartening if slightly soft central message of unlooked-for timeliness. But it’s not quite so sure of itself as those others films were, not as firmly set on solid ground, whatever leaps of fancy or inspired lunacy or wrenching sadness they engaged in. Taika Waititi took a chance with Jojo Rabbit, and it didn’t entirely pay off.

There were reasons to suspect that it might not pay off, but plenty of reasons to suspect that it might, too. Jojo Rabbit is adapted from New Zealand-Belgian novelist Christine Leunens’ book Caging Skies, which I haven’t read but to hear Waititi discuss it in interviews is a very heavy and serious and sad novel about a boy growing up in Nazi-occupied Vienna during World War II who discovers that his mother has been concealing a Jewish girl in their home. Waititi is not a heavy or serious filmmaker, although he is one of the best currently working at summoning up sadness, albeit amidst offbeat humour and weirdly sincere irony. So when his mother suggested that he adapt Caging Skies for the screen, Waititi had little choice but to approach the material by making it his own. This process of adaptation meant a lot of things, but most notably it included adding a brazen and potentially offensive conceit: the boy protagonist Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) has an imaginary friend, and that imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler. Imaginary Friend Hitler is played as a preening buffoon by Waititi himself, a piece of casting apparently made at the insistence of producing studio Fox Searchlight, whose keen marketing push included a Downfall Hitler reaction meme semi-trailer in which the late Bruno Ganz’s bunkered Führer becomes apoplectic at the idea of being played by a self-proclaimed “Polynesian Jew”.

10-year-old Jojo has a pep-talk-giving Führer as an imaginary friend because he is a committed, thoroughly indoctrinated little Nazi. Waititi drives home this point in a twofold fashion in the movie’s opening scenes. The opening title sequence wittily intercuts archival clips of Nazi propaganda marches and processions with madly, desperately devoted German citizens throwing salutes and falling into fangirl and fanboy histrionics, scored by the German-language version of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (“Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand”). Nazimania and Beatlemania, he cheekily though superficially suggests, are two manifestations of the same culturally-hysteric mass-media phenomenon. Then, before establishing Jojo’s home life which will take up most of the rest of the film, Waititi sends the boy off to a Hitler Youth training weekend, where Wehrmacht Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), his assistant/possible homosexual lover Finkel (Alfie Allen), and barking party-line zealot Fraülein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) drill dozens of German children in warfare techniques (the film takes place late in the war, when the conflict was turning against the Axis and the command would press every able-bodied German into service in desperation). The instructors also deepen the Youth’s ideologically Aryan brainwashing with book-burnings and a completely ludicrous but disturbingly dehumanizing flood of anti-semitic tropes and fantasies (we’ll come back to those).

Jojo talks a big Nazi game of loyalty to the fatherland and hatred of the inhuman Jews, but is humiliated by his inability to kill a rabbit in one desensitizing camp exercise (thus earning the titular nickname) and is then sent home wounded after Imaginary Friend Hitler pumps him up into trying to redeem himself by recklessly charging into a hand grenade training session. As Jojo recuperates and disseminates propagandistic literature for the demoted, desk-bound Klenzendorf, we get a view into his relationship with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, who has never been better and has a strong shot at a Best Supporting Actress Oscar with her performance here). With an enlisted husband on the Italian Front and a daughter who recently died of influenza, Jojo is all that Rosie has left. She is troubled by and opposed to his childishly-adopted fascist beliefs, but she loves and wants to protect her boy as much as she loves and wants to protect the liberties that the Third Reich has taken away. Their scenes together layer in a complex array of emotions and ideas, as Rosie tries to preserve her autonomy and individuality and joi de vivre while also preserving some sense of childhood innocence and wonder for her sweet but deluded boy, his head driven forward towards the harsh realities of adulthood in an ugly time before his heart or his body are remotely prepared for it.

It soon becomes apparent that Rosie is out all day and dangerously active in resistance to the fascist regime, but her resistance has come home, not only through her clever but careful attempts to re-educate her son but through her principled and even more dangerous decision to conceal in her walls a Jewish classmate of her dead daughter’s named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). Jojo discovers Elsa, but despite his supposed Nazi principles and loyalty to the Reich, he doesn’t turn her in, as it would equally mean turning in his mother and even himself as well. Challenged in this course by Imaginary Friend Hitler and threatened by a comic yet ominous visit by the Gestapo (Stephen Merchant squeezes a movie’s worth of comingled mirth and menace into a single-scene cameo as the lead secret service agent), Jojo nonetheless befriends Elsa. But since this is a Taika Waititi script, their relationship is idiosyncratic indeed: Elsa feeds Jojo outlandishly false “facts” about Jews for his anti-semitic picture book, and Jojo writes and reads Elsa faux letters from her Resistance boyfriend Nathan, an act half-sweet, half-selfish and prickish, redolent of a schoolboy crush and of an immature jealousy of a distant, heroic rival. They will need each other all the more as the war comes to the home front in more than one devastating way.

Jojo Rabbit arrived into wide theatrical release with strong early Oscar buzz. A foray into the traditionally fertile Academy-appealing territory of World War II and Nazism by a generally critically-appreciated filmmaker also coming into his commercial own, Jojo Rabbit solidified its contender status by capturing the frequent Best Picture bellwether People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it premiered to the world. Perhaps anticipating yet another Holocaust-themed arthouse picture sweeping to Academy glory, film critics have delivered a mixed verdict, however, often raising the spectre of Roberto Benigni’s now-maligned Life is Beautiful, an Oscar-winner and TIFF People’s Choice Award recipient that clumsily mixed comedy and poignancy in a Nazi concentration camp, to deride Waititi’s approach by association with a movie now generally considerable insensitive and possessed of insufficiently gravitas to tackle the subject it took on (at least they didn’t analogize it to Jerry Lewis’ disastrous, unreleased The Day the Clown Cried, about a clown in Auschwitz). Jojo Rabbit has also grossed only modestly at the box office, hardly transcending the arthouse circuit into the larger sleeper hit status it would have required to make an Oscar impact, as something like (the incomparably worse) Green Book did. One shouldn’t count it out entirely (the Academy is still populated by many elderly Jewish-American Hollywood vets and this stuff is like candy to them), but it hasn’t caught on as Fox Searchlight no doubt hoped it would.

Why not? It’s not bad, and even fairly good. Waititi has hardly forgotten how to be funny in his usual deadpan absurdist manner, and Jojo Rabbit‘s poignancy is generally exquisitely balanced with that absurdity. It’s an attractive-looking movie: cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr. (who lensed Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master) gives a vivid but dillapidated realistic lustre to Waititi’s often droll geometric compositions, helped along considerably by the old-world locations (Jojo Rabbit was shot in Prague, though not set anywhere specific in the Nazi Reichlands; its interiors were shot in a historic studio used by Joseph Goebbels for Nazi propaganda films, an irony not lost on Waititi) and by the information-rich production design, by Waititi’s countryman (and veteran of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien film adaptations) Ra Vincent. Its most tragic and heartbreaking moment is shot, edited, directed, scored, and performed with elegant poeticism before Waititi pulls the rug out from under the audience masterfully and wrenchingly; it’s an unforgettable scene, the wounded soul of the film, and when viewers moved by Jojo Rabbit argue for the its power and importance, they will be thinking of this sequence. The movie’s dominant theme is one of love and respect triumphing over cynical weaponized hate, specifically over the fascistic ethnonationalism of the Nazis, and it’s not a message that lacks relevance in our contemporary world, given the disturbing comeback of far-right fascist ideas and even specifically revived Nazi iconography under the irresponsible accidental collaboration of neoliberal complacency and self-serving conservative indulging of racism. Jojo Rabbit drives this point home, with the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence being the note-perfect needle drop that closes the film.

But is that message enough? Can love alone triumph over hate, especially when hate carries such an attractive and politically advantageous incentive to the powerful and non-powerful alike? To quote an episode of Clone High (the work of Lord & Miller, American crafters of expert idiosyncratic comedy who have risen to higher levels in Hollywood as Waititi has), love is just an abstract concept, it can’t knock down stuff. The critical response to Jojo Rabbit has suggested that this message is naive and insufficient to the political and social challenges of the moment, a feel-good panacaea that distracts from the more difficult work of countering far-right ideology and the fascist tendencies creeping into the conservative political parties of Western democracies (and some of the centrist and centre-left ones, too). This reaction short-sells Jojo Rabbit; it’s about “love” manifested as respecting and protecting the vulnerable of society in its emotional case-study fashion, the foundation underscoring the democratic socialist ideology that is the surest social and political counterattack to fascism’s absolutist power (spare me the snide 4chan riposte that “Nazi” just stands for “National Socialism”; you may be so dishonest or dumb to believe that point matters, but I’m not).

It’s easy enough to critique the movie’s prominent “anti-hate satire” tagline as aggressive marketing-department underlining of ideas that Jojo Rabbit fails to back up, but the description is not inaccurate. Satires comedically critique unjust social and/or political structures and worldviews while holding an opposing, sometimes unspoken structure and/or worldview as a desirable alternative. Waititi doesn’t have Johansson’s Rosie read out Bernie Sanders’ election platform or anything, but it’s clear enough that the desirable alternative to fascism’s destructive, paranoid white nationalism is a social structure in which communities care for each other with a political order that supports that core tenet (Waititi is a supporter and friend of New Zealand’s current centre-left Labour Party Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern). But if this is solid ground from which Jojo Rabbit launches its satirical attacks on the Nazis and their beliefs and practices, what aspects of fascism are being attacked here, and do those attacks succeed?

First and foremost, the anti-semitism of the Third Reich comes under direct fire of Waititi’s smothering ridicule. Like prior giant of Hollywood anti-Nazi satire Mel Brooks, Waititi is himself (half-)Jewish, although it’s not an aspect of his identity that has asserted itself much in his work up to this point; his indigeneity and Maori identity has loomed larger, reflective of his previous films’ themes of fatherhood (his father is a Maori artist) as opposed to Jojo Rabbit‘s themes of motherhood (his mother is of Jewish heritage). Brooks’ comedy frequently emphasized its creator’s Jewishness, to say the least, and of course one of his best-known and loved films, The Producers, satirized Nazis, or rather what he called the shoddy theatricality of their propagandistic image-making (watch Lindsay Ellis’ video essay on the subject, if you would; it’s indispensible to the discussion that follows). But he always stayed away from addressing the Holocaust directly, even criticizing Benigni’s Life is Beautiful for deciding not to do so, and did not venture into lampooning the saturatingly ugly anti-semitic propaganda that sought to justify and motivate Nazi Germany’s Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Indeed, it could be debated whether or not Brooks’ old-fashioned Borscht Belt comedic use of Jewish stereotypes didn’t do more to perpetuate them to a wider modern audience than to neutralize their dangerous power.

Taika Waititi doesn’t dare to depict the Holocaust directly in this largely gentle-spirited movie, although Elsa does recount to Jojo a story of watching her parents being put on a train to what was almost certainly a death camp, a fate lying beneath the peril of her discovery that is the film’s central tension and relies on the audience’s shared knowledge of the deeper horrors behind the war and the propaganda of the regime. But in much the same way that his generational comedy contemporary Sacha Baron Cohen controversially did in Borat, Waititi goes right at anti-semitic tropes by reproducing comically exagerrated versions of them at the Hitler Youth camp and in Jojo’s conversations with Elsa and with others and in his juvenile picture-book. The amplification renders these tropes hilarious and laughable, and by extension renders the political ideology founded on them likewise hilarious and laughable. I think it works and is pitched with the right tone to make it clear that anti-semitism is a joke and could not be believed by a rational and empathetic person (even if, or maybe because, the film’s child protagonist’s head is full of it). But there’s room for disagreement on that point, too, one has to acknowledge, albeit far less than in the comparatively more raucous deployment of such outlandish stereotypes in Borat.

What’s more unprecedented and therefore more unsettling, problematic, and worthy of debate in Jojo Rabbit‘s anti-Nazi satire is that unlike a lot of prior farcical takes on fascism, it places Nazis in their own social, political, and historical context and does not forcefully turn them into cartoonish villains. I think one of the reasons that it’s fair to label Jojo Rabbit as an anti-hate satire as well as why it is being criticized as perhaps being a bit soft is that it doesn’t really have a personified villain, a representative character standing in for the inhumanity and unleashed horrors of Hitler’s Third Reich, like Ralph Fiennes’ casually monstrous Amon Göth in Schindler’s List or the more charming and smooth Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) in Inglourious Basterds or even Belloq and Toht in the blockbuster potboiler Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Merchant’s Gestapo agent Deertz represents a clear threat for a single scene, but he’s ultimately characterized as a mid-level bureaucratic functionary doing his job, even if that job is morally terrible (not that the banality of evil isn’t terrible and chilling in its own way). Captain Klenzendorf might have served as a bad man backed up by the authority of a bad system, but he is far from a party-line fanatic (Allen and Wilson play such fanatics, but as pure comic caricatures) and even proves moral and protective of the vulnerable where he can. He protects both Elsa and Jojo from harmful reprisals when turning them over would have been less dangerous for himself, even acting as a surrogate father to Jojo in a proscribed way. This reflects not only the frequently non-ideological nature of the German military during the Nazi era (they fought for their country in most cases, not for the fantasy narratives of the fascist fanatics who ran it) but also his own personal awareness of the plight of the marginalized as a closeted gay man who could be sent to the death camps should his secret be revealed (although when Americans and Soviets assault Jojo’s town at the film’s climax and there is little left to lose, Klenzendorf embraces homosexual flamboyance in the form of a flashy red-feathered battle uniform of his own design). Even Waititi’s Imaginary Friend Hitler, with his absurd, side-splitting Kiwi/Germanic-accented English speech proclaiming things like how he plans to eat unicorn for dinner, is more silly than evil, only tipping into angry confrontation with Jojo’s vacillating and displays of empathy near the end. He’s a fantasy manifestation of Jojo’s dedication to Nazi ideas, with the concomitant childish frivolity and insecurity that implies.

Without an easy villainous character to focus the audience’s natural resentment for history’s greatest monsters onscreen, Jojo Rabbit is instead making a subtler, more amorphous satirical point about a society turned to mass-murderous madness and evil while also simultaneously continuing largely as normal. Waititi, Mălaimare, and Vincent craft a Germany (or maybe an Austria like in the novel, it isn’t clear and doesn’t specifically matter) quietly heaving under the crushing weight of Hitler’s war effort, with propaganda posters on walls, Jojo and his Hitler Youth compadres dressed up in cardboard costumes as toothpaste tubes and robots collecting donations of scrap metal for the Führer, and a gallows erected in the town square from which the bodies of resisters hang as a warning (‘What did they do?” Jojo asks his mother, who answers, “What they could.”). The understanding and even empathy that is the ideal launching point for Waititi’s satire extends to ordinary citizens under the yoke of the Reich, who were not foaming-at-the-mouth zealots for the master race but largely powerless people who either found the risk of standing up to Nazism too great or else they didn’t, and often paid for that choice with their lives (many did at least broadly agree with what Hitler and his command structure were doing, too, which Waititi would not deny and gestures at as well). This framing excuses absolutely nothing of what the Third Reich did, to their own people as much as to Europe’s Jews and Slavs and Roma and homosexuals and their battlefield enemies and civilians of their opponents. But it does seek to somewhat realistically depict what German society was like under Hitler’s regime.

This might not have been an approach that would have been anticipated from a Taika Waititi film satirizing Nazis, and might go some distance in serving to explain critical divisions and the commercial ambivalence of wider audiences towards Jojo Rabbit. It’s one of Waititi’s braver choices here, to tackle fascism on its own historical turf. Previous satires that have targetted Nazism have been couched in conceits that separate the text of their satires from the historical reality to a great extent. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, the best-known and best-regarded comedic reply to Hitler and fascism in the time of its ascendancy, featured a parody of Hitler named Adenoid Hynkel, a parody of anti-semitic Nazi Germany called Tomainia, and parodies of Benito Mussolini, Hermann Göring, and Joseph Goebbels. Monty Python’s hilarious “North Minehead By-election” sketch transposed the Nazi leadership (John Cleese as “Mr. Hilter”, simmering in rage at his diminished lot and giving over-the-top speeches from the balcony of a boarding house; Michael Palin as a grinning, Beat-speaking “Bimmler” who has trouble keeping up their cover: “Was not head of Gestapo at all! I make joke!”; Graham Chapman as the absurd aristocratic “Ron Vibbentrop”, “in Somerset being born”) to sleepy suburban West Country England, where their attempts to begin a political coup in Britain by winning a Parliamentary seat on the “National Bocialist” ticket are met with indifference and befuddlement from locals who “don’t like the sound of these here ‘boncentration bamps'”. And of course, Mel Brooks’ The Producers was about a stage musical about Nazis, Springtime for Hitler, which took the unpalatable offensiveness of Nazism as assumed and indeed integral to the film’s premise and plot and mocked the tacky overwrought cornball performativity of its propaganda more than the content of its political ideology or the genocidal consequences of that ideology. Jojo Rabbit fits in with these satires in some ways, but diverges notably from them in showing Nazism to be ridiculous (but also dangerous) in the historical locus of its own greatest power and influence.

Lindsay Ellis notes in her video essay on The Producers and other anti-Nazi satires that despite the impression that it is a light and superficial genre, comedy can actually effectively tackle serious subjects and unjust and oppressive political and social systems. Indeed, she arguesa that comedies often manage to critique injustice and hate better and more sustainably than dramas do, citing the example of the overtly anti-Nazi American History X as a film that aestheticizes fascist iconography even while denouncing it and as such has been co-opted by latter-day alt-right fascists as a text that romanticizes Nazism and its attendant images and lifestyle. Ellis observes that The Producers is not claimed by modern Nazis in that way, and it’s similarly unlikely that Jojo Rabbit will be either, a statement to the satirical power of both texts as undermining fascist ideas by laughing at them. German fascism is shown to have been thoroughly ludicrous by Taika Waititi’s film, a paper-thin childish fantasy of hate and exclusionary inclusion that took over an industrialized European nation, claimed millions of lives in the process, and continues to poison and disfigure our current political order and discourse. But it also furtively acknowledges the social and psychological appeal of fascism to the young and impressionable, a lesson worth heeding when formulating approaches to defusing our contemporary hard-right time-bomb. Does Jojo Rabbit entirely succeed in balancing satire with political thoughtfulness, not to mention with emotional integrity and sociological sympathy for the impossible choices of ordinary people in the grip of an oppressive authoritarian regime? Not entirely and not always, but at the end of the effort of thinking and writing about it, I find myself wanting to do little but praise Taika Waititi for the brave yet implausible effort to get this funny, nuanced, often powerful, but not wholly effective film over the line. Jojo Rabbit doesn’t work as it ought to, but perhaps it couldn’t realistically be expected to, given the surprising ambition of its project. It did what it could, and even if that’s not always enough, it’s certainly something.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Parasite

November 24, 2019 Leave a comment

Parasite (2019; Directed by Bong Joon-ho)

South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho has made films about the socioeconomic disparities of capitalism before. Snowpiercer, obviously, with its horizontally-inclined train-car metaphor for the pyramid of wealth and privilege, but monster movie The Host and the unpredictable meat-production polemic Okja likewise respectively critiqued capitalism’s controlled chaos and institutional incompetence and its marketing-obscured reduction of animals (and people, too) to pure products of consumption. But with Parasite, Bong Joon-ho crafts his richest, most compelling and layered exploration of the social and personal costs of capitalist economic assumptions. This film, the Palme d’Or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is among the most urgent, persuasively uncompromising, and hard-to-shake portraits of the operational effects of class in 21st-century cinema, and perhaps in cinema of all eras. It’s also tense, shocking, frequently hilarious, and never anything short of remarkably entertaining.

Parasite is a story of two families (although one of its later-act twists slots in a third, but we will say no more about that). The Kims are barely-employed, scratching together barely enough money to make ends meet in their semi-basement apartment. They watch drunks piss on their rubbish bins through their ground-level window, wander the apartment with smartphones held to the ceiling in hopes of latching onto free wifi from a neighbour, and flick away insect infestations, allowing the smoke of fumigation crews to drift through the open window while they’re home in hopes of gaining free extermination services. The Kims are poor.

This begins to change, however, but only through the chance magnanimity of Min (Park Seo-joon), a friend of the family’s young-adult son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik). Min is a student at university (which neither Kim child can afford to attend) and has been tutoring Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the high-school-age daughter of the wealthy Park family, in English while also carrying on a secret relationship with her. Min is going abroad to study, but fears another horny young male university student tutor taking his place and his underaged girlfriend. Ki-woo has good knowledge of English, having taken several university entrance exams, and Min feels that he can trust his friend not to take advantage of her while earning good money from the Parks.

Ki-woo isn’t a university student as such English tutors in Korea are evidently expected to be (there are numerous details in Parasite that proceed from cultural assumptions of South Korean society that may not be immediately intelligible to foreign audiences, but it doesn’t detract from the film overall). But his talented, art-school-aspiring sister Ki-jeong (Park So-dam) forges official-looking college documents for him and he gives a fake name – Kevin – to the young mother of the Park clan (Cho Yeo-jeong), whom Min labels as “a bit simple” and sure enough hires Ki-woo/Kevin practically on the spot. Ki-woo does not live up to Min’s lofty expectations of his conduct, as he soon becomes Da-hye’s new secret boyfriend.

From there, the Kims inveigle themselves one by one onto the Parks’ payroll and into their luxury modern home, designed and dwelled in but vacated a few years before by a renowned architect. Ki-jeong wins a spot as art therapist to the Park’s excitable, unfocused son Da-song (Jung Hyun-joon); patriarch Ki-taek (played by frequent Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho) becomes the family’s new chauffeur after Ki-jeong frames their current driver for sexual deviance; and matriarch Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) takes over as live-in housekeeper after displacing the prior long-tenured one Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) with a fiendish plot involving a peaches allergy, a packet of hot sauce, and a hospital waiting-room selfie. This final link in the employment chain proves to have dire consequences for the Kims (who keep their family relation secret from their employers) and the Parks, however, when the former housekeeper turns out to have been hiding a secret beneath the house.

These events unspool with clever writing, sharp editing, and keen performances, words and ideas and images planted in fertile cinematic soil in early stages sprouting and flowering productively as matters become darker and more terrible in the film’s later movements; it’s a witty confidence-scheme caper comedy before transgressing into full-blown and urgently resonant social horror. The cinematography by Hong Kyung-pyo absorbs the cluttered, grimy detail of the Kims’ flat and takes full advantage of the sleek reflective modernism of the Park home. The latter in particular becomes a progressively more familiar and thus unsettling setting: the doorway to the basement, source of the conflict and horror that consumes both families in the film’s latter half, is a black portal set in the middle of a tastefully-illuminated feature wall of decorative objects, into which characters vanish and out of which characters emerge without a hint of warning.

Parasite sees the horizontal orientation of Snowpiercer‘s forceful metaphor for the socioeconomic hierarchy turned back vertical. In contrast to the poor Kims’ lowly basement premises, the wealthy Parks’ mansion is on a geographic height, requiring literal physical ascension (as well as figurative economic/professional ascension) in order to reach it: the Kims approach it by moving up a hill, then taking stairs at the property gate and again after ingress at the front door. The secret that the previous housekeeper concealed in a hidden bunker below the storehouse basement requires a descent to reach, and the violent chaos of the film’s last half stems from what comes out of that subterranean realm. When returning to their semi-basement home in a torrential rainpour after spending a dangerous and fateful night trapped in the Park house, the father Kim and his children descend long inclined roads, metal staircases, and a long set of stone steps down which flooding rainwater cascades. In Parasite, the socioeconomic ladder is given literal form.

But Bong’s conception of class and privilege is far knottier and more fraught than this direct vertical visual arrangement suggests. The Kims are amazed at the gullibility of their rich marks and the ease with which they are able to gain access to salaries from the Parks and to the plenty of their home. But Parasite does not play out entirely like a gleeful, cathartic revenge fantasy of swindling the 1%, although Bong indulges that sentiment in moments. Ki-woo especially is consumed with doubt, not at the immorality of deceiving the Parks but of his own suitability and fitness in their world of wealth and ease. He worries that he does not fit in there, manifested not as nervousness that the ruse he kicked off will be exposed but as a deeper anxiety of social belonging.

Parasite also unfolds not in the direction of violent overthrow of the privilege of the rich, but of desperate, primal conflict between those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale for whatever wage labour income and other discarded scraps those on the higher end are willing to part with. Even while disingenuously acting as the titular parasites on the wealth of the Parks to survive (the film’s Korean title is 기생충 or Gisaengchung, which translates to English most directly as “parasitic worm”) the Kims and others relying on the wealthy family’s largess do not resent them, but pay them compliments (they’re all very “nice”) and even forms of ritual homage to the father of the family, IT company CEO Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun). When violence does climactically turn against the rich, it’s not predemitated or revolutionary in nature, but a sudden snap decision to bring about terrible, swift accountability rather than allow another unscathed escape from the wanton destruction that capitalism’s imperatives wreak upon the poor while sparing (and more often even benefiting) the wealthy.

But Parasite‘s greatness deepens and broadens and becomes more challenging and audacious when its subtext moves beyond class critique and into something more political. It’s hard to miss how Bong seeds his dialogue with casual but insistent references to North Korea: the bunker beneath the Park house was built by the august architect due to North Korean nuclear fears, Moon-gwang impresses with her imitation of North Korean state media broadcasters, and Kim Ki-taek tells Mr. Park that he knows all the roads in Korea south of the 38th Parallel that roughly separates the peninsula’s two very divergent states.

A probing critic may posit that the film’s title refers as much to the wealthy Parks as to the deprived Kims; capitalism presupposes a reciprocal but entirely unequal parasitic relationship on the part of both the haves and the have-nots. But by consistently, knowingly inserting the backwards communist North, with its starving, poverty-stricken population and authoritarian, wealth-hording government elite, into this story set in the prosperous capitalist South, Bong Joon-ho may be provocatively adding another (inverted) layer to his rewarding cinematic critique of vertically-aligned wealth distribution in his native Korea.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Unicorn Store

November 23, 2019 Leave a comment

Unicorn Store (2019; Directed by Brie Larson)

Unicorn Store is Brie Larson’s feature directorial debut.  My stars, is it ever just such a first movie. Heartfelt and sincere but clumsily self-indulgent and navel-gazing, made with energy and enthusiasm that quickly tips into desperate full swings at being unique and meaningful, full of raw potential but also full of choices that a more seasoned and assured filmmaker would not have made, or would have made better. It’s earnest but far too cute, and full of ideas and even narrative/thematic conduits for those ideas that are ossified and hardened like fossils in the independent film soil layer. It’s about growing up and finding yourself and being creative and individual and self-accepting in the context of the vast, reductive dehumanizing machine of corporate capitalist labour, but through the metaphor of getting a unicorn. It could have been made precisely 20 years ago, a gentler female-centric Fight Club, and might have even snatched a second-tier Oscar nom. It’s kind of another Garden State, but not as deep (what a thing to say!). A lot of critics hate movies like this. I kind of liked it.

Because, you know, I like Brie Larson. She’s got presence onscreen and she’s funny and poised and self-effacing. She makes her movies better by being in them, mostly, and has good liberal politics and uses her fame and clout to spotlight vital issues. In between winning a Best Actress Oscar for 2015’s Room and featuring in a billion-dollar-grossing superhero blockbuster or two earlier this year, Larson directed and starred in this light but not unaffecting slice of fantasy/comedy/drama whimsy. She makes herself the centre of the show in Unicorn Store, rightly gauging that her involvement will lasoo what audience interest can be captured mostly on its own. Shot late in 2016 and premiered at TIFF in September 2017, the film didn’t get a release until Netflix hustled it out in the wake of Captain Marvel making Larson a movie star and pop culture icon (at least until Avengers: Endgame sidelined her character less than two months later; in the age of saturation-level online Hot Take cultural criticism, a month can seem like a decade).

Unicorn Store does make it clear that Brie Larson is not a great director, at least not yet though maybe not never. Working from a screenplay by Samantha McIntyre, Unicorn Store blends a poor-misunderstood-white-girl bildungsroman narrative arc with grace notes of depression and lack of self-confidence, then dumps in a quart of the bright neon food colouring of over-precious magic realism. Kit (Larson) is shown in a home-video montage (which looks to be made up of real clips of Larson’s own youth) growing up as a playful and creative young girl with a flair for art with rainbow colours and glitter. This girlish flamboyance in her artistic output gets her kicked out (or failed out) of art school; Larson and her cinematographer Brett Pawlak compose a soberly-attired, disapproving jury of professors shaking their heads juxtaposed with rainbow-painted Kit and her rainbow-painted canvas behind her. It won’t be the last time her glitter dreams are dashed by serious institutional gatekeepers who find them out of step with dominant trends, though in both cases the punishment added to her rejection seems a tad too harsh.

Anyway, a deflated Kit moves home with her parents (Bradley Whitford and Joan Cusack), who run self-empowerment camping trips for troubled young adults under the sobriquet of “Emotion Quest”, make her eat kale and quinoa all the time, and just don’t understand, oh my god. Kit thinks they’re disappointed in her but it becomes clear that Kit is just disappointed in herself and projecting those feelings onto others in her life. Nonetheless determined to mitigate that disappointment, she awkwardly but surprisingly successfully pursues temp work at a public relations company, where her boss Gary (Hamish Linklater) hovers around her sexual-harrassingly and his favour earns her a shot at a pitch for an advertising campaign for a vacuum cleaner.

At the same time, however, Kit begins to receive enigmatic multichromatic invitation cards with her name on them, culminating in one that invites her to a nondescript abandoned urban storefront which, when she enters it, turns out to be an opulently-appointed titular shop for mythological horned rainbow horses, presided over by The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson, Larson’s Captain Marvel co-star). He insistently but enigmatically informs her that she has been chosen as a potential owner for a unicorn, but before one is ordered for her, she must complete a series of tasks, such as building the unicorn a suitable home, obtaining it nutritious food (hay dyed in bright colours, as it turns out), and, perhaps most difficult, prepare a loving environment in which it can thrive. Kit contracts an inexperienced hardware store shop-boy named Virgil (Mamoudou Athie) to help her build a unicorn stable and their interactions grow to friendship and even to low-simmer, chaste romance, but she doesn’t tell him or her parents about her imminent unicorn ownership, rightly believing it to sound a little crazy and perhaps even like a swindle.

Despite informational folders and official-sounding customs-like forms and The Salesman’s tantalizing details, the unicorn is of course a metaphor for Kit’s own sense of self-worth, her core identity valuation beyond how she is defined by her parents or her corporate employers or her respected art professor (who was the first artist to put a stick in a box, as she defends his credentials to a doubtful Virgil) or by the society we live in, maaaaannn. At the heart of the unicorn metaphor is a stiff defence of the aesthetics of young womanhood, re-appropriating the oft-maligned, stereotypical bright and twee signifiers of girliness like rainbows and fantasy creatures as symbols of feminine freedom, creativity, and self-definition rather than as backhanded negative symbols of silly, unserious immaturity.

This metaphor clearly appeals to the self-described feminist Larson, and is contrasted with the serial male harassment and sexual objectification of Kit’s workplace (although these are mostly played lightly, for laughs). Dismissing or marginalizing Unicorn Store as little more than cute but shallow on the basis of these central ideas has a similarly sexist bent to it, especially given the gender alignment of this particular reviewer. Kit’s climactic meeting with her unicorn and the emotional wallop it packs should not be underestimated by any means, but it remains undeniable that the movie’s approach to its ideas on social and professional expectations, corporate culture, and women’s fraught place within those things can run towards the facile and the unconvincing.

Larson keeps the tone of Unicorn Store forever light, as colourful tissue paper floating on drafts of air. Her confidence with the camera isn’t as high as it could be, and therefore many moments and images lose potential punch due to how she uses it, how she frames herself and her surroundings onscreen. This means that when Unicorn Store wants to make a point, it often does not land. Things that may have been memorable about it flitter by, flash and fade like brief rainbows after light showers. If it’s very hard to hate a movie like this, so inclined to be mildly liked, then it’s hard to fall in love with it, too. As a directorial debut, Brie Larson could have done worse than Unicorn Store. Hopefully she learns enough from it to do better.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Dolemite is My Name

November 15, 2019 Leave a comment

Dolemite is My Name (2019; Directed by Craig Brewer)

Halfway through Dolemite is My Name, Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) and his buddies are dining out, celebrating the surprising success of the ribald, streetwise rhyming pimp African-American stage character that he’s created. At Moore’s urging, they decide to attend The Front Page, an acclaimed, sophisticated Billy Wilder comedy feature starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau that he’s read is a new comedy classic. Surrounded by a mostly white audience’s laughter, Moore and his black friends can’t understand what’s so funny. The humour doesn’t land for them, just as Dolemite’s baudy, strutting routines don’t appeal to the comic sensibilities of white audiences in quite the way that they appeal to black ones. It’s a sort of thesis statement moment for Dolemite is My Name, and it also vitally catalyzes Moore’s quest to make a movie that will make his own people laugh in the way that The Front Page makes a white audience laugh.

Dolemite is My Name is, in this way, very nearly a meta-commentary on the career and work of its star, Eddie Murphy. Conventional film scholar/celebrity history wisdom on Murphy holds that after bursting into blazing superstardom in the early 1980s via Saturday Night Live, Beverly Hills Cop, and his Delirious stand-up comedy special, Murphy couldn’t get a handle on his fame and effectively translate his meteoric talent into consistently good movie work. But is this narrative racially predetermined, like so much in America, entertainment very much included? Does the yawning gulf between The Front Page and Dolemite mapped out in this movie also apply to the last quarter-century of its star’s film oeuvre? Do African-American audiences turn their noses up at The Nutty Professor and Norbit and his braying voiceover work from the Shrek movies? Do white audiences, even? Has the long tail of his post-1990s career, with frequent ill-suited family-friendly sojourns, been incontrivertibly poor, or does it shift and change when viewed in different lights? Hollywood hasn’t known what to do with Eddie Murphy for quite some time, but he’s hardly the only African-American screen megastar in that situation (Will Smith is on Line 1, sir).

Dolemite is My Name is a sort of repositioning for Murphy nonetheless, a pivot back to profane adult-oriented comedy, albeit with softer edges of mature melancholic self-doubt and inspirational can-do crowd-pleasing spirit. The film was directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan), known for making films couched in African-American experience and anchored by strong core performances but that look and feel suboptimally less-than-cinematic (how apt for the Age of Netflix film releases, which this movie is one). It was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the screenwriters of Ed Wood, one of the best films ever made about the sort of low-budget, Z-grade, misfit moviemaking that Hollywood loves to romanticize, laugh at, and smugly turn its back on at the same time. Stitch these creative profiles together with Murphy’s own predilections as a performer and his deep admiration for Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite character and its broad influence on his own comedy (as on black culture of the past 40 years in general), and the final result is Dolemite is My Name.

Moore was originally from rural Arkansas, though he also lived across the Midwest, in Seattle, and even went to Germany as a US Army serviceman. Dolemite is My Name commences in the early 1970s in Los Angeles, with Moore working at famous record store Dolphin’s of Hollywood by day and introducing acts at a club by night. Even as he ages and faces his limitations, Moore dreams of entertainment success and hustles the record store DJ (Snoop Dogg, another avowed acolyte of Dolemite who has emphasized the character’s influence on hip hop) to play his singing record and tries to squeeze attention-catching jokes into his brief emceeing slots at the club. It all seems to be for naught until the half-insane rantings of a record-shop-invading streetperson named Ricco (Ron Cephas Jones) catch Moore’s attention as he ushers the man out the door.

Ricco’s ramblings consist of rough-hewn, foul-mouthed rhymes derived from African-American folklore and run through the hard realities of urban poverty. Moore follows Ricco to a homeless encampment and collects more like-minded material from other streetpeople. He refines and rehearses the shtick, then thunderously unveils it at the nightclub done up in the flamboyant suit-and-cane attire of a pimp, to a raucous and enthusiastic reception. His profane, boasting, sexually-explicit comedic story-rhymes in character as confident player Dolemite quickly gain a loyal following in the local black community, and he grows his profile with relentless DIY energy. Moore can’t afford studio time to record a comedy album, so he cuts it in his apartment with an invited audience; when no record company will release something so obscene, he borrows funds from his aunt to press copies and sells them out of his trunk. He toils on the Chitlin’ Circuit in the Deep South while the album’s popularity grows, and with the marketing help of an intrigued record company, it even charts on Billboard.

The rise of Dolemite takes up about half of the film, and the making of the character’s kung-fu blaxploitation movie debut Dolemite occupies its latter half. Perpetually short on funds and rife with semi-professionality, the production utilizes the entirety of Moore’s entourage behind the camera and in front of it, as well as some white film school students (the film buries the lede, but one of these is the cinematographer, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who is actually the son of legendary Hollywood director Josef von Sternberg). The frustrations and triumphs of movie production are entertainingly portrayed, and Moore has to go the DIY route to distribute the movie as well, before it reaches its eventual status as a celebrated B-movie classic.

Murphy’s performance as Moore and as Dolemite synthesizes the most successful and rewarding portions of his wide-ranging entertainment career, combining the cocksure swagger of his peak standup work with the warmth and thoughtful self-critique of some of his latter-day dramatic roles. Moore wheedles and hustles to make his dreams of fame come to fruition, but is granted moments of deflation, doubt, and inadequacy, and a few scenes touch on the physical abuse of his father, which lights a fire of chip-on-his-shoulder motivation. As comeback performances go, it’s a fine one, a reminder of what Murphy can be at his engaged, dynamic best.

But he doesn’t bogart the spotlight, allowing co-stars to shine as well: Keegan-Michael Key is an amusingly earnest realist-playwright-turned-kung-fu-pimp-movie-scribe, Craig Robinson is a jolly musician buddy, Da’Vine Joy Randolph plays a sharp-tongued single mother who becomes Moore’s unlikely comedy protégé and confidante (and closest thing to a love interest, though not actually that close). It’s another long-dormant black movie star mostly done dirty by the vagaries of the Hollywood system who really steals the show, however: Wesley Snipes as Dolemite‘s director and onscreen villain D’Urville Martin, who appeared in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and thus considers himself to be a film artist of the highest order. Snipes’ Martin swans around in prancing princeliness and delivers his lines like he’s wetly slapping each word as punishment for stealing a spoonful of his lobster bisque. He steals each scene he’s in, and it’s a testament to Murphy’s ability to subsume ego to art that he lets Snipes get away with it.

Dolemite is My Name is not a great film, and it suffers from the biopic’s classic structural issues and Brewer’s workmanlike lack of ambition (the too-unkind phrase “the black Ron Howard” comes to mind when considering his direction). But it’s funny enough and generous in spirit, and approaches racial divisions thoughtfully and gently but without illusion. If it doesn’t quite fit in with the more critical and even radical cohort of recent African-American cinema, then it isn’t really trying to. Dolemite is My Name is about a black artist and entertainer carving out a considerable niche appealing specifically to black audiences without much intent or hope for mainstream (read: white) crossover. If its milieu smacks of the segregated ghetto, then it also invokes a robust and proud sense of cultural community.

The path of confrontational politics has not been the one favoured by Eddie Murphy, as an aging superstar or even really as a younger comedic firebrand. Dolemite is My Name is a star vehicle in an old-fashioned Hollywood sense, a conduit for advancing an image of and perspective on a big-name actor whose name was once bigger than it is. In that sense, it works very well, demonstrating that Eddie Murphy is still capable of slash-and-burn comedy flourishes while also developing a vulnerable and introspective side that has crept compellingly into his mature work. With Murphy fully leaning into the age of the nostalgic reboot/sequel by developing Coming to America 2 (with Brewer directing) and Beverly Hills Cop 4 (to be released by Netflix), he is clearly counting on the glow of goodwill that emanates from Dolemite is My Name to last for a while yet. It wouldn’t be a bad thing at all if it did.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Lighthouse

November 3, 2019 Leave a comment

The Lighthouse (2019; Directed by Robert Eggers)

The Lighthouse, the second film from Robert Eggers, is a mesmerizing, ambiguous descent into madness, as spare and bare as it is fulsomely baroque. As in his debut feature The Witch, an intense, deliciously-living tale of witchcraft, sin, and judgment set in Colonial New England and likewise distributed by acclaimed independent film house A24, Eggers pits weak and flawed humans against the inscrutable enormity of the natural world and the superstitious myths that render it apprehendable (though no less terrible) to the mind and the soul. That wilderness and the tall tales woven in order to give it intelligible form operate as a metaphorical mirror for the weakness and self-doubt of the puny people who toil fruitlessly against it, for the fickle, unknowable whims of an almost certainly absent God who has left the fates of his creations to the ravenous pagan deities and bestiary that his coming was imagined to have banished, and maybe even for the ugly, consumptive decline of American empire itself.

The Witch drew nearly all of its dialogue directly from 17th-century sources, including transcripts of New England witch trials. Eggers adds a similar title card to the credits of The Lighthouse, citing inspiration for the florid period language used by its characters (Eggers co-wrote the script with his brother Max) from Herman Melville’s work, lighthouse keepers’ journals and logs, and especially the writings of late-19th-century Maine poet and novelist Sarah Orne Jewett. It’s shot on 35mm film and in black-and-white by Jarin Blaschke, also Eggers’ cinematographer on The Witch, and presented in an odd, outdated 1.19:1 aspect ratio (ie. the fim’s frame is basically a square, rather than the customary widescreen letterbox format) rarely used in feature films since the early 1930s (Fritz Lang used it on his seminal films Sunrise and M, the latter’s claustrophobic darkness an arguable influence on this film). Mark Korven is credited with the film’s score, but the sonic environment is dominated by the station’s ominous, unearthly foghorn which ever blares away its deep groan of doom.

All of this visual and aural anachronism (so suggestive of the work of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin in key ways that Eggers should almost cut the Winnipegger into his film’s grosses) makes The Lighthouse‘s tale of two late-1800s American lighthouse-men (known as “wickies”) stranded on an isolated rock as a storm and insanity both descend on them (a story adapted from a real incident involving two stranded Welsh wickies in 1801) all the more hypnotic and unsettling. They are salty maritime veteran Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and rookie Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). Wake was a sailor for decades but pivoted to lighthousing due to a gammy leg, while Winslow is on his first assignment with the United States Lighthouse Establishment after leaving off lumberjack work in Canada with suspicious suddenness.

Left alone by a tender on the deserted rock isle for what is supposed to be a four-week turn, Wake and Winslow settle into a power-dynamic pattern of command and control, tension and release. The elder sea-dog Wake is the superior, and he consigns nearly all of the back-breaking manual labour to the younger Winslow, accompanying it with capricious whims of power and threats of garnished wages to assert his authority in the face of Winslow’s occasional insubordinate pushback. Meanwhile, Wake is secretive with the keeper’s logbook and the tending of the saturating light itself, forbidding Winslow from so much as setting foot on the top level next to the lighthouse’s rapturous, glow-emitting fresnel lens. Wake speaks in thick, sea-lore-specked nautical slang (Dafoe is a delightful marvel, and perfectly cast), sprinkling Winslow with dire warnings of bad omens and hoary curses of ocean mythology like bursts of sea spray. But this bad-cop act is balanced by attempts at good-cop comradery with his companion over meals and, after bad weather prevents a boat with relief crew from reaching them, over excessive amounts of alcoholic drink.

Winslow, for his part, is eroded by frustration and toil, physical, mental, and otherwise. He endures the thousand pinprick humiliations of Wake’s fluctuating tyranny but they wear him down, fray his edges, compel rebellion. He is tormented by a particular belligerent seagull (in their first meeting, Eggers’ centers Winslow and the bird in the two-shot edit, coyly framing them as equal antagonists), until he finally snaps and shockingly fails to heed Wake’s maritime-wisdom prognostication that it is bad luck to kill a seabird, as they contain the souls of men lost at sea. Perhaps like that of the previous junior wickie, who Wake claims went mad and killed himself.

But psychosexual dissatisfaction and sublimated homoerotic desire (one drunken-dance embrace between the men nearly becomes a tantalizing kiss) rage through these more mundane agonies. Eggers remarks in the film’s press kit that “Nothing good can happen when two men are left alone in a giant phallus”. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a lighthouse is just a lighthouse. But definitely not in this movie. A nude Wake is shown deriving euphoric sexual ecstasy from the heavenly light of the fresnel lens at the lighthouse’s pinnacle that only he may access. Meanwhile, Winslow, locked out of this ecstatic holy/sexual heaven, self-pleasures pathetically in a grimy supply hut to the figure of a scrimshaw mermaid and half-hallucinatory visions of flesh-and-blood sirens that he may or may not have actually encountered on and around the island, a turning shot of the lighthouse ending in vertical orientation pruriently associated directly with his erect male member.

Winslow’s denial of access to the beacon becomes metaphorical in myriad ways, a potent symbol of Wake’s power over him in numerous facets that keep him at a distance from satisfaction, belonging, meaning. Wake is also visually identified with the lighthouse itself, looming nude and terrible over Winslow in an indelible vision, a beam of light from the old man’s eyes shining on the younger man’s face. Wake is further personified as Neptune/Poseidon, the classical god of the sea, on a couple of occasions, tentacles writhing and strangling Winslow after one of their boozy tussles. But Winslow’s bedevilment eventuates not merely from external forces like his mean boss or the terrifying enormity of the sea or existential lonesomeness or even the dark truth of his past, but from the internal as well. When it is revealed that Winslow’s real Christian name is, like Wake, also Thomas (he stole the identity of a dead colleague in the northern woods), an element of crisis of identity and self is introduced into The Lighthouse, suggesting that the conflict and struggle between the two Thomases (the concurrence of the names is also a detail drawn from the tragedy of the Welsh keepers of 1801) is a conflict and struggle within Winslow himself (one almost anticipates a Fight Club-style reveal of Thomas Wake being a schizophrenic delusion and Winslow truly being alone, but that’s not it, bud).

If any lingering thread of doubt dangles loose in your mind concerning the actorly skills of the one-time sparkly-vampire heartthrob Pattinson, bear witness to The Lighthouse and banish said doubt forthwith. His transformation here is revelatory, thrusting beyond the quiet, self-contained man of few words that arrives at the lighthouse (a role he has played before, and pretty well) into a figure more primally desperate and id-driven. His interplay with Dafoe (besides Valeriia Karaman as the literally wordless mermaid, they are the only credited actors in the film) is extremely complex and often ambiguous; their conflict runs hot and cold, with widening fissures and almost tender rapprochements. Hallucinatory horrors of sea-lore aside, The Lighthouse is surprisingly realistic and insightful about the psychological and behavioural rhythms of men forced to live in isolated proximity.

For all of the stylistic, technical, and thematic similarities with The Witch noted at the outset, The Lighthouse is a distinct work in important ways as well. It’s much more of a claustrophobic chamber piece, with its two caged beasts of men tearing themselves and their small, limited world apart. Eggers employs intermittent shots of swirling, crashing ocean waves and begins and ends The Lighthouse with fades out of and into smothering fog. And yet the sea, by far the greater and more dangerous force, does not quite summon the dread anticipation and oppressive psychological and spiritual encroachment of the woods that press upon the Pilgrim family in The Witch. Although supernatural elements here like the shrieking mermaids and the pagan god of the sea and the impish seagulls function much as the titular witch and the billy-goat Black Phillip and the Great Satan himself in The Witch, their metaphorical profile is more pronounced, their place in the lived reality of the historical context less assured. There is never a modicum of doubt in the minds of the Pilgrim family in The Witch that the Devil and his malevolent servants are terribly tangible and frightening immediate threats to their physical safety as well as to their mortal souls, while Winslow consistently questions and dismisses Wake’s oceanic mythology and superstitious superstructure, dubbing them tall tales and even (self-reflexively) calling him out as an Ahab-ian self-parody of a crusty old seaman.

In a related way, The Lighthouse resonates less with deep political subtext than Eggers’ debut. The convincing historical context that it builds up is more of a side-story, a footnote in the American story with less pregnant meaning than that of Colonial-era America. Its focal-point themes of male power dynamics, psychosexual dominance, and even harmful alcoholism are stronger than any hint of political applicability. This is not to say that The Lighthouse is a lesser film than its director’s prior effort. In many ways, it is stronger, more focused and more boldly, gleefully provocative in its writing, performances, and especially in its imagery. Perhaps nothing good can happen when two men are left alone in a giant phallus, but if a film as memorably strange, evocative, and troubling as The Lighthouse is the result, then it can’t be all bad.

Categories: Film, Reviews