Film Review: 22 July

November 18, 2018 Leave a comment

22 July (2018; Directed by Paul Greengrass)

The latest tense, clear-eyed, cinema verité-style current-affairs drama from English filmmaker Paul Greengrass treads with a mixture of technical confidence and intellectual hesitance onto the sensitive ground of one of the most shocking and heinous acts of violent political terrorism of our age. The director of painfully direct dramatizations of massacres from the Irish Troubles and the hijackings of cargo ships off the Horn of Africa and U.S. airliners on 9/11 (to say nothing of the two finest of the comparatively light and frothy Jason Bourne films), Greengrass now takes on the 2011 Norway attacks orchestrated by far-right fanatic Anders Behring Breivik, which resulted in 77 deaths and exposed a dark, extremist underbelly in one of the world’s most prosperous and peaceful nations.

Shooting in Norway with a Norwegian cast and crew (but completely in English), Greengrass draws out the narratives of two main natives of the Scandinavian nation embroiled in the events as foils to the chillingly methodical mass murderer Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie). Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli) is the popular, politically idealistic son of a local politician from the northern archipelago of Svalbard. Viljar was in attendance at the summer camp retreat for members of the Workers’ Youth League (a sort of leadership club affiliated to Norway’s Labour Party, then in governmental power) on Utøya Island when it was attacked by Breivik, who targetted the children attendees as future leading lights of what considered the country’s “Marxist elite”. Viljar saw some of his best friends die and was himself badly wounded by multiple gunshots. 22 July follows the physical and psychological agony of his recovery and his preparation for an eventual in-court victim statement against Breivik and his beliefs, delivered before the killer’s watchful gaze. An inside view of Breivik’s legal defence is provided through his lawyer, Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), who does his civic duty as a solicitor in defending a man that he soon comes to view with contempt at some personal cost to him and his family.

22 July (the title is the date of the attacks, and would be recognized by any contemporary Norwegian as a 9/11-type shorthand for the traumatic event) therefore is more of a genre-crossing affair than is usual for Greengrass. The pained personal drama of Viljar’s struggles is set against the courtroom drama of Breivik’s trial and the plot twists of his defence: never denying that he carried out both the Utøya massacre and the bombing of a government building in Oslo that provided a distraction for his island assault, Breivik is declared mentally unfit to be tried by one examination and then mentally fit for another, deciding that escaping life imprisonment is better but then shifting gears and deciding that being declared insane would invalidate his political mission. The last two acts of 22 July build dramatically to Viljar’s testimony in a way that lends the impression that only he can effectively repudiate Breivik’s hate. But ultimately both his and Lippestad’s arcs are better understood as case studies in civic engagement and moral principle, as statements of democratic strength and solidity in the face of a terrible eruption of viciously fascistic weakness that seeks to destabilize that strength and solidity.

These stories spiral out of the riveting, unsettling opening-act depiction of the attacks themselves, and, truth be told, stand in uncomfortable disequilibrium with it. This first section of 22 July unfolds with masterfully crafted tension as an extended sequence of crescendoing dread and horror, as Breivik’s execution of his heinous plan is intercut with the reactions of government authorities and Viljar’s parents in Oslo and the children at Utøya, their joy at each other’s company at their safe and happy camp transitioning to shocking shaky-cam violence and death. This is Greengrass working at the peak of his powers with all the tools in his filmmaking kit, and it’s a stunning, galvanizing experience. But, as in Captain Phillips and United 93, it comes with a sense of disquiet and hesitation for a thoughtful viewer. How do we feel at being so effectively moved (manipulated, even) by the cinematic language of the Hollywood thriller, language that serves to enthrall and frighten us, in the context of a real-life act of deadly terrorism that still is of such horrible proximity?

Greengrass appends Viljar’s hopeful story (as well as that of a friend of his from an immigrant family, whose positions in Norway are particular targetted by far-right campaigns of terror) as an antidote to Breivik’s hate. But his film sweats and strains through genres at which he is less prodigiously skilled to catch up to the powerful vision of contemporary terror constructed in the first act. A film ostensibly about an act of violent hate and oppression being defeated by hope and love and freedom gives the former too much potency early on for the latter to overcome when it gets its chance to counterattack.

One wonders if more could have been done by Anders Danielsen Lie, who gives the film’s sole fine performance as Breivik. Lie gives this extremist a mask of self-possession and confidence in his righteousness that shifts almost imperceptively into brittle, pompous isolation as an entire nation summons the fortitude to prove him wrong. But could not Breivik’s insufferable faux-medieval cosplaying as a proud paladin of the European master race, his pretentious manifesto, his clueless Nazi salutes in the courtroom have been further defused by rendering them as ridiculous as they truly are (the latest season of ITV’s detective drama Shetland achieved this in blunt but effective terms, with Douglas Henshall’s steely-eyed DI Jimmy Perez tearing down a Norwegian far-right agent’s suggestion that Breivik was a hero by exclaiming, “He lived with his mum!”)? The President of Norway’s and law enforcement’s deft disarming of his ludicrous demand to suspend all immigration to Norway lest his brothers in the Knights Templar unleash a second attack (of course, Breivik was always very alone) comes close to achieving this, and both Viljar’s testimonial diminishment of Breivik’s convictions and Lippestad’s unambiguous blowing off of further contact with his client after his conviction are mildly satisfying. But Greengrass is no satirist; indeed, it’s hard to think of a more self-serious working filmmaker than him, and the sharp, subtle knife of anti-fascist humour is not to be found in his toolkit.

As with all of Greengrass’ pictures, the highly-specified realism of 22 July does not preclude consideration of contemporary sociopolitical concerns but does tend to render them ancillary to the action. There is a strong case to be made, possibly one carrying the risk of folk-anti-hero valourization, that Anders Behring Breivik is one of the most evil people alive today; 22 July generally makes it. This is because of his mass-murderous choice of actions, of course, but is he not also evil because of his ideological beliefs and convictions? After all, men who believe essentially what Breivik believe, who share his broader anxieties and sociopolitical goals, have served (and still serve) in the White House of Donald J. Trump. That they haven’t adopted his methods, haven’t built bombs or fixed teenagers in the sight of a semi-automatic assault rifle and pulled the trigger, to get what they want is a matter of a confluence of factors to tangled and interdependent to easily unravel (22 July, like many considerations of violent terrorism, does not consider with any depth the self-amplifying feedback loop of sociology, ideology and psychology that warps dissatisfied men into sociopathic monsters). It does not absolve them of the consequences of the policies they pursue, which may, in the longer run, damage and extinguish the lives of many more people than Breivik personally slaughtered or traumatized.

22 July offers a glow of neoliberal hope to counter the authoritarian bigotry of Breivik and his hard-right fellow travellers. But as is so often the case right now, it leaves us wondering if this glow is quite enough. Norway’s is a social democracy with more emphasis on the social than Canada and certainly than the U.S., which has embraced its allied Prime Minister’s infamous pronouncement that there is no such thing as a society. The social safety net and general stability of the Scandinavian social democracies in general but Norway in particular (the offshore oil money certainly helps) serves as a frequent model for American and Canadian liberals arguing for similar policies in their own capital-captured countries. Anders Behring Breivik’s horrid act of terrorism suggested that whatever advantages this model carries, it is subject to the save cleavages of white supremacist prejudice that have afflicted the North American democracies through their history down to today. Paul Greengrass suggests in 22 July that to defeat such raging but marginal forces, a re-assertion of the principles of democratic principles (Norwegian or otherwise) in a new multicultural age are required. One hopes that he is correct at the same time as one doubts the depth of his consideration of these problems in this uneven but potent film, whose strengths lie in the visceral but rarely in the higher faculties.

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Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Dune

November 4, 2018 Leave a comment

Dune (1984; Directed by David Lynch)

Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 science fiction novel Dune is one of the most influential works of the genre, and indeed of American popular culture, of the century past. But it only barely feels like it. Herbert’s involved world-creation, synthesis of older global mythologies and narrative tropes, and invocation of political currents and ideas contemporary and historical in Dune not only set the standard for popular literary sci-fi but was a major formative influence (or a source of shamelessly pillaged material for it, depending on your point of view) on George Lucas’ Star Wars, the true colossus of American pop culture of the past half-century.

Dune, in comparison to its marketplace-astriding genre progeny at least, has come to feel like a boutique piece of niche interest and dated importance. This is almost certainly because it has proven stubbornly difficult to bring to the screen and has therefore not stepped far beyond its page-bound generic detention cell. A pair of high-rated and award-winning Syfy television miniseries around the turn of the millennium are generally agreed to be the best filmed adaptations of Herbet’s Dune series, but they remain in this genre jail by their very nature (perhaps today, in a cultural landscape where serialized television is challenging film’s cultural primacy, they might have slipped through the bars).

Until we see what Quebeçois impresario Denis Villeneuve has in mind for the material in his forthcoming (likely two-film) version of the initial Dune novel, the best that the big screen can do for Herbert’s classic is David Lynch’s notoriously compromised 1984 release. This film rose from the ashes of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s astoundingly ambitious mad-scientist vision for Dune, which collapsed without funding in the mid-1970s but directly transformed into Ridley Scott’s Alien shortly thereafter. Emblazoned with the imposing imprimatur of Hollywood mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis and the sharply contrasting directorial credit of the extremely idiosyncratic David Lynch, this Dune was not necessarily doomed from conception, but a mélange of creative choices, production and editorial interference, and technological limitations does it in fatally.

Set some eighty centuries in the future, Dune tells the epic tale of a galactic rivalry of powerful aristocratic houses over the most valuable commodity in the universe, a mysterious resource known as spice. Spice can be refined into a powerful narcotic-like substance which extends life, expands consciousness, and allows interplanetary travel, but it can only be mined on the desert planet of Arrakis (a.k.a. Dune). Long the domain of the sinister House Harkonnen and its corpulent, depraved, sore-encrusted Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan), Arrakis is handed over to the honourable, martially-minded House Atreides and its leader Duke Leto (Jürgen Prochnow) as part of a complex double-cross by the universe’s Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer), who seeks to eliminate the Atreides generally by allowing the Harkonnens to arrange a devastating ambush but whose true target is the Duke’s son and heir, Paul (Kyle MacLachlan). The Emperor has been warned by a spice-imbibing Spacing Guild Navigator (deformed by years of spice exposure, this one is visualized as a floating brain-slug with a mouth disturbingly like a vaginal opening) that Paul Atreides might have messianic powers and could prove a greater threat to the old man’s rule than even his popular father the Duke.

The dominoes begin to fall even before House Atreides is established on Arrakis, and soon (but maybe not soon enough, given the film’s top-heavy pacing) Paul is on the run from the Harkonnens on the sand dunes, which are infested with enormous worms the size of ocean liners and inhabited by obscure spice-connected people known as the Fremen with their own plans for Dune and for the future of spice extraction. Considering the obvious truncation in editing boiling down to two hours a film that would be far better at nearer to three, Lynch (working from his own script) does an admirable job in the info-heavy expository first act. It can be a bit stiff as info-dumps in this genre have a habit of being, but the world-building effort is aided immensely by the fanciful production design and detailed costumes (the film was shot in Mexico City of all places, using 80 sets, and the expense and effort shows). The key matter is that the players, stakes, and forces at play are well-established when the Harkonnen net falls on the Atreides.

Unfortunately, it’s in the last hour or so that Dune runs off the rails. This is partly due to the action-heavy later acts falling victim to greater editing compression and partly due to its reliance on special effects that, despite being the absolute state of the art in the early 1980s, fall woefully short of convincingly depicting the epic scale of the narrative events. Observers objecting to the age of CGI ought to be asked to account for why they feel dodgy combos of optical and practical effects like this are better. Lynch’s odd choice to make characters’ inner thoughts audible hardly helps; a common narrative practice in genre fiction, it is employed on film with little thought to how jarring it can be (especially when applied across the board, in major and minor characters alike, to emphasize key points but also tangential and quickly-forgotten observations and emotions).

Lynch makes some such errors, certainly, and he doesn’t get the support he needs from the effects or the requirements of the editorial overseers or indeed from his cast (MacLachlan became a legendary Lynch favourite but he’s adrift here, while recognizable faces from Ferrer and Prochnow to Max von Sydow, Patrick Stewart, Brad Dourif, Sean Young, and even Sting drop in and out as needed). But it has to be said that Herbert’s themes, some of them feeling rather dated, do him no favours either. Neither the spice-related elements of drug addiction nor environmental and societal implications of imperialist resource-exploitation get much play from Lynch’s plot-focused script, and the rampant white-saviour tropes of Paul Atreides becoming a messianic leader to the indigenous insurrectionary Fremen are taken at absolute face value (and largely neutralized by the Fremen being cast entirely as white folks as well).

Of course, even Herbert could not have anticipated that some of the then-obscure Persian, Arabic, Islamic, and Kabbalistic Jewish terms that he pillages for his Dune world (namely the Fremen’s belief in a holy war, or jihad) would take on wider cultural prominence and newer and more sinister meanings decades later. Lynch, never an artist with a particularly keen focus on the nuances and contradictions of politics and history, does not strain to process the implications of Herbert’s ideas. Lynch is a visualist who encodes his meanings in images and prefers his words to be gnomically poetic or defamiliarizingly comedic (which is why Twin Peaks remains his defining work, being grounded in both of these poles). Dune is source material that greatly rewards the former but requires greater skills of writing synthesis than the latter displays. It is also, it must be said, not ambiguous in terms of intellectual intention or moral justice. Lynch is less interested in Dune‘s mythologically-derived moral playgrounds, and immerses himself instead in its imaginative realms. Dune, it seems, requires more than David Lynch can bring to it, or could bring to under constrained circumstances in the early 1980s at least, to be successful. Perhaps this is more of a statement to its core potency than box-office returns or large-scale cultural penetration can provide.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Annihilation

October 20, 2018 Leave a comment

Annihilation (2018; Directed by Alex Garland)

Writer/director Alex Garland’s Annihilation, based on the first book of a trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, picks up the great science fiction tradition of utilizing a fantasy encounter with an utterly alien form of life to shed harsh and revealing light on flaws in the human condition. Like his criticially praised debut Ex Machina, one of 2015’s best films, Garland doesn’t seek to illuminate the hurtful pathologies of modern politics or current affairs but the deeper drives and urges of the human race. Annihilation is ambiguous about the errors of human natures, however, presenting their self-sabotaging stasis as both a danger to people and a resistant, protective armour, especially in contrast to the unpredictable and threatening constancy of change represented by the film’s mysterious alien presence.

Annihilation presents a varied yet all-female expedition-team quintet of damaged individuals probing into the pervasive cellular-resequencing properties of a region known as Area X while also probing at their unseen internal wounds, often of their own making. Created by a meteorite strike on a lighthouse deep in a coastal American state park, Area X is surrounded entirely by a undulating rainbow-prism curtain known as the Shimmer. The Shimmer’s border is advancing gradually but inexorably, and unless halted will eventually consume the entirety of the surface of the planet. Given that everyone who has penetrated the Shimmer has failed to cross back out, figuring out Area X’s secrets and rigging a fix for its all-consuming threat takes on existential proportions.

Our protagonist, Lena (Natalie Portman) is a university biologist and former soldier mourning the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of her Marine husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) as well as dealing with the guilt of an affair with a colleague that may have speeded his mission departure. When Kane returns home unexpectedly (in what presents in initial exposure as a grief-led dream sequence before becoming more tangible) as Lena symbolically repaints their bedroom to the tune of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping” (which becomes Garland’s metaphoric anthem for the elusive longing of human desire and connection), Lena’s joy at reunion with Kane is quickly turned to sour confusion at his monosyllabic obtuseness and then sudden, blood-coughing violent illness.

Whisked out of an ambulance by armed troops, Lena and Kane are brought to a facility at Area X where he is treated and she is filled in on the Shimmer by a cryptic and slightly hostile psychologist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Kane, it turns out, had disappeared on a mission into the Shimmer and is the first person to ever emerge from it alive, albeit possibly mortally worse for wear. Driven by both a scientific curiosity about what happened to Kane inside as well as her own continuing guilt at poisoning their relationship with adultery, Lena joins Ventress and three other women – scrappy paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), fellow scientist Cassie (Tuva Novotny), and the fresh-out-of-post-grad Josie (Tessa Thompson) – on a mission into the Shimmer with the lighthouse, and a final discovery of what is happening inside the curtain, as their goal.

What they find is strange and disorienting, sometimes gorgeous but often extremely perilous. They lose days of time as soon as they enter the woods with no memory of what has happened, find strange rhizomatic vine growths with numerous species of flower and plant growing from them, and encounter aggressive Lovecraftian predators like an enormous crocodile and a disturbing, deadly bear (their confrontation with the latter in an abandoned house at night is the film’s highlight sequence of tension, dread, and dark invention). They also learn by degrees that whatever alien life force is directing the Shimmer and its effects is re-sequencing and even duplicating DNA and cells like a spreading cancer, a process Josie calls refraction (as of light through a prism). Locating the eerie, womb-like source of this cancer at the lighthouse, Lena will also uncover a troubling truth about the escaped Kane and pass along an essential self-destructive element of human nature to the extraterrestrial beings that will prove an unlikely salvation for life on Earth.

Annihilation is a tremendous visual experience from Garland, a confident expansion of effects-aided imagination from the excellently-conceived but above all limited chamber-piece vision of Ex Machina. Wonder and terror and the uncanny intermingle inside the Shimmer, as when the team comes across eerie funereal humanlike forms of plant growths created by the refraction process, standing frozen in pastures like the petrified remains of the victims of Pompeii or the nuclear wall-shadows of Hiroshima. The Bechdel Test-exploding squad of warrior scientist women are uniformly superb, with Leigh’s febrile flintiness and Thompson’s mix of keen intelligence and neophyte’s shock standing out particularly. Portman’s brittle strength marks the actress, famous for playing ballerinas and First Ladies and spritely girlfriends, as an unlikely action hero, but she makes the leap ably while also nailing down Lena’s halcyon days of happiness with Kane and her traumatized, haunted interrogation by Area X officials (mainly one called Lomax played by Benedict Wong) after her escape that forms the film’s narrative frame.

What makes Annihilation special beyond its expert refraction of genre tropes and visual imaginings, however, is also what made Garland’s previous film special: it renders complex and difficult moral and existential questions about human choice and intent in simple, resonant terms without surrending their inherent complexity and difficulty. Annihilation also concludes its narrative with powerful finality and thematic closure as Ex Machina did, while further injecting a note of ambiguity and mystery-box uncertainty in its final moments, although the oft-misread doppelgänger suggestion of its stinging last shot is probably more accurately interpreted as a suggestion of Lena’s hard-won acceptance of the necessity of change through her experience in the Shimmer, as an Alt Shift X explainer video suggests. However one interprets Annihilation‘s ideas, it’s an involving, intelligent and compelling visceral sci-fi cinematic experience, a further triumph from the talented Garland and an expansion of his abilities as a film storyteller.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Coco

October 6, 2018 Leave a comment

Coco (2017; Directed by Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina)

The production process on big-budget animated features like Disney/Pixar’s Coco is longer than your usual Hollywood movie, if you didn’t know. So this eye-poppingly colourful and touchingly respectful fantasy of Mexican cultural traditions, family memory, and embracing creative artistry could not have been conceived and mostly made with the foreknowledge of how much more political urgent it would feel upon its release in 2017.

To be certain, even though immigration to the United States from Mexico specifically has waned in recent years even as migrants from elsewhere in Latin America (particularly refugees often fleeing for their lives from the volatile nations of the Northern Triangle: El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) have picked up the slack, Mexican cultural influence and political currency remain the most prominent Stateside of any Latin-American country. Americans (particularly White Americans) have simply become more accustomed to viewing Mexicans as the representative migrant group among Latin-Americans, to witnessing those people’s established and rooted communities (some of which, lest we forget, pre-dated white settlement in parts of the country) subsisting alongside their own. For a nation supposedly defined by constant change and frontier-pushing redefinition, America can be as loathe to shift its pre-conceived and well-set notions as any number of less apparently adventurous national consciousnesses.

This prominence has made Mexico, Mexican migrants, and settled Mexican-Americans one of the prime targets for xenophobia, racist fearmongering, and ramped-up border protectionism, even before Donald Trump’s particularly crude amplification of these ugly forces helped to lift him most dispiritingly into the White House. But it has also made Mexican-Americans an increasingly important media demographic, worthy of being pitched a culturally-sensitive and celebratory nine-figured-budget movie from what is perhaps Hollywood’s most consistent and revered studio assembly line of original popular narratives and emotional values. And so Coco stands with more defiance than it might otherwise have done, defending the rich culture and values of a diverse nation of 123 million people from weaponized prejudice and rampant stereotypes, from smears of criminality and children’s detention camps, from “Build the Wall!”

This position is probably far more than this movie has asked for, and if it holds up against the hostility of these forces then that’s because it’s tightly constructed, thematically strong, stunningly beautiful, and even touching (in that heavily-workshopped, factory-of-feelings way that Pixar films set out to move us in emotional terms). Set on and crafted around the traditions and observances of the well-known, visually rich, syncretic Catholic/pagan Mexican holiday known as the Day of the Dead, Coco follows a young Mexican boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) on a multichromatic quest into his family’s history. Miguel’s family runs a hard-toiling, hereditary shoemaking workshop, but further in its past, his great-great-grandfather was a travelling musician. After this man was accused of abandoning his young family to pursue dreams of stardom by Miguel’s great-great-grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach), all music was banished from the family, a practice which has continued down to Miguel’s day. Although Miguel loves his clan dearly, this familial tradition causes him great consternation since he cherishes secret dreams of becoming a musician himself, like his idol and hometown hero, the late Mexican superstar Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).

Driven to desperation for a guitar with which to play a Día de Muertos talent show in the village plaza after his strict grandmother (Renée Victor) destroys his own instrument, Miguel steals into de la Cruz’s memorial chapel and shrine and snatches the master’s distinctive white guitar. This act sets in motion a fantastical voyage to the Land of the Dead, a glowing rainbow-spectrum stacked afterlife metropolis inhabited by departed people turned into living skeletal calaveras. By the rules of this world, the dead endure as long as someone in the world of the living remembers them, which makes the Day of the Dead, with its ofrenda altars of memory festooned with decoration and mementoes of deceased loved ones, the most important day of the year in the Land of the Dead. The dead are screened through customs gates (a familiar bureaucratic barrier fraught with its own ambivalent cultural memory for generations of Mexican-Americans) and, if ofrendas to their memory have been erected, they may cross an arched bridge made of orange flower petals (one of those lovely poetic images that have become the trademark of Pixar works) to visit invisibly with their living descendants until sunrise ends Día de Muertos.

Miguel is unable to obtain a blessing from his calavera ancestors (including the implacable Imelda) that will allow him both to return to the living realm and to continue to play music. Thus, to avoid becoming a skeleton-person himself or returning to his life without any hope of music in it, Miguel enlists the aid of a shifty, ill-remembered outcast rogue character named Héctor (Gael García Bernal), who, in exchange for a ofrenda photo placement to keep him from being forgotten, promises to bring the boy to de la Cruz, a prominent figure in the Land of the Dead as well and potentially the mysterious great-great-grandfather who left Miguel’s family decades before, in search of a music-empowering blessing. What Miguel finds will challenge his family’s traditions and, subtly, his own sense of himself.

For all of its grounding in Mexican Día de Muertos traditions, Coco (written by Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina, who also co-wrote most of the Latin-pop songs and was given a co-director credit with Pixar vet Lee Unkrich) also takes pains to make itself thematically intelligible to the more general audience for Disney/Pixar releases. Hence, the comical animal sidekicks, namely Miguel’s Xolo dog tagalong Dante and Pepita, Imelda’s multicoloured winged tiger spirit animal, or alebrije. Hence, the careful and sanitized but still slightly bold approach to adult themes in a children’s (or at least all ages’) cartoon, namely deaths in the family. Hence, the sneaky wink-and-nudge jokes for the benefit of chaperone parents or young-at-heart adult viewers, namely Miguel’s encounter with Skeleton Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) and her side-splitting stage designs for de la Cruz’s annual Day of the Dead concert: a giant papaya that dancers crawl out of, towards their mother “who is a cactus, who is also me!”

Miguel’s core conflict in Coco, however, animates a more identifiable concern for a more bourgeois creative class segment of Pixar’s large audience. Forbidden from the dangerous, homewrecking passionate pursuit of music by his strict but close-knit family, Miguel views his pre-ordained future as a toiling proletarian artisan with barely-disguised distaste. The suggestion that he be brought into the family workshop to cobble shoes all day until the day that his body quits on him is one that fills him with horror. The assumption that pursuing the life of a musician is superior to manual labour is a general one contained within Coco, not merely applicable to Miguel’s motivations and desires, and this is a very recognizable anxiety for Pixar’s majority white upper-middle-class audience (to say nothing of its creative forces).

Coco also evokes a very contemporary phenomenon of the prominent public figure falling from lofty grace and into lowly infamy due to an unforgivable past transgression (not to spoil it entirely, but let’s just say that Ernesto de la Cruz did not fully earn his musical legacy, and that Héctor’s pariah state is a profound injustice to him). Indeed, such themes are more at the forefront and active in the bones of the story than any conceptions of Mexican nationalism or Latin-American cultural solidarity of the course-correcting sort detailed in my introductory paragraphs. It’s simply a statement to the dehumanizing vehemence towards poor and vulnerable immigrants (refugees fleeing for their safety, many of them) among the xenophobic American right that a fond and lively portrait of colourful Mexican culture and passionate family connections like Coco can feel like a nearly-revolutionary position-taking.

But it’s precisely by whittling away the implacable ideological diminishment of the rights, agency, and feelings of the marginalized with empathy and emotional understanding that the fractious and hostile polity can mend and heal itself. Coco is a manufactured delight in the best Pixar tradition, but if it rises above that to any extent, it’s probably because it engages in this grander discursive project of fairness, comprehension, and maybe, more distantly, justice and co-existence.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review: The Legend of Tarzan

September 29, 2018 Leave a comment

The Legend of Tarzan (2016; Directed by David Yates)

Behold this surprisingly middling film, an interest-probing big-budget reboot of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ hopelessly old-fashioned man-of-the-jungle adventure tales. The Legend of Tarzan is, in many ways, a bold attempt to mitigate the century-long litany of bad politics of the Burroughs-descended multimedia franchise, whose screen history goes back to the formative days of Hollywood and Johnny Weissmuller’s granite pectorals and deep-chested yodelling. In a manner that is peculiar and sometimes difficult to explain, that bold mitigation takes the form of a series of good ideas, crazy ideas, and ideas that are inextricably good and crazy at the same time.

Like a less-inspired riff on Gore Verbinski’s flawed, positively revisionist, but doggedly visionary The Lone Ranger, The Legend of Tarzan (helmed by David Yates, the resident director of the last five films of the cinematic Wizarding World of Harry Potter) asks perhaps the defining popular literary character of the romantic normalization of European colonialism in Africa to instead expose that colonialism for the blood-streaked, greed-driven, exploitative monstrosity that it always was. In an idea that is so brazenly bonkers as to very nearly be compelling, screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer have the titular feral-manchild-archetype-cum-reluctant-English-aristocrat Tarzan/John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgård) return to the central African wilds where he was reared by great apes as a boy to put a stop to Belgian King Leopold II’s enslavement of the native peoples of the Congo Free State. Accompanied by his wife Jane Porter (Margot Robbie) and African-American Civil War veteran and writer/historian/activist George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), Tarzan will try foil the scheme of notorious Belgian agent Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to extract valuable diamonds from an isolated tribe (whose chief, played by Djimon Hounsou, nurses an old grudge against Tarzan) and use them to pay a mercenary army that will allow Rom and his king to subjugate the vast Congo and strip it of its worth and much of its human and animal populations.

One certainly cannot fault Cozad and Brewer for a lack of ambition in the initial conception of this story; if one must make an attempt to drag the deeply problematic and inherently racist Tarzan into the progressive poses of contemporary Hollywood, one might do far worse than to set him up as an animal-whispering, anti-colonialist warrior-paladin for indigenous African freedom (one might do better to leave him in his problematic past altogether, too). In all fairness, more people in today’s world have now likely heard something about the horrors of Leopold’s sickening Congo project because of this mid-range popcorn movie than from any other source, up to and including Joseph Conrad’s seminal protest novella Heart of Darkness (whose central villainous enigma, Kurtz, is said to have been based on the real figure of brutal interior despot Rom). Would they be better off getting their information on the subject from a sober-minded and devastating work of historical scholarship like Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost? Without a doubt, although one might entertain some desultory hope that The Legend of Tarzan might prove a gateway drug to keen and curious viewers in that regard.

Such a potential introduction to deeper and broader texts about Leopold’s Congo might well be the film’s only conceivable moral salvation, given that it leaves out many of the Free State’s most haunting horrors and does not even approach an honest acknowledgement of the genocidal scale of what happened there in the last two decades of the 19th Century. These elisions and silences are hand-waved away by a fantasy wish-fulfillment action climax that sees a Tarzan-led wildebeest stampede demolish the whitewashed colonial port town of Boma and frighten off the potential armed force before they could commit mass atrocities against the locals. And everyone in the Congo lived happily ever after!

This imaginary redressment of historical wrongs coexists fitfully with the fundamental fidelity of The Legend of Tarzan‘s treatment of its titular hero. Skarsgård’s Tarzan is, for all intents and purposes, the Tarzan of Burroughs: orphaned in wild Africa when his lordly parents die during his infancy, raised by the proud and strong gorilla-esque Mangani, developing superhuman strength and agility as well as an innate connection to the continent’s diverse fauna in the jungles, brought back to Victorian England as a member of the civilized elite where he marries his Jane, but forever feeling the persistent tug of his true African home.

Burroughs’ Tarzan is the prototypical white saviour figure in American popular culture, protecting the primitive African animal and human ecosystems from their own brutality and inferiority while also projecting the reach of white masculine imperial civilization into the most remote corners of the “Dark Continent”. Skarsgård’s Tarzan (who is given neither nuance nor particular depth by either script or performance) does not thoughtlessly kill black Africans like Burroughs’ does and maintains connection and authority with African tribes and animal packs through fond respect and understanding of their practices and customs rather than merely by alpha-male domination. That said, the bedrock of the character’s relationship to both African and European social structures remains essentially the same while never serving as a productive mechanism for exploring or interrogating the terms and nature of those structures.

Neither does The Legend of Tarzan take any concrete steps to transform Jane into anything more than a basically inert personification of idealized and desired white womanhood under symbolic and actual threat. Casting Margot Robbie might have portended a figure of more agency and self-possession, and a self-conscious line dismissing her status as a mere damsel in distress overtly signals a more independent path for Jane. But as is so often the case in Robbie’s blockbuster roles, one can feel her openly-stated feminist bonafides straining against the chains of representational and narrative conventions, which in the case of this text are basically a century old. Early scenes and flashbacks establish her as sharp-witted, empathetic, and brave, but with the exception of a brief escape via an alarming dive into hippo-infested river waters (you go, girl?), Jane spends the majority of the movie as Rom’s prisoner and bait for her physically dominant husband.

She is, at least, not constructed as a symbol of virginal white womanhood under persistent sexual threat by a gaggle of defilers (Burroughs was very much inclined to such pulp turns), but this is largely because her primary antagonist is played by Waltz. An actor of overwhelming refinement, Waltz can certainly (and very often does) play villains who are capable of doing very terrible things (frequently in between cultured dinnertime conversation, as in their best scene together in this film). But those terrible things are never, ever sexual; indeed, it’s hard to think of a performer so inclined towards bad guys who projects less of a sense of rape threat than Waltz does. His watered-down version of Rom (the real man notoriously surrounded his trading-station home with the severed heads of executed Congolese) has approximately the rampant libido of the titular character of Where’s Waldo? Not that he could compete with the ape-man virile erectness of Tarzan, of course, so what would be the point? Only the calculating, small-minded avarice of uncivilized civilization writ large can stand believably in the way of Tarzan of the Apes.

All of this clumsy half-hearted execution of the movie’s ambitious political intentions might be nominally forgivable if its execution of its expected action-adventure genre fodder – hand-to-hand fights, swinging-vine jungle chases, etc. – weren’t also clumsy and half-hearted. Indeed, Yates cannot manage to even match the kinetic canopy-traversing motion of Disney’s animated Tarzan (although his film benefits greatly from a total lack of Phil Collins songs, after all). There is some lovely and striking photography of African landscapes (Henry Braham is Yates’ cinematographer, who put together some helicopter shots of the landscapes of Gabon which are the only real glimpses of Africa in this movie shot predominantly in studios in England) and some of the feature CGI work on the key animals is fairly decent, which only makes the dodgy effects work on some of the bigger sequences look worse. One does wonder if some of the $180 million budget (thanks very much, one-time movie-funder and current Trump apparatchik Steve Mnuchin!) could have been used to bring Andy Serkis or any of his motion-capture movement apprentices in as an ape performance/animation consultant. Wonders may have been worked.

It’s all emblematic of a film that genuinely reaches for a bold re-situating and rehabilitation of a classic (maybe too classic) character, but compromises too often and muddles up the follow-through on too many elements of film craft, from narrative to action mechanics to character to special effects to political subtext. Maybe, like The Lone Ranger, the superficially-laudable effort was not ultimately one worth making. Employing Tarzan as a lens through which to gaze critically at the Scramble for Africa in general and King Leopold’s Congo devastation in specific seems like a fascinating concept at first glance, but disassembles quickly into an intractable minefield of representational and symbolic problems that renders the pursuit therein of any productive result futile, if not outright suicidal.

The consequences for The Legend of Tarzan‘s principal creators are hardly professionally dire: Skarsgård may not be a movie star, but he’ll have good work for a long time yet (he was deadly in Big Little Lies); Yates has an indeterminate number of remaining Fantastic Beasts movies to make; Robbie scored an Oscar nom and can look forward to playing Harley Quinn for a good decade yet (I can hear her cheering from here); Waltz can continue summoning variations on Léon Rom (really, on Inglourious Basterds‘ Hans Landa) for the rest of his career, and we’ll probably even enjoy some of them. But for Tarzan, the implications are not rosy. If he doesn’t work as an (largely inadvertent) anti-colonialist crusader on the big screen in 2016, what else can he expect to do? Perhaps retire quietly. He’s had a good run, and there’s no shame in hanging it up before you’re entirely spent.

Categories: Film, Hilarity, Reviews

“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.

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