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TV QuickShots #2

April 29, 2011 1 comment

TV QuickShots

Midsomer Murders (ITV; 1997-Present)

Inspector Daddyman and Sergeant Flopsy

In the absence of new episodes of Criminal Minds, the favoured unintentionally hilarious American crime procedural in Random Dangling Mystery HQ, we’ve bounced across the pond for our regular fix of formulaic whodunnits. A venerable, decade-old TV institution in Britain, we first came across Midsomer Murders on TVO (public television in both Canada and America being proud bastions of knee-jerk Anglophilia). Set in a picturesque and hopelessly quaint British county (mostly based on Somerset), it combines the good-humoured with the (suggestively) grisly in a way that its Yank counterparts can never quite manage in the same way. John Nettles’ iconic Inspector Barnaby, so capable of both suggesting steely logic and mischievous psychological gambitry, certainly smooths MM‘s see-sawing transitions between sensationalist murders and ridiculously broad laughs at the expense of wholly unrealistic country eccentrics. The show’s feature-length structure allows for a half-dozen guest stars of varying acting ability and recognizability to portray these stock weirdos, who say ludicrously ultra-English things like “Steady on, old thing” and “Rather!” (although the coppers, sadly, never seem to ask “What’s all this, then?”). Episodes from the first four seasons or so have already featured various supporting players from the Harry Potter films, HBO historical dramas like Rome, and even a very young, pre-elven Orlando Bloom as a doomed thief. Spotting the familiar faces is almost more of a joy than trying to solve the mystery, which of course is a draw for all narratives of this type. Like all formula TV, it’s as familiarity and comforting as a pie on a windowsill, or, rather, as a series of mysterious murders in a sleepy country village.

Michael Palin’s New Europe (BBC; 2007)

It's not a particularly silly walk, is it?

Watching the tail end of this most recent entry into the Monty Python alum’s television/print travelogue mini-empire as a random library rental, I was struck more than a little by how forced it felt. Surely I don’t want to blame Palin for this; he’s preternaturally at ease in front of a camera and long has been, although the limited level of effort required of a travel show host doesn’t run towards his strengths as a performer (or at least his strengths as a young performer). But his focus on the production of humour and satire in former Eastern Bloc countries is, well, not too funny, as are most jokes told in a language other than your own. Palin also goes all in on the local colour, but can’t find many locals either willing to offer much more than platitudes (Czechs have a sardonic sense of humour, says one Czech girl, sardonically) or able to express more complex thoughts about this “New Europe” in English, that unyielding language of Old Europe. Palin visits some interesting locales (though he blasts through the very pretty and under-represented Slovakia in scant minutes), but doesn’t have much of interest to say or to discover about them. It’s all kind of nice and pleasant, but not much else. And it hardly challenges the widespread boomer-targetted gentrification of the Python legacy, even if it’s a much more minor cog in that machine than, say, Spamalot.

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Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: Ride With The Devil

April 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Ride With The Devil (1999; Directed by Ang Lee)

Pony ridin'

Ang Lee’s Civil War-era curiosity is like the Bushwackers it portrays: it rides out of the woods and surprises you now and then, but then disappears from sight for long stretches. Lee is, of course, known for his outsiders’ takes on American subjects, but Ride With The Devil stands closer in quality to his moody, uneven Hulk than to finer-tuned efforts like Brokeback Mountain or The Ice Storm.

Aided immesurably by James Schamus’ outstanding ear for Confederate slang (the dialogue has the character, rustic wit, and misplaced nobility of the many letters from the era that were woven into Ken Burns’ seminal PBS documentary on the war, and a few likely-authentic letters are read aloud in the film), the film slips along engagingly enough. The structure is that of a shorthand, backwoods War and Peace, wavering from brief, chaotic bursts of violence to lengthy character studies in calmer times. Ambiguity and complexity are the order of the day, of course; this is par for the course for Civil War flicks. If you want Lost Cause hagiography, join the Sons of the Confederacy and get yourself fitted for a nice grey uniform. Still, Ride With The Devil is sometimes so painstakingly built for prestige that even its most ragged and doubtful edges are bevilled down.

The plot is only partly the point, since this is Ang Lee, and he loves his subtle character studies. His cast is much more sprawling than it needs to be, ultimately. Pre-Spidey Tobey Maguire wears his conscience on his sleeve and his hair unfortunately long. Skeet Ulrich, built from the discarded bits of better actors, is the rogueish best friend who simply must bite it. James Caviezel is asked to stare holes through everyone onscreen, and obliges with his usual intensity. Jewel’s bosom can barely be contained by her bodices, but she is a better actress than she is a poet (faint praise indeed) and has a mostly convincing Southern drawl. Jeffrey Wright does good work as always, though his freed slave fighting with the rebels was a lightning rod for misplaced liberal outrage (which partly crippled the film upon its release). Jonathan Brandis (RIP) grows a beard very convincingly. Simon Baker (of The Mentalist fame) plays a doomed dandy. Tom Wilkinson, Zach Grenier, and Mark Ruffalo do well in small roles. Most striking is Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, whose feminine jawline and flowing locks throw his character’s wanton cruelty into sharp, uncomfortable relief. And I swear I saw him sashay at least once.

Ride With the Devil, in summary, comes across like a guerrila but has a gentleman’s sensibility. Perhaps this feeling it puts across is a good match for its subject matter, namely simple rural aristocrats becoming ruthless raiders. But its spikes and lulls are not merely those of narrative pacing but also of significant quality. Ang Lee’s outsider approach doesn’t always work out for the better, and it only occasional does in this film.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Trotsky

April 26, 2011 Leave a comment

The Trotsky (2010; Directed by Jacob Tierney)

Revolution of the Boredletariat

The Trotsky is at once an unsubtle broadside to educational systems, a frothed-up attempt at rehabilitating revolutionary thinking, and a cinematic love letter to bohemian academic Montreal. It is also a comedy, although only intermittently. It has its strengths and its weaknesses, its hilltops and its sinkholes, its audacious turns and its predictable cop-outs; sometimes it’s more than a little difficult to tell which is which. At the centre of this sometimes-fantastic hodgepodge are a director (Jacob Tierney) and a star (Jay Baruchel) from Montreal whose shared zeal for their own ridiculous/wise movie is nearly infectious enough to overcome all reasonable obstacles. Nearly, but not quite.

The premise is more than half of the movie’s joy, and it begs for a full-ish synopsis. Baruchel is Leon Bronstein, a Jewish teen from Montreal who believes that he shares not only a name with the Bolshevik revolutionary who called himself Trotsky, but a reincarnated self as well. Leon became convinced, at some point in his youth, that it was his destiny to relive Trotsky’s life in his own contemporary circumstances, down to his marriages, exiles, and brutal assassination. Not content (or just not hard-wired) to let destiny unspool its own gossamer thread, Leon has studied his Marxist avatar at length and imitates the original Trotsky’s ideology, dress, mannerisms, and rhetorical flourishes obsessively, all while training an eagle-eye on prospective revolutionary circumstances as well as prospective revolutionary comrades (one montage shows him calling every Vladimir Ulyanov in the Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver phone books, hoping to find his Lenin). Though he has sympathizers (notably his mother and sister, the latter played by Baruchel’s real-life sibling Taylor), his obsessive belief in the truth of his fate leaves many in his path equally convinced that he is highly delusional.

The strongest and most important of these opponents is his disapproving father (played by Saul Rubinek with a refreshing lack of winking irony at the stock-ness of his character). A factory owner who clearly yearns to pass his business on to his son as his father had passed it on to him, the elder Bronstein inevitably clashes with the different-minded Leon, just as the real Trotsky and his father did. Looking to Trotsky’s biography for a fitting punishment, Bronstein Sr. slaps Leon with his first exile: to public school. Once there, Leon of course finds the school looking distinctly fascist and in dire need of a revolution of the proletariat; in this case, the proles are the gum-chewing, speed-texting students, ground down into an apathetic dust by cynical authority figures.

The Czarist police wait just offscreen

Harnessing the ephemeral authority of the student union and lashing it to his own taste for revolutionary stunts, Leon does ideological battle with the serpentine Principal Berkhoff (a delightful Colm Feore, who unleashes indulgent smiles as if he hasn’t got large pieces of the scenery in his teeth) and a sharp-tongued school board administrator (the steely Genevieve Bujold), all while courting the aid of a former leftist rabble-rouser gone to academic seed (Michael Murphy) and romancing the possible cypher for his idol’s first wife, a grad student named Alexandra (Emily Hampshire). That Leon wins over most of the doubters and defeats the stubborn remainder should come as little surprise in a light film comedy, although how nobody ever thought to commit the kid is a bit beyond me.

Ideologically, Tierney’s script takes a swing at an apathetic generation of young people failed by the public education system like a hammer to an anvil. There is little subtlety in the basic structure of the Marxist dialectic, and this is a film whose plot extends out of that dialectic: the common people are oppressed and exploited by the rich and the powerful. Marxism is one heck of a tempting target for the unsublimated energies of teenage rebellion, after all, though its ideological imperative towards spontaneous revolution provides few of the secure goals that animate later adulthood. Still, The Trotsky does make an admirable attempt to rescue radical resistance from the Che-Guevara-t-shirt crowd, those countercultural weekend warriors who consider every act of conspicuous hedonism to be enlightened subtitutions for state-smashing (these sort of self-righteous hipsters and their revolutionary dress-up act get a bit of a call-out in the form of the school’s “Social Justice Dance”, a sequence chocked full of references that few high schoolers would understand, but that does have a pretty funny Ayn Rand joke).

Although Trotsky, by far the most comic Communist, is a humourous metaphor to employ in accessing the dialectic’s applicable meaning to today’s youth, the spectre of violent revolution lies behind him, and Tierney, to his credit, doesn’t complete elide that fact. The Trotsky never sugar-coats the hard truth that to really change things, you have to really put something important on the line, to risk something more substantial than ego or fashion sense or a few days’ pay. And, also, that you probably have to be a bit of a sociopath.

This makes me think of the Ben Mulroney cameo. Good times.

Non-ideologically, there are simpler delights to the film. Besides the aforementioned Feore, Bujold, Murphy, and Rubinek, there are some other fun performances on display. Baruchel has to carry the film, and his Trotskyan precision always seems to clash humorously with the modern world around him, even if it gets a little irritating by the end. Some other supporting performances stand out as well, particularly Kaniehtiio Horn’s pixie-ish energy as Caroline, one of Leon’s comrades in high-school revolt, and Jesse Rath as the smug minor antagonist Dwight (“Are you my Stalin, Dwight?” Leon asks, and Rath’s reaction only builds on one of the script’s funniest lines). There’s also a side-splitting bit on eTalk with the smarmy Ben Mulroney that’s a brief peak in the film’s mountain chain. Tierney shoots his hometown with scope and affection, letting Montreal become its own character in the proceedings. He also works in a meticulous and rather funny homage to Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin; a recurring dream that visualizes the abandonment by family and loved ones that Leon’s absurd commitment leads to, it features Baruchel’s Trotskyized head on the body of a baby in a pram. The soundtrack is also wall-to-wall Canadian (and mostly Montreal) indie-rock, culminating in Malajube’s obvious but still rousing “Montreal -40C”.

But it’s not all good. The film is a bit too bloated and sometimes unfocused in its narrative; the setup section takes too long to get Leon into high school, and then draws out his various revolutionary protests too gradually. Many minor plot points are dropped and then picked back up again without compelling reason or explanation, and never really amount to anything (Leon’s search for his Lenin, for example, gets shunted into a closing sequel-tease denouement). Also, not all of the conversions to Leon’s cause are fully fleshed-out and realistic. It’s not entirely clear why his father is won over and reaches out to him, or what ultimately wins over the lapsed radical Frank McGovern or, most obviously, Alexandra (Emily Hampshire is not too good in the role, which doesn’t help much). In truth, the romantic subplot is entirely too creepy-crawly, as Alexandra begins by noting Leon’s stalker profile, rejects him soundly and then changes her mind because… why? He’s cute? Determined? Youthful and virile? Because she’s a bit needy? It’s not really clear, and the implications are a bit troubling in any case.

Faults aside, there’s enough to like here. Bloated as it ends up being, the film regularly achieves a certain comic momentum, and Baruchel’s energy in the lead role covers some of the blemishes. It’s a solid production and bodes well for the future of these kinds of smaller films in Canada, which has to be encouraging. And it’s got views and enough brains to lay them out and defend them, which is rare enough in movies period, let alone in teen-geared comedies. Enough to like, and a bit that gives pause. The Trotsky is hardly revolutionary, but ultimately, it will do.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Phone calls and hockey stalls

April 25, 2011 Leave a comment

The Liberals are tailspinning towards electoral relevance, but still: more of this, please. Maclean’s Andrew Coyne has quibbled with the “Republican-style” description on Twitter, but I think the Libs have got to be willing to go there when it comes to Harper’s shock troops. If you’re going to do negative demagoguery (and, as I’ve argued, there’s little choice anymore in Canadian politics), you might as well do it effectively. Even many right-leaning Canadians find Republicans and their supporters to be nutters, and comparing those nutters to our own homegrown righty nutters is not even inaccurate (not that the sly Joe Volpe names the parties behind the harrassing calls, though to be fair he probably doesn’t have direct evidence about who ordered them).

Meanwhile, in a much more important branch of Canadian affairs, the Vancouver Canucks, they of the NHL’s best regular season record, have reeled away three straight games to their personal Moby Dick, the Chicago Blackhawks, and are down to a Game 7 that is a must-win on way more levels than are worth contemplating. Oilers fans are supposed to hate the Canucks almost as much as they hate the Flames, but I’ve never been able to get wholly on board with that for whatever reason. Still, the very real possibility of yet another disappointing playoff exit at the hands of the same damned team looms. Robert Luongo’s confidence, that razor’s edge element for any goalie, might well be shot after being pulled, subbed as a starter, brought in for injury relief, and then victimized on an overtime game-winner. Alain Vigneault, largely hailed as a coaching genius during the season of unprecedented franchise success, now looks frantic and outmatched, struggling to break the Sedins out from the Hawks’ smothering checking, dealing with a suddenly-porous defense, and trying whatever the hell he can with his goaltending. If the Canucks can pull out the deciding game (and they might well, having very nearly done so in Game 6), then things will get either much easier or much harder. If they lose… I doubt any Canucks fan wants to contemplate that, even if they have to get themselves ready to try. Hockey is a hideous bitch-goddess, isn’t it?

Categories: Politics, Sports

Elections, Political Discourse, and the Historical Conquests of Stephen Harper

April 23, 2011 1 comment

Even though Canada’s 41st general election is still a solid week away, I’ve already done my civic duty and drawn a little ‘x’ with an eraserless pencil (so you can’t change your mind!). I suppose I ought not to discuss the specific vote itself, although my leanings should become fairly clear as my thoughts unfold here. Straight partisan loyalty is a sucker’s game, anyhow; one can’t begrudge the manufactured sense of unified belonging that goes with it, but if you’re too rigid in your allegiances, the betrayals and letdowns will hurt all that much more. I feel the same way about nationalism, but that’s a separate discussion (or maybe not).

He's comin' for your kittens, people.

But what’s this discussion going to be (besides one-sided, since I get first and mostly-last word on the subject)? I suppose that is always already the active ingredient in political discourse: the discourse itself. Most political analysis, and maybe most politics, is just discussing the discussion. What should political leaders discuss, how should they discuss it, how should they look and sound as they discuss it, etc. It’s a frightfully meta discursive sphere, but what underlies it is as un-meta as it gets: the best way to govern (or, sometimes, to rule). The nuts and bolts of policy, the hard matter of government, is often left to be assumed rather than elucidated in election campaigns and in political media relations in general. The assumption, it seems, is that the common voter could care less about the nitty-gritty daily grind of running a political state, and just wants to be wrapped in the flag and soaked in a hot, soothing bath of comforting metaphor juice. And I’m not sure that’s so far off. The media spends much of its time bemoaning the lies and the double talk and the negative tone of political interaction, but try talking facts and figures and policy detail and they label you dull and professorial and your opponents program animated puffins to poop on your image. It’s not ideal, but it’s where we are.

It isn’t too surprising, therefore, that in such a climate, Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party is flirting with the possibility of a majority government. It isn’t quite fair to suggest that the entire party and its many supporters are completely out of touch with Canada’s social reality, exactly. But there’s little question, at least to those who oppose the Conservatives’ political agenda (real and perceived), that they are creatures of ideological habit above all. And the intellectual tradition of that habit, embodied by Harper and his University of Calgary neoconservative inner circle, is inexorably linked to the Straussian strain of conservative ideology. To a dyed-in-the-wool Straussian like Harper, fact, truth, and public opinion are just so much putty to be handled until it assumes a form pleasing to its powerful elite sculptor.

I’ve hardly counted, but it sure feels like Harper employs some variation on the phrase “the Canadian people want/don’t want…” far more than anyone else. In his view, no doubt, it’s justified; he’s the Prime Minister, the big pimp himself, and he knows what his bitches really want at all times. But it’s also inherently about conditioning reality, about managing expectations and, yes, manufacturing consent.

This is the essence of the entire New Canadian Conservative Movement that started with the clumsy, crude Western populism of the Reform Party, transitioned into the mass pratfall of the Alliance era, and is now the formidable electoral (but not governing) machine of the CPC. All along, the mouth-frothing vitality of the American conservative movement has inspired Canuck righties to reach similar heights of total-culture-war excess and success. It is hardly a secret to anyone who watches them that Conservatives are the gawky earnest kids who want desperately to be invited to the cool-kid Republicans’ legendary clique-exclusive keggers. The wild-eye stranglehold that the right has on the direction of American political discourse is what they aspire to in their dream vision of the Great White North. The realization was made, at some time in the NAFTA-produced mists of the 1980s, that dominating government only mattered so much if you could dominate the discussion.

Because Canada, for whatever esoteric reasons we wish to cite, is not as vulnerable to demagoguery and apocalyptic cultural warfare as its southern neighbour, Conservatives need to take a more measured approach. Hence the Stewardship of Steve, he of the non-threatening sweatervests and economic reassurances, the Accountant-in-Chief, worshipped with creepy allegiance by his party acolytes, as if they hope their unreasonable loyalty will rub off on the unbelievers. Sure, in a perfect world, they’d love to close the borders, ban abortions, brutalize the poor, liberals, and gays (because, really, what’s the difference?), and criminalize any and all dissent, if they had their way. But this is not a perfect world, this is Canada. And unless you’re Michael Moore, it should be pretty clear to anyone that they are hardly the same thing. So some moderation on the part of Conservatives is key, even if the average Canadian Conservative’s efforts to suppress their wild ideological undercurrents is comparable to a small child trying to hold the leash of a hyperactive puppy (a topical mention of Brad Trost shall go right here).

Although the juxtaposition was not perhaps intended, the launch of the Sun News Network in the course of Harper’s latest attempt to convince Canada’s anxious electorate to give him the keys to this big old jalopy is somehow apt. Early reviews are rife with guffaws, but then Sun Media has always been far too heavy on the clownish tabloidism and hardly satisfying to supposed “reasonable conservatives” (the term that has supplanted “compassionate conservative” after 8 years of George W. Bush’s ineptness rendered it even more ludicrous than it originally was).

"Fake News and Crazy Talk" didn't do as well in focus groups...

But as a television network, Sun News will be useful in the same way it always has been in print: as a slow-motion penny-arcade view into the loopy carnival funhouse that is the common conservative lizard brain, or at least what cynical right-leaning publishers and broadcasters believe that lizard brain to be. All of the mainstays of conservatism – the outsized persecution complex, the smug, snarky digs at liberals and their perceived beliefs and interests, the simpleton’s enthusiasm for racism and xenophobia when swathed in amorphous terms like “freedom”, the chauvinistic sexualization of women – are blown up to such outlandish proportions in the Sun universe that they almost seem to be satirizing them. It is, in its way, even more extreme and ridiculous in its ideological overreach than the American cable news juggernaut it’s attempting to emulate, Fox News. In contrast to the CPC, with its aspirations of mainstream voter acceptance, Sun Media not only doesn’t water down its ideological content, it amplifies it until it’s deafening, numbing. It’s political discourse as white noise, attempting to conquer with overwhelming force rather than compromise and persuasion.

But will it work in Canada? Will Harper or his successors ever manage to mould this diverse, regionally-insular, and unquestionably left-leaning country into the modest northern Red State that they desire it to be? I obviously hope not, but they want it really, really bad, and overwhelming ambition is not something that Canadians are particularly well-adapted to resist. As I’ve said, it always begins with the discourse, and it seems like that has mostly slipped into the Conservative camp of fear-mongering, partisanship, and distrust of internal others. Harper’s persistent drumbeat of alarm about coalition governments may well subtly change the parliamentary flexibility of our system without the necessity of a constitutional crisis as well. And axing the vote subsidy would give the Conservatives and their wealthy corporate backers a nearly insurmountable advantage over the other parties in electoral fund-raising, maybe the most vital area of democratic politics. If these dominoes keep falling, maybe the country will go with them. Whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing probably depends greatly on which circle you’ve marked or plan to mark next Monday. And like all elections, everything and nothing depends on that choice.

Categories: Culture, Politics

Film Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1

April 22, 2011 5 comments

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010; Directed by David Yates)

Badass New Gods

David Yates’ next-to-last Potter film, recently released on DVD, strains against J.K. Rowling’s dodgy narrative pacing and the increasing weight of expected closure, but still finds time for hints of the poetic visual artistry that has made the last four franchise installments worthy enterprises.

Certainly, The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 suffers from a curse much worse than anything that comes out of a Death Eater’s wand: by its very design, it has no real ending. Hobbling the film series’ creative stride even more is the structure of Rowling’s novel; Harry’s first post-Hogwarts adventure (at least until the climax, which will take up much of Part 2), it has none of the comforting and easy progression that the advancing school year offered to the author. Without her ready-made scholastic year structure, Rowling’s already-overwrought plotting goes over the edge into a realm that is nearly inaccessible to the unindoctrinated Pothead. Her introduction of the monstrously complicated mythology of the titular Hallows takes up far too much time with slaved-over exposition, but because the Elder Wand at least is so key to the series’ conclusion, the film version can’t afford to ignore that part. That the plot’s incidents fall into a narrow-escapes deus ex machina (Weasley ex machina? Dobby ex machina?) pattern for much of Hallows doesn’t make screenwriter Steve Kloves’ job any easier, either.

It is a marvel, then, that this first film of the series finale is watchable at all, let alone slickly paced, attractively shot, and rather entertaining. Yates has to place tremendous trust in his central trio of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, as the cadre of veteran British thesps arrayed around them in previous installments mostly drops away for the majority of the film. The young actors have worn these characters like old jackets for several films now, but they’re pushed into newer territory and respond as best they can. Radcliffe knows how to brood and react to fresh new calamities (of which there are plenty), and he never lets you see the cracks. Watson’s Hermione is Rowling’s Hermione, hyper-competent but intermittently emotional; it’s clear by now that she’ll never surprise us as Radcliffe sometimes does, but then most diehards don’t want surprises when it comes to their beloved characters. If I don’t have much fondness for Ron Weasley, then it’s surely not the fault of Rupert Grint and his glorious shit-eating grin; there isn’t much time for humour in this serious corner of the Potterverse, but he’s able to provide a bit of it here and there.

If I drop this in the bowl of nuts, will it explode?

As mentioned, the all-star supporting cast slips in and out of the picture, but a few brief appearances are notable. Helena Bonham-Carter’s twisted spider woman Bellatrix Lestrange continues to sap the evil energy out of Ralph Fiennes’ cartoonish reptilian Voldemort, not to mention the increasingly haggard Malfoys. She’s such a thoroughly nasty piece of work that it feels as if nobody else has any business even trying to be bad when she’s in the room. Rhys Ifans isn’t quite eccentric enough as Xenophilius Lovegood, but he accomplishes his role with necessary aplomb, as does a scowling, peering, and underused Bill Nighy as the doomed Minister of Magic, Rufus Scrimgeour. And even the briefest appearances by Fred and George (the always-game James and Oliver Phelps), Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), Luna Lovegood (the expertly moony Evanna Lynch), and the final tribute to Mad-Eye Moody (the Prince of My Heart, Brendan Gleeson) go a long way.

The artistry at work all the way down this production continues to be top-notch, of course, and it’s obvious that Yates, Kloves and their expansive team try to put their mark on the proceedings when they have the chance. Some of the highlights of this effort include the haunting opening of Hermione removing herself from her parents’ memories for their own protection from the evil that stalks her, the sweeping, Romanticist landscapes through which our intrepid trio camps through most of the film, the sinuous animated telling of the history of the Deathly Hallows, and an amusing and gentle scene of Harry and Hermione finding some fleeting happiness dancing in their tent to Nick Cave’s “O Children”. The visual metaphors for the end of childhood innocence have multiplied as the series (itself one big honkin’ metaphor for the end of childhood innocence in the first place) has progressed, and the ones in this film are the among the most resonant that we’ve been given.

All wizards and Muggles will pay for my botched nose job!

But as my earlier qualifiers indicate, this film is not all resonance, or even particularly close to being so. There are, literally, five or even six narrow Disapparating escapes, followed by terse, moody scenes full of blather about Horcruxes and Hallows. The skin-of-their-teeth stuff does, eventually, cease to be all that exciting, and it’s hell on the film’s pacing. Harry’s glimpses into Voldemort’s movements are presented without much context, and there’s rarely much effort put into informing the uninitiated as to what they might mean. The climactic heroic sacrifice is impossibly maudlin, and is undercut by the sacrificed character’s absence from the last four movies. And Ron’s moment of doubt before destroying the Horcrux locket just goes horribly, utterly wrong. As if the moment didn’t already echo the temptation of Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring (the locket operates on our wilderness-bound partners much as the Ring does on Sam and Frodo on the road to Mordor), the filmmakers turn it into a similar green-tinted, CGI-overload cinematic low-point, complete with a naked macking H & H. Unlike any other moment since the Chris Columbus-directed opening chapters, this one just does not work.

But, really, much of the movie around it does work, if only intermittently with any of the soaring magical energy of, say, Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Newell’s similarly-pitched Goblet of Fire, or Yates’ own masterly Half-Blood Prince. Perhaps the heavy expository lifting of this final duo of films has now been handled, leaving the final installment to floor us with two-plus hours of sustained climax and satisfactory closure (though there will be no escaping Rowling’s vomitous 20-years-later epilogue, as Yates has confirmed). There was only so much anyone could do with the first half of Deathly Hallows and one must give credit where it’s due while also exercising due skeptical diligence.

Categories: Film, Reviews

PopMatters Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station – Paper Airplane

April 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Note: I write regular album reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the album title to go to the review.

Alison Krauss & Union Station – Paper Airplane



Categories: Music, Reviews