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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.

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

“King Leopold’s Ghost” and the Colonial Shadows

April 18, 2011 7 comments

I completed Adam Hochschild’s detailed and searing King Leopold’s Ghost today, as indispensible a case study of the destructive rapine of European colonialism in Africa as has ever been printed. If you aren’t familiar, the book examines the single-minded imperial quest of King Leopold II of Belgium to acquire a profitable colony somewhere on the African continent and the horrible, nigh-genocidal results when he finds land that fits the bill: the region we now call the Congo.

It’s a true, decades-spanning epic of hugely tragic proportions. Hochschild jumps from one mercurial historical player in the terrible saga to the next (sometimes to the detriment of his overall narrative arc, admittedly), sketching each vividly. We meet the titular king, an ambitious, imperious capitalist, forward-thinking wheedler and PR manipulator whose personal appetites match his economic ones. We meet his initial agent in the Congo, the famed explorer Henry Morton Stanley, an insecure, self-promoting chauvinist whose scorched-earth mapping campaign both opened up the region to Leopold’s exploitation and laid the foundations for the violent reign of terror that accompanied that exploitation. We also meet their public opponents: E.D. Morel, the English trading company employee who connected the dots concerning the forced labour system in the Congo Free State and vociferously lead an international campaign calling for its end, the first mass human rights movement in human history; Roger Casement, Morel’s friend and ally, a homosexual Irish patriot (no guesses as to what leads to his end) and British consul who witnessed countless atrocities in the Congo and campaigned eloquently against them; Joseph Conrad, the idealistic convert to British imperialism whose most enduring work Heart of Darkness was based directly on his experiences onboard a steamboat in the midst of Leopold’s Congo horror show; and others like energetic African-Americans George Washington Williams (a historian who first exposed the trade-driven terror in the territory) and William Sheppard (a Presbyterian missionary who provided damning evidence from the thick of the Congo).

Hochschild apologizes for the lack of indigenous African voices, citing the lack of local records from the period of Leopold’s corporate colonization (properly 1885 to 1908, although exploitation began before and continued after). But indeed this is the failing of most post-colonial scholarship and literature that focuses on the enormous cons of the colonial project, that even the most stridently anti-colonial screeds are still filtered through the discourse of the colonizers. There is now a considerable concentration of indigenously-fashioned texts dealing with European colonialism on the continent, but outside of the academic bastions, the Western world’s perspective on colonialism remains troublingly insular in scope. Guilt and good intentions can only go so far, and the continued problems in post-independence Africa (and the Congo in particular) are a nagging reminder of the complicity (if not the sole blame) of capitalist democracies in ongoing horrors.

This is something that I’ve come up against while working on a lengthy feature piece for PopMatters about the various King Kong films and the powerful nested meanings of the cinematic Kong myth. The filmmaking perspective, and indeed my own critical perspective, is hopelessly “First World” (an abysmal term that I use merely for convenience). The films can be analyzed with this in mind, and indeed have much more to say about the way America operates than they do about the experience of the colonized (little wonder when the colonized are represented by a non-lingual gorilla). But most, if not all, post- and anti-colonial literature that comes out of the West ends up being about the West much more than it is about colonized peoples.

Decades of this static discursive position have submerged the moral conundrums of the colonial project. We do live in a time, after all, when a conservative quasi-intellectual (from India, of all places!) can refer to the views of the first African-American President as being those of a “Kenyan anti-colonialist”, and this is considered a bad thing. It’s not that our supposedly enlightened culture has resolved the prevailing problems of colonialism; indeed, not only do we not have the answers, but we’ve forgotten the question.

Hochschild closes his book on this theme of forgetting, bemoaning Belgian museums that whitewash the rubber-collecting terror of the Congo and make heroes out of colonial agents who ordered fatal whippings and had their men cut off the hands of children. He’s perhaps too scrupulous a scholar to speculate on the reasons for historical forgetting, but this blogger has no such impediments. Why do we choose to forget the misery and murder of colonialism in not only in the Scramble for Africa but in the earlier conquest of the Americas as well? Because it made, and continues to make, our society of unparalleled wealth and comfort possible, that’s why. Our commodity-driven economy and product-centric culture has been made possible by the deaths of millions in a far-away jungle long ago (and not at all long ago, as the continued demand for coltan, the mineral foundation for most modern consumer electronics, drives continued conflict in the Congo, which is rich in the mineral). Why, I wonder, would anyone want to forget that?

Sarcasm, perhaps, is not productive, but then more earnest approaches don’t seem to be either. Moral conscience has often diverted capitalist growth, but never checked it entirely. We cannot perhaps change the economic requirements that drive colonialism, old and new, but we can perhaps be more honest and open about our desires and about their costs. Even that might be taking it too far, though. I hate to echo the pernicious light vs. darkness dichotomy that has dominated the  discourse on Africa for so long, but the artificial glow of our civilization seems altogether too comforting to risk stepping back into the colonial shadows from whence it came. Because, as King Leopold’s Ghost makes abundantly clear, our light is that darkness.

Film Review: The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

April 17, 2011 Leave a comment

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007; Directed by Seth Gordon)

Billy Mitchell, American Hero

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a funny, weird, insightful and superb documentary about, yes, arcade video game nerds, but also about the strange, resilient contours of American masculinity. For the Donkey Kong rivals at the centre of this film (slick arcade star insider Billy Mitchell and humble yet determined teacher and family man upstart Steve Wiebe) achieving a world record score in an arcade game is about achieveing a displaced alpha-male dominance, a supremacy that their culture tells them is their due but that their society has stubbornly denied them. For each of them, in their own way, Donkey Kong is not a game to be enjoyed, but a vehicle to be driven ruthlessly to glory.

Because make no mistake, as much as this film is about an obsessive and absurdly self-important subculture, it’s really a narrative of powerful, contesting male wills, just like the two classic films referenced in its title. Steve Wiebe, under the gaze of director Seth Gordon’s camera at the least, is cast as the honest, decent white knight, toiling away at a dream in his free time while raising a family and selflessly moulding the youth of America as a science teacher. Even if it’s surely a distortion, the characterization is strong and even the skeptical viewer is drawn into mild outrage at the indignities that Wiebe’s championship form suffers at the hands of the arcade record establishment (represented by the ineffectually neutral “referee” Walter Day).

Take that, you pixelated gorilla!

Mitchell, meanwhile, is cast most definitely as the villain from Gordon’s point of view, and definitely fits the part in this edited reality. He’s an unfailingly assured self-promoter with a penchant for American flag ties who has parlayed his arcade royalty reputation into a modest business empire of that most American of products: greasy, flavourful foodstuffs. He also comes across as a dissembling manipulator when it comes the the Twin Galaxies gaming record community over which he towers like a joystick-wielding Greek god. He cultivates fawning sycophantic acolytes (Brian Kuh, no arcade slouch in his own right, comes across as a complete toady here) and intimidates the supposedly objective judges with the enormity of his profile in the subculture. Indeed, from what we’re shown of the dubious tape of a record-breaking Donkey Kong game that he submits from afar while Wiebe is busting ass to set a new mark “live” at a prestigious New England arcade, it’s no stretch to say that such a submission would hardly have been accepted if it had come from anyone but the Arcade Jesus.

It’s not hard to root against Mitchell and for Wiebe, but even such a stark dichotomy doesn’t diminish the effect of The King of Kong. This is an entertaining descent into a peculiar underworld as well as an ambiguous exploration of social values and homosocial influence.

Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews

TV QuickShots #1

April 15, 2011 3 comments

Note: As an avid watcher of all sorts of televised entertainment, I will provide brisk regular summations of key thoughts on TV shows on Random Dangling Mystery under the TV QuickShots heading.

TV QuickShots

Luther (BBC; 2010)

Got Your Back

Despite (or perhaps because of) its overwrought psychological histrionics, the first six-episode season of Luther succeeds at systematically wratcheting up its stakes, its tension, its consequences as it wears on. One of the BBC’s recent high-profile crime dramas (alongside the much more fun and breezy Sherlock), Luther is at times ludicrous and at times riveting and only briefly bothers with the space between. This is the TV drama as relentless brinkmanship, and who better to head such an enterprise than Idris Elba (best known as Stringer Bell on The Wire), who stalks through most scenes with a combination of cool intelligence and wounded-animal menace? The smarter margins of television are full of roguish anti-heroes (Stringer Bell was one of them), and many of them are damaged-but-brilliant cops. But John Luther’s emotional and professional peaks and valleys are imparted with a magnetic mixture of unpredictable violence and cold modern grandeur that is singular on the current dial (to say nothing of the audacious daring of repurposing “Breathe Me”, Sia’s Six Feet Under‘s series finale anthem, as a very different musical statement on death). By the time you reach the finale’s outrageous mood-swing conclusion, you’re left wondering what other directions this arc could possibly bend in during a second season. Notable supporting appearances: Ruth Wilson (who once played Jane Eyre) as a calculated red-headed sociopath who becomes Luther’s unlikely ally, and a hangdog Steven Mackintosh as Luther’s fellow copper, who becomes something else entirely.

The Killing (AMC; 2011)

Yes, I would LOVE for you to tell me about how I can save on long distance!

Adapted from an acclaimed Danish show of the same English name, The Killing continues AMC’s putative original-series winning streak (although zombie-fest The Walking Dead was vastly overpraised, in my view). A multiple-perspectives take on the mysterious and brutal rape, abduction, and murder of a teenage girl, the American version is set in Seattle (played by its neighbour in coastal gloom, Vancouver), its diluted overcast skies and dim interiors evoking a very Scandinavian emotional bleakness that is far from common on shiny American TV. Although we’ve only seen three episodes thus far, the quality of the plotting and the performances (watch for sci-fi vet Michelle Forbes as a particularly aggrieved mother) is already evident, even if the emotions and the narrative twists and turns seem subordinate to the overwhelming mood of gloom and decay. Expect more words to be bandied about on its subject as the story progresses.

An Idiot Abroad (Sky1/Science Channel; 2010)

How much longer before I can, say, hang a cinderblock from my bollocks?

Karl Pilkington is not so much an idiot as he is a profoundly incurious Westerner sheltered by the amenities and assumptions of economically-advanced capitalist society. A natural deadpanner (deadpaneer?) whose comic timing even seems to surprise himself at times, Pilkington was a producer on the cult XFM radio show Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant hosted before being pulled into the fray as an on-air foil for the duo. He is emphatically not the kind of gregarious, worldly television presenter so common in travel programming, but then Gervais and Merchant want the mild, bald Pilkington to lampoon the world-travel-as-liberal-betterment narrative implied by the Rick Steves of the world (he contrasts himself to traveloguer Michael Palin several times, and even stays in the same hotel – but not the same room – as Palin did in India). He accomplishes this by, apparently, being himself (or by being a highly controlled comic persona that just feels like it’s only himself). As much fun as the mostly-unseen Gervais and Merchant have in tweaking Pilkington’s trips from the homefront for his maximum discomfort and annoyance (they especially enjoy feeding him bizarre food and making him sleep in decidedly sub-luxurious places), the real appeal of An Idiot Abroad is not as their usual comedy of awkward squirming, but as a travel-show satire. The centuries-old orientalism of the English, that smug assumption that they become greater and fuller people by briefly, touristically appropriating the culture of other civilizations, rolls off of Pilkington’s back like a duck. With casual purposefulness, he learns nothing, expands in no directions, and fails to broaden his mind. And that, in his view, is just all right.

Categories: Reviews, Television