Archive for May, 2011

TV QuickShots #3

TV QuickShots

The Borgias (Bravo!/Showtime; 2011-Present)

Your hair smells like jellybeans!

This sumptuous and intrigue-laced historical fiction series from writers Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) and Michael Hirst (the Elizabeth movies) is dizzying from a production point of view. Conceived and largely written by an Irishman and an Englishman, it’s a Canadian production shot in Hungary, starring Canadians and Brits and even a Dutchwoman as an ambitious family of Spanish origins scheming for power in turn-of-the-16th-century Italy. It’s largely turned out that this is the most complex element of the show, however. I gave up on it a few episodes ago as its tiresome formula became clear: fiendish plots are hatched, described in great detail, and then dutifully carried out, with a tiny bit of moral doubt thrown in, as an afterthought. One is reminded of the BBC/CBC mainstay The Tudors, though The Borgias has a slightly better cast and comes off as a little less stilted. Since the narrative calls its own shots before it makes them, the occasional joys of the mostly-ham-handed acting was the main draw, and even that didn’t keep me coming back for too long. Quebecois beefcake Francois Arnaud does most of the work as Cesare Borgia, straining to make his own disastrous schemes instead of just faithfully carrying out the Machiavellian (literally, as the namesake turns up as an acquaintance of Cesare’s) plans of his pontiff father (Jeremy Irons, who always seems to either be putting on or taking off his papal vestments as he talks). There is some interesting stuff with the infamous Lucrezia (played by the luminously pale Holliday Grainger), who we’re made to believe is driven to her legendary underhandedness by the inequality of contemporary gender relations. And I’ve heard Michel Muller’s King Charles VIII of France has become a reliable scene-stealer since I stopped watching. I may have to revisit it and finish the season at some point, but I guess we’ll see about that.

Criminal Minds (CBS; 2005-present)

A now-out-of-date cast photo

I’ve previously expressed the terms of my enjoyment of this laughably formulaic crime-and-punishment “drama”, but the frantic developments of the past season deserve a few words, I suppose. First, for fairly dubious (and production budget-related) reasons, JJ (A.J. Cook) was shuffled off the regular cast, taking her skin-tight business suits and passive-aggressive manner with local law enforcement to the Defense Department. She re-appeared briefly in the midst of the silly spy-movie exit arc for Emily Prentiss (the reliably blank Paget “Punky” Brewster), then popped in at season’s end, hanging from a proverbial cliff and promising Agent Rossi (Joe Mantegna, but why him?) to come back to the B.A.U. for more serial-killer-catching hijinks. Her reasons? Who cares? JJ’s back! And with her, hopefully, will come the gradual marginalization of Rachel Nichols’ formless Agent New Blonde (okay, her name is Seaver or something, I guess).  And while we’re on the subject, what about the gutless goofiness of Prentiss’ fake death, huh? Would it kill the writers to, well, kill a major character when they leave the show forever? Couldn’t do it with the enigmatic Jason Gideon (the enigmatic Mandy Patinkin), couldn’t do it with Elle (Lola Glaudini), and now they couldn’t do it with Prentiss, whom nobody on either side of the screen seemed terribly attached to. More than anything, the cast confusion and plot convolutions (which only take up a small fraction of the weekly runtime anyway) after a half-decade of competent consistency in the delivery of formula entertainment imply that not all is well inside one of TV’s most successful shows. The fall-down failure of its now-cancelled spin-off, the purely unwatchable Suspect Behavior, bodes ill for the franchise ambitions of Criminal Minds, but the fits and starts of the flagship cast further doubt on its ongoing viability as well.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: The Hangover

The Hangover (2009; Directed by Todd Phillips)

I’ll say this first so that there’s no misapprehending the meaning of the analysis that follows: The Hangover, whose widely-anticipated sequel comes out this Friday, is a very funny movie. Outright hilarious, mostly. But it’s also an obvious product of the Hollywood man-child comedy grist mill that endlessly glorifies tropes of bacchanalian chauvinism while reducing women (and men) to stereotyped (and sometimes offensive) objectified gender roles.

Dudes... are WE gonna get towed?

More on that complaint in a moment, but it behooves me to say that I laughed a lot through this movie, and really, that’s the point, ultimately. Director Todd Phillips (who was responsible for Old School, its forthcoming sequel, and several other uninspiring studio comedies) and writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (whose resume is really too generic and embarrassing to even merit mention) have crafted a slick big-budget comedy with a likable-enough trio of leads and plenty of sly lines planted between the Outrageous Antics.

There’s been a lot written about the supposed puzzle-like complexity of the plot, and maybe a few ill-thought-out intimations of the influence of detective fiction on the script. While the key elements are withheld at first and slowly trickle out (sometimes to great comedic effect), our heroes are less amateur sleuths than bumbling minor crooks. They don’t tease out the clues with ingenious effort as much as get slapped upside the head with them; they don’t track down the clues so much as try desperately to stay one step ahead of the dire consequences of those clues. The resulting narrative is certainly more temporally complex than your average frat-boy gagfest, but it’s hardly the comic inversion of detective conventions that, say, The Big Lebowski is. Lucas and Moore seem to have watched more Coens comedies than they’ve understood. For every occasion in which we laugh in delight at some obscure forgotten detail being revealed, there’s a long dialogue scene with scattered jokes explaining another detail. It’s a mixed blessing that one ought to take at face value.

For such an aggressively plot-driven comedy, it’s a bit surprising to see so many solid comic performances. Bradley Cooper makes for an affable lead, even if there’s very little that’s remotely unique about him as an actor: he looks, sounds, moves, and emotes like dozens of handsome-rogue types before him and no doubt like many dozens to follow. Ed Helms does the pent-up square quite well, as his history on The Daily Show and The Office bears out. He’s certainly got the skill-set and the timing to do what Steve Carrell’s done, and his hilarious mid-film song shows that he has other skills as well. Zach Galifianakis is the real revelation, though, giving the socially-underdevelopped man-child stock character an oddball twist. The commitment with which he reads his simpleton gnomicisms makes them all funny, even the lines that wouldn’t be so funny on the page. Galifianakis is on a different wavelength than everyone else in the movie. He’s not cool awkward (like, say, Michael Cera is in his one-note way), he’s awkward awkward. And that makes him deeply hilarious.

Don't tell me I slept with THE CHICKEN last night!

Really, the film’s joys ought not to be drawn out in detail, but rather checked off in isolation. The tiger in the bathroom. The baby and the car door. The wedding merchandise. The chubby kid with the taser. Stu’s missing tooth. The Holocaust ring line. Mike Tyson air-drumming to Phil Collins. The tiger in the car. I could go on. But there are lags here and there (one or two scenes too many of the trio loitering somewhere and wondering what to do next), as well as some filmic missteps: Phillips overdoes it on the pop-hits soundtrack, never earns the ominously artsy time-lapse shots of Vegas sights over the opening credits, criminally underuses Jeffrey Tambor, and goes a bit broad with the flying equations swirling around Galifianakis’ head as he card-counts their way to thousands of dollars in a casino.

What’s ultimately most objectionable about The Hangover is not its gross-out comedy (of which there is a lot), but its male-tilted gender ideology. Like most Hollywood comedies, it’s written, directed, and starring men, and, like Old School, its sensibility skews towards the interests and perspectives of grown-up frat-boys. Women can occupy one of three roles in this masculine universe: 1) The pretty but distant significant other, who sits by completely oblivious of her man’s actions (Sasha Barrese’s worried bride Tracy fits this bill, at one point sunning gratuitously in a bikini while Cooper dissembles over the phone about her fiance’s whereabouts); 2) The fun and undemanding fantasy girl with loose sexual morals (enter Heather Graham, as an escort who is also a stripper); and 3) The ball-breaking feminazi bitch who makes her henpecked boyfriend’s life a living hell and who must be dumped so her put-upon man can be free to hang with his buddies (Rachael Harris gamely plays the thankless part of holding Helms’ feet to the fire). I’m not exactly sure which of these archetypes is the most objectionable, though the latter clearly comes off as such in this film and is generally far too common in this type of comedy.

So many of the film’s funniest moments play out in the complete absence of women that the stereotyping doesn’t necessarily detract from the hilarity when it most counts (although the most troubling aspect of the homosocial norm of the patriarchy may well be its total exclusion of the “fairer sex”). And one could reasonably argue that a big summer comedy about a bachelor party that gets out of control may not be the most obvious place to look for progressive portrayals of gender relations on the big screen (the men are not exactly busting free of their proscribed roles either, it should be noted). Still, these things can nag at the conscience even through the laughter. While there’s plenty of the latter in The Hangover, there’s enough of the former to preclude unmitigated praise. If such concerns matter to you, you’ll laugh with some measure of doubt; if they don’t, you’ll probably like it (and, no doubt, its sequel) even more.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Last Station

May 24, 2011 1 comment

The Last Station (2009; Directed by Michael Hoffman)

A slightly ham-handed reimagining of Tolstoy’s final days, Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station is a decent match to its subject’s great fiction on the surface, but fails to scratch at the deeper truths of existence as Tolstoy does.

We are Russian, we eat flowers!

Though Czarist Russia would endure for seven more years after Tolstoy’s death, it’s no stretch to see the final vestiges of a fading social order petering out with the passing of the great novelist. Hoffman and his production team clearly seem to recognize this convergence and construct their film with it in mind. The stolid Merchant-Ivory-like recreation of late czarist Russian society is keenly detailed and distinctly autumnal, and the bohemian idealism and communal austerity of the Tolstoyans presage the similar but more aggressive and destructive efforts of the Bolsheviks. Jay Parini’s novel, on which the film is based, recognized that the tug-of-war for Tolstoy’s work (and, by extension, for his soul) between his forward-thinking followers and his affected aristocratic wife in his final days was emblematic of the mass upheavals to come, and Hoffman does not wholly lose sight of that either.

Still, there’s a bluntness and lack of subtlety to the whole process that begins to grate after a while. The screenplay endeavors to place a strain of Tolstoy’s realist language into the characters’ mouths, but without the master novelist nigh-invisible artistry, much of it comes off as flat.

The actors do what they can and more, pros that they are. Christopher Plummer puts the count through the dramatic paces with thespianic elan, but he isn’t as transcendent as we might hope. Part of what made Tolstoy such a legend in his own time was that he poured so much of his own life and the lives of those around him into his masterpieces. Certainly, most writers do, but Tolstoy’s synthesis between life and work made the two things inseparable and also larger than life. Plummer’s Tolstoy is a tired old man who can still find a mischievous smile when he tries; it’s a very human portrayal, but Tolstoy could mix the human with the superhuman and never show you the strings. Plummer is very good, but not quite great.

He’s gamely supported by the various people grasping for his attentions around him. Helen Mirren knocks Countess Sofya out of the park, but then she usually rocks these sort of prestige roles. James McAvoy once again plays the adorably awkward idealist whose illusions are shattered, but he never plays that role the same way twice. Kerry Condon is his lively, lovely foil. Paul Giamatti provides the lowlight, which is quite unlike him. Perhaps we’re meant to see into Chertkov’s perspective, but Giamatti plays him as such a weasly wanker – at times literally twisting the ends of his waxed mustache like a cartoon villain – that it’s impossible to identify with him, and thus with the proto-hippie Tolstoyans.

Perhaps I expect too much or just the wrong thing; there’s no need for a film about Tolstoy to share the myriad epiphanies of love and life that his fiction provides so amply. Hoffman’s film is willing to borrow or reference a few of those transcendent elements (there are subtle nods to moments in War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, as well as some unsubtle ones), but it can’t quite construct such transcendent moments of its own. The Last Station is a more earthbound thing, sturdy and decent and traditionally moving. Tolstoy’s life and his works were all of those things, but they were much, much more.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Unreliable Protagonists: Dave Cullen’s Columbine

May 23, 2011 1 comment

As detailed and well-researched as Dave Cullen’s book on the Columbine massacre is, and as filled with outrage, empathy, and ambiguity as it is, none of those things make it truly notable. Nor, ultimately, do his strong efforts to dispel the media-ingrained myths about the tragedy (no one was martyred for professing their religious faith, nor for being black or a jock or a bully; violent video games and aggressive music were a symptom of the killers’ drive to destruction rather than the cause; the Trenchcoat Mafia connection and Goth associations were simple instances of witness confusion). And his scattershot, detail-strewn writing style does him no special favours either; he’s influenced by Jon Krakauer, certainly, but brother ain’t no Krakauer.

No, what really struck me about this book is how Cullen unflinchingly makes Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold his protagonists, granting them a terrible tragic agency that the media coverage, public narratives, and victims’ reactions diluted almost completely. In blaming their parents or the movies, music and video games they enjoyed, in making them out to be victims of high school culture, or in calling them violent nutbars full-stop, observers have made their crime more manageable through diminishment. It’s an understandable human impulse, but Cullen shows, in great detail and with stunning sympathy for not only the event’s victims but for its perpetrators, how wrong it is.

These boys were fully responsible of their faculties and planned this attack meticulously (or at least one of them was and did), and that makes it both more vivid and more horrible to contemplate. In Columbine, they emerge as real people, beyond the slaughter. The textbook psychopath Harris is both the Marlow and the Kurtz of Cullen’s modern suburban Heart of Darkness. Cullen sketches a figure that even the most vigilant of parents (and Harris Sr., a strict military man, comes across as pretty damned vigilant) would have been powerless to check. Harris was a skilled liar, manipulating parents, teachers, friends, and even therapists, youth probation officers, and police into believing he was a polite and responsible model citizen while methodically describing and planning what can only be described as a terrorist strike, an act of a much greater magnitude than the one he did execute. A budding intellectual, he was not the first impressionable, dark-minded young man (and sadly, unlikely to be the last) to misinterpret Nietszche as an argument for the necessity of eliminating the perceived inferiors around him. Most of all, though, Harris was a spectacular misanthrope, yearning for the apocalyptic extermination of the human race from the face of the earth. As Theoden wondered aloud in The Lord of the Rings, what can men do against such reckless hate?

The sensitive, depressed, self-deprecating Klebold, meanwhile, comes across as Harris’ first victim, lead by his more dedicatedly violent friend into turning the suicide he so craved into a communal event. Klebold was the more brilliant of the two, but was also inescapably shy and awkward, and felt it keenly. Unlike the cold-blooded Harris, Klebold was unable to even mask his discontent; he was lost in his own head, in fantasies of love and belonging rather than his partner’s fantasies of hatred and permanent exclusion. Although Cullen can’t trace the precise thread of Klebold’s eventual participation in mass murder on the basis of his mountain of evidence (the many ways that facts can fail us are elucidated chillingly in this book), his characterization of Dylan suggests that this painfully inwardly-turned teenager came to feel that a private end would not suffice to connect him to his fellow beings as he longed to do. Perversely, under Harris’ noxious but irresisitible influence, he perhaps believed that the only way to belong among his peers was to slaughter them.

The book is a bit too creatively jumbled to constitute a definitive account of the attack, its lead-up, and its aftermath, but for a vivid picture of its perpetrators, it is unlikely to ever be matched. For that portrayal alone, it is highly recommended. And though my earlier comparison of Cullen’s book to those of fellow bestselling non-fictionist Krakauer was disparaging, Columbine shares elements of all four of Krakauer’s books. Written by a detail-focused journalist and researcher with fortuitous proximity to a major tragedy (like Into Thin Air), it offers vivid portraits of impressionable youth wasted on a deluded attempt to accomplish something grand (Into the Wild), explores the terrible tragic power of ideas and ideology (Under the Banner of Heaven), and enumerates the myriad deceptions and bureaucratic machinations of the morally-compromised authorities and the easily-manipulated media (Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman). If it doesn’t quite add up to the particular force of any of those books, Dave Cullen’s Columbine remains a notable and illuminating read nevertheless.

Categories: Culture, Literature, Reviews

PopMatters Review: Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles – The Grand Bounce

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.

Gord Downie and the Country of Miracles – The Grand Bounce

Categories: Music, Reviews

All Tomorrow’s Faceoffs

May 18, 2011 4 comments

This discourse on the odd convergences of indie culture and sports is brought to you by Russell Westbrook’s blipster glasses.

Amare Stoudemire, Urkelite

At first glance, there should be little ideological kinship to be found between the wide-net alternative subculture generally labelled as “indie” and the glitzy gladiatorial medium of big-money professional team sports. The constistuencies, for one, are not only divergent but possibly diametrically opposed. Indie culture followers, at least in the most widely-circulated stereotype, tend to be the social outcasts and creative counter-culturists; their perspective of likes and dislikes is moulded not only by their own rejection of the mainstream but, ostensibly, the mainstream’s rejection of them. Sports devotees are, by their very nature, jocks, socially accepted and popular from at least high school on (if not longer) due to their relative athletic prowess. Since many sports fans played sports themselves in their youth (and will often offer stirring tales of their fleeting glories), they have not dedicated swaths of their youthful free time to becoming au courant with the latest fashionable trends in any given subculture, as indie kids have.

There are other gaps as well. Education and socioeconomic status are obvious ones, as well as the attendant political differences. Indie culture privileges DIY independence and anti-capitalism ethics; professional sports are a multi-billion-dollar business, its stars (rightly or wrongly) regularly held up as exemplars of North America’s unchecked, immoral greed (even though many of them rose from very humble origins on the merit of their own abilities, which indie counts as a gospel of righteousness). Indie culture is virtually synonymous with higher education and the upper end of the middle-class income scale, and as a result skews far more liberal than most of society at large. Big-time sports culture, meanwhile, is a highly conservative milieu, defined by the hyper-masculine power fantasies of TV and radio blowhards, whose ultra-conservative conceptions of right and wrong filter down to more of a working-class fanbase who accepts these views without the knee-jerk incredulity of the arts grad. One thing both subcultures have in common, though, is problematic racial coding. For all of its multicultural ambitions (and realities), the indie world is coded as a Caucasian sphere; hence the indispensible compendium of its obsessions, desires, and assumptions, Stuff White People Like.

Although sports has deeper cleavages in terms of race, the nature of the issues depends entirely on the sport at hand. The story of African-Americans integrating into major American team sports formerly dominated by whites like baseball and basketball has been told and retold, but both of those sports cultures have also strained to fully accept more recent influxes. For baseball, the quintessential sport of America’s romance about itself, the flood of players from Latin America into the majors mirrors a similar increase in the population share of Hispanics in the country as a whole (and the related xenophobic reaction from conservative quarters). If the MLB culture has weathered the sea-change better than the wider culture of, say, the border states, it still has experienced its growing pains.

Basketball, meanwhile, the major sport most dominated by African-Americans and therefore most closely associated with the vibrant culture of the perpetual American underclass, retains deep-seeded prejudices even among its multicultural fanbase. They will turn viciously on the game’s biggest star, LeBron James, over his power-move to Miami, reflecting a well-nurtured distrust of African-American success and influence (similar views colour the treatment of African-Americans in football, especially if they happen to be quarterbacks, the favoured symbolic position of white supremacy). But they will also circle the wagons, praising the “toughness” of the American-born while casting aspersion on prominent Europeans  in the NBA like Pao Gasol, labelling him “soft” (LeBron has gotten similar treatment as a corollary of his playoff disappointments).

Sean Avery, Countercultural Warrior

These dog-whistle terms are understood perfectly well by the pundits and fans who use them, even if they don’t realize it. The prejudiced dichotomy of “soft” and “tough” is especially pernicious in the NHL and hockey culture as a whole, a sport that is especially dominated by a conservative Caucasian worldview, exemplified in its home turf of Canada by the unapologetic right-wing blowhard Don Cherry. It’s no wonder that hockey has strained even more than other major sports in recent years to accept the end of closeted gay culture. Sure, the emotion of the Brendan Burke story has done wonders for LGBT acceptance in a sport culture that is often aggressively homophobic, but the recent fooforah over New York Rangers pest Sean Avery’s public support for same-sex marriage demonstrates that there’s a way to go yet.

But Sean Avery is an interesting focal point to circle us back to indie culture. A jetsetting hockey fashionista who has dated actresses (and then said awful things about them) and interned at Vogue, the divisive Avery has proven to be a difficult subject for the homogenizing machine of hockey culture. Expressing public support for same-sex marriage may indeed be the first wholly-acceptable thing Avery’s ever done, on or off the ice, but he’s long comported himself as a maverick, a brave warrior counter to the NHL culture in the most basic way. And he’s hardly alone, although his confreres tend not to share his nationality or skin colour: former Ottawa Senators goalie Ray Emery ruffled feathers by acting more like a NBA star than a “good old Canadian boy” and it largely cost him his NHL job in the sleepy capital; Montreal Canadiens rookie P.K. Subban displays his obvious talent with the exuberant arrogance of an NFL receiver, leading to a classic Freudian slip from one of his media critics; and Cherry has been the standard-bearer of a well-entrenched xenophobic movement against skilled European players, exemplified by the league’s exuberant Russian rock star, Alexander Ovechkin.

It’s no wonder that the alternative subculture in its many incarnations has balked at such rhetoric; Western countercultures pride themselves as bastians of liberal openness and cultural tolerance, and are deeply invested in unsettling the settled social order. This includes gender assumptions, especially masculine ones; a certain “softness” has been essential to male countercultural identity since the embrace of long hair in the hippie ’60s, to say nothing of David Bowie’s embrace of ambiguous sexuality in his ’70s heyday. The male-dominated world of major league sports is a testosterone zone by its very nature, while current indie culture favours the image of the sensitive, thoughtful man (preferably wearing women’s jeans).

But the gap between sports fandom and indie culture isn’t merely down to identity politics. The very measures of success in each sphere are wholly opposed. Sports, above all, is about winning. In the eyes of fans, teams are defined by how many championships or playoff games they win first and foremost, with season-end awards and statistical milestones as secondary markers of success. Profitability, the business world’s key positive standard of measure, only matters to Fortune magazine and the organization’s accountants. Some fans and certain observers (like the sadly-defunct Free Darko) value aesthetic merit, but that only goes so far in burnishing your sporting legacy, as Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns of the 2000s demonstrate. Winning – being the best, by the measure of any given league’s rules and championship formats – is everything. Indie culture, in its most idealized fantasies about itself, isn’t about winning. Quite the opposite, in fact: if you’re too successful, you’re a sell-out, or else you’re gaming the system. It’s all down to aesthetics, style, and integrity, however you choose to define those things.

Chris Berman, Hipster

The interesting thing about sports culture, opposed to hipster culture, is that those things are defined differently in different places. Unlike the local-chapter nature of the indie subculture, where a hipster in Williamsburg is fundamentally no different from one in Portland or Austin or Toronto, when you get right down to it, sports fans differ wildly from town to town. And being a fan of a certain team in a certain city can mark you in certain ways. In the local example, it seems pretty obvious to me that the Toronto Blue Jays are the hipster’s choice among GTA sports teams. My evidence is mostly anecdotal, but the profile fits. Like many a favoured indie rock band (Pavement, who put out their seminal albums when the Jay were winning World Series titles, comes especially to mind), their best years are behind them, indeed mostly situated in the formative years of current 20-somethings. So there’s a nostalgia factor, a conduit through which to relive and reanimate one’s childhood, which is always an incredibly powerful draw in the counterculture (and is oddly contrary to its progessive leanings). Furthermore, they’re eternal underdogs under the hegemonic rule of massive (and American) corporate enemies. These include not only AL East division rivals and perennial contenders like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, but also local-market grandees the Toronto Maple Leafs (with their fans, the hoser hordes) and their MLSE-run cousins, the Raptors and Toronto FC. Furthemore, the Jays’ sparsely-attended games grant the illusion of exclusivity, and the possibility of statistical immersion grants separation from fairweather fans, feeding the insatiable beast of snobbery that lords over every subculture.

But then the same logic wouldn’t apply to, say, New York City or Boston or Chicago (I would identify the hipster teams in those cities as, respectively, the Mets, the Bruins, and the Blackhawks, though I could well be wrong). And for the most part, members of any non-sporting counterculture find the aggressive, conservative, corporate world of professional sports intimidating and off-putting. Hence the embrace of quasi-sports like pillow fighting or roller derby in indie culture (both have strong feminist associations, appealing to progessive women being a constant gaping blind spot of pro sports), or hippie-like activities like bocce or ultimate frisbee or biking. For a culture that thrives on self-identifying as being on the cutting edge, why bother with the proscribed inevitability of sports fandom’s community feel, when you can just invent your own sports? Can we be far from competitive yoga leagues? One is tempted to scoff, but the principles are sound where the counterculture is concerned.

Categories: Culture, Sports

Film Review: True Grit (2010)

May 15, 2011 1 comment

True Grit (2010: Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)

Have you any leeches? Her humours are unbalanced.

True Grit may not quite be the Coens’ most entertaining film (though it’s a near shot, without a doubt), but it’s unquestionably their most conventional and classically-Hollywood narrative. Mismatched companions on a quest into the wilderness, crusty, stoic masculine heroism, writing that privileges crowd-pleasing zingers; all those generic elements that they’ve spent much of their career upending and subverting, the Coens embrace in True Grit while simultaneously refusing to let go of their fondness for idiosyncratic dialectical expressiveness or the violence of misunderstandings.

Ostensibly more of a new film adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel than a remake of the classic western of the year after that which won John Wayne his Oscar, the existence of a previously admired film version of the story nonetheless seems to free the Coens to surrender some of their trademarked (and perhaps largely played-out) quirk to the sweeping panoramic gestures of that most American of film genres. Shot by longtime collaborator Roger Deakins, True Grit exists in a drained wintry palette of grays and faded browns while preserving the sweeping vistas so central to the classics of the genre. The script likewise turns to brittle-edged wit and the elaborate linguistic conceits of the 19th-century West (“The jakes is occupied, and will be for some time”). There are plenty of standard-issue Coens characters saying standard-issue Coens things, but it’s all enfolded into the whole and serves the larger goals of the film.

The cast slides into this world with relative ease. Jeff Bridges’ vaunted reunion with the Coens (their previous collaboration, The Big Lebowski, has become Bridges’ signature role) goes smoothly enough, as Bridges layers crusty violence overtop of his usual laid-back charm. His accented line deliveries take some getting used to (I occasionally found his initial appearance, giving testimony in a small-town courtroom, to be slipping in and out intelligibility, although it’s damned funny when you can understand it), but once you catch on to his rhythm, it’s almost more about the sound than the sense of his words, as is the case with much Coens dialogue. Matt Damon is not quite the peacocking Texas Ranger that his companions make him out to be, but he’s hardly out of place. Brief appearances by grimy outlaws Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper are perfectly effective, although Pepper makes a more effective antagonist than the mopey nobody that Brolin makes Tom Chaney into.

I do believe I rightly winged that pronghorn! What say you?

But the movie belongs to Hailee Steinfield, whose mix of primness, toughness, and razor wit are startling, if a little without context. One could well put it down to the grim Presbyterian ethic, but there’s little effort made to do more than hint at its sources. We’re meant to enjoy this hard-bitten, determined girl for what she is and not consider how she got that way; the Coens excel at telling us in revealing detail who their characters are without giving us much detail as to who they’ve been.

For all of its commendable points, this is hardly a flawless film on par with the brothers’ best work. The plot is possibly their most predictable, with precious few of the droll quasi-noir convolutions that they excel at penning. The film’s concluding tone is also a mite uncertain and unsatisfying; there is neither triumph nor elegy in the epilogue, nor is there an artistically ambiguous mix of the two, which the Coens deploy so adeptly in their finest films. This closing mood is perhaps reflective of Mattie Ross’ own unsentimental matter-of-factness, but it seems to just sit there, passively expiring. For a film that is so pleasurable in so many other ways, a more definite exit might have been desired, a bit more truth to go with the ample grit.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Golden Compass

May 13, 2011 1 comment

The Golden Compass (2007; Directed by Chris Weitz)

I got a posse. And a cute little hood.

A neutered, choppy adaptation of a potent and iconic book, Chris Weitz’s The Golden Compass is, to be fair, probably not entirely a Chris Weitz film. New Line’s first post-LOTR kick at the fantasy franchise can shows little storytelling ingenuity, although its gleaming steampunk design is often incredibly pretty.

Phillip Pullman’s books are unwieldy narrative beasts, barreling ahead with the clumsy near-grace of an armored bear. He’s rarely subtle, fond of exposition and explication, and entirely reliant on repetitive deus ex machina to unfold his tale. But then, so was Tolkien, if one recalls, but in the hands of a talented filmmaker, the Professor’s even more unwieldy and anachronistic narrative was given force, conviction, excitement, and gravitas. Chris Weitz is not an untalented filmmaker, but his best films (About A Boy being perhaps paramount) are marked more by observant character and small, clever visual touches than by the sweeping, excessive gestures and assured touch with a large canvas required to pull off an expensive fantasy epic. And, as the penultimate fight sequence demonstrates, he also has little idea how to shoot a battle scene to keep it from feeling like a repetitive series of snuffings-out.

Still, it’s possible he could have pulled it off, were it not for the apparent interference from New Line, who never saw an opportunity to dilute the novel’s vital thematic elements it didn’t like, and likewise couldn’t resist aligning it with their most famous fantasy production at every turn. Christopher Lee and Ian McKellen both appear at New Line’s behest, and add little but vague echoes of Middle Earth to the proceedings. McKellen is a demigod, sure, but I can’t see any other actor’s interpretation of Iorek Byrnisson being worse than his phoned-in performance.

Besides the admittedly impressive visual touches, only a few performances grant any life to the proceedings. Though Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig are solid casting choices for Coulter and Asriel, neither is given a tremendous amount to do. Dakota Blue Richards does seem to have Lyra down, for whatever that’s worth, but it’s the more incidental, supporting characters that give the film some of its best moments. Tom Courtenay lets exposition roll naturally off his tongue in that way that fine actors do, but it’s Sam Elliott’s Lee Scoresby, with his weary, wit-laced drawl and colourful Texas slang, who steals every moment he’s onscreen.

Tell me, child... do I need a new forehead?

Perhaps more unfortunate than unengaging characters or the recurrent suggestions of hobbitry is the way in which the film’s invisible hands choke off Pullman’s controversial but vigorously-defended themes of secularity and anti-dogmatism. It only really becomes apparent once his trilogy reaches its climax in The Amber Spyglass, but His Dark Materials is, more than anything, an elaborate and eminently convincing argument for the viability of atheism as a satisfying, all-encompassing belief system. Concerned about grosses in spiritually-immature America, New Line spinelessly gutted any overt religious referentiality from the narrative, apparently without recognizing that religious mythos is in the marrow of the plot. Pullman’s trilogy is rife with action and fantastic wonder, sure, but what separates it from the fantasy glut is its massive themes, its complex and often poetic grappling with the Big Questions. These themes aren’t just elaborate intellectual window-dressing, they are the rhyme and reason for the diverting, audience-exploiting plot in the first place. Without its metaphysical inquiry and spiritual mythology, The Golden Compass is an episodic fantasy adventure with stock characters and cliched plot steps, and that’s, basically, what this film turns out to be.

Categories: Film, Reviews

The Art of Rand, the Heart of a Travellin’ Band

I doubt I’ll ever need an ophthalmologist (and I’m not exactly clear on the circumstances in which I would), but I know for certain that if I do, I shan’t be requiring Rand Paul’s services. Any medical professional who equates doing his job (and being damned well paid to do it) with slavery can’t be too passionate about it, or, frankly, that good at it. No wonder he’s chucked it in favour of making hyperbolic analogies in Senate committee hearings. Perhaps he resents being “forced” to attend those, too, and is just lashing out at all of those fascists who expect him to, I dunno, be a Senator and asks useful questions about policy or something. Pure tyranny, it is.

In other news, as I covered as fully as I feel I should on my Twitter feed earlier today, there’s a new Sloan album out, and it’s solidly Sloany in its albumness. As I tweeted, I’m no longer the person who cared about Sloan albums and believed they were magical in any way, but then I don’t think I’ve been that person since I was in my teens. I’m not sure what kind of damaged person wants to be the person they were in their teens again, anyhow (although I have no doubt that they probably still watch Glee).

The brief flarings-up of dormant Sloan fandom here and again through my last decade never had much to do with the music the aging band was producing. It was down to circumstances, emotions, happenings, fleeting connections. Those four dudes and their well-crafted power pop, soldiering bravely (or foolishly) on into their 40s, might as well have not been involved. I enjoy vintage and even newer Sloan tunes to an extent, but my overall epistemological perspective on the band confines them to the status of a musical gateway drug. They’re fine and all, in their way, but they’ve been most useful in opening channels to greater things, and I’ve no doubt that their sleeve-worn influences have lead my wandering ears in musical directions better than themselves. Perfectly decent album releases aside, I doubt Sloan will ever be shifted from that position in my own scheme of things.

Categories: Music, Politics

Film Review: Gentlemen Broncos

May 10, 2011 1 comment

Gentlemen Broncos (2009; Directed by Jared Hess)


How's my hair look? Just got it did.

An awful movie in quite a few ways, the third feature from Napoleon Dynamite writers-directors Jared and Jerusha Hess still ripples with enough riotous laugh-lines and truly out-there moments to be nearly, almost, marginally worthwhile. The film is at once a love-letter and a sharp send-up of the ridiculousness of hack speculative fiction, and anyone with even a passing familiarity with the genre and the cloistered types who both produce it and devour it will find plenty of chortle-worthy material on the subject. The aggressive tackiness of the design and execution is grating, however, and the Hesses’ baby steps into gross-out humour after the clean-but-never-prudish tone of their previous films seems a mite desperate, even if they reflect the awkward attempts at the same sort of scatological subject matter in the sub-literary genre they’re lampooning.

The plot is, of course, meandering, following the various trials and tribulations of Benjamin Purvis (Michael Anganaro, distinguished graduate of the Michael Cera School of Floppy-Haired Reaction-Shot Comic Actors with No Range). Benjamin is a home-schooled small town teen with a deceased father and a doting mother who designs bizarre nightgowns (Jennifer Coolidge, whose oddball talents are mostly wasted here). He escapes his limited sphere by writing cheapo sci-fi in imitation of his hero, famed author Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement, star of Eagle Vs. Shark, alternate titled Napoleon Dynamite Goes To New Zealand).

Benjamin is a bit disappointed by Chevalier’s pretentiousness when he has a workshop with him at a writer’s camp, though, and winds up being even more disappointed when Chevalier, his meager inspiration already spent, steals Benjamin’s prized story, Yeast Lords, and rewrites it into his latest opus, Brutus and Balzaak. Benjamin must also contend with Tabitha (Halley Feiffer), who manipulates him into “selling” the rights to Yeast Lords to her friend, super-low-budget independent filmmaker Lonnie Donaho (Hector Jimenez from Nacho Libre, whose lips are entirely too much). Mike White (who co-wrote Nacho Libre) also shows up as an ’80s hair-band reject paired with Benjamin as a Guardian Angel (a Big Brothers-type program, evidently). He has a blow dart tube and a huge snake that shits on him.

As Lonnie and Tabitha mutilate Yeast Lords into a feature “film” (Lonnie, like Hess, seems to have a keen eye for Western American locations that suggest fantasy worlds, but shoehorns lame sexual suggestiveness into every scene) and Chevalier further mutilates it into a plagiarized novel, Benjamin’s good-natured astonishment is shattered, and he turns at last to cartoonish revenge violence.

Everyone... please welcome the bride.

The laughs dry up near the end, although a goodly number are provided in the early-going. Clement crafts Chevalier into a hilarious caricature with an affected British accent and a penchant for Navajo-style clothing and accessories, an unused Bluetooth constantly in his ear as a visual marker of his clueless self-importance. The aforementioned workshop scene is a good one, during which Chevalier lectures the various teen attendees on the necessity of giving characters Latinate names to aid the “believability” of their stories (he butts head with a girl who insists on naming a troll “Teacup”). And the Hesses also craft completely loopy enactments of both Yeast Lords and Brutus and Balzaak, starring Sam Rockwell as the protagonist Bronco/Brutus (who is hirsute and hyper-manly in Benjamin’s version and a mincing transvestite in the plagiarized version). These cheesily-staged sequences are only occasionally funny, nowhere more so than when the supervillain’s cyborg deer are employed (the initial appearance of the surveillance doe is the film’s best sight-gag); I’ll take the laughs where I can get them.

Occasional comical bits aside, Gentlemen Broncos is furiously quirky to the point of annoyance, replicating the limited subcultural appeal of the sort of books that it mocks quite well. Basically, the throwaway references to spec-fic in Napoleon Dynamite get blown up into a whole crazy movie here, and the effect is not always particularly, well, effective. Still, I can’t help but grant my begrudging admiration to a film that features the phrase “mammary cannons”. I do have standards, after all.

Categories: Film, Reviews