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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.

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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

Electionpocalypse 2011: Some Brief and Intemperate Thoughts

A few more Canadian electionpocalypse thoughts to share, with the benefit of a few days’ worth of stewing (and possibly fricasseeing):

  • There isn’t much more to say about the Conservative majority and the inescapably hegemonic position that the Party of Harper now occupies that Jeffrey Simpson doesn’t say in the Globe and Mail. I’d give the whole piece a far more ominous pall, of course, and place far more hope in that closing reference to arrogance and hubris, if I had my druthers. While I don’t doubt that the uncompromising, cutthroat Stephen Harper of the past two minority governments was at least to some extent a product of circumstances, I also don’t doubt that it’s also a product of his nature. The more fair-minded political observers in this country bemoaned his unwillingness to cooperate with the other parties as a driving force for the grinding deadlock of the House of Commons, but Harper could not give the left-wing parties what they wanted and then face the nation and ask it to give him unwavering power. To make a Conservative majority seem inevitable (and, to some souls, even desirable), Harper had to make minority government seem impossible. The Conservative minority era’s failure over the past few years paved the road to their success this spring. It was astoundingly cynical of them, but not too surprising. So will Harper and his caucus govern in a completely arrogant way? Sure. Will that bring them down in the end? Not so sure.
  • The understandable leftist enthusiasm over the NDP’s historic seat count must, of course, be tempered a little by the obviously thin resumes of their Quebec caucus; without such an unprecedented and kind of nonsensical vote swing to the party’s we-gotta-run-somebody candidates in Quebec, they wouldn’t have done much better than the Liberals did. And there’s little to indicate that the New Democrats can ever hope to match the CPC’s enormous funding advantage, especially as a party with a definite anti-corporate ideological bent. But then there’s little to suggest that, frothy SUN-reported rub-and-tug scandals aside, the Tory political bile machine can do to Jack Layton what it did to Michael Ignatieff or to Stephane Dion. Whether you find his proposed policies to be compassionate and fair or irresponsible and costly (and I find them to be all four of those on some days), Layton stood out in this campaign. While the other leaders were mostly dour German Shepherds, he was a bulldog in a tutu. To achieve the kind of vote share and seat gains that Layton did, all while dealing with prostate cancer and hip surgery, is pretty amazing. Layton, I think, showed a lot of Canadians that he stood for something when it was clear that Harper and Ignatieff didn’t really stand for much at all, and whatever you thought of where he stood, you had to respect him for standing at all, even if he needed a cane to do it.
  • The eulogies for the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois were immediate, and there’s been precious little overt recognition from either party of their dire straits. Ignatieff said he might stay on before announcing he wouldn’t, and landed back in academia. I’m not among those who thought he never should have left the ivory tower in the first place, but I’m not sure the failure of this election is entirely on him. The LPC always seems to feel lately that picking a fine leader is the key thing; the Great Man theory of history clearly holds great sway with this bunch. But they’re being completely outflanked on the ground not only by the malicious Tories but also on their left side by the NDP. They can keep shuffling the figurehead until the end of time and it won’t win them back the government until they rebuild their organization and formulate a grand role in the Canadian story that is once again worthy of their tradition. As for the Bloc, theirs was always a tenuous and indeed counterintuitive position: a federal party that abhored federalism as a culture-eviscerating evil. Reports of the death of separatism in Quebec may be greatly exaggerated, but its difficult experiment in the national Parliament is likely done, at least for now.
  • And a final word for the “unite the left” utopians: fat chance. These are two distinct parties with unique and divergent traditions, and even the possibility of unseating the loathed Tories won’t entice them into a merger. How then to unseat Harper and the Conservatives? There’s no easy answer to that. Something tells me that it won’t happen while either Harper or Layton or whoever gets the interim Liberal leadership (Bob Rae seems like a good bet for the moment) remain in the picture. The next shift of this magnitude to come will be generationally driven. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take a generation to arrive.
Categories: Current Affairs, Politics

Film Review: Black Swan

May 6, 2011 2 comments

Black Swan (2010; Directed by Darren Aronofsky)

Darren Aronofsky has had it with these motherfucking swans on this motherfucking lake.

I won an Oscar for having the thespianic audacity to wear these contacts.

And so, he makes a bold, grand, viscerally beautiful film about artistry as madness and madness as artistry, portraying ballet, so superficially delicate and pretty, as a sadomasochistic pratice of unnatural self-mutilation. He melds elements of Polanski, Kubrick, and Cronenberg into a rabbit-hole psychological thriller with none of the comforting rule-based delineations of, say, a Chris Nolan film. Everything you see here, from the most elegant pirouette to the raunchiest sex act, is simultaneously immediate and detached, arousing as it is off-putting. Up to the brassy grandeur of its final frames, this is a unique cinematic experience; it makes ballet accessible and corporeal, and then corkscrews it stubbornly into the inescapably bizarre just when we’re feeling like we’re on his preferred wavelength at last.

Natalie Portman shoulders the weight of the bizarre with her always-curious mix of outward fragility and terrifying, blazing inner core of commitment. Raised and sheltered as a living wind-up ballerina by her smothering, failed-painter mother (an intermittently creepy Barbara Hershey), she’s surrounded by cute pink tokens of girlhood and, of course, a wind-up ballerina music box (hardly the only metaphor here that’s delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer). Her gradual break with this lacy cloister also involves an almost imperceptible break with sanity, although Aronofsky is deeply cagey about what’s actually happening and what’s only in Nina’s head (sometimes straining credulity in the process, but then it’s all metaphor anyway). There’s a Smeagol/Gollum effect to Portman here, as she shows us her good-girl self struggling to assert itself but inevitably losing its grip to something more sinister and uncontrollable.

Considering that the surrounding characters are meant to act upon Nina and represent her anxieties more than they’re meant to simply be, the supporting cast does solid enough work. The always-superb Vincent Cassel is in hyper-Gallic mode (as if he has any other gear) as Nina’s manipulating superior at the ballet company, steadfastly refusing to separate artistry from sexuality, on and off the stage. Mila Kunis makes me think that I must have missed some key evolution of her career, because her primal, free-spirited Lily is miles from That 70s Show, for sure. And Winona Ryder continues to hint at a surprise late rennaissance with her embrace of the deep, dark end of a prima ballerina’s journey.

Even if Nina Sayers’ dark descent (or is it a silver-lined ascent?) follows a fairly set arc, Aronofsky delights in laying down unsettling spikes along the path. You probably think you know where it’s going, and you’re probably right, but prepare to be shaken a little by the landscape on the way.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Tyranny of the Majority

Thumbs up for demagoguery!

Conservative majority government. He so went there.

There’ll be more to come about a pretty historical election (mostly in all the worst ways), but it’s worth getting it out there right now: do not doubt for a moment that this was just the result that not only the print media wanted, but the result that the money men wanted, too. With the vote subsidy the very first thing on the chopping block for Harper’s new regime, large-scale corporate campaign funding will be the way of the future in this country, and the capitalists have given themselves over to the Harperites’ war on the middle class and indifference to the poor. Mildly innured from the American-style downsides of drastic income inequality by our robust social welfare state for so long, Canadians had better get used to the growing gap between wealthy and considerably-less-wealthy widening ever more with each passing year.

More specific social conservative hot-button issues are likely to be shelved to improve or at least preserve tenuous Conservative electability in the key swing ridings of Ontario (this one is on you, Golden Horseshoe, although it always is), but the more general trickle-down economic model will see few challenges over the next half-decade, even from the emboldened anti-corporate NDP (the Official Opposition; pure insanity). Harper’s Conservatives are already incrementally changing what it means to be Canadian in the public sphere. The coming term will tell us how many of the smaller social details they can alter. It’s easy to be cynical and probably easier to be blind to consequence, but I for one am not much looking forward to this.

Categories: Politics

Obama, Osama, and the Smashing of an Icon

May 2, 2011 2 comments

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve surely heard that this happened. Between the cathartic jingoism in the streets, the thoughtful hand-wringing of media punditry, and an avalanche of snark on Twitter, it’s hard to formulate much of a thought or even a feeling on the government-mandated assassination of the Bogeyman of the 21st century that hasn’t already been manifested somewhere in the digital ether.

I suppose one way to look at this that may not have already been overstated is as a clash of symbols. Osama bin Laden, dangerous as he may have been as the actual leader and financier of a worldwide terrorist organization, was far more potent as an amorphous cipher for evil, and specifically for radical Islamic fundamentalist evil. Hence the various “heh”s at his untimely end being announced to the world on the same day, 66 years later, as Adolf Hitler, even if the horrors that bin Laden has unleashed are quantifiably dwarfed by the Fuhrer’s. Osama was the Emmanuel Goldstein of the 24-hour mass-saturation media meta-culture of our time, a sinister Other whose image stood for much more than the sum of his deeds, just as the made-for-TV vividness of the atrocity he stage-managed almost a decade ago inflated its effect (and affect) far beyond its actual costs. His visage justified at least two American wars, to say nothing of the numerous terrorist acts committed (and yet to be committed) by his ideological followers. This is odd when considering the structure of al-Qaeda; Ayman al-Zawahiri was always the idea man to Osama’s logisitics manager and treasurer, but the latter became the logo for mass cultural consumption. That logo, that icon, has now been smashed.

We contrast this with the symbols of America arrayed against him. Not just the flag or “freedom” or the evocation of the militaristic ingenuity and prowess of his assassins, but the President. I suppose it didn’t have to be Obama to get this done (and conservatives are already crediting Bush the Junior in absentia), but it was, and that’s interesting. The POTUS has been a curious hybrid of policy muscle, military authority, and untouchable quasi-kingliness since the position was created (blame George Washington for that), and the concept of Obama himself playing such an active, badass role in taking down the cartoon villain has symbolic truth in it even if it lacks strict accuracy.

Thus, it doesn’t surprise or particularly disturb me that Obama personalized the operation so much in his prepared remarks last night. As much as it makes political and electoral strategic sense for the sitting President of a firmly divided country to own this victory and use it to rally voters to him and his causes, it shows a keen understanding of the majestic, manipulative power of the Presidency to do so. Political allegiances aside, this is just what Americans most likely want their President to do: eliminate the bad guys with steely determination. Protect them like Daddy. Not to be a patronizing, puff-chested dick about it (this was Dubya’s repeated mistake), but to make them feel safe and then to reign.

There can now be no doubt that the supposedly deliberate and professorial Obama has this pose in his arsenal, and his prospective, dysfunctional freak-show challengers for the 2012 general election have now got to be even more intimidated by him than they already were. But, like so much else about the man, this is a pose. Like the putative Arabic nemesis he has vanquished, Obama stands for something greater than himself, and that something is vastly different depending on who’s considering him.

Unlike the mercurial, secretive bin Laden, eluding capture and even eyeballing for years, Obama is a master of control and iconography. Like all great politicians (because whatever else you say about him, there can be no doubt at this point that he is certainly that), Obama excels at getting anyone of even a slightly open mind to see their aspirations and expectations fulfilled in him. Even the ludicrous horror-movie tropes thrown at him by the looniest fringe of the right fit this paradigm. He is that most American of icons: the self-made man. The post-modern twist is that Obama is always self-making himself before our very eyes.

On quite another note, a major political meta-event goes down tonight: the Canadian federal election. If it ends up being as surprising and unpredictable as the polls are indicating it will be, there will be plenty to say about it, especially in the fluid days after the vote itself. Expect more pondering in this space as we move forward into a brave new public future.

Categories: Current Affairs, Politics