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Film Review: Winter’s Bone

June 29, 2011 3 comments

Winter’s Bone (2010; Directed by Debra Granik)

A gritty and realistic portrait of all-American rural poverty, Debra Granik’s taut, bleak, and surprisingly panoramic Winter’s Bone is also a silver-lined tale of brave feminine resistance to the fundamental corruption of the traditional patriarchal structure.

Not much grain here, and that which is isn't amber or wavy...

Following the quest of a steely-eyed teenage girl in the poorest reaches of the Ozarks to ferret out what became of her ne’er-do-well father before a bail bondsman deprives her family of their home, the film is both patiently composed and, notably for such a serious-minded American indie film, mostly blissfully free of pretentious stylization (one striking sequence excepted, as we’ll see). Granik’s camera lingers on cluttered, rusting tableaus of life in the Ozarks (the production design is subtly, amazingly detailed, if it is design at all) but never detaches them from the likewise rusting humans that inhabit them. This is an artful film that valiantly resists artifice.

Considering the plot is derived from basic enough boilerplate detective noir, Winter’s Bone should not feel quite as veritable or “authentic” (even encased in parentheses, I shudder at the term) as it does. But this is a film that refuses to look away from a harsh corner of America where the soaring profits of capitalism are not even valid enough to be an afterthought. Although the mystery at the film’s heart revolves around the region’s endemic methamphetamine trade, its consequences are somewhat absent, and there is none of the enlightened, ambiguous exploration of the nature of the drug trade that was provided by The Wire. Meth is taken as a given in this community, a cruel but unavoidable necessity that hangs over everything but is barely discussed in anything more than a hushed whisper. The illustrations of the grinding poverty that characterizes the life of the people of the Ozarks is more involved but similarly without judgement or liberal moralizing. Reasons are not provided, escape is not contemplated, and survival is the only operative concern.

The centre of the film, the focus of its sprawling detail, is Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly, the laconic, determined 17-year-old girl hardened by circumstances into an unwilling sleuth. Lawrence is a quiet revelation, obscuring her feelings behind frumpy rural clothing and her rounded facial features until they burst helplessly forth. The force of her will is formidable but not unreal; there are limits to what a young woman can accomplish in this male-dominated culture, as we see increasingly in the last half of the film. When she’s forced, at threat to her life, to explain the reasons for her father-seeking quest, the answer surprises even herself, and only vaguely stirs the sympathy of her captors. The one brief aforementioned retreat into artiness – a dream that comes to Ree after suffering a beating, a monochromatic, Bergmanesque affair featuring squirrels, trees, and the sound of revving chainsaws – is therefore not only forgivable but even appropriate because it affords a glimpse into Ree’s psyche, which is otherwise carefully obscured at least partly for her own protection as a woman.

The film’s measured and multifaceted portrayal of the inner workings of the patriarchy of a conservative society such as the one Ree finds herself in is its greatest strength. We meet archetypes of feminine marginalization like Ree’s near-catatonic mother and her best friend, a pretty young mother subject to the whims of an equally young and lunkheaded man. We also meet more interesting figures like the Milton sisters, who act as gatekeepers and occasional enforcers to the community’s defacto feudal lord, Thump Milton. When they eventually accompany Ree onto a darkened lake for the spooky final leg of her search, their stiff upper lips in the face of a gruesome but necessary task contrasts with Ree’s shock and horror. In these moments, Merab (Dale Dickey) seems like the true authority of this world.

But the patriarchy also diminishes the men, who wander the peripheries as almost mute, haunted spirits. Although Ree’s uncle Teardrop (the excellent John Hawkes of Deadwood semi-fame) eventually takes an active role in her investigation, his menace is interwoven with his waifishness until they are one and inseparable. Although Thump appears as a formidable figure, hefty and bearded with a cowboy hat and a vest bestrewn with 4H medals and other ag club pins like the breastplate of a Trojan king, he’s largely mute, overshadowed by Merab and her sisters and melding with other males who cloak their disenfranchised insecurity in aggressive poses. The awkward, likely-crooked local sheriff (the ever-sad-and-diminished Garret Dillahunt) can never seem to exercise the authority invested by his badge, either. The overwhelming atmosphere of deprivation wreaks havoc on the overt display of masculine power.

If the census man comes by, just aim like this...

The film’s dominant ghost, however, must be Jessup Dolly himself, the never-glimpsed father that Ree is after. She searches for him not to rekindle a relationship or to learn to appreciate his gruff paternal charm or any other such cinematic cliche. Even when Ree discovers that he chafed at the bit of his misdeeds and that the moral nagging he felt likely got him killed, there is no registering of a change of heart. He is a means to an end, a soul that must be shuffled from this mortal coil for good and all so that those he left behind can continue on. He is, indeed, reduced to an object by the end, a merely corporeal mass without agency or humanity. He fulfills a purpose, ultimately, but that is all. He is not himself, or anyone else. His milieu has swallowed him whole and he cannot be fathomed.

A riveting, unswerving film experience, Winter’s Bone clings to some human feeling in the final analysis. But its rare power comes from its wide-eyed examination of the costs of endemic, societal poverty, an irrevocable force that reduces those under its influence to something less than full participants not only in American democracy but also in full personhood. The closing strains of tragic Ozark mountain music suggest that beauty lurks even in the poorest of places, and Debra Granik’s film is unflinching in its descent into just one such place.

Categories: Film, Reviews

The Prodigal Smyth

June 26, 2011 2 comments

Please, please don't let them put me on a line with Cogliano...

After a weekend’s worth of rumours, false confirmations, aborted starts, and excruciating stress for Oilers fans, the deal to bring Ryan Smyth back to Edmonton from Los Angeles was completed today. The price was not exactly steep. A 7th round pick, which the Oilers would have doubtedlessly wasted on the talentless kid of one of the team’s accountants or something like that (they selected the offspring of team scout Frank Musil as well as the son of Oilumni Craig Simpson this year, and missed out on Kevin Lowe’s boy by one pick), and a bag of pucks. Okay, that bag of pucks was actually named Colin Fraser and would have made $825,000 next year. But I remain unconvinced that an actual bag of pucks would be less valuable. Vulcanized rubber ain’t cheap, boy.

Whether Fraser or the more expensive but more trade-killingly injured Gilbert Brule (Bono’s new BFF) would have been the better trade bait, it matters little. And even if Ryan Smyth, who has remained productive outside of the familiar confines of that old arena at Northlands (20+ goals every season save one since that lamented deadline deal in 2007) and surprisingly durable for a guy who plays like he does, doesn’t light the stat sheet on fire in his second stint in the city, the faithful won’t really mind.

This is already a symbolic victory for the Oilers and their long-suffering fanbase, before Smyth plays even a single game or scores even a single goal off his skull or performs even a single mullety hair-flip. The town that has watched star after star (most of them admittedly much better players than the worthy Smytty) depart for greener pastures now sees one of them return, and even want to return. For a team that has been the NHL’s worst for two straight seasons and whose roster still has more holes than a certain road in Blackburn, Lancashire, it’s a sign of hope and faith, a reminder of a brief, miraculous time when things were better, and very nearly as good as they could be. Five years after the 2006 Cup Finals run that galvanized a new generation of Oiler faithful, one of that great run’s key components is back to give it another go.

One must not be too rosy about things, of course. The 2006 Oilers were briefly, blazingly great for many more reasons than the guy wearing #94 and standing in front of the net on the PP, and only a fool would expect a team as horrid as last year’s Oil to turn things completely around due to the addition of a 35-year-old top six forward. They could still use a reliable veteran defenseman or two, an actual fourth (or even third) line, and a starting goalie who isn’t so gruesomely, brutally lamentable. Another #1 overall draft pick (spent on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who’s even more likely to stay in junior for a year with the acquisition of the older Ryan) will help one day, and another year of seasoning will improve the prospects of the young guys. There’s a way to go, but the arrows are pointing in the right direction, and more so now.

Technically, this is only blasphemous if you're in Calgary.

So Smytty will pitch in some points, help the awful powerplay, and perhaps provide some veteran leadership (though that sort of amorphous intangible is not worth giving too much creedence to). But he may well mend some broken bridges and close some open wounds that have been left largely unchecked for the past playoff-less half-decade in Edmonton. Steve Tambellini’s near-scotching of the deal with LA will leave his local detractors even more leery of his stewardship, but something this symbolically potent couldn’t even be derailed by a front-office incompetent for the ages.

Even if the hockey media grants far too much power and influence to metaphorical discourses and fuzzy narratives and purported feelings, there is some level where they matter. Somewhere between the 300 seats in the upper bowl and a sports bar on Whyte Avenue, Ryan Smyth’s return to Edmonton has more power than it will on the ice or in the dressing room or in the salary cap ledger. Way to make next season mean just a little more despite yourself, Tambo. Now try not to screw up the rest of the offseason too blatantly, all right?

Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports

Film Review: How To Train Your Dragon

June 25, 2011 4 comments

How To Train Your Dragon (2010; Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders)

If you have the patience to plow through the thick rubble of recycled jokes, narrative cliches, stock characters, and conventional emotional themes that is strewn across the screen, How To Train You Dragon rewards with the occasional sequences of wonder and exhilaration. If the entire film displayed such cinematic deftness, I’d have no complaints. But, as is often the case with Dreamworks’ animated extravaganzas, the film wants for nothing more than consistency.

Toothless phone home?

Still, the good is quite notably good for a film of this sort. The cartoon design of the cartoon Vikings is loving in its stereotyped silliness, and there’s a quirky individuality to the different looks of the various dragons that is amusing and endearing (the rotund Gronkles are particularly goofy, tumbling through the air like reptilian bumblebees). Awkward Viking outsider Hiccup’s gradually warming acquaintance to the awkward dragon outsider Toothless is told with sweet, wordless charm in a very nice silent-comedy sequence, and their first flight together is far more badass than one ought to expect from a fuzzy kids movie.  Indeed, every airborne scene crackles with a visual verve that the earthbound scenes distinctly lack. Co-writers/directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, with a noticeable consulting assist from master cinematographer Roger Deakins, tune to a different, more exciting frequency in these moments, as John Powell’s score revs up to epic overdrive. Everyone seems well aware that these will be the memorable showpieces of the film, and up their game in response.

Glorious as these scenes are, they are surrounded by the detritus of kiddie-epics past. This is most clearly exemplified in the design of Toothless, who bears a considerable resemblance to Stitch, the cute, toothy alien from the Hawaii-set Lilo & Stitch, which Sanders and DeBlois directed for Disney. It’s only a minor, nagging point which less savvy viewers might not even register (though I’ll bet that more than a few kids caught it well before their parents did), but it suggests a certain laziness from a design perspective.

Bad Boys 3: Ragnarok, Bitches

Much more laziness abounds in the themes and character beats, which are ripped almost wholesale from the Guidebook to Plucky Heroic Children’s Movie Plots. Hiccup’s whole story arc is exceedingly familiar: a quirky, brainy inventing nerd who’s an outsider in the man’s man culture of his island small town wins the day, the girl, and his doubting father’s respect with his ingenuity and original thinking, reinforcing the importance of individuality and difference for all those potential middle-school pariahs in the audience. The formula is almost exactly that of last year’s far superior Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, itself not exactly a narrative innovator in the genre (while possessing a much sharper comic sensibility). Dragon pushes the ideological gap between generations a little more (which was done better by Brad Bird’s masterful Ratatouille), and does at least mark Hiccup with a permanent indicator of the deadly peril he faces, a mark that further aligns him with his similarly “different” dragon friend.

But the filmmakers can’t resist throwing in other kid-flick mainstays like an irritating gaggle of wacky sidekicks (arguing twins, a chubby nerd spouting RPG terms, a vain lunkhead, a feisty blond babe) and a climactic hero-falls-to-his-death fake-out (another beat that was also featured in Cloudy). It also gives its adult Vikings Scottish accents (Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson employ their native brogues in voicing the two most prominent ones) while the adolescent Vikings speak in suburban American slang. This discrepancy never gets explained and never quite jives, nor does the description of Hiccup’s home island of Berk as a hard and barren place when there are lush arboreal landscapes a few minutes’ walk from the hardscrabble settlement. All of these elements eat away at the warm glow left by all of those fine airborne set pieces, but aren’t quite enough to dissipate it entirely. When How To Train Your Dragon soars, it surely soars, but far too much of its running time is spent loitering repetitiously on the ground.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Of Raccoons and Circus Bears, ctd.

As an addendum to my previous post, the Jarvis bike lane is likely to be removed (at considerable cost and questionable benefit to anyone) and Criminal Records is closing. The former is unquestionably Rob Ford’s doing, the latter will be blamed on his ilk in any case. Still waiting for a decent Photoshop of Ford’s head onto the body of a Russian circus bear.

Categories: Current Affairs, Politics

Of Raccoons and Circus Bears: Toronto’s Striving Weenieness and Dubious Righteousness

June 22, 2011 9 comments

There are, undoubtedly, some great things about the city of Toronto. The large population (read: tax) base leads to a plethora of goods, services, restaurant and entertainment options. There are outlets for a great range of interests, niches for a great range of people. There can be genuine large-scale excitement and bustle to a metropolis of this size, and that sort of thing has a vivifying influence of its own. The neighbourhood divisions are also very interesting, and many given areas have a quirky colour and unique personality that only occasionally feels manufactured or contrived. It is, generally speaking, a pretty decent place to live, or at least it is the closer you get to its core.

Still, there is much about the city that is less praiseworthy. I could enumerate both anecdotal and wider sociological details to describe the feelings I have about the town, but it’s all summed up by the quality that Andrew Potter once memorably described on Twitter as its “striving weenieness”. And what is all of this weenie striving all about? Not about becoming more of what the city and its residents are not, but become more of what the city and its residents already are. Growth, expansion and progress in this city always seem to mean this.

For a day purportedly celebrating records, there sure are a lot being wasted in that display...

Witness, for example, the actually fairly mundane news that beloved Annex records store/hipster mecca Sonic Boom is moving from its current location on Bloor just east of Bathurst to a new location at (wait for it)… Bathurst just south of Bloor. Even though a bearded scenester with biceps well-developed by many weekends of ultimate could probably toss one of the Boom’s overpriced vinyl records from the current location to the future one, hands are being wrung, brows furrowed, frettings fretted. One would be forgiven for believing that relocating Sonic Boom into Honest Ed’s would be met by furious geekgasms of subcultural civic pride from T.O.’s alternative flock; both were featured in that illustrated Bible of Toronto hipsterdom, Scott Pilgrim, after all, which lionized the limited area with the Boom at its epicentre as the only part of Toronto worth having anything to do with.

But, predictably, Toronto’s coolest are all doom and gloom. Sonic Boom, it seems, is making way for a Dollarama, and this is terrible. Evidently, a discount store would be wildly out of place in Mirvish Village, and a corporate-owned store where poor people can buy anything is far inferior to an independent-owned store where the kids of wealthy people can buy music and music-related paraphenalia. With the old Sonic Boom being replaced by discount retail space and the new Sonic Boom replacing discount retail space, there’s a relative balance to the proceedings, even. The real outrage for those outraged, however, is one of taste. “How dare the powers that be usurp our ironic pose of tackiness with their actual, genuine tackiness!”, the online protests shout. If there’s a problem with the strain of hip urban liberalism so prevalent in Toronto (and there’s likely more than one), it is just the sort of smug and unthinkingly superior classism implied by becoming outraged at a simple shifting of real estate. Everything that ever happens in this city can be construed as another symptom of the special, beknighted citadel of enlightenment that is downtown Toronto being relentlessly besieged by the suburban armies of mass-cultural mediocrity.

This attitude continues to dominate alt.Toronto’s reaction to the still-young mayorship of that ultimate figure of blithe suburban corpulence, Rob Ford. Lamentable though Ford is with his ignorant demagoguery and simultaneously tight-fisted and haphazard stewardship of city affairs, his every act is greeted by Toronto’s vocal leftists with derision and condemnation. In the past week or two, his rigid-to-a-fault graffiti policy, his brusque rejection of provincially-funded public health nurses for reasons that combined dubious financial scaremongering with clandestine province-wide political motivations, and today’s news that he’ll skip Pride Week to ensconce his considerable self in a safe, presumably non-gay cottage have all raised the ire of his Twittering civic critics.

The issue here is not that his opponents are wrong about Ford. The guy is pretty fucking awful, a rabble-rousing right-wing ideologue who exploits stereotypes and divisions to advance policies that widen the socioeconomic and internal cultural gulfs in Greater Toronto. Most of all, as demonstrated by the nurse controversy, he makes knee-jerk decisions based on poorly-defined principles and inaccurate, sometimes paranoia-inflated information and then refuses to budge from them when confronted with hard, incontrivertible facts that contradict his stances. He’s Sarah Palin without the former-beauty-queen looks or disarming folksiness, but he has twice her determination and steely-eyed intransigence.

Rob Ford prepares for a post-politics career in stand-up comedy.

He’s dangerous, surely, but liberal Toronto lost its best chance to stop him when they divided their energies amongst multiple mid-level competitors in the election campaign. One way or another, they have to live with him, and it shouldn’t be surprising that they’ve chosen to do so by getting outlandishly angry at every characteristic move the guy makes (they’d be better served to consider organizational sorties against the machine erected by his brother Doug Ford, the power behind the throne). But I think this city’s Left should expend a little less effort in pretending that Ford’s intransigence is a bug of his mayorship rather than a feature.

It seems simply silly to be continually annoyed at the man for consistently and repeatedly being what he is. To make an analogy, their outrage is like getting incredibly pissed every time a raccoon knocks over your Green Bin. Sure, it’s a pain to have to clean up the mess each garbage day, but then raccoons are scavengers, and rifling through garbage bins is what they do. And we’re perhaps a bit foolish for putting all of the edible compost together in one convenient receptacle for the vermin to focus on. Now, analogizing Rob Ford to a refuse-gobbling raccoon is admittedly unsatisfying; if anything, he more resembles a Russian circus bear circling and circling the ring on a unicycle. But the analogy implied there is less clear-cut, even if the image has a Rabelaisian truth to it. Would we expect Ford-as-circus-bear to continue performing in dimbulb animalistic bliss, or give in to instinctual urges and unleash a sudden, shocking mauling on his unsuspecting trainers and the astonished Siberian peasant gawkers in the bleachers? Either way, I wouldn’t blame anyone for being confused by such a putative metaphor. I’m already thoroughly boggled myself.

At any rate, my point about Torontonians’ reactions to contentious happenings echoes my point about most such reactions: quit being so surprised by everything bad. Start expecting something at least close to the worst, and even the mildly troubling becomes infinitely easier to cope with. What we see instead is otherwise smart and energetic populations paralyzed by dubious righteousness when it should leap over them like the minor obstacles they are. We can overcome the Rob Fords and Dollaramas if we stop making them more powerful than they are by inflating our own anxieties about them to epic proportions. In a phrase, then: drop the striving, weenies. You’ll do better.

Film Review: Star Trek (2009)

June 18, 2011 9 comments

Star Trek (2009; Directed by JJ Abrams)

JJ Abrams’ Star Trek is the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. Yes, you read that right.

These plasma TVs just can't stand up to much wear-and-tear, can they?

I have a whole lot to say about this flick, but maybe I ought to situate myself as a (mostly lapsed) Trekkie first. I grew up with the square neo-liberal Treks of the late ’80s and ’90s, and always preferred the stately intelligence of The Next Generation and the political complexity and moral ambiguity of Deep Space Nine to the revered Original Series. I found the show that started it all to be silly, dated and frothy, rife with casual racial stereotyping, chauvinistic gender perspectives, and heavy-handed sociopolitical allegories. Still, I grew to appreciate its cornball charms, and cherry-picked the better (even-numbered) films.

But like all but the most hopelessly die-hard Trekkies, I feel that the franchise has suffered through a Lost Decade on both the small and the big screen. The TNG films after the crackerjack First Contact were misguided extended TV episodes, grasping wildly at the example of The Wrath of Khan. Nemesis was a particular offender in this, copping Nicholas Meyer’s contest of commanding masculine wills as visualized by colliding phallus-extension starships, obliviously unaware that Patrick Stewart’s thoughtful Picard could never be as effective in such a tete-a-tete as William Shatner’s bacchanalian Kirk (Picard was better when he was struggling with himself in a Shakespearean way, as he does with his Borg-assimilated past in First Contact). The less said about Voyager and Enterprise, those tepid exercises in continuity extension, the better. The soul, the life, the eternal spark, was gone from Star Trek.

Abrams strikes a new spark, but his kindling is recycled stuff. Yes, he returns to the original crew and time, and whips up a newly hip blend of sex, violence, and swagger from the classic elements. Most of the iconic catchphrases, tech, settings, relations, and even one of the cast are either gleefully reproduced or wittily referenced, and got appreciative cheers from the faithful in the theatre I was in. The continuity of the Trek universe is respected even as it is blatantly fucked with. This is to say nothing of the film’s entertainment value, which is ample; Abrams’ film stands a better chance at achieving a mass breakthrough for the brand name than we’ve seen before, but marketing aside, this movie is a ball.

But this Trek, more than any other, is built from constituent parts of its predecessors. The plot involves time-travel and planetary threats, like The Voyage Home and especially First Contact (not to mention Lost, from which Abrams brings along several collaborators). The loving aesthetic design of the sets and the ships is influenced by the first Trek film (though it is far more kinetic than The Motionless Picture), and Vulcan looks much as it did in The Search for Spock. A mind-control slug shows up, a direct call-back to Khan. The fate of Kirk’s father and mother recalls Benjamin Sisko’s calcifying loss from the first episode of DS9. And, in one of the film’s few missteps, the villainous Nero (the unrecognizable and unremitting Eric Bana), a member of the Romulan underclass with an unexplainedly powerful super-ship bent on righteous revenge, is far too similar to Shinzon, Tom Hardy’s vengeful antagonist from the unfortunate Nemesis.

Deprived of government ethanol subsidies, Iowa's farmers move in a slightly different direction...

But for all of its debts to previous Trek adventures, this Star Trek owes an even greater debt to the space-adventure that has outstripped it in both box office grosses and cultural acceptance: George Lucas’ Star Wars. The narrative and incidental resemblances to A New Hope are many, and I shouldn’t have to enumerate them (though Alexandra DuPont does so in her review at Ain’t It Cool News). But suffice it to say that by the time Captain Christopher Kenobi is telling young Kirkwalker that he has to leave Tatooiowa to fulfill his destiny, it’s basically impossible not to notice the dovetailing of the space myths.

Abrams’ use of the Campbellian origin myth is so potent, iconic and exciting that it seems like geeky quibbling to object to it, but the subsuming of social commentary to more amorphous and spiritual appeals to “destiny” and “fate” grates a bit. Beyond the scriptual laziness it typifies, these elements betray a Jedi-like mystical theism that the secular, scientific, agnostic Trek never had much time for. Rodenberry’s Star Trek never looked to gods for answers, and when subsequent editions did, it took the form of questioning scepticism of religious zealotry (as with DS9‘s Prophets and Founders). Star Trek has always been more concerned with humanity’s foibles and flaws and naked desires; with wills so free that determinism withers when faced with them. If anything, the alternate reality created by the time-travel shenanigans of Nero suggests that even if destinies exist, they can be changed.

The classic characters, as reinvisioned by Abrams’ wonderful cast, most definitely make their own way. At the centre of the film is James Kirk, a rogueish walking embodiment of the American id. The first appearance of the pre-teen Kirk, joyriding a vintage car while he blasts the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” on a Nokia media system, is Abrams’ shot across the bow of the purist Trekkies. Like the use of “Magic Carpet Ride” in First Contact, the capitalism-empowered rebellion implied by the music choice marks Kirk as a particularly American “wild one”. When young-adult Kirk appears in a dive bar, it takes very little time to get behind Chris Pine’s cocky performance. He learns and grows as the film progresses, but at heart he remains the brash, optimistic lothario who chomps on an apple while casually cheating the impossible Kobayashi Maru test (maybe Pine’s best scene). And he gets in at least five fist fights, winning only one of them (and that one by a bit of a cheat). That, people, is Kirk.

Zachary Quinto (famous as the exasperating Sylar on Heroes, a show which steals from the worst of Trek at every turn) has a tougher job with Spock. Though Pine was never going to impersonate the jazzy overacting of Shatner, Quinto cannot afford to stray very far from Leonard Nimoy’s inimitable Vulcan cerebrality, especially with the elderly Nimoy actually in the movie donning the pointy ears and passing the torch with silvery grace. He doesn’t make a radical departure, but does cultivate a simmering human anger that strengthens the repressed Vulcan stoicism Spock clings to. The Original Series could occasionally focus unduly on Spock’s alien alterity while forgetting that he’s really an intergalatic metis, but this film deals fully with his frustration at his inability to fit in even as events push him to choose between the two worlds that bore him. My favourite moment is Quinto’s first iteration of the catchphrase “Live long and prosper”, which comes across as a chilly “fuck you”.

Captain's Log: Leaving Starbase Tiddlewink for the great unknown...

If the supporting cast comes across as a collection of stereotypes, it’s because none of the previous material has ever tried to present them as much more than that. In this film, they all have their moments, but the parts are definitely small. Karl Urban rightly rules as “Bones” McCoy, capturing the late DeForest Kelly’s cynical cadence and prickly support for his buddy Jim; he steals several scenes and drives the film’s funniest section (a litany of injections used to sneak Kirk onto the Enterprise), but isn’t given much to do after that. Simon Pegg brogues hilariously as Scotty, but shows up far too late and likewise has little to do (and is saddled with a mute diminutive alien sidekick, for some reason). John Cho’s Sulu gets a funny navigator beat and a badass sword-fighting scene, but makes little impression beyond that. Anton Yelchin goes miles-broad with Chekhov’s Russian accent (and the film takes a moment to chuckle at it), but captures a precocious geekiness that at least makes him stand out from the others. Zoe Saldana is given a substantive Uhura and does enough to make it work, even if she is reduced to Spock’s emotional support (yeah, they’re an item; it’s weird, no word of a lie). Bruce Greenwood plays Captain Pike with bronzed authority, and Winona Ryder has some nice moments in a small role as Spock’s mother.

Ultimately, Abrams’ Star Trek relaunches the classic franchise as a corny blockbuster myth, a sort of hybrid of Trek‘s liberal-humanist hope and mortal hunger and the kind of rousing, fantastical heroism and swashbuckling adventure that it’s now obvious that we’ll never again get from Star Wars. It’s massively entertaining, and most of the things that come across as criticisms in this review only occured to me afterwards, and are more observations than they are knocks on the film. If I can’t give it top marks, it’s because the villainous threat treads too closely that of the last, failed film, and because the intellectual focus is more on determinist philosophy than it is on the social allegories that define Star Trek as sci-fi. But if you want cinematic popcorn joy… this is it. And it doesn’t insult your intelligence in the process, either. Let’s hope Abrams keep this new series going boldly.

Categories: Film, Reviews

I Predict A Riot

June 16, 2011 3 comments

Whatever it is I imagined myself writing this evening about last night’s post-Stanley Cup Final riots in Vancouver, it’s mostly said and said damn well right here. But I would perhaps echo the closing paragraph’s assertion that this sort of result was not only predictable but, maybe, inevitable. One can hardly be surprised when modern capitalism’s limited septic tank for the vast unsublimated reserves of masculine aggression that civilization has a profound need of diverting (some call it competitive sport) overspills with such sudden, volatile pressure. A sport like hockey, in particular, with its (barely-)controlled violence and underlying narratives of virility and male mastery, dangerous activates the inherent violence characteristic to the human character. Those dark primal impulses to smash in your fellow man’s skull with a stone in order to avail yourself of his cave and his mate can be easily triggered in such an environment. But, more importantly in Vancouver’s current case, it can even more easily be triggered when the possibility of mastery, of domination over your unworthy opponent, is no longer possible. Deprived of a fiery on-ice glory by their team’s unceremonial collapse at the critical moment, the Lower Mainland’s frustrated and coddled youth turned their backs on their skating ciphers and sought mastery of the scrubbed streets of their coastal metropolis. For the lizard brain, thoughtlessly stimulated by greedy, jingoistic hype, no other course of action meets its peculiar logic.

Never mind the accepted standard. This CANNOT merely constitute first base.

There are politics at play, too, and not just the window-smashing iconoclastic nihilism of the anarchist infiltrators that were surely at least slightly involved in the destruction, as they were during the Vancouver Olympics and Toronto’s G8 protests last year. The regressive vigilante-justice types always seem to expose themselves in such situations, laying bare the ugly authoritarianist tendencies that run coldly through the veins of “freedom-loving” conservatives. The Left, while abhoring the largely-mindless smashing, can’t help but feel wistful and pine for properly-directed revolutionary fervour. But these are guests at the dance; pure instinctual aggression and rage are the bedazzled hosts, and you better believe they’ve spiked the punch bowl and set out at least one plate of special brownies at the snack station.

Really, though, this is a fitting end to a fairly unbecoming Stanley Cup Finals series. Prone to dirty post-whistle intimidation, blatant embellishments, scores run up without pause, frightening injuries that beget uneven discipline, and generally strapped-down ugliness, this was hockey that begged for a nasty coda. Even though the destruction of that coda will be forever pinned to Vancouver and its fallen Canucks, it has an inescapable Bruins character to it, a chip-on-the-shoulder belligerence that is a raison-d’etre of its own, beyond whatever dubious rewards it grants. It is what this unattractive, strange contest likely deserved: not professional sport’s most shimmering and iconic trophy, but a Molotov cocktail. It’s disappointing that either had to be used in such a manner, but it can hardly surprise even the less cynical observers. The more cynical, of course, saw it all coming a mile away.

LeBronification: Meta-Narratives and Cultural Angst in Sports Fandom

June 13, 2011 3 comments

The Miami Heat’s defeat by the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals has been greeted with gleeful schadenfreude by basketball fans serious and less-serious the world over. The most common prevailing wisdom on the fascinating basketball experiment conceived by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh sometime last summer is that it has failed, and that it deserved to.

I lost, and now am threatening the masculine self-image of my fans.

Even if, like me, you tend to doubt prevailing wisdom as a matter of course, there are reasons to reject that viewpoint. Barring catastrophic injuries or precipitous declines, the superstar trio has five more years to learn how to dominate opponents, something they were getting better at as the season wore on anyway. Assuming that they’ll win a championship or two in that period would be the low estimate, I’d say. Dynasties in the classic sporting sense are easier to achieve in the NBA than in other major leagues due to the relatively small size of the roster and the star-centric focus of the game, but unless you’re talking about the Lakers, even the NBA is seeming distinctly post-dynastic lately. It seems like most elite teams will get their time in the sun, and a team with such astounding talent at its centre as the Heat can boast surely will ascend the pedestal in due time.

But the astoundingly popular Hate the Heat movement is hardly based in such rational analysis. It is so powerfully primal in its inherent rancour as to even overcome the sports world’s defining tribal cleavages. Perhaps Cleveland sports fans (or maybe even Toronto sports fans, to whatever limited extent they care about the Raptors) have a special claim to the feelings of betrayal that feed this righteous rage. And, to an extent, the mass rooting against the Heat follows established patterns of fandom in its occasional negative emphasis on the perceived “buying” of championships (this is Mr. Matthew Rea’s wording, I feel I must acknowledge). Like the aforementioned Lakers or the New York Yankees or Manchester United, the Heat snatched a lion’s share of the best talent available and saw it as a shortcut to glory. Add in an underdog-worshipping sports culture’s deep-seated distrust of favourites that even model franchises like the Detroit Red Wings and the New England Patriots can’t shake, and you’ve already got a potent potion of malcontent.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The delight taken in the Heat’s fairly narrow championship failure is not really about any of that. It’s not even about Wade (who already carried a team to a championship and, in the generic fan’s view, is thus absolved of any blame) or Bosh (because, really, when is it ever about him?). It’s all about LeBron. It’s about the Decision, the playoff failures, the hype that’s followed him since he was a teenager and that he’s approached like it’s his birthright. It’s about how he’s never quite responded to what’s been expected of him as he’s been expected to. The extent to which James’ PR miscalculations have conditioned how he’s viewed as a player (where he is still extremely impressive, especially statistically speaking) is now undeniable. He’s lost the fanbase so thoroughly that even if the Heat had won the title (which was an entirely possible result, despite what you’re now hearing), it would have been widely considered, on some level, illegitimate.

Insert "taking my talents to..." joke here

This view of sports is not one I can particularly stomach. The perspective, one that constructs the results of a competition, of grown men playing a game, as somehow illustrative of the superiority of a certain set of values or certain conceptions of masculinity, is not one I can share. Sport is many things, but it is not an exercise in moral edification. No ideological belief-structure or set of community virtues is exalted over another when one team beats another. LeBron’s choice, be it greedy, lazy, or an expression of free labor, did not pre-condition the result of the Heat’s up-and-down season. Nor, ultimately, was the NBA Finals’ result about unmeasurable, vague intangibles like “heart” or “effort”. This concept, that the team that wins worked harder for it or “wanted it more”, is simple transference, the projected desire of the marginalized working class to be rewarded for their own toil by a socioeconomic structure whose decks are stacked against them. It’s much more desirable to root for elbow-grease effort over pure, innate talent in the stadiums and arenas, especially because society rewards the latter over the former to a very great extent.

The last element, I think, underscores not only the distaste for the Heat but the tone of distrust that much of the hockey world outside of Vancouver adopts towards the Canucks. The privileging of skill over toughness by the league-best, Stanley Cup-vying Canucks inherently rubs the aggressively masculine brains of most hockey fans the wrong way. I’ve talked about this before, but the narrative of “softness” that tends to greet the offensive-talent-first teams in hockey and other sports besides (most of all soccer, which applies this rhetoric to centuries-old cross-border emnities) is, in many ways, the angry expression of a male subculture that harbours concerns about the short- and long-term endurance of its prized masculinity. The less careful individuals let this anxiety slip into outright homophobia, like the “Pronger is Gay” blackboard graffiti in Chicago’s dressing room at the end of last year’s Cup finals or Kobe Bryant’s and Joakim Noah’s derisive implications of homosexuality directed at referees. But it’s always present beneath the surface and always lurkingly relevant, as are the racial concerns that LeBron James was widely pilloried for honestly admitting that he recognized in the outsized counter-reaction to his free agency.

Sports fandom, with its ancient roots in gladiatorial bloodlust and military glorification, seems an obvious and (frankly) mostly harmless outlet for the seething resentments and cultural angst that modern democratic capitalism cannot simply consume away. That these roiling undercurrents are directed into further consumption should not be surprising; that is the way of all capital. But the constant, laboured construction of sporting meta-narratives is a more complex and less primal-urge-based development. Why is it that we, as fans, can revel in the barely-controlled and chaotic unpredictability of sports, its inherent lack of narrative, and yet also seek constantly to impose hermeneutic order upon it? We understand by telling stories, yes, but do we also not escape understanding by playing, and watching, games? I believe as much, and sports fans seem forever torn between the two.

Film Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

June 12, 2011 5 comments

Sherlock Holmes (2009; Directed by Guy Ritchie)

Guy Ritchie and his team give us a knockdown-dragout Sherlock Holmes with a likable lead duo, but the film gets away from its strengths too often to be really special. This is an action-adventure Holmes who tends to use his intellectual prowess to maximize the violence he inflicts upon ne’er-do-wells more than he uses them to deduce complex criminal plots (although he does more of the latter than the whiz-bang trailers might lead you to believe). Doylean purists will protest, but this Holmes is a perfectly reasonable entry into the Sherlockian pastiche genre whose once-prodigious and interesting output has slowed to a trickle over the past couple of decades.

Two Gentlemen of Baker Street

Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes amplifies the character’s eccentric antisociality and his grubby bohemianism (although than is nary a mention of his cocaine use, that grubbiest of his bohemian pursuits; I can imagine Warner execs giving notes on that). His Holmes is a genuine outsider in Late Victorian London, in opposition to Jeremy Brett’s sharp-tongued, prim gentleman take on the deathless sleuth. This type will prove rather familiar to audiences weaned in recent years on small-screen Sherlockians like Dr. House and “Bones” Brennan.

Jude Law’s Dr. Watson is perhaps the film’s real contribution to the generic history, maybe the most fleshed-out and competent version of Holmes’ sidekick (his Boswell, as he once calls him) that we’ve been given. Not only a fellow warrior but also a smart and capable confrere, Law’s Watson is as much an equal as he can be alongside the genius Holmes. Never is this Watson struck dumb by the great detective’s sheer brilliance, and more than once supports him and even outdoes him with his own intelligence, wit, and physical capabilities. The easily-astonished Watson may well be a more accurate canonical take, but those fond of the good doctor are glad to see him given such fond and formidable life by an actor the calibre of Law.

Unsurprising in such a Hollywood blockbuster, the duo’s man-of-action tendencies are emphasized. Ritchie gives us a lovingly-choreographed bare-knuckle boxing sequence that is lifted straight out of his earlier Snatch, and subsequent fights in a dusty lab and shipyard and then beneath Parliament and on an under-construction Tower Bridge provide further punched-up adrenaline.

But this is a literate and canny script that basically never falls into action-cliche quips and knows its Holmes. His powers of deduction and mastery of disguise get slick showcases, his interactions with Scotland Yard (represented by Eddie Maran’s Inspector Lestrade) have the right mix of dismissal and begrudging necessity, the fleeting references to past adventures are reasonable while not canonical, and the dialogue is peppered with references to Sherlockian lore like Mycroft Holmes, Mrs. Hudson and Watson’s Afghan War experience (to say nothing of the Wilkie Collins/Poe reference, a sly acknowledgement of Arthur Conan Doyle’s influences that wrung a grin from this literary nerd at least).

Would you believe it, Holmes? I'm in here for unpaid parking tickets!

This is also a visually rich and sophisticated film. The production design is grimy and overstuffed, shining with occasional steampunk touches. Shot by Oscar-winner Phillipe Rousselot, the film’s pallette is dominated by 19th century browns and greys, with blues and golds spearing through as signs of wealth and privilege. The action sequences are invariably cogent and well-shot; Ritchie reminds us that he knows more about choreographing screen violence than almost anyone else in Hollywood. There are even a couple of cineaste homages during the climax, a brief chase through sewers and up a staircase referencing The Third Man and Vertigo. On the aural side, Hans Zimmer’s violin-dominated score is unique and percussive, a surprising triumph from a human score factory from whom little of genuine inspiration tends to be expected. Once again, a major Warner tentpole release features copious aesthetic craftsmanship while providing uncomplicated but uninsulting entertainment.

Still, this is hardly a flawless piece of mass entertainment. Rachel McAdams lacks weight and wit as Irene Adler, a minor canonical figure inflated beyond proportion and yet reduced to a plot device here. She also hardly provides the level of eye-candy required of her. Kelly Reilly’s Mary Morstan is both comelier and feistier, but has even less to do beyond provide Holmes with a keen rival for Watson (there is next to no slashy stuff implied between the famous crime-solving partners, which heartens me). As with most blockbuster fare, this is a boy’s-own tale that has women on the periphery; the inclusion of Adler, the most well-known Holmes-beater outside of Professor Moriarty, might have promised more.

The real weakness of this Holmes, however, is its villain and that villain’s plot. Mark Strong’s Lord Blackwood (yes, he’s actually called that) stalks the background and sneers about conquering the world, but he never seems a coherent-enough threat, probably because he’s so poorly-written, poorly-played, and entirely stock. His plot is grounded in Victorian spiritualism and Crowley-lite occultism as well as a quasi-Masonic secret society of the powerful. It comes across like a Coles Notes version of a pulpy comic book on the Victorian cultural fringe; it’s deeply silly and undermines all of the other solid features of the proceedings. It seems so cynically obvious that this franchise-launcher is just revving up for the entrance of Moriarty as the true nemesis figure in the next installment (and he haunts the film as a background menace far more effective and formidable than Blackwood) that there isn’t much of a push behind this antagonist.

So... how's the King of Bohemia? I trust he's well.

While it is disappointing that this goofy plot is being attached to an otherwise impeccable and exciting interpretation of Holmes’ world, it’s even more disappointing that it happened to a film with Guy Ritchie’s name at the top. What I would have given to see the man direct a real hardboiled crime plot set in this beautifully-portrayed milieu, a Snatch or Lock Stock in a wonderfully-realized fever-dream of 1890s London with literature’s greatest detective as its lead. Maybe this will happen with the likely-inevitable sequel, where we might also get some other canonical elements like menacing happenings in the countryside or evil filtering into the heart of England through the veins of its empire. Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes is more than elementary, though it is hopefully most useful as a foundation for more well-rounded future efforts.

Categories: Film, Reviews

“Free Markets Foster Competition”: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Contemporary America

As a writer who produces approximately one novel per decade, Jonathan Franzen’s habit of shoehorning as much of the character and soul of his age into his dramatic spurts of inescapable fiction is perhaps understandable. That doesn’t mean that it’s forgivable or even terribly natural, mind you. As emotionally and intellectually involving (and involved) as his well-structured, character-driven narratives are in both The Corrections (his National Book Award winner in 2001) and his latest, the much-debated Freedom, there are times when the social critic in Franzen leaps to the fore, filling his character’s imagined mouths with witty yet stilted observations on the fading obsessions of American middle-class life. Franzen’s characters never seem less like themselves than when they’re acting as their creator’s mouthpieces on any number of subjects: pop music (“It was always wintergreen Chiclets, we just enjoyed pretending otherwise”), the 2001 New York Yankees (“This is the one year you kind of want them to win anyway. It’s a patriotic sacrifice we all have to make for New York”), the looting of Iraq’s National Museum after the fall of Baghdad (“Shit happens, right?”), cats (“the sociopaths of the pet world”), and the list goes on.

I begin with this criticism of Freedom because, honestly, it’s about the only substantial one that I can fathom. This is a bit of a miraculous book, really. A thrilling page-turner full of meaty ideas, a very funny book that can also be remarkable affecting, a freewheeling creative force that is grounded in moral conviction. It’s rendered with tremendous style and energy, but can effortlessly pause for lovely descriptions and worm-turning neurotic self-examinations. It can summon roughly equivalent depths of interest in mountaintop-removal mining, songbird migration patterns, the psyche of basketball players, and the treachery of private defense contractors. It’s a novel of contemporary America, and it tries its darndest to cover all of that sublime, complex mess of a nation.

Franzen embeds a few self-conscious references to War and Peace, a work that’s clearly supposed to be a touchstone of sorts if not an outright self-aggrandizing comparison. But he has more in common with an Austen or a Forster than with Tolstoy; all of these writers examine their characters from all angles and dimensions, but Franzen, like the first two, comes out of these examinations feeling deeply amused at their human foibles. Even as he strives for Tolstoy’s panoramic scope of social detail and in-born romanticism, he can’t hope to approach the Count’s boundless magnanimity, his practically impossible fairness. As critical epithets go, however, “Not quite as good as Tolstoy” is hardly an unwelcome pronouncement.

Ultimately, one can only compare Franzen to himself. Like The Corrections, Freedom is a profoundly modern novel, absorbed in modern expression and neuroses, wholly sunk into the quicksand culture of privileged-class post-capitalism. Its main four characters, while convincingly whole people, are also synechdoches for various aspects of that culture. Self-involved, inscrutable independent rock icon Richard Katz represents the creative class, a bundle of briefly-formed thoughts, effortless hipness and irresistible sexuality that strives towards a moral centre that he can never quite reach (and, probably, he would lose his veneer of cool if he ever did). Patty and Walter Berglund are two sides of the liberal upper-middle-class: Patty, once an elite college athlete, is all sharp corners and suddenly yawning precipices, prone to self-pity, depression, false pretenses, and galloping neuroses; Walter is rational, sensible, respectable social conscious personified, but his overwhelming, responsible goodness is a bulkhead that holds in dissatisfaction, snobbery, misanthropy, and outright rage.

They are, respectively, the id and the ego of the counter-intuitive force for good that is liberal guilt. Patty and Walter are defined both by their reactionary breaks from the personalities and values of their parents and, more fundamentally, by their resemblances to their parents. Their own kids, Jessica (who gets the short end of the stick here) and assured, business-savvy Joey (the fourth-stringer behind the main triangle), mirror this. But the turbulent mutual love and admiration between Richard, Walter, and Patty defines, in a symbolic way, the alliances of convenience and grudging fondness that have characterized the finest social, political, and cultural moments of America’s troubled last half-century.

It’s surely no accident, then, that Franzen sets the sundered years of the Berglund marriage and their friendship with Katz in the dank pit of leftist malaise that was the Bush Years, when even the strongest-willed progressive (and Walter himself must be high on that list) entertained doubts concerning the essential positivity of the American social experiment. Their tentative reunion coincides with Obama’s election, that tenuous new dawn that has proven to be impossibly hard-won (and maybe not ultimately won at all). Although Franzen does attempt to portray the conservative, Republican side of the American character (you know, the side that has won) with similar depth and lack of bias, he clearly understands the ins-and-outs of the left much better than those of the right. Though this effort is not helped by the fact that his novel is at its soul a metaphoric narrativizing of four decades of struggling progressivism, he also tosses far too many peripheral, grotesque right-wing caricatures (Bible-thumping housewives and prejudiced rustics and all-consuming motor jerks) into his story for us to take his political fairness too seriously.

Joey Berglund is clearly supposed to be his conservative figurehead, but he’s naught but a potential College Republican who never quite emerges as one, who we’re only really invited to sympathize with in a genuine way when he belatedly sprouts a social conscience. Joey hides twisted sexual proclivities beneath a handsome exterior, interprets 9/11 as nothing more profound than an affront to his sense of entitlement, and makes several major life decisions simply to annoy his liberal parents. Maybe this is an accurate enough representation of the features of American conservatism, but it sure isn’t a flattering one. Still, Joey gets the book’s most spectacularly baroque laugh-out-loud scene, and it’s impossible to imagine any of the main trio of characters, with their inherent dignity, making it quite so hilarious. I won’t spoil it other than to say that it involves a very obvious and primitive way to retrieve an accidentally-swallowed wedding ring; it’s quite nearly a match for a similar moment of comic humiliation in The Corrections, which featured a pathetic academic trying to steal a slab of salmon from a high-end grocery store by slipping it into his pants.

Beyond any political or sociological meaning, though, Freedom‘s title points to Franzen’s wider concept, or at least half of it. The novel is largely founded on the premise that freedom of competition does not mean freedom from competition. Indeed, as one chapter entitled “Free Markets Foster Competition” suggests, freedom rather ensures competition. Walter, Patty, Richard, and Joey all embody the competitive pressures of democratic capitalism, but Franzen’s central image, that of the migratory songbirds that Walter loves and tries to protect, is the most resonant embodiment of that idea. Franzen writes about how birds, whose faculties of flight are such a cliche of freedom that it’s pretty ballsy to even invoke the image, die by the millions in America due to industry, suburban sprawl, vanishing habitats, and, yes, predatory housecats. Americans, to Franzen, are both the birds and the cats. Freedom, like bird populations, is denuded by competition, which is itself increased by freedom. Franzen’s drawing out of this idea throughout his sprawling, rewarding novel never feels as circular as I’ve stated that, though. It’s a solid, living, troubling reality. It is, in a word, America, and Freedom examines it in all of its idiosyncracies. And its greatest downside is that we’ll probably have to wait another decade for a work of American literature that might even strive to be its equal.

Categories: Culture, Literature, Reviews