Archive for June, 2011

PopMatters Review: Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See

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.

Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See


Categories: Music, Reviews

Film Review: C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004; Directed by Kevin Willmott)

The landing module was the General Lee.

Kevin Willmott’s satirical mockumentary about an alternate stream of American history in which the South wins the Civil War (in military fact rather than in the form of long-term cultural osmosis in which it’s been more successful) and slavery is preserved to the present day can be searingly ironic when it isn’t handcuffed by dubious production values and corny amateurish unsubtlety. Inspired by and largely parodying Ken Burns’ utterly sober PBS documentary The Civil War, C.S.A. frankensteins together Burns’ filmed-history-book method with political/cultural spec-fic like Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America or Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, tossing in the steely and shocking deployment of offensive (and once-accepted) racial stereotypes as surreal humour common to The Chappelle Show and Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (the latter “presents” the film alongside IFC) for good measure. The result is a notable film with an uncompromising view of racial relations in America that nonetheless leaves you wishing for a little more coherence and aesthetic polish to go alongside the outrage.

Although a progressive viewer is meant to be appalled by the manner in which Willmott’s imagined Confederate States of America develops under the aegis of an antebellum white supremacist economy and ideology after France and England step in to help the South win at Gettysburg, much like Judge’s Idiocracy, the deepest laughs here come from the slightest of exaggerations. The new C.S.A. demanding reparations from Canada for sheltering its runaway slaves is an irony matched by the current vogue among the white-dominated Tea Party far right for conceiving of themselves (and not America’s still-oppressed minorities) as the party most aggrieved by racism.

Indeed, Willmott turns Canada into a practical parody of the supposed socialist paradise that American liberals love to think it is. Taking on not only athletic and creative African-Americans (Jesse Owens, James Baldwin, etc.) of note but also an array of white abolitionist exiles like Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Canada reaps the cultural and social rewards that America did from the influence of former slaves and their liberal supporters. Short of the Kennedys, who remain the romantic martyrs of domestic liberalism, all of the good of progressive America migrates past the 49th parallel; even rock and roll originates north of the border, and Canada replaces the Soviet Union in a re-jigged Cold War stand-off, complete with a terrorist splinter group.

Back to the plantation with you!

Furthermore, the post-Civil War C.S.A. expands its supremacist order even more widely than the real-world U.S.A. did, or perhaps just as widely but more overtly and aggressively. Stymied by Canada in the north, the Confederates conquer the rest of the Americas throughout the decades that follow Reconstruction (which itself is about selling slavery back to the North and expanding it westward, where the Chinese railroad labourers became slaves in legal fact rather than just in practice). The Confederate leadership evidently planned to expand plantation economic society into the Caribbean and Central and South America in historical fact, and in this historical fiction, they set up a white-ruled apartheid from Mexico to Argentina. In concert with this, Native peoples are still decimated, domestic pro-Christian laws confine Jews to a Long Island “reservation”, and anyone who is not able to prove their Caucasian heritage beyond a shadow of a doubt instantly becomes chattel. The Confederates later find common ground with their fellow Aryans in Nazi Germany and do not enter WWII in Europe; they do, however, launch an imperial war against Japan, with Pearl Harbour turning the other way into an Confederate sneak attack. Such scenarios seem far-fetched, but American cultural imperialism in the Americas and Japan are only a little less prevalent than outright military conquest, and the American Right of the 1930s and early ’40s cozied up to Hitler’s Reich much more than their successors now like to admit to.

The film’s best examples of outrageous satire that turn out to be not entirely far-fetched are the commercials for products based on racial stereotypes that are interspersed with the faux-documentary broadcast on Confederate history. As offensive as many of these products (like Darky Toothpaste, Niggerhair Cigarettes, and a Southern-style restaurant called Coon Chicken Inn) seem to us now, practically all of them existed at one time, and Willmott doesn’t ignore still-current examples like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. Even ads for the medical study and curing of slaves’ desire for escape and an electronic servant-monitoring device called the Shackle are only slight elaborations on beliefs and practices that were once prevalent.

Despite the film’s ferocious rabble-rousing intelligence and well-researched basis, though, it comes across as forced and hucksterish at times. Willmott runs out of shocking racist stereotypes and terms to deploy about halfway through C.S.A. and just starts re-using them to lessened effect. The force of his ideas is also greatly hamstrung by his budget, which looks to have been miniscule. There’s one animated ad that’s embarrassingly rudimentary and ought to have been scrapped, and the awful acting gets a bit grating after a while.

“We both niggers now, Mr. President!”

Even his ideas fall a bit short now and then, especially his alternate-history speculation. Would a few foreign divisions really have been enough to turn the Civil War’s tide for the South? How was Hitler defeated without American involvement? Why would the expansionist and belligerent C.S.A., capable of conquering all of South America, wait until the 1950s to clash openly with Canada, and then only launch a few retaliatory air strikes? How much of the unprecedented growth of the States in the century after the Civil War could really have been accomplished when saddled by a system of such evident economic inefficiency as slavery? We’re left with questions, questions, and more questions.

But that Willmott has us asking questions about racial issues in a country that works very hard to ignore them is ultimately more to his credit than to his detriment. C.S.A. is a crude film in both technical execution and, often, in ideological terms, but it’s also fearless about presenting a harsh view of the darker side of Lost Cause romanticism. As if, the film tells us without any qualms, there could be any other sort of view.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Lovely Bones

June 4, 2011 2 comments

The Lovely Bones (2009; Directed by Peter Jackson)

Once, several years before he turned New Zealand into Middle Earth and became one of Hollywood’s highest-paid blockbuster directors, Peter Jackson (with an ample assist from life partner and co-writer Fran Walsh) made a lovely, haunting, critically-beloved film about teenaged girls and murder in suburbia called Heavenly Creatures. It still stands out from his other mostly thrill-based genre works as powerful undeniable proof that for all his fanboy excess and technical focus, Jackson was not just a filmmaker but an artist, too.

Heaven sure looks like Rohan...

Therefore, when it was announced that Jackson and his Wingnut Films team would follow The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the King Kong remake with an adaptation of Alice Sebold’s much-debated novel The Lovely Bones, I was intrigued, as many were. I hadn’t read Sebold’s book, but its obvious themes echoed those of Jackson’s first small masterpiece, and his choice for the murdered narrator Susie Salmon, young Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, was a strong analogue for a powerful young Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures. This, I thought, could be interesting, and could tell us if Jackson had come through a decade of massive-budget film production with any sort of auteurial vision intact.

Although it’s hardly the fall-down directorial disaster that Roger Ebert found it to be, The Lovely Bones is all the more disappointing for the artistic hopes that accompany it. This is a film that can’t sustain a tone, decide on a mood, or bother with a real argument about a contentious subject. It has a skewed moral sense that ricochets from soft-focus prettiness to ugly vindictive justice, as if on a dime. It is very well-acted and often visually impressive but also silly, glib, and inert. It doesn’t work as a whole, which Jackson’s other films, whatever specific criticisms you could level at them, invariably did.

Ronan, her build slight and her eyes wide (and blue; PJ and DP Andrew Lesnie really love to light up those blue eyes), anchors and vivifies the early part of the film, playing a teen girl who feels both real and also like a metaphor of complex innocence. But after she’s killed and finds herself in a seemingly-limitless CG heaven that expands and crumbles along with her emotional swings like a biospheric mood-ring, her energy is lost in spectacle and symbols. Jackson and his co-writers Walsh and Philippa Boyens deploy so many homey symbols (a lighthouse, a gazebo, ships in bottles, a bracelet charm in the shape of a house, Susie’s murderer’s doll houses) that they overwhelm each other, cancel out whatever meaning they’re supposed to convey. While Jackson’s unswerving belief in the imaginative power of computer effects lead to dizzying heights in his blockbusters, in a smaller drama like this, it fails him and hobbles his film.

It’s hardly the only crippling factor, though; The Lovely Bones is full of things that inspire glances of derisive disbelief. The attempts at humour are pitched way off: Susie’s adolescent play-acting in her private heaven with another cute murdered girl doesn’t fit with anything, and another goofy montage of her grandmother, a smoking, drinking, big-’70s-haired Susan Sarandon, is laughable in all the wrong ways. Susie’s father (played with understated passion by Mark Wahlberg) is saddled with a determined-daddy subplot, and her shattered mother (Rachel Weisz, also understated but not up to her usual high standards here) is predictably wracked with grief. Susie’s putative boyfriend Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie) seems only briefly bothered by her death (as a teen boy probably would be), and the way they get their post-mortem first kiss is supposed to be spiritual but is, in fact, nonsense. As believable as Jackson’s veteran actors make their characters’ grief seem, the film doesn’t haven’t much interesting to say about it. Jackson has to rely on symbols like a guttering candle to represent Susie’s passing because either Sebold or the screenplay that adapts her words provides little of consequence to give the mystery of death any sort of poetic depth.


If you build it, she will come...

The Lovely Bones is not all bad. Even if the CGI heavens can be corny, there are some lovely images deployed (ships in bottles smashing on a beach, an infinite cornfield morphing into a swamp, the gazebo in the midst of a lake, etc.). Stanley Tucci’s creepy serial killer Mr. Harvey won a deserved Oscar nomination, too. He’s twisted in predictable ways, with his unhealthy interest in children and bachelor meticulousness, but he always suggests unseen perversions, too; there are doors in this man’s dark corridors that shall forever remain closed. Harvey’s a hateful villain, for sure, but the graphic violence of his demise (driven, according to Jackson, by audience feedback in previews, never a good gauge for artistic expression) feels like something out of a more uncompromising and mean-spirited film (as well as looking far too much like the computer-faked moment it was).

The two suspense scenes involving Harvey’s implied threat to Susie (in an hand-dug underground clubhouse) and her older sister (who has snuck into his house to find proof of his crimes) are probably the film’s best, as Jackson is able to give himself up to genre-film abandon, tightening the screws on the audience until the tension is almost unbearable. Still, his success in these moments only serves to throw his failure in the more difficult business of making art into sharper relief. The Lovely Bones could have served as evidence that the nuanced filmmaker who crafted Heavenly Creatures had not been lost in the complex logistical machinations of a decade of blockbuster productions. Instead, it serves as undeniable proof that Peter Jackson still remembers that filmmaker but can no longer summon him at will. Little wonder that he’s elected to return to Middle Earth for The Hobbit films, then; he can’t really portray reality with conviction anymore, so he might as well go back to fantasy.

Categories: Film, Reviews

PopMatters Review: The Airborne Toxic Event – All At Once

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.

The Airborne Toxic Event – All At Once



Categories: Music, Reviews

Film Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011; Directed by Rob Marshall)

So, lovely, what's with the Pilgrim hat? Off to a witch-burning, are we?

The first thing to say about the fourth film in Disney’s and Jerry Bruckheimer’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is that its subtitle is rather misleading. These tides are no stranger than those of the previous films; indeed, they are far less so. Although the earlier Pirates sequels were both hugely successful commercial blockbusters, the maximal scope and ludicrous, nigh-operatic visual ambition of director Gore Verbinski’s creations became numbing by the time our pirate heroes reached World’s End. So much frantic CG spectacle desensitized audiences, taking them away from the macabre charms of the skeletal-pirate effects of The Curse of the Black Pearl and greatly diluted what audiences responded to most about that film: its irreverent, genre-busting wit and, of course, Johnny Depp’s sashaying trickster, Captain Jack Sparrow.

Still, Verbinski’s mad-scientist approach is almost missed at times in On Stranger Tides, a perfectly entertaining but vaguely workmanlike piece from Rob Marshall, the Broadway-first director who made Chicago and Nine. Marshall always has the camera in the right place, sure enough, but there is a dearth of imaginative leaps of fantastic imagery; nothing here reaches the surreal heights of the Davy Jones’ locker sequence in the last film of the original trilogy.

Additionally, the supernatural mythology of the earlier films, which could become baroque in its unexplained elaboration, is dialed down considerably this time, reduced to sideshows like a ship-controlling sword, hulking “zombiefied” officers, some sea-harpy mermaids, and full-sized ships magically imprisoned in bottles. The returning cast members are also reduced to just three (or four if you count another Keith Richards cameo): Depp, obviously (without whom, etc., etc.), Kevin McNally’s stalwart sidekick Gibbs, and Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa, who still makes the screenplay’s grimy/lucid piratespeak sing like no one else can. Rush’s interactions with Depp sparkle with a little extra brightness, for whatever reason; more even than Orlando Bloom’s dull and reedy Will Turner, Barbossa was the unpredictable Sparrow’s unshakable foil, and we’re again reminded why.

The new cast members are revealed in the midst of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio’s forking plot, which has also reduced the confusing byzantine network of double-crosses and scene-changes that characterized the previous excessive sequels. As promised at the end of At World’s End, Sparrow is hell-bent on the trail of the Fountain of Youth, which also greatly interests two of the great European empires, England and Spain, as well as various piratical ne’er-do-wells. Snatched up by royal redcoats and tasked by King George II (a hilarious, over-the-top small role for Richard Griffiths) to guide a British expedition to find the Fountain, Sparrow seems more intrigued by the royal desserts than royal decrees, especially when his rival Barbossa (who has lost the Black Pearl in mysterious circumstances) turns up with a wooden leg and a foppish powder wig to lead the King’s quest. Sparrow, in his characteristically improvisational fashion, escapes the palace and the redcoats in a wonderfully silly Buster-Keaton-esque chase sequence which features another great cameo that I wouldn’t dream of ruining for you.

Eventually, through convolutions that aren’t terribly simple nor strictly important to summarize, Sparrow finds himself throwing in with a former jilted Spanish lover of his (Penelope Cruz in her enigmatically-awkward English-language mode), who may or may not also be the daughter of the feared pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane, who has a great entrance but mostly plays catch-up after that). It’s been prophecized (boo on prophecies!) that Blackbeard is to be killed soon by a one-legged man (guess who), so he needs the Fountain of Youth to survive. Sparrow’s reasons for finding it are (and remain) unexplained, and the Spanish have a very Catholic motivation for tracking it down, it turns out.

To the Orpheum, my good man. 'Tis nearly curtain time!

Though the plot does hold together a mite better than in many movies of this type, it’s still mostly an excuse for the big action set-pieces. Besides the carriage-centric London chase, there’s also an pleased-to-meet-ya swordfight between Sparrow and Cruz’s Angelica, who’s disguised as Sparrow (after an obvious Marx Brothers mirror bit reference, it turns into a near-carbon copy of the first duel between Depp and Bloom in The Black Pearl). A nighttime mermaid-hunting outing in a rocky cove later on (a mermaid tear is required for the obscure life-giving ritual at the Fountain of Youth) conjures up some of the creepy thrills that we should expect from this series at its best, even if it leads to an superfluous love-and-forgiveness subplot between the captured mermaid (moon-eyed Spanish/French actress Astrid Berges-Frisbey) and a hunky dullard of a missionary (Sam Claflin). There’s some more battling and such during the climax at the Fountain (the set is a near-dead-ringer for the treasure hoard that is the setting for the final battle in The Black Pearl), and a final cup-sipping decision between Sparrow, Angelica, and Blackbeard that simultaneously rips off the battle of wits between Westley and Vizzini in The Princes Bride and the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

For all of its half-cooked subplots and echoes of both its own history and that of its genre, On Stranger Tides does feature its share of fleeting delights. Depp’s Cap’n Jack can’t really surprise anybody anymore, but he remains an inspired creation by an actor who has long privileged oddball physicality in his characters. I could spend a happy-enough two hours just watching Depp bob his head like a demented bird, twist his ringed fingers as he speaks, or run with a combination of franticness and prissiness. Rush is also enjoyable, McShane has his moments, and the underrated Stephen Graham provides comic relief with his patented compact proletarian clowning.

But as I said, Marshall’s vision is a simpler one than Verbinski’s, mostly relying on his production design team to make things look good (and they dutifully do) and eschewing the ludicrous leaps into epic fancy that characterized the first three Pirates films. This, combined with the innumerable borrowings and homages to The Curse of the Black Pearl and other films, leads to a strong enough but distinctly uninspired result.

Categories: Film, Reviews