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Film Review: The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker (2008; Directed by Kathryn Bigelow)

Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning thumbscrewer doesn’t necessarily have any radically new or fascinating insights into the physical and psychological toll of warfare, but her masterful control of tension and visual space makes The Hurt Locker a notable entry into the burgeoning Iraq War genre.

This is not good.

Focusing on a three-man Army bomb squad in the final month-and-a-half of their tour, Bigelow’s film (from Mark Boal’s taut script) is prefaced with a heavy-handed pronouncement: war is a drug. We are not for one moment allowed to lose sight of the clear adrenaline rush that Sergeant William James (more on this character’s conspicuous name in a moment) gets from his high-risk work investigating and defusing bombs. Jeremy Renner’s Will James oozes cocky machismo and sucks on quasi-post-coital cigarettes after each mission, but even this embodiment of American masculine swagger can’t shake the demons of war for long. The soldier’s inability to adjust to civilian family life has been a war movie cliche since the post-WWII The Best Years of Our Lives, if not longer, and Boal and Bigelow trot out the well-worn trope with little concern for its expiry date.

But The Hurt Locker is not about reinventing the brain of the war movie; it’s about giving it a lean, muscular, well-proportioned form. Bigelow indulges in flashy but undoubtedly poetic slo-mo shots of dust rising and settling after a blast, brief, zen-like snapshots of environments shattered by man. The various extended combat sequences are the true directorly tours-de-force, however, though they might more properly be called anticipation of combat. Bigelow keenly establishes the geography of her settings with initial sweeps and cuts (Jordan poses for war-torn Iraq, helped along by the casting of actual Iraqi refugees), so that when action begins to ratchet into motion, the audience knows precisely how close to deadly peril everyone stands. The superlative adjectives have been overstrained already on this film, but one still holds true: riveting.

Although a bit more displayed awareness for the film’s place in the war movie canon might have been preferable (an Iraq film with cultural knowing of Jarhead and the action set pieces of The Hurt Locker would be a formidable beast indeed), the lead character’s name hints at a veiled resonance embedded in Bigelow and Boal’s work. William James was, of course, one of the great minds of early psychology, and the founder and leading proponent of functional psychology.

Red wire or blue wire?

This school of psychology emphasizes the human mind’s active, ongoing adaptation to external environmental stimuli, precisely the sort of stimuli that cannot be replicated in controlled experiments. In a like mind to his famed namesake, Sergeant James has little patience for official attempts to tame the rabid monster that is war, and believes it needs to be confronted on its own terms, in its putrid, bone-strewn lair. He is repeatedly called a “wild man” by his more professional peers, but James feels instinctively that war itself is wild, and that any attempt to approach it as anything else is counter-intuitive. What he is, he only really is in the theater of war; his behaviour is his identity, and his identity is tied to war. Civilian life cannot engage him, for its adaptations are too proscribed, not active or extreme enough. Inscribed in Boal’s naming of the character, then, is a fixed psychological standpoint, in the academic sense, a clever nod to the film’s deeper possibilities.

Still, as entertainingly-staged as The Hurt Locker is, it has its weaknesses. It loses its momentum as the second hour winds on, and the various big-name actors in minor roles prove more distracting than anything else. Furthermore, those not of a mind to agree with my William James-functional psychology leap might find it lacking in intellectual heft and too invested in narratives of masculinity. But when Bigelow tightens the vice on us (and she does so often), such concerns are moot, and the edges of our seats bear our weight.

Categories: Film, Reviews

PopMatters Review: Paul Dempsey – Everything is True

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.

Paul Dempsey – Everything is True

Categories: Music, Reviews

Film Review: Super 8

July 12, 2011 1 comment

Super 8 (2011; Directed by JJ Abrams)

JJ Abrams may not be much of a film artist, but as an alchemist of entertainment, he’s practically unmatched right now. Even if there’s next to nothing about his productions that even resembles genuine groundbreaking originality, he makes films with verve, excitement and wit that recycle the cream of the pop cultural crop of the last three or four decades at a dizzying rate.

See, guys? This is why my parents won't let me turn on the stove!

I haven’t seen much of Alias and also missed his Mission: Impossible flick, but have been assured that both reordered the myths of the spy thriller genre with deceptive cleverness. Although the reins of Lost were mostly in other hands more interested in problems of moral philosophy than the fanboy Abrams, its humour, convoluted mysteries, and consistent intrigues carried his signature. His crackerjack reboot of Star Trek of two summers ago may have been the most gleeful, purely Abramsian thing he threw together yet, even if it was more flippant Star Wars cool than nerdy Star Trek insularity.

For sheer Abrams-ness, though, Super 8 takes the cake, the party favours, and the lion’s share of the punch while it’s at it. That it was painstakingly constructed in the media and the public eye as his most “personal” film (more for recalling youthful filmmaking than, you know, that whole alien monster angle) perhaps doesn’t hurt this impression. That the film itself is also a painstakingly constructed homage to vintage Steven Spielberg should hurt that impression, but oddly doesn’t. Spielberg’s own involvement as a producer and fellow story-crafter may have something to do with this, but this just deepens the meta-reflexivity already readily apparent. Super 8 is a reminiscence of real-world youth that melds so thoroughly with common filmic memories that any tenuous line between the two becomes erased. As if it had any right to divide them in the first place anyway.

The story is a surprisingly engaging one, considering it’s most stolen and re-adapted from much more beloved films, many of them made by Senor Spielbergo himself. It’s 1979 in small-town Lillian, Ohio (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and a sensitive, creative pre-teen boy named Joe (Joel Courtney) has just lost his mother to a factory accident (elegantly communicated through the manual reset of an “Accident-Free Days” sign). His dad (Kyle Chandler) is an uncommunicative man’s man who also happens to be a sheriff’s deputy (Jaws again). He wants Joe to bugger off to baseball camp (The Sandlot? Not quite) so he doesn’t have to deal with the boy all summer, but this possibility disappears without the slightest trace. Instead, Joe and his gang of misfit buddies (Stand By Me) labour away their summer hours on a Super 8 zombie movie (Night of the Walking Dead, etc.), lead by the invariably bossy and demanding director Charles (played by Riley Griffiths, and probably a proxy for Abrams).

When Charles has his Merian Cooper moment and decides that he needs a love interest to grant some added sympathy to his detective protagonist, he, of course, asks the prettiest girl in his orbit, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), to play the wife role. She turns out to be a natural stunner as an actress, which must surely have something to do with her using her troubled home life with her alcoholic dad (Ron Eldard) as motivation. As the ragtag production team (lovestruck Joe in particular) gawks at her riveting performance (one of many unexpected great moments in this film), a train thunders by the isolated station they’ve chosen as a location, only to be suddenly and spectacularly derailed by a pick-up truck on the tracks (The Fugitive). After a five-alarm crash of smashing, careening, exploding train cars that grinds on for eons (one is reminded of the endless tumbling brontosaurs in Peter Jackson’s King Kong), the boys (and girl) discover that the truck was driven by their science teacher (Glynn Turman) and that the train belonged to the Air Force and carried some top-secret shit, indeed. They speed off just ahead of the arriving military authorities (E.T.), scared totally shitless and vowing not to say a word about what they’ve seen.

Sure, it's beautiful, but your town is still pretty fucked up, isn't it?

As they continue their film and have various hushed conversations concerning that which they pledged not to have hushed conversations about, weird things predictably start to happen. All of the town’s dogs run off, only to be found counties away. The power flickers on and off constantly and electronics start to disappear (The Day The Earth Stood Still). People start to vanish, including the sheriff and a gas station attendant in a sequence of terrific suspense (Invasion of the Body Snatchers). The Air Force jerks, especially Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich), stymie Joe’s cop dad in his quest for information (Jaws again), and at least one alarmed housewife blames the Soviets for the whole damned mess (Red Dawn). Meanwhile, the antipathy between Joe and Alice’s dads keeps them apart, the mystery deepens, things get weirder and more serious, the town evacuates, a stoner helps them out, war zone, freaky alien, so forth and etcetera.

No Abrams devotee can be surprised that the enigmatic mysteries at the plot’s core either go unresolved (we never do find out what the deal was with the dogs, for example) or are resolved pretty much exactly as you expect them to be. There’s also lots of perfectly natural acting but not much very good acting besides Alice’s aforementioned scene. The kids are all gloriously unaffected, Emmerich is nasty but dull, Eldard is heartfelt, and Chandler is stuck with the square-jawed American hero role that he tends to do a better job at upending than merely aping. The suspense, action, and spectacle scenes are very well orchestrated, if not too unique; in addition to the gas station sequence, there’s an attack on a military prison bus that echoes The Lost World, and a climax of overdone wonder that is such a direct rip-off of Close Encounters, down to Michael Giacchino’s surging score of John Williams-level unsubtlety, that surely Spielberg must have skipped the set that day to avoid become nauseous from the overdose of flattery.

What works best, however, is the simpler stuff, the interactions of the young friends as they deal with the challenges of their silly little movie (which we see over the end credits, and is giddy and goofy in the best no-budget home filmmaking way), their parents, their feelings, and their relationship to each other. Oh, and also with the dangerous unseen monster on the loose, and the full force of the military-industrial complex. Just another summertime buddy flick, in that way.

JJ Abrams, as always, pays full homage to his influences and layers as many genre standbys as he can overtop of those influences, but his humanity never gets lost in the meta-glut. For all of the cleverness and epic scope at play here, there’s a genuine core of joy and delight at the possibilities of film and the headiness of youth at the centre of Super 8, and that can overcome any number of monsters, mysteries, and explosions.

Categories: Film, Reviews

PopMatters Review: Sam Roberts Band – Collider

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.

Sam Roberts Band – Collider

Collider


Categories: Music, Reviews

Krautrock, the Rural Alberta Advantage, and the Musical Politics of Location

July 9, 2011 1 comment

I dedicated an hour to the above, Ben Whalley’s BBC Four documentary on the development, spread and influence of the West Germany popular music strangely dubbed “krautrock”, the other night. It got me thinking, as most things do. Thinking about the politics of location in music, that fraught and nebulous practice of representing the metaphoric nature of a certain place at a certain moment in time in sonic terms.

West German musicians of the ’60s and ’70s faced steep obstacles in their efforts to craft a new Teutonic sound, inhabiting, as they did, a nation split down the middle that was still haunted by having orchestrated both the most terrible war and most infamous genocide in human history a mere two or three decades before. Located on the literal front lines of the Cold War (especially in West Berlin), disconnected from any allowable expressions of nationalism and with a generational gap intensified by the complicity of their parents in the Third Reich, it should be no surprise that the dominant musical mode in the West German cultural underground was one of extreme experimentation.

In nations with a milder, relatively less drastic recent social history like England and America, the volume, attitude, and fashion of rock and roll was enough of an inversion of their culture’s existing values to satisfy rebellious tendencies. In West Germany, with a Communist sattelite state next door, former Nazis teaching in schools and running hospitals, and former concentration camps just off the autobahn, such a pose seemed insufficient for a generation seeking a radical break from the legacy of the last half-century. Post-war and post-reunification Germany’s sharp turn into social democracy and galloping liberality was pre-conditioned by its dark journey into the blackest fantasies of the extreme right. It’s worth remembering that there’s a reason that Germany has elected Andrea Merkel and banned nuclear power rather than dabbling in the crackpot right-wing schemes that infect the American political landscape. Perhaps the United States requires a similar authoritarian cataclysm to turn its back irrevocably on dangerous conservative demagoguery, though I hope not, because such happenings are rarely bloodless affairs.

But my point stands: some power chords and punkish sneering was hardly enough to rebuild a musical legacy for Germany. I admit to scoffing at the ridiculous art-fuckery of the Krautrock principals shown in the documentary, but I also acknowledge its veracity and even its inevitability. When every conceivable instrument of your country’s modernity has so recently been hijacked by utter and complete evil, what choice do you have but to build new foundations? Even if that means recording electronic operettas in 16th-century Bavarian country houses, singing into cement mixers, or turning yourself into human robots? If that’s what needs to be done to forge a new cultural identity, then so be it.

The question that follows irresistibly upon this statement is, “What is so fundamentally German about experimental electronic music, though?” And it’s a good one. Kraftwerk, certainly, had a larger social critique in mind with their performance-arty re-contextualization of the efficient industrial artifice so identified with 20th-century Germany, while some of the lesser known krautrock movement acts sought to recapture the natural heritage of the German countryside through ambient soundscapes. But what makes it so German, to my mind, is its very uncompromising extremity. When Germany was bad, it was as bad as anything could be, so when it comes to artsy musical pretension, it should be no surprise that they also went full bore.

The documentary’s coda, however, briefly detailing Brian Eno and David Bowie’s carpetbagging aesthetic appropriation of the new Germanic minimalism for the latter’s seminal indie-rock Rosetta Stones Low and ‘Heroes’, suggests that the musical politics of location are more fluid than we’d like to think. Bowie, of course, was ever a chameleon anyway, but what was a specific trait that encouraged his artistic explorations has now been enfolded into the mass melting pot that is the worldwide “alternative” culture. Even Bowie’s then-revolutionary descent into isolated Berlin became a mere artistic travel destination to grant currency and edginess a decade and a half later, when U2, the world’s biggest band, made Achtung Baby in Berlin with Eno to both rejuvenate and fatally over-inflate their public profile.

HometownsThese thoughts seemed to dovetail with my recent decision to give indie critical darlings the Rural Alberta Advantage another belated opportunity to impress me. I gave them a brief chance a few years ago, before they released their full-length debut Hometowns and Pitchfork told all of the cool kids that it was okay to like it. My feeling at the time was that although Toronto-based Alberta ex-pat Nils Edenloff’s songs made overt attempts to address the experience of the Prairies, referencing the Frank Slide, the 1987 Edmonton Tornado, and bad drivers on Lethbridge-area highways, they did so in the context of standard-issue, trend-chasing indie rock tropes that had more to do with insular, entitled Toronto hipsterdom than any sort of “authentic” Albertan social reality. The intent was all in the right place, but the chosen vernacular was all wrong. Being Albertan became more of an attention-grabbing gimmick for the band than an essential part of their aesthetic vision, and that turned me off.

My revisiting of the band has mostly confirmed this original impression. For my money, artists like the Wheat Pool and Corb Lund display a more honest and appropriate approach to the big-sky sadness and rural dysfunction that characterizes my home province. That both bands embrace considerable elements of country music, Alberta’s real dominant musical culture, probably increases this impression in my mind. But straight country is profoundly unhip in the urban subculture that spawned the Rural Alberta Advantage, unless it’s highly filtered through the indie wringer.

“Edmonton” was maybe the only RAA song that overcame the group’s lamentable weakness for poses that please their metropolitan scene fellows (in whatever metropolis they find themselves in) above all. The titular invocation of the only city that ever felt like home to me certainly helps its case, I admit. But then messy, hopeful Edmonton, with its echoes of the displaced rural working class and irruptions of educated bohemianism, has a fleeting romance and poeticism that Alberta’s economic and ideological engine, Calgary, distinctly lacks, and Edenloff gets that in this song. Maybe it’s simply tribal allegiance that has convinced me that Edmonton is the ephemeral art to Calgary’s vigorous commerce, but I don’t really think so. And even if it has skewed my view, is not activating buried tribal loyalties central to evoking the romance of any specific place and time? Is that fundamentally different from what krautrockers were doing in ’60s and ’70s West Germany, or do both plants grow from a very similar seed? I suspect the latter.

Categories: Culture, Music, Politics

Film Review: For Your Consideration

For Your Consideration (2006; Directed by Christopher Guest)

The films of Christopher Guest have always honed in with absurdist precision on the clueless and wacky denizens of various all-American subcultures, but what has defined those films as unique and gave them their comedic verve was their very specificity. Who could have ever conceived that mockumentaries about white-bred folk music or dog shows could be so painfully funny? Even community theatre, so often lampooned in the subplots of indie comedies, has had no fuller satirical dismemberment than in Waiting for Guffman. Although Guest’s films benefit most from the improvisational leeway given to so many experienced comedic talents, what holds them together is their immersion in the odd and insular subcultures of their creators’ choice.

You know what they say about a family that Purims together...

This, to my mind at least, is the main reason why For Your Consideration is a failure. Sure, Hollywood (and specifically the indie prestige flick industry focused on here) is the biggest, oddest, and most ridiculously insular subculture in America. It is, without a doubt, ripe for satire. And it has been satirized in dozens if not hundreds of films already, not because it’s a rich subject necessarily, but probably because Hollywood is not only insular but self-obsessed. Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy ably attempt to come at the subject from a new angle, but quite simply miss any unique targets.

The Hollywood qualities being satirized are by now so familiar to savvy audiences that they can be ticked off of a list. The pretentious faux-artistry of actors. The blustering thoughtlessness of directors. The clueless producers and the capitalist cynicism of suit-clad studio execs. The eternally-wronged writers. The hapless agents and the smarmy publicists snatching at brass rings of authenticity. The nauseous superficiality of the entertainment press. The obsession with youth and the reliance on plastic surgery to achieve a simulacra of it. It’s all here and it’s all been done before, in one way or another. Which, perhaps, would be fine, if it were done with unique charm or peculiar humour here, but it rarely is.

Not only does the comedy fall short, but Guest and his collaborators provide us with no hooks on which to hang our empathy, as was done in previous films (especially in A Mighty Wind with Levy and Catherine O’Hara’s characters). Although O’Hara gives it her all in a somewhat critically-praised performance, even her character is put through the mockery ringer pretty irrevocably by the end. Every character in this film is to be laughed at, sneered at, and maybe only briefly pitied. None of them, really, are people.

Some of them, of course, are caricatures that manage the occasional laugh. Jennifer Coolidge plays a version of her characters from previous Guest efforts (especially Best in Show), but nails the mix of privilege and dimbulbery once again. Fred Willard, always an out-there highlight in these movies, has even crazier hair than in A Mighty Wind (a faux-hawk, and later on a strange bleached-blond curl poking from the front of a reversed ballcap) and certainly dials up the wacky, although Jane Lynch is given little to do as his entertainment news co-host. The cast of the movie-within-a-movie throw themselves into the cheesy melodramatic emotion of Home for Purim (which is scrubbed of its Jewishness to become Home for Thanksgiving, a move which is basically the history of Hollywood in microcosm) with aplomb, with O’Hara and Parker Posey going particularly broad and amusing.

Small pleasures aside, though, For Your Consideration takes a well-trodden path to its goals, and adds little that’s new or even terribly funny to the journey. Maybe that’s fine for some generic Hollywood comedy, but we’ve come to expect a bit more from Christopher Guest and his gang of collaborators.

Categories: Film, Reviews

The Triumph of the Will and Kate: Celebrity Culture and the Royals in Canada

July 2, 2011 4 comments

I say, is that an airborne moose, what what?

I hate to harsh on everyone’s post-Canada Day suddenly-revived-monarchist buzz, but… okay, that’s a lie. It is my completely purposeful intention to harsh on that very buzz. My small-r republican principles are not easily inflamed, but the whole of my dubious nation prostrate before the Throne cannot go without comment.

To wit, the fawning display for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on Parliament Hill in Ottawa was, if just benign enough to fall short of being disturbing, at least a teensy bit unnerving. Although the British Royal Family (are you supposed to capitalize it? I feel like I’m in a George R.R. Martin novel with all of these Ponderously Capitalized Titles) exercises less than zero actual power over the governing of its former North American colony, one can never discount the symbolic influence they continue to exercise as representatives of the decayed British Imperial order that granted this country its organizing principles.

That order, figurated as it was on white British supremacy, was directly responsible both for many of Canada’s most enduring institutions and most infamous imperialist abuses. It persists in the corridors of money and power while simultaneously possessing little or no paradigmatic ability when it comes to making sense of the multicultural, highly regional mosaic that constitutes this profoundly un-united nation-state. No wonder the Harper Conservatives, quietly fanatical opponents of every important national development that occured in the 1960s and ’70s, have embraced the opportunity to hitch their white supremacist political messaging wagon to such a suddenly-vigorous team of ponies. If you think a government minister openly and purposely referring to our national holiday as “Dominion Day” has nothing to do with this, then I’ve got a CPC membership and some “Will” and Kate commemorative coffee cups to sell you.

Of course, the sycophantic, starstruck reaction by ordinary Canucks to Windsors’ new golden couple may not have all that much to do with Stephen Harper’s devious masterplan to revert Canada to the Diefenbaker Era. It doesn’t even have absolutely everything to do with Canadians’ provincial sense of inferiority when compared to their former (technically, still current) colonial masters, though there surely must be a hint of that particular spice in the stew. Ultimately, the recent public-image renaissance of the British Royals here and elsewhere is nothing if not the natural result of the post-modern saturation-level culture of celebrity worship that Western capitalism pre-conditions.

Speak for yourself, you... sign.

After all, if even the merest, blandest Kardashian can become a “star” with their own endorsements and clothing lines and jewelry collections, then for what honest reason should the same spotlight of fame not be cast on a recumbent aristocrat and his marrying-up socialite wife? If pop singer Katy Perry can shut down the busiest intersection in the country to don a corny cat-suit and promote a perfume, then why not allow the second person in line to a purely vestigial European crown indirectly lecture his ex-empire’s putative colonists on the importance of continuing a morally and strategically questionable foreign war? If anything, the mixture of understated glamour and upper-crust gentility offered by the likes of the Duke and the Duchess contrasts favourably to the queasy all-American glitz of their gossip-rag contemporaries.

Beyond the vague concerns for notions of politics and nationalism that may are may not be salvagable in Canada’s case in any event, the rapturous reception for the couple whom Harper called “the world’s most famous newlyweds” (channeling the sycophantic tone of a certain son of a previous Conservative PM in the process) shows that their brand has some lasting power in the fickle public imagination. William and Catherine’s wedding was majestic romance purpose-built for TV, its combination of fairy-tale glamour and high-fashion elan marketed masterfully to the TLC/Slice middle-aged female demographic as well as to their more-easily-distracted daughters. The challenge for the royal couple from a PR perspective was maintaining the buzz, and what better way to do that than to take a victory lap amongst their easily-astonished colonial hordes in sleepy, forthright Canada? And my oh my, is it ever working. From here on in, it’s Will and Kate’s world, and we’re just blessed by their boundless feudal generosity in permitting us to live in it as well. That may inspire you and it may depress you, but it’s getting close to being undeniable at this point.