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Film Review: WALL-E

August 30, 2011 6 comments

WALL-E (2008; Directed by Andrew Stanton)

Pixar’s spectacularly crafted fable of the future may be the cutest dystopian cautionary tale ever created. A visual marvel, a model narrative mixing pathos, commentary, and humour with a bare minimum of actual dialogue, and lovingly-developed characters make WALL-E virtually unassailable on any technical level. It’s totally implausible to claim that this isn’t, properly speaking, a very good film.

Did you bring protection?

But then Pixar features, at their best, are always more than just well-made films-for-all-ages: they’re explorations of human nature and society through the glossy filter of anthropomorphism. Perhaps Brad Bird’s very successful films for the stable have pushed the output into more critically-analyzable directions, and WALL-E has far more in common with the prodding of the limits of democracy that The Incredibles and Ratatouille engaged in than with the entertaining but simpler Finding Nemo or Monsters, Inc. And yet WALL-E, for all its myriad delights, falls short of the boundless generosity of spirit that marked Bird’s triumphs.

After the heady mix of endearing silent-film romance and elegiac yearning in its first act, WALL-E catapults its titular plucky robot Chaplin into the depths of both space and pedantic liberal moralizing. WALL-E’s adventures on board the Axiom are certainly entertaining and beautifully paced, but it’s a curious world that director Andrew Stanton and his team give us there. The surviving humans are obese sedentary beings, pinned to screens dependent on patronizing corporate technology, and enslaved by thoughtless consumption, oblivious of the vagaries of real life just beyond them. WALL-E, EVE, and the other robots that serve them (my favourite is M-O, a fastidious cleaning bot who becomes an unlikely ally) are more human than the humans, or at least possessing more personality.

Wall-E is indeed constructed as the last steward of the faded human spark, a fussy, romantic archivist of mankind’s forgotten detritus. He works away his days building soaring towers out of junk, loves to watch snatches of Hello Dolly! in his free time, and locates the hidden poetry in sporks and cigarette lighters. He yearns to love, and falls for the sleek, businesslike EVE all to easily. WALL-E provides us with a robot who’s more recognizably a person than the flabby chair-bound hippos we encounter in the film and who triggers the latent humanity buried inside them without even meaning to. It’s a curious message, as beautifully-executed as it is.

So, ultimately, for all its gentle visual wit and endearing characters, WALL-E has more in common with leftist anti-corporate dystopian sci-fi critiques like The Matrix or Mike Judge’s Idiocracy than with other efforts from the Pixar studio. This is not a criticism exactly; an irresistible cartoon with a specific intellectual perspective on environmentalism and the culture of corporate consumption is hardly a lamentable thing. But its liberal commentary can slip into heavy-handedness here and there, betraying its mild, pleasing spirit at times. But that’s a minor mental quibble in the face of the overwhelming flood of delight that WALL-E unleashes, in the end.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Tropic Thunder

August 27, 2011 1 comment

Tropic Thunder (2008; Directed by Ben Stiller)

I don't care what they say, dude. Zoolander made ME laugh.

Ben Stiller’s sharp and wicked satirical comedy got a lot of press for its glib portrayal of Hollywood’s own glib treatment of minorities and the disabled and for its vicious takedowns of the arrogant excess of mainstream film “artists”. But its satire is hardly limited to the yearly circle-jerk of Oscar-baiting prestige pictures; it rips on the highbrow, the lowbrow, and the middlebrow products of Hollywood, on the crude power-hunger of execs, the pampered absorption of actors, the client-fellating smarm of agents, the corporate cross-promotion of hip-hop artists, and the willful, greed-driven doublethink that allows all of these loopy, contradictory factors to exist on the same plane without any issue being taken.

Tropic Thunder is, of course, also a pretty witty parody of Vietnam war films, with specific references to Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, and Apocalypse Now sprinkled throughout. And, yes, there is “Never go full retard.” But much of the film’s potent amusement stems from the density of its comedy, at once visual, verbal, and metaphorical.

A major factor in the way that the teetering-on-the-edge satire works so well is the commitment of the comic performances. Stiller mugs a bit much, but he’s at his best when playing willful dimbulbs with great inner reserves of what Will Ferrell calls “unearned confidence”, which he does here. Jack Black tries pretty hard, as always, and Jay Baruchel, Nick Nolte, and Steve Coogan all do solid enough work in essentially straight roles. But, of course, the film belongs to Robert Downey, Jr. and his mind-reeling meta-performance as an Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus (equal parts Russell Crowe and Daniel Day-Lewis) playing a jive-slinging African-American (who, in one amazing scene, pretends to be Chinese; the subtitles are a riot). He’s got the best lines, of course, but the entire performance is a backwards comment on itself and is thus hilarious throughout.

Great credit must be given, however, to Brandon T. Jackson as product-minded rapper-cum-actor Alpa Chino (har har), whose understandable outrage at the near-racist hubris of Kirk Lazarus’ method appropriation of blackness allows Downey to cleanly get away with some of his more outrageous choices. This is to say nothing of the damned funny scene in which Alpa confronts Lazarus with baiting Aussie jokes, sparking Downey’s mock-serious defenses of Crocodile Dundee as “a national treasure” and contrite sympathy with the lady who lost her baby to a dingo.

I can't even begin to sum up the many ways that this is disturbing...

Maybe the craziest performance in a movie full of them, however, belongs to a surprising Tom Cruise, who, as in Magnolia, is only ever especially good onscreen when he’s sending himself up, which he manages to do here. In spades. He’s a cursing, threatening lump of hirsute studio-exec machismo who dances to hip-hop with eerie precision and rules his corporate bubble like a bald Jewish Stalin. It’s an insane turn, and a clear attempt by Cruise to escape the persona that is becoming a burden to his career, if only for a scant few moments. As a result, it’s oddly not all that funny, more impressive as train-wreck performance art than as an actual comic character. Still, Cruise’s Les Grossman is very much the conduit for the soul of Tropic Thunder‘s caustic satire of Hollywood, the personification of its humourous angle: an outsized capitalist send-up of a world blissfully and gloriously out of touch with itself in every conceivable way. Fine grist for the comic mill, if you ask me.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Alexander Nevsky

August 25, 2011 1 comment

Alexander Nevsky (1938; Directed by Sergei Eisenstein)

Eisenstein’s seminal historical epic is, in many ways, the model for the vast majority of the epic films that have followed it. The climactic Battle of the Ice exerts the most obvious and easily-traced influence; it was directly referenced by Olivier and Welles for their onscreen Shakespearean battles, but the conventions it established continue to permeate Hollywood action epics to this day. Most prominent in recent years was Peter Jackson’s borrowing of Eisenstein’s effective battle-kickstart for his Lord of the Rings trilogy: inexorable build-up into a rolling charge over swelling, rousing music that cuts out as the battle is joined, replaced by the clanging symphony of clashing weapons. Eisenstein was fortunate enough to have Sergei Prokofiev score his indelible imagery, of course, although Howard Shore was no slouch for Jackson in that regard.

We shall make them PAY for jucing lemons on our helmets!

But, unfortunately, Alexander Nevsky also continues to exert considerable influence on historical epics in other less advantageous ways: the stiffness of its performances, the heroic emptiness of its heroes, and the ruthless vilification of its antagonists. It is, of course, impossible to ever forget that this is a Soviet propaganda film to its very socialist core. Nevsky is portrayed as a great hero, obviously, but also as a noble who fished with the proletariat and put great trust in the bravery and wisdom of his fellow “Russians” (the nationalism is rote, but also historically problematic).

Meanwhile, the Teutonic Knights that he so gloriously defeats are depicted as twisted, robotic zealots hellbent on Russia’s destruction. Encased in their slitted metal helmets, they’re treacherous, violent and cruel, but then, they are “Germans”, after all (more history issues, as most came from what is now Poland and the Baltic States). It’s all pretty damned pat, but then Eisenstein was always fully dedicated to using cinematic imagery to explicate ideology and made no bones whatsoever about it. Here he aims it at the USSR’s Nazi antagonists with little or no subtlety (which hurt his film a year after its release, when the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact made the Nazis not-so-much-antagonists, if only for a brief period). His imagery is undeniable potent, but for such a revered auteur, our comrade can treat his chosen art like quite the blunt instrument.

What’s most odd about watching the film is that one comes to the realization that the majority of Hollywood historical epics follow Eisenstein’s ideological path as well as his stylistic one. The heroes are virtuous and courageous, the villains are dehumanized monsters, stains on mankind’s tablecloth. The genre was forged in the fires of propaganda, and in many ways, it’s never really moved beyond that. For all of its considerable technical and artistic achievements, Alexander Nevsky is a constant reminder of this disappointing reality.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Good Night, Sweet Mustache

August 23, 2011 2 comments

And a flight of socialists sing thee to thy rest.

Passing away at the age of 61 after a long fight with cancer, longtime NDP leader Jack Layton leaves an enormous hole in left-wing Canadian politics that may not be properly filled in the foreseeable future. The closest thing to a charismatic leader in post-millenial Canadian federal politics, Layton dominated his party seemingly for ever, and the combination of his longevity, his passionate engagement, and his intimations of personal integrity (whatever that terms can actually mean in an inherently dissembling profession like politics) finally seemed to be winning over fickle voters in larger numbers in urban areas and Quebec in the past election. Even the stubborn rural and suburban voters who found the NDP’s message of social equality threatening to their apathetic personal comfort had to admit a begrudging respect for feisty Jack. Little wonder that his longest rival, Conservative PM Stephen Harper, felt it necessary to give the duly elected leader of the Official Opposition a state funeral.

Of course, Harper can well afford to be magnanimous. It was unclear to what extent an obviously ailing Layton could have held the feet of a Conservative majority to the fire on most issues in the coming Parliamentary sessions, but it’s a moot point now. With the sad departure of his most insistent gnat, Harper’s dominance of federal politics is now completely assured. All three opposition parties now have interim leaders, and the idea of Nycole Turmel leading the fight against Harperite legislation is not an inspiring one. Layton obviously read this situation well, his parting letter to Canadians doubling as a heartfelt farewell and a stirring call to political arms.

Of course, Layton need not have left such a gap behind him. Not meaning to rain on the commemorative parade, I do feel the need to acknowledge one less inspiring side of Layton’s illness and eventual passing. The many Canadian voters who rallied to his party’s cause, especially in Quebec, did so at least partly (perhaps even largely) on the strength of his personality and his passion. Maybe even a few who had previously dismissed him and his party’s proud social democratic values admired his tenacity on the campaign trail, fighting through what must have been terrible pain for what he believed. Still, I do wonder how many would have cast their ballot as they did if they knew how long feisty Jack had left, if they had known that the man they at least partly voted to represent them would not be able to do so. We don’t know the details of Layton’s cancer, and when it became clear that it was likely to be fatal, and certainly a full disclosure along those lines during the campaign may have been electorally disastrous. And maybe it was clear to many that he wasn’t likely to fight on for long. The timing was not on his side, but it rarely is with the big C.

At any rate, the outpouring of public grief and remembrance has been impressive for a figure whose actual stances were divisive at best. Doubts and complaints and negative feelings have a way of being erased by the looming shadow of death (just ask Michael Jackson’s rehabilitated legend). No matter what you thought of him (and I voted for his party on multiple occasions myself), Jack Layton was a man of conviction who was greatly dedicated to the ideals of public service. Here’s hoping the Canadian left can dig up another one like him before too long, because he will be missed in the long fight against Harperism.

Categories: Current Affairs, Politics

PopMatters Review: Locksley – Locksley

August 22, 2011 Leave a comment

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.

Locksley – Locksley

Categories: Music, Reviews

Film Review: Inception

August 19, 2011 6 comments

Inception (2010; Directed by Christopher Nolan)

Let me just say: I am pretty damned sure that top was starting to wobble.

Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of philosophical premises...

Let me follow up by saying that Christopher Nolan’s Inception is no absolute masterpiece. It is immaculately crafted from stealthily-snatched fragments of other (mostly better) movies, fragments that are then melted down and reforged to fit so snugly together that they may well appear like original creations to the fascinated eye.

Nolan is visionary enough to provide plenty to fascinate the eye, is clever enough to tease the audience with nested layers of narrative trickery, and is serious enough to inject moral and philosophical potions into the veins of his cinematic creations. But his imagery is more impressive than wondrous, he consistently builds in ponderous rules and expositional fail-safes to keep viewers from getting too confused (or from having to do any interpreting for themselves, heaven forbid), and still has little or no time for proper pacing. Even his vaunted intellectual heft boils down to undergraduate philosophy problems spewed woodenly by his actors in between fist fights, shootouts, and car chases.

What this all adds up to, in Inception as it was in the universally-overpraised The Dark Knight, is a masterful technical achievement which hints at deeper imaginative and ideological possibilities without ever coming near to diving into them, all while unleashing prodigious male power fantasies with its expert application of action-movie tropes. This may be damning the man with faint praise, but Nolan is unquestionably the preeminent lad-flick filmmaker working today. Inception, for all its flaws as a film that wants to be viewed as serious art, is often enough a superior, exciting, and reasonably intelligent action blockbuster. This is something that, in the oleaginous glut of the Hollywood summer season, is never to be taken for granted, even if it falls short of what its creator desires it to be.

This is not a film that was made to be summarized, and I won’t try to do so. I knew little beyond the basic premise (Leo DiCaprio and that dude from 3rd Rock enter your dreams to steal your shit!) and a few of the advertised images going in, and probably enjoyed the film more than I otherwise would have as a result. If you’re one of the few in the world who haven’t seen it yet, I won’t deny you the right to the same experience.

I will say, however, that it’s fairly likely you’ve seen most of this film already if you’ve ever seen a caper flick (Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films and Spielberg’s hyper-serious Munich came quickly to mind), any sort of corporate espionage thriller (the multiple exotic locales fly by one after the other, as do the bullets), any James Bond movie with a snowy alpine action sequence (this movie has one of those, and it’s quite silly), or The Matrix (the Wachowskis really ought to be claiming royalties on the grosses).

Next time, I'm staying at a Holiday Inn.

Nolan does give us some striking inversions of physics (a geometrically-rearranged Paris and a zero-grav fight in a hotel are the highlights), a potent buried symbol or ten, and a gruff tough-guy chuckle line here and there (though, as usual in Nolanarnia, nobody ever laughs). But he also gives his only two female characters pretentiously referential names and zero personality: Marion Cottilard’s sex appeal finds no outlet as the vaguely menacing Mal (French for “evil”, natch), and Ellen Page seems a little embarrassed whenever anyone calls her Ariadne, the mythic Greek damsel who solves the Minotaur’s labyrinth and is her clumsy namesake. Furthermore, he gets a little carelessly Orientalist with Ken Watanabe’s zillionaire Saito. And as finely-staged as so many of the action sequences are, one can only swallow so many guys in suits firing guns at our heroes before that gets a little stale.

For me, the film’s aforementioned tantalizing final image sums up its decidedly telegraphed effects. While it may have lead to some friendly debate over beers in the bar across from the theatre afterward, that closing shot reduces the concepts in the movie’s head to a sort of glass half-full/glass half-empty personal perspective question. It’s moral philosophy as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, as entertainment rather than as enlightenment. Nolan no doubt believes that he’s playing the trickster by leaving the conclusion to the audience’s own interpretation (for once!), and there’s really no other way that this man could have chosen to close this film. But even if I’m the only one who thinks so, I would much have preferred Nolan to take a pick and stick with it.

But that would be a different movie altogether. Would it be a better movie? Nolan’s besotted legions would likely disagree. They see him as a technical wizard with a prodigious artistic and intellectual vision and deep stores of appealing masculine potency, and Inception will further confirm that view in their minds. I understand where they’re coming from, but I see an infinitely more limited but still quite capable and talented filmmaker going to the oft-used well one more time. Harsher critics may argue that Nolan’s well is getting close to dry, but I’ll take his creations at what I feel to be their face value and hope that he locates a new, deeper well before it’s too late.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Conformity and Resistance: Thoughts on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World

August 17, 2011 6 comments

A constant counterpart and, generally speaking, poorer critical cousin to George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World has a tendency to be considered the other great dystopian novel of the first half of the 20th century. Much cheekier and more ironic and satirical than the deadly serious totalitarian future imagined by Orwell, Huxley’s vision of the world in A.D. 2540 (or 632 in the Year of Our Ford) springs from more cultural and scientific sources where Orwell’s was focused on politics and language. As such, Huxley’s vision now seems based on more dated social elements, and yet is also much nearer to fulfillment in the real world than Orwell’s bleak authoritarian nightmarescape.

Or, rather, a pessimist would consider it nearer to fulfillment (the dystopian novel being the definitive novel of pessimism). Although he was (in)famous in his later years for his dedication to mysticism and use of psychedelic drugs, the Huxley exposed by Brave New World is more of a pedantic, moralizing Old Etonian prude. He looks askance at the very measures of social progress that tend to be considered as indicative of liberty and choice and scrutinizes them as the tools of mass enslavement, even as he gives Britain’s legendarily rigid class system an even firmer biological basis. In this very prim, pent-up British way, he seems especially horrified by the concept of widespread sexual promiscuity, as well as the inevitability of its preeminence as the rise of birth control unmoors intercourse from reproduction. It isn’t difficult to imagine him making fuzzy, idealized arguments about the “sanctity” of marriage in our present time, on the basis of such a stance.

Despite these squeamish tendencies, Huxley’s is at least nominally the perspective of the proto-counter-cultural figure, hinted at through Bernard Marx and Hemholtz Watson, but only fully personified by John, the Savage, with his mix of soulful sentiment and mystical self-denial. The Savage (the moniker is Rousseau-vintage Romanticism at its purest and least reflective, as is the character himself) and his individuality is gawked at, mocked, and then eventually destroyed by the mass-produced, mass-conditioned world order of infantilized efficiency.

But Huxley subtly complicates and even sends up the stereotypical image of the brooding Byronic hero who opposes dehumanizing civilization. The Savage comes across as naïve, unfocused, and ineffectual, quoting Shakespeare at length not as a supplement to knowledge and wisdom but as a substitute for them. No wonder the smug, realistic Mustapha Mond wipes the floor with him when the Savage meets the Controller and they argue about the philosophical basis of the highly ordered and conditioned civilization (their impromptu debate is Huxley at his most ostentatiously pedantic, as Mond literally opens books and reads block quotes from thinkers to support his position and John tosses memorized lines from Othello back at him).

While Huxley demonstrates what he feels to be the inescapable automation of humanity as a consequence of industrialization and mass culture, his chosen culprit for this crime of mechanization marks him out as a man of his era. Like Orwell, Huxley was living and writing in an age marked by the rise of powerful, centralized, often authoritarian nation-states whose leaders imposed their ideas on their respective populaces (it’s no coincidence that Brave New World features characters named after Mussolini, Lenin, and Ataturk, after all), and it is therefore understandable that both forward-looking authors located their imagined oppression in the hands of a ultra-controlling central government. Putting aside the fever dreams of the Tea Party and their ilk, however, the true center of social and cultural hegemony in the past century or so has been corporate enterprise.

The ever-expanding power and influence of corporations on the hopes and desires of the masses was something that Orwell, with his laser-beam focus on state authoritarianism, did not fathom, at least not in the pages of his dystopian masterpiece. Huxley, for his part, grasped this aspect of the modern world a little better. This was perhaps owing to his greater level of contact with America, where he would later settle but, when writing Brave New World in the early 1930s, he found slightly horrifying in its acquisitive, amoral, hyper-capitalist excess. By turning assembly line pioneer Henry Ford into the future’s new deity, Huxley sketches a suggestion of the exorbitant influence that capitalist thinking has had on Western democracy’s conception of itself. His portrayal of music, radio, sport, and the movies as drug-laced mass stupefying agents both reflects and anticipates the cultural criticisms of academic Marxism and post-structuralism. There’s no doubt that Horkheimer, Adorno, and Neil Postman all must have been nodding knowingly while perusing Brave New World for the first time.

What Huxley gets most right in Brave New World is the helpless, rootless feeling of having one’s every decision controlled and pre-conditioned by a complex and unknowable system of inhuman immensity. Despite some of the dated technological elements (personal helicopters, much?) and its prudish sexual misapprehensions, the invocation of not only the defining post-modern malaise but also of the impossibility of resisting it makes Brave New World not only one of our finest dystopian novels, but one of our most penetrating philosophical satires as well. As emotionally and psychological untenable as the Fordian system is to the philosophic individual, resistance to it is similarly fraught. The chains are unbearable, but the idea of picking the locks with flowers or pens or paintbrushes is simply silly.

Unlike in, say, The Matrix or David Mitchell’s dystopian section of Cloud Atlas, Huxley does not suggest that the Controllers have inscribed resistance into the system, although Mustapha Mond seems hardly surprised when it presents itself (being a former resister himself who chose elitist enforcement of the soma-derived order over perpetual exile, Mond warily represents the unavoidable compromises stipulated by the system). If anything, Huxley gives us to believe that truth, art, and beauty, subjective as they are, have no absolute value as raw materials of industrial capitalism, and can be just as easily marshaled for domination as they can for liberty. A Romantic like the Savage can no more use art to free himself (let alone the masses) than he can use self-denial to escape the smothering sameness of the Fordian monoculture. In satirizing not only the dominators and the dominated but the self-styled free-spirited rebels as well, Huxley gives us a pessimistic vision of the future that is practically airtight, but also occasionally light as air.