Archive for October, 2011

Edmonton’s Downtown Arena and the Social Utility of Sports

October 30, 2011 2 comments

After years of debate, clashing public relations campaigns, and enough specious reasoning to fill, well, several sports stadia, Edmonton ‘s city council approved the massive, long-brewing $450 million deal to construct a new multi-purpose (but, really, hockey) arena in the city. Truly or falsely (and the latter is suspected, largely perpetrated by the relocation scaremongering of the Katz Group and the rest of the pro faction), the future of the Oilers franchise in Edmonton was tied to this deal, but not just that. The back-and-forth over the project has encompassed the city’s inherent anxieties about itself and about its self-worth, anxieties that are always mediated through the successes or failures of their copper-and-blue gladiators, about which more was said around these parts months ago.

Working Together to Turn Downtown into Coruscant

My interest is not in the civic self-esteem of a mid-level Canadian metropolis, but what this deal’s approval and a nearly concurrent denial of improvement funds tells us about the social priorities of government, business, and even the public at large. On the very same day that the arena project was approved by council, contingent on a further $100 million of funding from (likely) provincial and (less likely) federal levels of government that may or may not be forthcoming in these times of dubious fiscal belt-tightening, word leaked out that the Harper Government (as they’ve made it clear they prefer to be officially called) was withdrawing $92 million in funding for a potential new Royal Alberta Museum, also to be located along the north region of the downtown that is to be magically “revitalized” by another large building that is to be empty most of every day.

In the mathematical alignment of these figures lies a cold symmetry. The obvious corollary, and one fated to be immediately seized upon by liberal defenders of a culture-first variant of civic prestige, is that hockey (and sport) matters more to the people, to the government, and to the money men than museums (and cultural institutions) do. Putting aside both the liberal self-pity and utter forehead-slapping obviousness of such an observation (this is Canada, after all), it is both entirely true and entirely irrelevant.

I got this, bitches.

From the point of view of capital (and is there another one?), a new sports and events venue with maximized profit potential is entirely preferable to a historical and cultural institution. The prestige generated in highbrow circles by a world-class museum (which the current RAM is not quite and a new RAM is not guaranteed to be) is positively swamped by the pride and enthusiasm generated in both monied and proletarian circles by a successful sports team (although live sports attendance has by now passed well beyond the budgetary limits of the working class). Enthusiasm is much more easily converted to profit margins than prestige is, and it doesn’t take an economist to tell you that. The cultured may lament as they will, but capitalism leaves no space for distinctions of taste or aesthetics beyond the drive to profit. As a system, it is given little reason to do so.

Sports and culture need not be placed in opposition so often in this way, and indeed the new downtown arena will fulfill a cultural function as well (if a Nickelback concert can, in any way, be construed as “culture”). But what, if any, is the social function of Katz’s and the city’s new pleasure palace? There is some appeal to the concept of big-time pro sports, with its overt displays of athletic masculinity, as a release valve for the sublimated aggressions of an essentially non-martial society. But $450 million is a very large amount to spend on a simple release valve (no matter its capacity of flow), and that’s a drop in the bucket when the billions spent on professional sports across North America, Europe, and the wider world is taken into account. What’s the overall social function of this? I specialize in the big questions around here, but that one may be bigger than I’m willing to fathom.

Film Review: Voyna i Mir (War and Peace) (1967)

October 28, 2011 5 comments

Voyna i Mir (War and Peace) (1967; Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk)

Sergei Bondarchuk’s 7+-hour adaptation of the greatest novel ever written anywhere could only have been made in the Soviet Union in the ’60s. Hollywood never would have had the resources, nor the patience, nor the locations, nor the utterly excessive budget, nor the complete lack of moral scruples to pull it off.

I said, "Bow down", not "Lie down", peasant!

The film is, truly, the epic to end all epics. Its sets and costumes are more sumptuous than a hundred Merchant-Ivory period pieces. Its romance more bosom-heaving and tragic than Austen’s and Shakespeare’s oeuvres entire. Its spectacular, emotive battles feature as many bodies as any comparable wars in The Lord of the Rings (and that’s the Red Army, which wasn’t created entirely on a computer in suburban Wellington). To top it off, the fever-dream burning of Moscow makes the conflagration in Atlanta in Gone with the Wind look quaint and almost comic in comparison.

If Bondarchuk had merely recreated Tolstoy’s expansive scale and sweeping drama, well, that still would have been pretty darned impressive. But unlike King Vidor’s smoothed-over, Cliff Notes-style 1956 Hollywood version (starring a miscast Henry Fonda and an absurdly perfectly cast Audrey Hepburn), Bondarchuk’s film preserves and interprets Tolstoy’s myriad epiphanies, everyday joys, and poetic observations on human existence in lovely and moving visual moments. The endless sky at Austerlitz, Prince Andrei and the oak, Pierre and the comet, Pierre and his father’s hand. Anyone who knows the book understands that the battles and romantic intrigues are all well and good, but those moments when Tolstoy scratches at the sublime with his quill are what really make this novel the greatest ever written. And Bondarchuk is astute enough to let them make his movie, too.

Russia, man. What a dump.

Make his movie though they will, it must be said that it is not made perfectly. Even at this ridiculous and uncommercial running time, far too much is cut from Tolstoy’s narrative. Nikolai Rostov suffers particularly, and is never really accorded an equal position to the central triangle of Andrei, Natasha, and Pierre, even though I, for one, feel Tolstoy very much intended to place him in such a position. But then many of the subplots and even the main plots are not fully or even partially resolved, either. And though he has the good sense to include, almost verbatim, the wrenching final meeting between Old Prince Bolkonsky and his daughter Maria, he unforgivably omits the final words that the Prince shares with her, perhaps the most intimate, heartbreaking, and powerful in the novel.

But these are the mere nitpicks of a passionate fan of Tolstoy’s masterpiece. Which, admittedly, Bondarchuk’s astounding and overwhelming achievement comes closer to translating faithfully to screen than any other film ever has or ever will.


Categories: Film, Reviews

PopMatters Television Review – Whitechapel

October 26, 2011 1 comment

Note: I write regular album, DVD, television, and film 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 title below to go to the review.




Categories: Reviews, Television

Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto: Reconciling The Aesthetic With The Conceptual

October 24, 2011 1 comment

With today’s release of Mylo Xyloto, Coldplay is now five albums into their career and anywhere from two to four albums into their reign as the world’s biggest rock band (to whatever extent that phrase can be applied to anyone but U2, who hold themselves to be the world’s biggest band even when they are not). Their last album, the ponderously titled Viva La Vida, or Death and All His Friends, was a new angle for the band, swapping the humourless, grandiose hymns that were beginning to dominate their tracklists for miniature suites, shaded lyrics, and relative sonic adventurism.

For a band whose artistic output and perceived identity is inextricable from the contours of its commercial branding (and whose isn’t in pop music these days?), this aesthetic/advertising shift promised to provide strong long-term sales potential. Aligning their new songs with a vague history of political upheaval and fuzzy revolutionary ideals (that was Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People emblazoned like a street slogan on the album cover, after all) was a canny move in appealing to a Western culture increasingly desirous of a sudden evening of the socioeconomic odds while simultaneously uncertain (and, indeed, potentially terrified) of the methods such a change might necessarily entail.

This move into quasi-cerebral territory was Viva La Vida’s underappreciated innovation. Coldplay was now more than a guilty pleasure without the guilt, more than a mass-consumable comfort-food band, a soft fuzzy blanket thrown cosily around the shoulders of the world. They remained all of these things, but they were now also Artists with Ideas. Blame Chris Martin’s restless self-conception or producer Brian Eno’s aesthetic influence (or both), but for a band whose limitations were more exposed than ever on the widely-panned soft-focus X&Y, the sense of internal renewal was welcome and perhaps necessary.

But where Viva La Vida adjusted Martin’s saccharine platitudes into indelible neologisms and swaddled them in a shimmering coat-of-many-colours, preliminary hints of Mylo Xyloto indicated that the band was poised to overindulge on the ideas side of things while mostly reconstituting the aural tapestry of their last effort without weaving many fresh patterns. The album’s stated inspirations included as graffiti and street art, the White Rose movement, and The Wire, while that dreaded term “concept album” was most definitely uttered. Although I do not share my PopMatters colleague Evan Sawdey’s unenthusiastic assessment of the record, those early promises do prove true enough.

The initial singles set the tone presciently enough. “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” is a reworking of not only Peter Allen’s “I Go To Rio” (seriously, you need to watch that video, the guy is hilariously frantic) but of Viva La Vida’s high-water-mark “Lovers in Japan” as well, with its non-specific invocation of barricades (“from underneath the rubble / sing a rebel song”) and gauzy emotional imagery (“heaven is inside”). Still, it’s a cracking bit of agit-pop lite, and the restraint shown in holding back Will Champion’s thundering drum eruption until the song’s final quarter demonstrates some artistic growth, anyway. If following release “Paradise” had considerably less affect with its tasteful strings and by-the-numbers swaying melody, then there was still a whole dozen songs or so to look forward to, and such blandness could be a mere blip on the radar.

Come closer, we will spray you with art!

But the radar is awash with a squadron’s worth of blips. “Hurts Like Heaven” never quite coalesces into something more substantial than a series of attractive sounds, a common enough issue here. The Rihanna collaboration “Princess of China” has had the shit produced out of it, 8-bit gaming samples and all. “Us Against the World” is simply dull. Even a genuine highlight like “Charlie Brown” can’t sustain its power for its entirety, as the glowing epic guitar bursts manufactured by Jonny Buckland are let down by Martin’s uninspired contrasting refrain.

Part of the issue at hand is that dreaded “concept”, which evidently boils down to an amorphous narrative of star-crossed lovers resisting the freedom deprivations of a technocratic dystopian state. Such a theme requires Coldplay to face down a musical influence that they’ve been skirting around for so long that most everyone has forgotten about it by noe: namely, Radiohead. The sort of alienation and paranoia necessary to fully explore such a set of ideas proves difficult for Martin in particular to conjure into his lyrics, while the feeling of redemptive hope is all too easily produced. The former element is essential to Radiohead’s impact, but they can inject the latter into the gloomy landscape when it is least expected. Coldplay is simply too positive, too eager, too invested in the production of joy to manifest the atmosphere of distrust and discordance that their chosen metaphors demand from them (witness the poorly-pitched “Major Minus” for a perfect illustration of this).

This is not completely a criticism, really. Even a seasoned pessimist like yours truly acknowledges the need for hope and progress, or at least the productive illusion of those things, and Coldplay’s continuing cultural currency during a time of unprecedented decline in the youth-market popularity of rock music shows that there remains an appetite for the grand, generous gestures of affirmation passed down the generations from the hippie-er corners of the 1960s counter-culture.

Indeed, when the band briefly jettisons the artistic pretensions and just unleashes the pretty (check “Up in Flames”, as Mr. Sawdey suggests), there’s practically nobody who can touch them. But indulging purely in the pretty was what necessitated their last album’s brainy course-correction, after all. Viva La Vida’s fine balance of aesthetics and conceptual integrity was what made it something special in Coldplay’s lexicon, and it’s what Mylo Xyloto, for all of its gorgeous sonic elements and well-meaning ideas, just barely lacks. Maybe this is further evidence of the band’s artistic evolution, though: embracing the true artist’s ability to craft material of inconsistent quality. By all appearances, Coldplay has learned to fail sometimes, and they could be a better band in the long run because of it.

Categories: Culture, Music, Reviews

Film Review: District 9

October 22, 2011 1 comment

District 9 (2009; Directed by Neill Blomkamp)

If you cannot sign your name, we will accept a smear of slime on the document as well.

Keyed by gritty production design, a head-turning lead performance from an unknown lead actor, and a last act packed with action beats sure to send fanboys into uncontrollable spasms of glee, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is a strong, smart sci-fi allegory. That it jettisons sweeping sociopolitical conclusions for an entertaining shoot-em-up finale is perhaps intellectually unfortunate, but in the currently-moribund realm of big-screen science fiction of ideas, the film still comes across as striking, sharp, and blazingly original (if only relatively speaking).

The “apartheid with aliens” meme has by now passed from critic to critic with ease, but Blomkamp has pointed out that District 9 has more recent South African social realities in mind as well. The chaotic situation in neighbouring Zimbabwe has driven thousands of refugees into D9-style slums outside South African cities, and the reaction to them by both black and white South Africans is meant to be mirrored by the xenophobic revulsion felt towards the “prawns” in the film. In addition, the slightly cartoonishly nasty Nigerian gangsters are based on similar criminals who operate out of these slums in the real world. Indeed, if District 9 has a message worth taking away, it’s that the formerly oppressed can fairly easily be drafted into oppressing new Others; in fact, it’s very nearly a sign of social progress.

Oddly, the mockumentary style favoured by Blomkamp gives little indication of a gamut of opinions in his fictional South Africa towards the treatment of the prawns. Academic talking heads spout liberal assumptions, and there is a reference to human rights group protesting the forced eviction of the aliens (a bit ironic, really; are there no aliens rights groups?) that starts the narrative ball rolling. But South African society seems so disgusted by the prawns that they are happy to hand the reins over to a painfully obvious villain, a soulless multinational corporation unsubtly called Multinational United (MNU).

As an antagonist, MNU is utterly paint-by-the-numbers: bureaucratic, involved in arms dealing, rife with inhuman illegality. Its most morally-reprehensible decisions all seem to be made by old white men, an obvious reference to the historical sins of the Afrikaner ruling class. Still, in a canny but subtle move, we see in TV news clips that the CEO is black, though he seems to be mostly a figurehead as far as the handling of District 9 goes. It’s no stretch to see this as a sneaky comment on the tenuous political power of the ANC, or perhaps it is.

Human-Prawn Solidarity

Of course, MNU is only interested in alien weaponry and in horrid Nazi-esque medical experiments, the latter in particular a cliched marker of cautionary sci-fi. They also employ sadistic soldiers of fortune who “shoot first and then answer the questions”, as one character puts it. That our human protagonist is an awkward, preening, irritating bureaucrat who undergoes a harrowing transformation is perhaps no more original. But Sharlto Copley gives Wikus Van der Merwe (his last name is a standby in South African jokes about dull-witted everymen) a gradually-building, devastating humanity. Coming off like a bit player from The Office at first (and amusingly so), Copley suffers palpably before our very eyes, and is mesmerizing while doing so.

Ultimately, Wikus Van der Merwe is a truest conduit into whatever meaning Blomkamp wants us to take out of District 9, even when he’s sobbing through emotional cell phone calls from his distant, suffering wife. When the (admittedly thrilling) action takes over completely about halfway through, Blomkamp marks the transition by ceasing to even pretend that there is a real documentary camera present. But Copley grounds the proceedings even as he becomes a standard-issue selfless hero. He carries a film full of impressive techical accompishments and rousing action filmmaking with vast sociopolitical questions simmering beneath the surface. If Blomkamp’s impressive feature debut doesn’t tackle these questions as completely as it could, he deserves credit for asking for them in the first place, and for cannily drawing out the possibilties for extraterrestrials as the troubling markers for human Others that they’ve always really been in the Western cultural imagination. This is probably District 9‘s biggest secret.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the Perils of Expectations

October 18, 2011 2 comments

Wayne Whozky?

Another NHL season has dawned across the continent, and, in Edmonton at least, with it comes the stirrings of hope that inevitably accompany a roster chocked full of blazing young talents on entry-level contracts. If the Oilers’ young star quotient is tilted disproportionately towards the forward lines at the expense of a thin rearguard and half-unproven, half-queasy goaltending tandem, then you can’t exactly blame that plethora of talented forwards for that. But expectations are also tilted disproportionately, and, since this is the Edmonton Oilers, their listing trends towards the late 1980s, of course.

After scoring a goal in his NHL debut that was a combination of skill, hustle, and anticipatory ingenuity, 18-year-old #1 overall draft pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins followed it with a slick hat trick in a loss to the Vancouver Canucks this past Saturday night for a national audience on Hockey Night in Canada. Although the third goal was of questionable attribution, to use an art world term, there’s little doubt that the young man known variously as RNH (in Oilogosphere shorthand), the Nuge (in the full-throated shouts of the fans), and Hoppy (dubiously, in the Oiler dressing room) was impressive, and hardly needed a bit of feel-good narrative-building official sleight-of-hand to emphasize that.

It’s not only Nugent-Hopkins’ offense that is of note, either; he cleared the crease on an alert goal-saving defensive play, and both the plus-minus and the advanced stats suggest that he’s far from a liability when the opposition has the puck, which is not usual for rookie straight out of junior. His face-offs are still lagging a bit behind, sure, but very few centres, even potentially elite ones, come into the league winning a high percentage of their draws right off the bat. It’s a subtle art that needs to be learned from experience, but from all indications thus far, Nugent-Hopkins is blessed with boatloads of subtlety on the ice.

It is that surfeit of subtlety that must surely have inspired CBC’s HNIC studio crew to make a distinctly unsubtle comparison between Nugent-Hopkins and another famously tricksy Oiler centre who bent the game elegantly and almost imperceptively to his will: Wayne Gretzky. Puck Daddy’s Ryan Lambert documented the atrocities very well, but left out the concept that attempting to understanding the Nuge through the lens of the Great One is par for the course in considering the Oilers. The ghosts of past championship glory refigures perspectives with the deformations of nostalgia.

"Are you a mod or a rocker?"

Making strong associational insinuations about Nugent-Hopkins’ first hat trick on the same night that Gretzky broke the all-time scoring record, 22 years later, or constructing the bold and heedless Taylor Hall as a modern, rushing Mark Messier as the in-game commentators did, is all part of parcel of an official narrative that shoehorns this exciting new group of parvenus into the role of resurrected Boys on the Bus. They cannot be allowed to be themselves, only peach-fuzzed bodhisattvas of Edmonton’s long-spent sporting glory years. Whatever they end up accomplishing, it is preconditioned by the achievements of the greats that they are supposed to be re-embodying. Not only is this unfair to the players themselves as concerns their own results in a very different NHL, it does them a disservice in the realm of individual hockey aesthetics. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is not Wayne Gretzky, and not only because this is not 1979 and because he will (probably) not win 4 Stanley Cups and shatter every offensive record in existence. He is not Gretzky because their energies are different, their contexts are divergent, their abilities shaded with distinct hues.

For Nugent-Hopkins, as equally for Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi, Linus Omark, and whichever other young Oilers will still be around when (and if) this team grows into a winner, expectations can drive performance and can provide motivation for success. But expectations related to the specific fulfillment of vague, re-incarnatory prophecies of hockey history by quite distinct individuals do no one any favours, and can indeed be perilous from the observer’s point of view. Hockey may or may not be an art, as it definitely resembled when practiced by the likes of Gretzky, but it stubbornly resists narratives and is an ill-fit for myths. Whatever other hopes we fans clutch to our chests as concerns our tribal team allegiances, we’d be well served to remember and heed this warning.

Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports

Film Review: Teen Wolf

October 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Teen Wolf (1985; Directed by Rod Daniel)

I really don’t get the ’80s, culturally speaking. Pretty much any other post-war era of youth culture makes some relative, context-specific sense to me, as far as styles, fashions, values, and so forth. I may not enjoy those elements or find them “cool” (though that word itself and all that it implies is at the root of the problem), but they have a measure of general intelligibility, at least. The 1980s are simply unintelligible. I just have no idea how anyone could have possibly thought any of the fashions, music, or colloquial expressions were good or interesting on any level, nor the lifestyle ideal that they all anticipated. The cultural assumptions simply seem utterly deluded to an embarrassing extent. And that same impression goes for a movie like Teen Wolf.

Even a werewolf can't make air guitar cool.

I can acknowledge that Michael J. Fox, at the height of his post-Marty McFly fame (though not that far post, as Teen Wolf followed Back to the Future by a mere month and a half), has some undeniable aw-shucks appeal to bring to the table. This is to say nothing of his considerable reserves of flailing, frantic comic physicality. The finest directors that he worked with (Robert Zemeckis in the Back to the Future films and Peter Jackson in The Frighteners) recognized that Fox is never more endearing than when he is running desperately somewhere, swinging his arms wildly as he stops in full frame. Rod Daniel is not a very fine director, but he includes a moment or two just like that. Furthermore, it’s undeniable that there’s something potentially inspired about burgeoning werewolfish abilities as a metaphor for puberty, especially when grafted onto the mid-80s’ diminuitive prince of vanilla-white teenage everymanhood.

But Teen Wolf never gets to that plateau of inspired knowingness, for a panoply of reasons. The supporting cast – headed by an avuncular dad (the revelation that he shares his son’s blessing/curse is actually slightly clever and unexpected), a wacky buddy, the nice girl and the manipulative girl, and a square-jawed antagonist – bluff their way through stock roles. The special effects are astoundingly bad, and the music is an ugly smear of synthesized pablum. Additionally, the basketball scenes are laughable to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the game’s rules; I was shouting for a 10-second violation when Fox’s Scott Howard transforms to his lupine self on the court and dribbles slowly backwards, but the ref ignored me just as he ignored the rule book.

The Phoenix Suns Gorilla: The Early Years

Beyond this, though, I wonder at the film’s thematic message about individuality and conformity. Scott laments being an average nobody before discovering that he’s different and special, but the script has him choosing conformity over distinction in the end, because conforming and being “normal” is what it takes to be true to himself. This is complicated by the depiction of the school’s enthusiastic reaction to his wolf self, however; assuming the animal identity is characterized as living up to others’ expectations of what he ought to be, so he must choose to reject it in order to “be himself” (almost always the preferred end point in Hollywood films).

I could be wrong, but this strikes me as a very Reagan-era thematic value: individuality and excitement are to be discouraged. Sure, it’s fun to be an uninhibited beast for awhile, but then you have to grow up and get a mortgage; werewolves may be pretty badass, but I’d like to see one of them apply for a bank loan. For this film as for Reagan’s America, there is no shame in conformity, and much less in the way of social dangers as well. Being an average nobody will set you free! That Teen Wolf upholds such values while embodying the sort of shiny mediocrity that underlies them makes it a relic of its baffling time, and not really much else.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Alice in Wonderland (2010)

October 14, 2011 1 comment

Alice in Wonderland (2010; Directed by Tim Burton)

Note: An edited version of this review was published in PopMatters’ Best Films of 2010 feature on January 12, 2011.

Disney: Making children's lit illicitly sexy since 1937

For a film so thematically invested in the value of imagining the impossible and embracing the unpredictable, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland imagines and embraces very few surprises and even fewer wonders. For all its glorious visual flourishes and ingeniously idiosyncratic designs (and there are many), Burton’s vaunted “re-imagining” of Lewis Carroll’s classic tales of fantastic dream-logic is full of clumsy character beats, half-hearted emotional connections, and recycled narrative arcs.

Casting a nubile young-adult Alice (the engaging-enough Mia Wasikowska) in a hero quest narrative replete with stale Campbellian archetypes (down to the reluctant acceptance of prophecized destiny) would be immediately dismissed as a cynical Hollywood demographic ploy if Tim Burton’s name wasn’t attached to the resulting film (maybe such dismissals happened anyway). These sort of archetypes likely play better to a multiplex crowd reared on Star Wars and Lord of the Rings than Carroll’s episodic kid-lit structure, but the resulting plot is predictable and markedly unengaging as it creaks towards its pitched-battle climax.

The prophecy element seems especially specious considering that this Alice is supposedly fleeing the corsets and forced engagements of orderly Victorian England for a technicolour phantasmic landscape full of delightful wonders. She doesn’t want to be told by her mother, her sister, or her presumptive twittish fiance with indigestion how to look, how to act, or what to be in the real world, so she finds herself in a fantasy realm… where she’s told what to be by a prophetic scroll and a rogue’s gallery of collaborators. Then, at the end, when she apparently finds her own place in that real world (thanks in no small part to her experiences in the fantastic one), it’s only as an agent of the imperial order (ie. trading in China). On a whole other level, this thematic message also falls flat: if independence, originality, and self-determination are such laudable assets, why does this film have so little time for them in its storytelling?

Of course, Burton has never been known as a terribly singular storyteller. He’s a talented visualist with a flair for frayed Gothic grandeur who surrounds himself with a similarly slightly-twisted design team. His films are never dull to look at, but often dull to try and follow, to invest in. Of course, the design of his Wonderland and its many denizens are fantastic. And many of those denizens are played by wonderful performers camping it up with aplomb.

This is not a drug reference. Seriously.

Helena Bonham-Carter’s Red Queen, with her CGI-inflated head and petulant selfishness, is a joy in each and every one of her scenes. The big-name British voice talent (Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Michael Sheen, Christopher Lee) all leave strong impressions in even the smallest of roles, although the ragtag band of animated sidekicks get to be a bit too much by the final act, when they mostly have little to do. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter is less well-formed, another one of his sensitive left-field rogues, a sort of degenerated version of his ridiculously-mannered eccentric Willy Wonka from his previous collaboration with Burton, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Like his Wonka, Depp’s Hatter is less a complete individual than a meticulously-worked out series of ticks and mannerisms, down to his intermittent Scottish accent and awkward closing celebratory dance. His interaction with Alice is supposed to be the soul of the film, but we’re never really given a solid reason to believe in it. That’s the script’s and the director’s failing, but it’s Depp’s as well.

Depp’s predicament is also the film’s: it’s a collection of beautifully-constructed individual eye-candy elements without an animating centre. A big part of this issue has to do with Burton’s characteristics as a filmmaker, but it also demonstrates a basic misreading of the source material. The Alice books have substantial possibilities for a creative tour-de-force of a movie, and the production design on display here comes closest to fulfilling them. But on the deeper levels of story and character, Burton and his team have little new to tell us, and borrow liberally from films that did. And that, ultimately, is not so wonderful.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Occupy Wall Street and the Deep Grooves of Capitalism

October 12, 2011 2 comments

What the torn cardboard placard said.

As the Occupy Wall Street demonstration stretches into yet another week without outward signs of flagging, it likely behooves me to say something about it in this space at long last. Anyone with even a passing familiarity of Random Dangling Mystery’s emplacement on the political spectrum could surely guess that I feel some considerable sympathy for the protestors’ message. After a wishy-washy initial interregnum of mixed leftist signals, the movement’s chosen arguments has coalesced into a critique of income disparity and economic inequality (the oppressive response from the NYPD didn’t hurt either, or it did hurt physically but helped symbolically). When expressed with conviction, force, and nuance, a message of this sort is potentially very powerful.

There is no small number of citizens in America who feel dispossessed, marginalized, and betrayed by the monied elites, and, if properly energized and mustered, there could be considerable impetus for the kind of fundamental systematic alteration that it’s clear our collectively troubled capitalist democracatic order requires to survive in the long term. This form of bottom-up populism has not been the bread-and-butter of the Left for some time. Liberal political leaders have left such marshalling to their union allies while ceding the contested ground to the Right, who have left it sodden with selfishness, xenophobia, and conspiratorial animus. As with the protests against Wisconsin’s union-busting legislation some months back, Occupy Wall Street at the very least demonstrates that the left wing will not let conservative ideologues dictate every term of the popular debate on the economic situation.

Can't we all just get along? No? Well, at least I asked, right?

Still, the hard economic times south of the border have not yet lead to any sort of rapprochement between the warring political factions. Perhaps only a fool could have realistically expected that the 2007-2008 economic downturn would have lead to bipartisan cooperation; a fool, or a President-elect. Barack Obama is no more the ineffectual ruminator that the hard Left sees him as any more than he is the red-eyed socialist insurrectionist of the Right’s fever dreams. Still, the President certainly has consistently voiced an abiding confidence in the ability of his fellow citizens to rise above differences and disagreements (be they petty or deeply-held) that has not been borne out by very many political operators through his now-dwindling first term. Maybe he’ll be proven right yet; it’s a great fool who bets against this particular politician’s long game. But intransigence is a hard habit to shake.

Still, it would seem that the Right’s Tea Party fanatics and the Left’s Occupy Wall Street idealists have at least one big thing in common: both movements (if they can really be called that, in either case) distrust the dominant interests that they consider to be curtailing their freedoms. What they cannot agree on is who, precisely, those interests are, and both of their perspectives are hopelessly skewed by prejudices and biases.

For the Tea Party, the government alone is to blame for economic woes, while the corporate world is heroic, selfless, beyond reproach. Add to this point of view the considerable doses of resentment for minorities and “others” in various forms (African-Americans, Latin-American immigrants, homosexuals, Muslims, professional women, etc.) that are sadly endemic to the contemporary American conservative character, and it’s hard to convince anyone who does not share such preconceived notions to back the cause.

Occupy Wall Street employs a more tolerant, liberal approach, to be sure, and is willing to spread the blame from the usual capitalist bogeymen to the government representatives whose loyalty is owed first to their campaign donors in the corporate world and second to everyone else. But the whole demonstration is predicated on the sort of counter-cultural anti-capitalist critiques that tend to go over the heads of run-of-the-mill voters, or simply do not resonate with the ones they do reach.

Because ultimately, capitalism has more bullets in its chamber than its opponents do. The hormonal appeal of consumerism is powerful even amongst the protestors, surely, to say nothing of those they are attempting to persuade. Shit is fucked up and bullshit, sure enough, but how bad can it be, people must wonder, if you can walk into a Best Buy and, $500 later, come out with an iPad? Commodity fetishism is always a retardant of the fire of revolution, and can suck almost all of the oxygen from an event as distinctly sub-revolutionary as Occupy Wall Street. These are deep grooves in the democratic grain, not easily re-carven. I’m far from certain that a sit-in in the financial district can delve new ones, but it’s an attempt to trace them at least. Let’s see where it goes, if anywhere.

Film Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

October 9, 2011 1 comment

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007; Directed by Andrew Dominik)


Why can't he just buy a ticket like everyone else?

Andrew Dominik’s langorous psychological Western sometimes begs for a defibrillator, but there’s sufficient talent here to make the material sing often enough.  Shot on the Canadian Prairies with loving visual glory by cinematographical demigod Roger Deakins, The Assassination depends largely on the thespianic muscle of its leads, Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, and both of them sell the film’s endless digressions into emotion and consciousness as well as its punctuating bursts of violence. Pitt’s Jesse James is a swaggering personification of the dark id of the American frontier, impulsive but deliberate, always restlessly in motion. Affleck’s widely-praised performance is the superior one, as he modulates Bob Ford’s fidgety desperation to be liked with calculated inner-eye rumination.

The scenes between them are among the film’s best; Pitt’s a bonafide movie star, but he can sometimes sink into speechless brow-furrowing when confronted with a fellow actor of deeper talents (see his “work” in pivotal scenes opposite Peter O’Toole in Troy or Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds). He clashes and parries with Affleck here, letting his foil and eventual assassin occasional feel like he’s in control before viciously yanking that feeling away. Pitt’s version of Jesse James is one of the great figures of the powerful trickster in recent cinema; like most of the great rogues of the movies, you’re never allowed to be sure if he’s a skilled puppet-master or just completely batshit; in the end, you suspect both.

Still, fine lead performances aside, Dominik’s film is hopelessly long-winded. It has good ideas at its core, but it draws them out all too gradually. Hugh Ross’ narration puts some of the considered prose of Ron Hansen’s novel into the film, but also pushes the proceedings into PBS documentary territory. Ridley Scott’s name pops up in the producer credits, and the influence of his over-meditative epics is highly evident and not entirely welcome. Its too-long title is entirely accurate as a descriptor of the film, but typifies the over-slow approach of the director. A bit more restraint (or, maybe, a bit less) would have been welcome, but there’s plenty of quality filmmaking on display here nonetheless.

Categories: Film, Reviews