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PopMatters Film Feature – Money, Sex, and Power: Contemporary Adaptations in John Guillermin’s King Kong

November 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Note: Over the next week, PopMatters will be publishing my multi-part feature essay on the social, political, and cultural meanings of the three canonical King Kong films. Click on the title below to go to the article.

Money, Sex, and Power: Contemporary Adaptations in John Guillermin’s King Kong

 

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Categories: Culture, Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Four Lions

November 28, 2011 3 comments

Four Lions (2010; Directed by Chris Morris)

Omar and his friends want to be Islamic terrorists, but jihad, like pimping, ain’t easy. In between being bored by his jogging-enthusiast supervisor (Craig Parkinson) at an anonymous security job, raising his impressionable son, and being a good husband to his lovely wife (Preeya Kalidis), Omar (Riz Ahmed) must shepherd his four largely inept and error-prone fellow holy warriors towards a glorious, explosive martyrs’ end, preferably while taking the lives of as many kafir as possible in the process. In dramatizing their wacky (and occasionally heavy) misadventures, British film and TV provocateur Chris Morris suggests that ideological fanaticism and hilarious stupidity are far from incompatible, and indeed encourage and feed on one another.

Allahu Akbar!

Mostly set in an anodyne English suburb (evidently supposed to be in Sheffield, though it’s impossible to tell from the mix of regional accents), Four Lions approaches various issues surrounding the War on Terror with a highly British sense of unyielding satirical bravado. Indeed, the film brings the major laughs with such relentless consistency that it’s easy to miss how many very sensitive buttons it is pushing. The script, by Morris, Sam Bain, Jesse Armstrong, and Simon Blackwell and based on three years of exhaustive research, lampoons Islamic fundamentalism mercilessly, but it also takes the mercilessness of the ideology of suicide bombers quite seriously. These guys are idiots, but they’re motivated idiots. Idiots who kill.

But my oh my, are they idiots. There’s Waj (Kavyan Novak), Omar’s endearingly dim buddy, who thinks chickens are rabbits (Omar: “Where are their ears, then?” Waj: “That’s what I’m saying!”), suggests blowing up the Internet, and unwisely films all of their exploits on his mobile phone. He has a child’s credulity when it comes to jihadism (he characterizes the martyr’s fast track to paradise as “rubber dinghy rapids”, a phrase referencing a theme park ride which confuses the heck out of the police hostage negotiator), and Omar begins to feel that he is leading his easily-confused friend down a road he hasn’t intended to choose.

There’s also Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), a developmentally-delayed man-child who buys dozens of bottles of bomb-making bleach from the same pharmacy (disguising only his voice, and poorly at that), envisions strapping explosives to crows and flying them into sex shops, and has an unfortunate run-in with a bag of combustible material, a stone meadow fence, and a sheep. There’s Hassan (Arsher Ali), a lanky Media Studies drop-out who ends up on the radar of the terror cell with an attention-grabbing stunt involving a fake suicide bomb filled with Silly String at a panel discussion, and who raps his anti-Western fatwas for their omnipresent video camera.

Finally, there’s Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a blustering and belligerent white Briton convert (his Muslim name is Azzam Al-Britani) who suspects spies and undercover agents everywhere and takes to swallowing cell phone SIM cards to hide his transgressive activities from the ever-present technological surveillance of the state (that the supposedly all-seeing tracking satellites would still be able to follow it in his belly seems not to have occurred to him).  Barry’s evident ultra-conservative politics find an incendiary outlet in the fanatical siege mentality of jihadism, and his ludicrous plot to bomb a mosque in order to spark an Islamic counter-revolution suggests that those politics were once (and perhaps are still) essentially Islamophobic and anti-Semitic in nature.

Not that Omar himself is any sort of logistical mastermind, though compared to his bumbling comrades he’s practically Khalid Sheikk Mohammed. He communicates with his co-conspirators on a cutesy social networking site called Puffin Party (“His puffin won’t talk to my puffin,” he laments after an intra-cell tiff sunders the group for a time) and, while at a remote training camp in Pakistan, he points an anti-aircraft bazooka the wrong way when trying to take down a drone and accidentally blows up a meeting of al-Qaeda grandees. He also seems oddly nonplussed about abandoning his devoted wife and young child for the martyr’s paradise, even justifying his mistake in Pakistan to his boy via a convoluted but sweet-natured retelling of The Lion King in which Simba accidentally kills Mufasa and must lie about it in order to take down the villainous Scar.

This moment (invoking lions like the title, itself a reference to the heraldic emblem of England) cuts to the heart of the fundamentalist mindset: the elemental moral cause of vanquishing perceived evils is what matters most, and any dissembling or fabricating or violent conduct involved in achieving that goal is justified by the righteousness of the cause. This same general concept is summarized beautifully by Barry: “You can’t win an argument just by being right.” Morris’ response to the reckless, ignorant hate of this kind of fundamentalism is to mock it, and it’s hard to argue that it’s an unfair response.

This is not to say that Morris’ satire is focused like a tracer merely on the target of lunkheaded jihadism. Omar’s supercilious brother, a conservative, non-violent Muslim who attends a Qu’ran prayer group with others from his mosque while their hijab-ed wives drink tea in a closet, provides a mild reproach to the adherents of the faith whose means are more moderate and pacifist but still cling to outdated, draconian practices and gender roles.

A much larger target for the film’s satirical ire is the law enforcement and national security state apparatus that is responding to the threat of Islamist terror with all the indiscriminate blunt force one can expect from a massive military-bureaucratic institution. The vast shadowy government forces that Barry suspects to be so omniscient are only slightly less inept than Omar and his band of Keystone Cop-style terrorists. As Omar’s cell finalizes the plan for its parting blaze of glory (during the London Marathon, dressed in big fuzzy costumes), the police are wholly oblivious, mistakenly raiding his brother’s prayer meeting instead.

This error is small potatoes compared to the authorities’ handling of the Marathon plot. Rooftop snipers are ordered to bring down a perp in a bear suit, but take out a runner in a Chewbacca costume instead, leading to a side-splitting self-justifying exchange between the two snipers and command (“Is a Wookie a bear, Control?”). Waj’s impromptu hostage-taking in a kebab shop is also bungled badly, first by the aforementioned hostage negotiator (you know you’re watching a great film when such a small cameo role is filled by someone as awesome as Benedict Cumberbatch), who tries unsuccessfully to establish a rapport with Waj by going on about how he bets that he’s “a massive arse man”, and then by the SWAT team, who shoot the Arabic kebab cook hostage instead of Waj.

With all this in mind, it’s clear that the message of Four Lions, or one of its main messages anyway, is that human frailty (under which stupidity is very much included) is more of a constant than unswerving self-control, and that ideological rigidity proceeds much more commonly from the former than from the latter. The film also suggests that jihadism is as prone to hypocrisy and pretention as any other ideological subculture. The “lions”, with their laptops, mobiles, singalongs to “Dancing in the Moonlight”, and myriad other engagements with democratic capitalism, are much more prone to extremist violence than the more devout and backwards-looking Muslims that we meet. And, finally, it’s a film with the courage of its own convictions. Comedy or not (and it definitely is a comedy, and a historically funny one at that), there are no happy endings here. Omar wants to be remembered with a smile on his face, and so does Four Lions. But what really makes them memorable is something much more explosive than a simple smile.

Categories: Film, Reviews

PopMatters Film Feature – From Spectacle to Elegy: The Cinematic Myth of King Kong

November 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Note: Over the next week, PopMatters will be publishing my multi-part feature essay on the social, political, and cultural meanings of the three canonical King Kong films. Click on the title below to go to the article.

From Spectacle to Elegy: The Cinematic Myth of King Kong

 

Categories: Culture, Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Watchmen

November 25, 2011 5 comments

Watchmen (2009; Directed by Zach Snyder)

Symbolism

First things first: this is Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, not Alan Moore’s. Bear this firmly in mind before continuing. As tightly as Snyder skews to the seminal comic by Moore and Dave Gibbons (and he often skews very tightly), this is the work of a cinematic artist with a vision all his own. And it is Snyder’s own personal vision, his deviations from Moore’s work, that makes this film, that gives it its breathtaking wonders and its nagging setbacks. There’s more of the former than the latter by a long shot, but it’s hard to ignore the missteps, ultimately.

What Snyder gets right (and he gets most of it right) is astonishing. The book’s tone of atheistic deflation and the mood of oppressive dystopian alienation is all there, unfiltered. The complicated histories of the Comedian, Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan are presented in their proper order, with the proper level of emotional detail. If the other characters (especially those of the previous generation) get short thrift, then Moore gave it to them first; Snyder gives us enough information to infer more if we choose, but it’s only what we need. The intricate plot is preserved in all its complexity, and proves out the cinematic language of Moore’s (and Gibbons’) comic storytelling even as it feels much stranger and less conventional than your usual film narrative. And, more than anything, the look and style of Watchmen is all there, epic and dingy, dark and glowing, never anything but deeply powerful. Fans of the comic will spot dozens, even hundreds, of images ripped straight from the pages of the original.

The cast does what’s asked of them, and there’s nary a bad performance. Malin Akerman’s Silk Spectre veers close to bad territory, but it’s more the fault of Moore than the actress, who looks the part well enough. He made Laurie into a sexualized object, passed between strong men and forever in the shadow of her parents, a woman with no real life or identity of her own. You can argue that it’s a perfectly fair (if distinctly unprogressive) characterization, but as the main female character, her dependence rings louder than it otherwise would (and this is to saying nothing of her mother, who falls in love with the man who tried to rape her, a choive which can’t make Moore too popular with feminists or anyone else with much of a conscience). Meanwhile, Patrick Wilson makes a decent Dan Dreiburg, and Matthew Goode doesn’t turn Adrian Veidt into a smug Eurotrash villain as I feared he might. Jeffrey Dean Morgan gets at the buried wistfulness behind the Comedian’s smirking nihilism, and Billy Crudup’s voice for Dr. Manhattan is supernaturally resigned (although his scenes as pre-accident Jon Osterman are far better, even a little heartbreaking). But, as most reviewers note, it’s Jackie Earle Haley’s devastating turn as Rorschach that steals the picture. He plays his final scene with a different tone than in the comic, but it’s nonetheless every bit as wrenching.

But, as I wrote earlier, what makes and sometimes nearly breaks this adaptation is the adaptations. Snyder deploys some remarkable imagery that the comic never gives us. His opening credit montage of slo-mo tableaus of the history of masked adventurers is remarkable, recasting V-Day and the Kennedy Assassination and other seminal events with key twists and telling the stories of the previous generation of heroes with broad strokes. The use of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” is a mite obvious, and I would have preferred “Desolation Row”, which is later turned into a gaudy punk punch-up by My Chemical Romance over the end credits (“Times” is a bit short for the sequence and has to recycle some verses and harmonica breaks, so “Desolation” might have been a better time-match as well). But it’s still an excellent sequence that sets the stage perfectly. On the other end of things, the amazing shot that follows Rorschach’s end is transcendent and note-perfect and gains points for being Snyder’s own creation rather than that of Moore and Gibbons.

We are no less badass for being sociopolitical metaphors.

And the larger changes wrought by Snyder and the writers aren’t so bad either. Hollis Mason’s fate is excised, as is most of his story, and that’s fine by me; the murder of the original Nite Owl always bugged me, coming across as an unnecessary underlining of the brutality of human nature and society in a work that had more than enough of them without the empty killing of a kindly old man. Rorschach’s treatment of a child-killer gives the character a bit more of an active role in his final turn to absolutism, and the comic’s specific turn of events in the scene in question was famously stolen by Saw anyway, so savvy film-goers who didn’t know the book would cry foul.

And, of course, there’s the replacement of the transdimensional squid with devices that replicate Dr. Manhattan’s powers in Veidt’s climactic act of destruction, which I think makes sense from a few perspectives. Without the Black Freighter comic and the extra scenes needed to set up the squid, it would have dropped in out of nowhere, a bugnuts insane idea that worked in the comic (was one of the most indelible images of the comic) but never would have flown onscreen (any attempt to replicate Gibbons’ graphic panels onscreen wouldn’t have gotten by the censors anyhow; that much gore at once is unfathomable, even in an R-rated flick as hard as this). More than anything, though, it’s a 9/11-influenced change, though not in any cop-out kind of way (check the WTC towers looming behind Veidt in his first appearance, if you want those echoes to resonate). Simply put, 9/11 and its political aftermath made Veidt’s masterplan seem quaint; we know that a cataclysmic and deadly attack on New York City will not lead the whole world to lay down its arms and join hands in peaceful brotherhood. And one can hardly argue with making the disaster bigger and more wide-reaching, really.

The Spandex Fanciers Club petered out a bit by the '50s...

Still, there are some Snyder originals that don’t knock it out of the park. Though I remain a fan of his style for action-sequences and think they are even more effective here than in 300, he adds one or two that aren’t necessary, and the blasting rock-guitar background can get a bit goofy. And really, he’s much sharper with the sex and the gore and the violence and only skims the surface of the deep wells of moral philosophy running underneath the story; those issues are there, sort of, but their full import is not teased out. Furthermore, we get next to nothing about the Hooded Justice, the mysterious figure who began the whole masked hero thing in this universe. The New Frontiersman is also not set up at all, leading to a few scratched heads when the film ends with Rorschach’s journal in their office. The sex scene is not too good and Leonard Cohen seems a poor choice for booty-grinding. Nixon is turned into a much larger demagogue than he was in the book (if that’s possible, and it’s not really the point). And don’t even get me started on Manhattan’s wang!

These are minor quibbles, but little things add up. Despite the wondrous and potent vision Snyder provides us with, Watchmen doesn’t quite have all of its gears in synch. It’s spectacular and entertaining and mostly as profound as the source material, but there are tiny slips and minute cracks in the facade, when one looks closely enough. The film is very, very good and holds up and even deepens on subsequent viewings, but there are too many smallish nagging downsides to it that keeps it from full masterpiece status in my mind.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

The Occupy Movement and the Authoritarian Impulse

November 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Tents Before Parks!

Although I feel like I’ve said my piece about Occupy Wall Street and its various international affiliate movements, the developments in the response of the authorities to the movement’s civil disobedience over the past couple of weeks probably do demand a brief word or two. The eviction of Occupiers from their home bases in Zuccotti Park in New York City and St. James Park in Toronto grabbed headlines, partly because these displacements were the only fresh progression in the Occupy story for some time and partly due to the perhaps overeager aggression of the evicting police forces in New York. The whiff of official oppression has animated the ideologically amorphous, Adbusters-shepherded movement from the start, and overt displays of authoritah are oxygen to its fire of sociopolitical outrage.

The impact of these events was much surpassed, however, by the confrontation between campus police at the University of California-Davis and sit-in student protestors. And by “confrontation”, I mean the police responded to the students’ non-violent civil disobedience by pepper-spraying them cruelly and gratuitously, as this now-viral video demonstrates. Although the Occupiers’ response is heartening, the casual authoritarianism of both law enforcement and their defenders in the light-fascist right-wing media is considerably less so.

In response to the circulation of the video, James Fallows of Atlantic Monthly invokes that modern apex of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience in America, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Not that the cause of the Occupy movement has access to either the eloquent tone of moral necessity nor the deep well of historical injustice that the Civil Rights marchers drew upon, but the structural deprivations that affected African-Americans for decades come from the same essential place that those protested by the Occupiers do. The self-congratulatory boomer narrative about the 1960s counterculture, that it “changed the world” and corrected many of the inequities that it struggled against, is being exposed as insufficient, if not as an outright falsehood.

Matt Taibbi says it better than I can in his trademarked, inimitable rhetorical style, but what is happening in America, and all around the world, is that a smallish elite (partly made up of many of those same self-congratulating boomers) accustomed to exponential growth and the attendant benefits to their personal wealth and influence are facing a distinct lack of base-level economic expansion. With few new jobs and limited economic opportunities for more and more people near the base of the income pyramid, those at its summit have refused to relinquish the rising profit margins that have characterized the past couple of decades. These augmented takings have to come from somewhere, and increasingly they are coming from the dwindling share of the middle and lower class. Those lower classes resist this system of distribution with civil disobedience, and the authorities (forever the thralls of money and power) respond with appropriately overheated force.

This is perhaps not a new phenomenon, and the elites may tell us it is not a phenomenon at all, or at least that they deserve their ever-greater share and the rest of us deserve less than we have. But it is redolent of a perspective that is beginning to define the politics of our time (be they Tea Party conservative or Occupy Wall Street liberal), namely that democratic liberties are intrinsically tied to (and largely reliant upon) the vagaries of income distribution. Rights mean only so much, we are told, without a certain fairness of economic opportunity. Economics underlies all social relations, and progress is delineated by class struggle. With such ideas percolating around the cultural mainstream, it always surprises me that Marxist analysis is not undergoing more of a resurgence, since everyone seems to agree, in general terms, with Marx’s thoughts on social relations (if not, of course, on his proposed policy solutions, which have ever been found wanting). The key takeaway is that oppression comes in many forms, and these forms can be densely interrelated and unpredictable. All most of us can do is await and react as best we can.

Film Review: The Guard (2011)

November 20, 2011 2 comments

The Guard (2011; Directed by John Michael McDonagh)

Note: the kid did not steal sweets. You'll be surprised.

It was an unpleasant surprise that I wasn’t more entertained or impressed by The Guard. By all initial appearances an anarchic and subversive crime comedy with shite-piles of local Irish colour and a film-owning tour-de-force performance from my favourite actor, Brendan Gleeson, this is not nearly the movie it sets out to be, ought to be, and was widely received as (highest-grossing Irish indie film ever, it is). It powers ahead with devil-may-care sparkle for a handful of moments, but then squanders its momentum with conventional forays into stock character cliches and predictable subplots for twice as long.

The writer/director credit holds some clues to the film’s tone of mild disappointments. John Michael McDonagh is the (evidently less talented) brother of Martin McDonagh, acclaimed iconoclastic Irish playwright and the writer/director of the fantastic international hit In Bruges, which took the foul-mouthed wit of the criminal classes and plunked it in the timeless medieval streets of the charming Belgian tourist city. Both The Guard and In Bruges feature shootouts, sex, and druggy shenanigans in idyllic locales, as well as loads of offensive humour and Brendan Gleeson being generally awesome (although he’s outshone by Colin Farrell in the latter).

But despite the similarities, the comparison does no favours to John Michael and his less-balanced film. Or, perhaps, The Guard is more balanced, and that’s the problem. It deals out its off-colour hilarity in controlled doses between dramatic beats, sympathetic character development, and narrative advancement, where In Bruges blurred it all together, and sprung its chaotic sensibility on us with little warning and often with a bit of misdirection. There is some nicely Irish foul-tempered jokery here (“I’m Irish, racism is part of my culture!”), but nothing ultimately measuring up to the other McDonagh’s inspired tangential bawdry (I’m thinking particularly of a certain outlandishly offensive Farrell line about an overweight, mentally-deficient African-American girl on a teeter-totter, for one).

These coppers dress far too nicely, no?

It perhaps isn’t fair to damn The Guard with contrasts to a better film simply due to some shared themes and the fraternal association of the films’ auteurs (although Martin McDonagh did exec produce his bro’s less entertaining flick, too). This film has its high points as well, from the dedicated West Irishness of its settings to its undeniably sharp wit. Though Don Cheadle can be plenty of fun camping it up (his Basher was always one of the best things about the Ocean’s movies), he does nicely as Gleeson’s by-the-book FBI agent foil. Mark Strong radiates danger and levity equally as the most notable of a philosophical trio of drug smugglers, and Pat Shortt has an amusing scene as a gone-to-seed IRA member in a Texas tuxedo.

But when the movie occasionally sings, it’s Gleeson who is the choirmaster. McDonagh’s script does try too hard with its star’s character, Sergeant Jerry Boyle, simultaneously making him sympathetic with fluffy subplots with his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan) and a police colleague’s grieving sort-of widow (Katarina Cas) and playing up his rogue side with his slick bachelor pad, rampant drinking and recreational drug use, and patronizing of escorts. But Gleeson delights in the incongruity of casting a puffy, jocular Irishman in the smooth hero cop role, thumbing his nose at everyone even when he doesn’t have to and relishing the bacchanalian appeal of lines like “I am all out of jizzum!” He redeems the winking knowingness of it all with the sheer force of his personality. Gleeson is bigger than The Guard and drags the film over its rough spots into a sanctuary of rough aesthetic respectability, and a good job it is, too. Pity that the overall product wasn’t stronger, or Gleeson could have made it something fairly special.

Categories: Film, Reviews

PopMatters Film Review – The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch

November 18, 2011 Leave a 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.

The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch

 

Categories: Film, Reviews