Archive for February, 2012

Film Review: International Velvet

February 29, 2012 1 comment

International Velvet (1978; Directed by Bryan Forbes)

If you live with a horse fancier, eventually you’re probably going to have to sit through International Velvet. A sort-of sequel to 1944’s National Velvet, which starred a young Elizabeth Taylor as a pre-teen equestrian sensation, this is glossy equine pornography that is also awash with British rural romanticism at its most cornball.

Tatum O'Neal is the fifth member of Kraftwerk

The story focuses on young orphaned heroine Sarah Brown (Tatum O’Neal). Born and raised in Arizona, Sarah’s parents are killed in a car crash, and she ends up living with her aunt Velvet (Nanette Newman), the plucky but mildly sad adult version of Taylor’s character in the original (try to imagine Taylor herself taking the role in this movie, and wait for your head to stop spinning). Despite the fact that Velvet dwells on a rambling country farm amidst an idyllic English coastal landscape, Sarah is sullen and withdrawn and resists Velvet’s attempts to earn her affection. Because girls just love ponies, relations begin to thaw over The Pie, Velvet’s champion horse, and especially over the stud’s last foal, whom Sarah names Arizona Pie after Velvet buys him for her. Supported emotionally by Velvet and financially by her aunt’s live-in life partner John Seaton (Christopher Plummer), Sarah pursues serious equestrian competition with a single-minded focus, eventually making the British Olympic team coached by Captain Johnson (Anthony Hopkins) and helping them win a team eventing gold medal at the Games.

Although International Velvet could not be mistaken by anyone for a film that is really any good, it’s not all soft-focus barn-rat wish fulfillment. It’s mostly that, yes; veteran Brit director Bryan Forbes shoots the early establishing scenes of impossibly green fields and crepescular-ray-lit horseflesh with a demure lasciviousness, but he reigns in the animal magnetism of the loyal steeds as quickly as he can. There are many moments of Tatum O’Neal chatting precociously with her horse and riding it through the bubbling surf (surely its legs would be at risk on such soft ground?) that may set the pony-loving tweens aflutter but are far from endearing.

O’Neal was an acclaimed child actor in her day, but her unsubtle emoting and turgid line readings reek of the amateurish when set against the eerie professionalism of the current crop of Fannings and other triple-named thespian minors. There’s also pretty much no tension to be found in the proceedings. Sure, Sarah is held back as an alternate, her horse is ridden by more experienced teammates, she falls in the cross country, etc. But there’s never much doubt that she’ll triumph on horseback and in life, simultaneously winning the gold and the affections of a Yank rider hunk (Jeffrey Byron) and accepting her surrogate family as a genuine one.

But it’s not all quite so fluffy. The harsh physical consequences of the equestrian pursuit are not shied away from: Sarah falls and injures a shoulder in one competition, and her teammate’s horse must be destroyed after it loses its shit on an airplane trip to another one. It may look prim and stuffed-shirt-ish on television, but equestrian carries no less corporeal danger than more nakedly violent sports like football or hockey, and International Velvet acknowledges far more of that than ought to be expected of a children’s film about how awesome horsies are.

Furthermore, the presence of actors the calibre of Hopkins and Plummer veritably puts a bridle and lead on this reluctant filly of a movie and leads it against its will into the stable of respectability. Hopkins’ Johnson makes a big deal after Sarah’s first trial of how stern and frightening he is, but turns out to be an erudite, sarcastic British old boy with a knobbly sense of empathy. Hopkins, still young and hungry enough in the late ’70s to bring his all to such a decidedly non-plum role, is perfectly suited to the Captain’s sharp-tongued thoughtfulness. Plummer strides through the film with quite a different and decidedly sexual energy, eschewing the folly of not only the top shirt button but, on one occasion of tame-enough talky foreplay with his lover Velvet, the whole shirt altogether (Bears of the world, rejoice!). It seems another odd choice for a children’s film, to have a fairly honest and open portrayal of an adult physical relationship in a kiddie-flick, especially when compared to the entirely chaste courtship of Sarah and her beau, which includes nary a kiss. But then maybe that’s just what you get with an actor of such undeniable libido as Plummer.

Such minor digressions aside, International Velvet tends towards the easy and the fuzzy, unspooling with a pillowy inevitability and mostly untroubled by conflict or obstacles. The voice-over narration from Newman and Hopkins imparts the story with a fable-like quality, detaching it from any intruding realities like mortality, sexual awakening, or financial hardship while simultaneously reducing Sarah’s voice in her own narrative. Even when International Velvet strains to be pretty, it’s only merely pleasant. Little wonder that it’s mostly been put out to pasture by subsequent generations, if not shipped straight to the glue factory.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and the Deconstruction of Global Mythologies

February 27, 2012 Leave a comment

A bestseller and something of a modern classic, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is in most ways a representative work for the prolific cross-format writer. The novel focuses, as much of his work does, on the reluctant and taciturn loner, summoned to abstruse duty by fantastic forces he or she does not understand and whose power and true nature is half-glimpsed only through frosted glass. Gaiman’s heightened reality always conceals the true depths of the supernatural, the magical, elements which regularly trespass into the “real world”, often with dire consequences.

The approach angle on these tropes offered in American Gods is a simple one with almost infinite possibilities: gods exist in our everyday world as long as they are believed in, and if their share of belief dwindles or vanishes entirely, they go on living, striving to survive whatever way they can just like the mortals they hide amongst. In America, repeatedly dubbed a poor land for gods, they subsist as labourers, prostitutes, hermits, local elders, and, most commonly, as grifters, snatching what little they can away from the harried humans who will not willingly give them the regard they require. This regard is increasingly snatched up by new gods of technology and media, and an apocalyptic conflict looms between the two factions.

Standing between them is Gaiman’s requisite thoughtful outsider anti-hero, a hulking, gentle-spirited ex-con with the heavy-handedly symbolic name of Shadow. Out of prison early to bury his wife Laura, who died (or did she?) while cheating on her locked-up hubby with his best friend, Shadow is waylaid on the way home by a mysterious, slick man in a suit who calls himself Wednesday and knows far more about Shadow than he ought to. Wednesday (soon enough revealed as a manifestation of Odin, the All-Father god in the Norse pantheon, if you were wondering) offers the now-aimless Shadow his choice of payment to complete a series of enigmatic missions for him, and Shadow rambles across Middle America from Indiana to Wisconsin to Florida, from sunny San Francisco to industrial Chicago to sparkling Vegas, facing situations that range from confusing to beguiling to dangerous.

What Shadow, with his calm acceptance of the mystical and low-key cleverness, never manages to find is a strong personality, and American Gods suffers as a result. He’s obviously meant to be a cipher (a shadow, of course), but in his experiences of the strange, the fantastic and the painful, Shadow never coheres into more than a carrier pigeon for Gaiman’s exploration of the uses of belief in America and deconstruction of global mythologies.

Really, though, this is a book more concerned with the latter than the very real corporatized Christian splinter faiths of America, and it seems like an odd if progressively pagan trajectory for Gaiman to take. If America is not a fertile land for gods, then it is very fertile for God. Evidently, organized religion has no role in Gaiman’s world, with its thin membrane to the supernatural.

Ultimately, though, the grand myths that sustain America’s self-conceived grandeur are the important targets here. Even while imagining that leprechauns and Egyptian deities and golems walk the earth, Gaiman aims to refute the noble lie of the essential decency and righteous liberty of the United States that neoconservatives have sold for decades as a fundamental truth of democratic capitalism. Shadow’s sojourn in the supposedly idyllic Wisconsin town of Lakeside has a sinister resolution straight out of a Southern gothic novel, and Gaiman refuses to suggest that it could be otherwise.

With this in mind, Shadow’s coin tricks hobby is a microcosm for Gaiman’s entire perspective on the world in that it constitutes a series of sleight-of-hand misdirections that masquerade as irruptions of wonder into the rational everyday. This hobby connects Shadow to Wednesday, with his ingratiating persuasion and deceptive long cons, but it also detaches him from the world of people (ie. those of us who don’t live for hundreds or even thousands of years, like the gods).

Much more successful at exemplifying the attachment between people and the otherworldly beings they believe in are Gaiman’s “Coming to America” sections, dramatizing the arrival on the shores of the New World of Vikings, crafty women, and downtrodden slaves (the latter section is a doozy, maybe the best bit of writing from Gaiman in a book definitely not lacking in stylistic flourishes). But these chapters represent a contrast to more than a reaffirmation of the qualities of the rest of American Gods, with its lackadaisical promenade of a plot and maddeningly enigmatic dialogue. This is far from a great book, though it can be an engaging and fascinating one, nonetheless.

Categories: Culture, Literature, Religion

Ales Hemsky: The Worth of a Minor Legend

February 26, 2012 1 comment

The news of the week out of Oil Country is unquestionably the new 2-year, $10 million contract signed by longtime Oiler winger Ales Hemsky on Friday. The target of persistent trade rumours and blanketing negativity from a sizable contingent of Edmonton media and fans for much of the season (which may or may not have been encouraged by the organization itself in an attempt to drum up trade partners or at least drive down his potential cap hit), Hemsky was widely considered as good as gone up until a day or two ago.

Hopefully, Hemmer can now afford a better wardrobe.

But retaining him is one of the few solid moves that Oilers management has made in yet another failure-prone campaign. Opinions in and around Edmonton have always been divided over Hemsky. Stat-heads and sports aesthetes alike have celebrated Hemmer as a forward who can not only produce nearly a point a game over his career and handle tough assignments against opponents’ stronger lines, but can also fashion magical acts with a stick and a puck that, even if they don’t always lead to goals, remain breathtaking.

His critics scoff at such subtle defenses. The anti-Hemsky contingent tend to be of the more conservative, smash-mouth-hockey school of thought (or lack thereof), who never give a break to a player who won’t punch another one on occasion, consider prodigious playmaking skill to be a sign of unmasculine weakness, and rarely consider statistical support for their views beyond basic boxcars (goals-assists-points) and possibly the unreliable plus/minus ratio. They also point to his recent injury issues and reduced production this season, especially as compared to the crooked numbers posted by the Oilers’ anointed young stars like Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and wonder if he’s worth keeping at any price.

There are reasons to consider both sides of the question, although my tone should make it clear where I stand on the issue. Perhaps the deal Hemsky got, a short term for unquestionably less annual salary than a player with his ability, experience, and statistical history would command on the open free agent market despite an off year, was an acknowledgment of the evident disagreement about him, a compromised third way forward. Maybe general manager Steve Tambellini was diligently kicking tires with other teams and found the potential returns for Hemsky underwhelming (yes, I put “Tambellini” and “diligent” in the same sentence; I’m feeling foolish today). Perhaps Hemsky took less compensation in the interest of being part of a team with a bright future (which sometimes feels like it is perpetually in the future and never about to arrive) in a city he clearly is comfortable with, and maybe even likes (Imagine, liking Edmonton!).

Whatever was behind it, at least two more years of Ales Hemsky in an Oilers uniform is, on balance, a happy result. He’s a magnificent player to watch even if the points aren’t coming, and that kind of ability will always be visible on some key statistical metric. Furthermore, although he’ll never be accepted by the grit-worshipping team fanbase in the way that Ryan Smyth has been, Hemsky has been a key part of the Oilers for the past decade or so, and has figured in many of their most notable moments in that span. He scored one of the single biggest goals in team history early in their Cup Final run of 2006, as well as figuring in one of the league’s funniest turn of events and in an instance of galvanizing team injustice. To whatever limited extent one can refer to the Oilers’ run of relative futility over the past years as a “legend”, Hemsky is a key part of that legend. Are figures in minor sporting legends worth $5 million per season? If not, then what are they worth? Surely something. And Ales Hemsky should continue to prove his worth to the Oilers while he’s able.

Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports

Film Review: The Beaver

February 23, 2012 1 comment

The Beaver (2011; Directed by Jodie Foster)

The key thing to recognize about The Beaver is that it’s both not nearly as weird as it looks and far, far weirder than it looks. As directed by Jodie Foster from a semi-legendary script by Kyle Killen that Hollywood has considered both undeniably brilliant and completely undoable for years, The Beaver is a surprisingly earnest, melancholy, and even moving drama that might be the most honest and heartfelt film about depression ever made. It’s also, quietly but firmly, completely goddamned bonkers, a nascent screwball comedy about a man who allows a rodent hand puppet to revive and then conquer his life. But The Beaver‘s balls never screw, and what’s left is the earnestness, as well as hints of new-age cynical transcendence that evokes American Beauty more than anything else.

The Beaver doesn't like Jews either...

As the trailer below and the opening section of the film exposits with clunky clarity, Walter Black (Mel Gibson) is depressed, and he can’t get out of his funk. The toy company he inherited from his father is languishing in unprofitability, his marriage (Foster plays suffering wife Meredith with a lack of imagination that transfers to her direction) is failing, and he is hopelessly detached from his sons. Henry, the youngest (Riley Thomas Stewart), yearns to idolize his father in the way that boys his age do, while Porter, the oldest (Anton Yelchin), aches to be precisely not like him in the way that boys his age do, even making a Post-It note list of features of his self that resemble those of his father that he wishes to purposely eradicate.

Kicked out of the house at last by Meredith, Walter has a dark night of soul (and the bottle) in a hotel room, and is egged on to attempt suicide by the booze and by random “mystical” quotes from an old rerun of Kung Fu. He is saved and then talked into giving life another shot by the aforementioned hand puppet, who speaks in a Michael Caine-type Cockney accent quite different from Walter’s American drawl. Gradually, Walter emerges from his depressed haze, reconnects with Henry and Meredith (Porter is more resistant), and turns his company around with a hot-selling beaver-themed woodblock carving kit (whose retail success is no more improbable than that of Tamagotchi). The kicker is that every success, like every word he says, is filtered through the Cockney beaver puppet, which proves to be far more sinister a partner than Walter bargained for.

Meanwhile, Porter expresses himself in the voices of others as well, writing expert essays in the personal tones of his schoolmates for hefty prices. His gift draws the attention of the lovely blond cheerleader valedictorian Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), who enlists him to write her graduation speech but gets more than she bargained for, too. Porter’s arc is the most Alan Ball aspect of a script that swoons in admiration for the American Beauty and Six Feet Under writer’s oeuvre (Yelchin is an actor born to embody such metaphors), and his relationship with Norah pushes him towards reconciliation with his troubled father.

You've got a spot on your shirt. Right there. Take a look if you don't believe me...

The Beaver has tremendous comedic potential but Foster dials down the laughs and focuses on the emotional interrelations of her characters and their attempts to reconfigure some sort of meaning in their lives. This is a reflection of her predilections as an artist in general (not many raucous comedy classics lurk in her filmography as an actor, let alone her largely-forgotten previous directorial efforts), but it’s debatable whether or not it was the right choice for this material. The jarring oddness of many of the Beaver-centric moments (Walter discusses ideas at work through the Beaver, gives television interviews through the Beaver, even makes loves to his wife with the puppet very much present) is rendered even more so by the straight-forward realist approach favoured by Foster. The laughter, when it makes a rare appearance, is less of the cathartic variety that the clear-eyed view of depression offered in the film would seem to demand than it is a defense mechanism, a sudden grasping stab at intelligibility by the viewer’s brain in the face of deferred rationality. When Walter finally makes the fateful choice to sever himself from the furry tyrant who is making the human into its puppet, the literality of his method is both shocking and completely obvious, but it’s not, perhaps, insightful.

This is the problem with this film, despite a wonderful crackerjack performance from Gibson. With and without the Beaver, he’s so good that you’re almost willing to forgive him for being such a prejudiced, reactionary, abusive, self-aggrandizing ass for much of the past decade (almost). Still, we’re left with little idea who Walter Black really is, if not the essentially good family and professional man that is hinted at in the closing moments. Of course, the narration suggests that this is the point, that identity and personality are necessarily constant works in progress that only reach the stage of completion at the mortal end.

But Walter’s identity as the Beaver, his identity as projected through the Beaver, is much more rounded, albeit not so positive. The Beaver is a charming snake-oil salesman, willing and fully able to offer his various audiences precisely the assurances and self-confirming myths that they want to be provided with. Is this part of Walter as well, as it is part of all of us? Is the best way to achieve success, happiness, and respect to lie the right way, or is it not to lie at all, as the idealistic cynics Porter and Norah decide is best? Jodie Foster’s The Beaver tells us that it’s on the truth side of this question, but I’m not so sure that it doesn’t give the lying side ample covering fire as well.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Thor

February 20, 2012 12 comments

Thor (2011; Directed by Kenneth Branagh)

Thor answers a question that no one had ever asked nor had even thought to ask: what the heck would a Marvel Comics movie directed by Kenneth Branagh look like? The answer: pretty much like any other Marvel movie or any other Kenneth Branagh movie, only perhaps more so. It’s an aggressively competent potboiler, an extremely silly film that accepts and even embraces that inherent silliness and often thrives due to that key choice. Thor is pure pulp and knows it, and it’s therefore hard to begrudge the predictability of the entire enterprise.

thor_posterThe enterprise kick off in the New Mexico desert at night (you know you’re in a comic-book movie if the opening shot features a subtitle identifying the remote setting), where a team of atmospheric science researchers track a storm of odd and alarming characteristics. Careening their science-mystery van at unsafe speeds in pursuit of the disturbance, they run smack into the form of a man. Who is this man? No man at all, some lengthy flashback exposition tells us, but a god: the resident badass of the Norse mythological pantheon, in fact.

‘Tis Thor (played by blond Aussie beefcake Chris Hemsworth), and he comes not from the land of ice and snow, but from the impossible sci-fi enormity of Asgard. We are soon shown this expansive place, rendered by the CGI designers as a glinting landscape of sheer-faced monuments and pulsating Nintendo lighting. Every scene on the rainbow bridge to the Bifrost portal out of the realm (and there are a few) leaves one expecting a Mario Kart to squeal by at any moment, hurling turtle shells and/or banana peels at the self-serious beings carrying out contentious conversations out on the multicoloured tiles.

Thor, you see, is not quite self-serious enough for the king of Asgard, wise, one-eyed Odin (Anthony Hopkins, who slums it with such benign gravity). The All-Father is Thor’s specific pater as well, and postpones and then entirely suspends his son’s anticipated ascension to the throne. This is in response to the young hammer-wielding hothead’s guerilla assault on Jotunheim, the perpetually dim land of the dire Frost Giants, with whom Odin has forged an uneasy truce that seems much more advantageous to the Asgardians than it is for the dour and nasty giants (who are admittedly not all that gigantic). Thor is banished for his hubris and stripped of his all-smashing hammer Mjolnir, leaving the computer-generated stage to his scheming younger brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who finagles his way into a semi-permanent regency when Odin falls into one his apparently frequent deep sleeps (Asgard evidently has no clear constitutional guidelines to govern such contingencies) while plotting to eliminate his anointed brother once and for all.

This brings us back to New Mexico, where there are fewer imposing Space Vikings bandying about medieval-romance pronouncements but more plucky scientists chasing atmospheric anomalies. Lead plucky scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, who slums it with less benign gravity), aided by her mentor (Stellan Skarsgård) and her intern (Kat Dennings), trundles the unconscious Thor off to the hospital, leading to a few amusing fish-out-of-water moments that tend to be related to smashing (coffee cups, hospital rooms, you get the picture), as well as to how freakin’ hot the ladies think he is.

At the same time, Mjolnir lands elsewhere in the desert, leading first to a redneck tailgate-party version of The Sword in the Stone and then to the descent of the shadowy government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and the cordoning off of the perimeter around the mythical hammer. Thor catches wind of the arrival of his trusty phallic extension and lays out some agency muscle-men on his way to reclaim it, but of course, his redemption will not be quite so easy. It will involve learning the virtues of not only violence, but of wisdom, self-sacrifice, and, of course, love.

What, a brother can’t be a Norse god?

Thor repeats the thematic mainstays of most Marvel silver-screen adventures, but don’t fret; it repeats the elaborately destructive fight sequences and the irritating attempts at topical humour of those previous products as well (just as Iron Man tossed off a MySpace reference a year after MySpace ceased to be cool, Thor drops some iPod and laptop jokes as if they were both just invented). There’s also several instances of manipulatively saccharine score cues (by Patrick Doyle, who is capable of better) trying to coax audience emotional identification from incongruous moments. Am I really about to get choked up because Thor can’t lift his hammer, or because he’s facing his sure-to-be-temporary doom at the hands of a fire-spewing guardian robot, just because the sympathetic strings say so? Additionally, the combination of outlandish, impressive design and stiff epic solemnity produces Asgard as a setting of simultaneous overwrought baroqueness and stilted boredom. The visual ludicrousness undercuts the performances, too, as actors like Hiddleston and Idris Elba (as Heimdall, the guardian of the world-bridge) strain to be taken semi-seriously beneath towering horned helmets of deranged Gigerian grandeur.

Yet Thor is not an unenjoyable popcorn flick despite its faults, and indeed quite likely because Branagh embraces the inborn corniness of the material with such vim, vigour, and uncomplicated enthusiasm. As brought to semi-life by the stalwart but affable Hemsworth, the Thor we are presented with is a crib-notes version of the self-involved anointed icons that Branagh himself played in the film adaptations of Henry V and Hamlet for which he is likely to always be remembered (to say nothing of his sublime self-mockery as Gilderoy Lockhart in the second Harry Potter film).

Thor, like Henry, must learn to cool his hot spurs, to consider war and then to wage it if need be, to court womankind with earnest words if that is what is required of him. Thor, to be sure, is not Shakespeare, but Branagh (unlike, say, Christopher Nolan) is not under the impression that comic books offer any such deep insight into the human character. They are the frothy quotidian myths of a thin gruel of a post-modern culture, and their relation to the myths of the past is nowhere more evident than in Thor, with its adaptations of Norse mythology. You’ll dig it well enough for a couple of hours, and then mostly forget it a couple of hours later. And now and then, that’s okay.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

February 18, 2012 5 comments

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011; Directed by Rupert Wyatt)

By most of the criteria upon which a film’s quality has traditionally been judged, this prequel/reboot/reimagining of the legendary sci-fi B-movie series is woefully inadequate. While the 1968 original was rife with delicious ironies and stinging social commentaries, Rise of the Planet of the Apes relies on canned cautions about medical experimentation and superficial finger-wagging concerning the mistreatment of animals (the opening sequence in an African jungle inverts the famous human capture by the apes in the original film, with human poachers snatching chimpanzees for sale to medical corporations). I imagine that its solid box office take may have been driven up by PETA bussing in audiences to have their ideological predilections fictionally re-confirmed, like Catholics and Evangelical Christians did with The Passion of the Christ (jokes, jokes; I’m not sure PETA could fill a Range Rover with loyal supporters at this point).

Give me freedom, and you can keep your black bananas.

Rise is also unable to boast one single compelling or even slightly competent human performance. The 1968 Apes at least had Charlton Heston alarming all of the ape-suited actors around him with booming line readings (“You cut up his brain, you bloody babboon!”). He flattened the scenery with his voice before chewing it at his own leisurely pace. This re-jigging substitutes James Franco as the dullest and most painfully literal personification of earnest, well-meaning liberal rationality imaginable, a blandly-named genetic scientist named Will Rodman who invents an Alzheimer’s wonder drug to try to save his mentally-degenerating father (John Lithgow). The strain instead turns apes into tactical geniuses and becomes an incubating phage that is hinted (not very subtly, but little here is) as the beginning of the end for human civilization.

Franco had made himself a target for derision in the year leading up to Rise, as his hipster intellectual pretensions have begun to overwhelm his undeniable thespianic gifts in the public eye. Strip away the NYU professor teaching students how to “turn poetry into film” and his widely-panned detached take on Oscar telecast hosting (so bad that he made Anne Hathaway look engaging; so bad that the producers are bringing back Billy Crystal, again), and there’s still a tremendously charming performer hiding behind the artifice. But Franco summoned more likability, pathos, and delightful self-effacement in a one-minute New York Times short film showing him chatting up and then kissing his own reflection in a mirror (the narcissistic ironies are stacking) than he bothers to do for a late-summer blockbuster that boasts him as the lead. Most likely, Franco felt he needed to balance his self-styled meta-commentary on leading-man fame with a by-the-book turn in a profitable Hollywood franchise. But maybe he could have brought a bit more of his humanity, his humour, his anything to the film than he does.

He’s not much outdone by his collaborators onscreen, either. Slumdog Millionaire‘s object of desire Freida Pinto is given nothing to work with in the supportive girlfriend role, Lithgow’s portrayal of creeping senility is so broadly comic as to be off-putting, and Brian Cox grumps about as the doyen of a prison-like primate preserve. Really, though, humanity in Rise is rife with pissant villains. These include Will’s antagonistic neighbour (David Hewlett, who is entirely too hot-headed to pass as the airline pilot that the plot requires him to be), his avaricious boss (David Oyewolo, who between this film, The Help, and Red Tails has gone all-in on smug Hollywood race-issue tokenism in the past year), and the petty tyrant of a keeper at the primate preserve, played by Tom Felton. Only the latter is all that enjoyable a presence, as he follows up his role as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films with another pretty faultless portrayal of a sneering little puke (and is the only choice here to utter the ironic reversal of Heston’s most famous line from the 1968 film).

You’re my bro, bro.

But Franco and every human in the film is outdone, in terms of performance, audience sympathy, and eventually the plot as well, by the apes. The central figure of these, the Spartacus of their simian revolution, is Caesar, played by Andy Serkis (a.k.a. Gollum and King Kong) through the CGI motion capture filter that he has crafted into his screen-acting trademark. The progeny of a lab chimp enhanced by Will’s genetic experiments, Caesar is saved from a purge of the test animals by the sympathetic scientist, who raises him as a pet-cum-surrogate-son in his own home until the demands of both human society and Caesar’s accruing, drug-elevated intelligence and self-awareness make that situation untenable.

Forcibly confined to the aforemention ape jail and experiencing a level of cruelty that he has never previously experienced, Caesar radicalizes like a simian Sayyid Qutb. He recognizes Will’s promises of a return home as a series of empty platitudes, and comes to see even his comparatively idyllic time under the scientist’s care as an unforgivable proscription of his freedom as well. In gradual, deliciously-revealed steps, Caesar plots an uprising of his ape brothers that culminates in a thrilling, climactic confrontation with the oppressive human authorities on the fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge. The workmanlike direction of British neophyte Rupert Wyatt gives itself up to the sweeping gestures in the closing act and improves markedly, aided immeasurably by the cinematography of Peter Jackson collaborator Andrew Lesnie and the score by Patrick Doyle.

The build-up to and the fulfillment of the titular rise saves the film from its initial B-movie-style clunkiness. Once the audience is given the permission to root for Caesar and fellow barricade-leapers (Occupy Redwood Forest!), Rise becomes undeniably enjoyable. The humans – nasty, petty and dull – deserve their comeuppance; the apes – soulful, thoughtful, and self-sacrificing (a gorilla named Buck saves Caesar in an obvious echo of the 1976 King Kong) – merit our support for their emancipation. Serkis and the effects team are quite often toiling valiantly in their own superior corner of this movie, crafting moments of sly wit and honest emotion that overcome the deadening, dumb silliness of much of the rest of the enterprise. Thanks in no small degree to his experience on Jackson’s Kong, Serkis embodies the sentient chimp with grace and aplomb; the computer effects people take care of the physics side, imparting the weight of Caesar’s motion with technical elegance.

With set architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright.

That Wyatt’s take on this material goes all-in on identification with the rising apes reflects an inescapable moment of widespread social dissatisfaction with the current efficacy and the future promise of human civilization. My earlier Occupy quip was not entirely glib; if only human rebellions could be as successful and uncompromised as that of Caesar and his simian fraternity (although the compromising is likely to come in the inevitable sequels, as ape civilization assumes the moral prejudices, repressive superstitions, and rigid hierarchies of the humans they have displaced).

Although Rise of the Planet of the Apes scratches at the roots of certain contemporary anxieties, it is entirely too goofy to have as much to say about our social reality as the 1968 original did in its time.  It does attempt to do more on this count than Tim Burton’s commercially successful but widely-panned remake from 2001, for which we can give some thanks at least. But it goes for the simpler overturnings of the Hollywood disaster epic, in the end, executing these elements well enough but without all that much imagination. That this process holds any appeal at all is a tribute to the craftsmen at work in the midst of the enterprise more than anything, and their continued efforts constitute the main potential of this new Planet of the Apes franchise.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Lin-ing in America: Reconstructing a Deconstructed NBA

February 16, 2012 1 comment

Possibly you’ve heard of this guy by now, even if you have little interest in the NBA (a point of view that has a sizable constituency, I can assure you). Undrafted, Harvard-educated, Evangelical Christian, Asian-American New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin has improbably and nearly single-handedly revived the public brand profile of a sports league whose biggest single superstar has become so divisive and oft-reviled as to overshadow his sublime talents, and which recently truncated its season for a new labour deal of dubious benefit.

Jesus, grant me a big fat contract that my GM come to rue in a few years...

Lin’s thrilling five-game run as a starter (during which he has averaged 27.7 points and 8.8 assists a game), culminating in a last-second three-pointer to beat the (admittedly pathetic) Toronto Raptors on Tuesday night, has sucked up all of the oxygen of the New York (and thus continental) sports media, and what a hot young fire has raged as a result. With a Super Bowl champion football team and one of the best teams in pro hockey, you’d think New York City would not, at this moment, need to focus on a short win streak  for their generally disappointing NBA club sparked by that most American of underdogs (you know, the kind with an expensive Ivy League education).

But New York is ever restlessly dissatisfied with its own lofty successes, and that’s what makes it New York, and thus better than your loser of a city, whichever that city may be. Its embrace of Lin says more about the city (and the country) than it does about the man himself. A figure of well-circulated humility like Lin (that damn sleeping-on-his-brother’s-couch story simply will not die) feeds that much discussed American need for the culturally-constructed aspirational tale even as he gives the oft-ignored minority group of Asian-Americans a folk-hero who isn’t a gay septuagenarian sci-fi actor who annoys millions with re-posted Facebook jokes.

As Bethlehem Shoals muses about on his GQ blog, Linsanity has a different, more democratic and participatory character than LeBronification, but to observe that is not to privilege one of their movements over the other. If anything, Linsanity is, like Tebow Fever, a transitory burst of optimistic derring-do that constitutes an expression of what America feels that it represents. LeBronification, though, is more likely America as it is: those chosen few with gifts and inheritances that lift them beyond the pale, stubbornly remaking the rules and structures in whatever form suits them best.

Jeremy Lin’s success as a scoring and ball-distributing point guard has an old-school charm to it that evokes fellow underrated basketball iconoclast Steve Nash in his prime. That both players have found their greatest success as the focal points of coach Mike D’Antoni’s sped-up offense, and that both have employed the hybrid big man Amare Stoudemire as a dangerous pick-and-roll partner, is surely no coincidence. But it is a structured success in a sport that has, at its highest level in the NBA, increasingly been conquered by players of such prodigious athletic ability as to achieve the wide-scale deconstruction of the game’s strategic limits. Despite its veneer of unpredictability, Linsanity feels like the last noisy gasps of systemic basketball in the face of the powerful deconstructionism of LeBron and his Miami Heat running mates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. That we find ourselves rooting with tense delight for the triumph of the algorithmic over the purely creative should perhaps not be as surprising as it may seem to be.

Categories: Culture, Sports

Film Review: Rango

February 14, 2012 4 comments

Rango (2011; Directed by Gore Verbinski)

It had to happen eventually. At some point, the post-Pixar CG feature animation wave of the past decade and a half or so had to crest and roll back into self-reflexive meta-commentary. All of those anthropomorphic talking animals must necessarily slip the bonds of child-like credulity and approach their full surrealistic potential. The mythic hero-narratives about self-belief and collective action would simply need to be deconstructed before being reassembled with self-aware deliberation.

Interpretive Cactus Impersonation 101

All this finally happens, more or less, in Rango. The feature animation debut of Gore Verbinski, the visionary weirdo director of mass successes like The Ring and the first trilogy of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Rango is what a viewer of scant insight might simply call “strange”. Verbinski and screenwriter John Logan craft a formulaic animated adventure narrative that is a critique of formulaic narrative, deploy predictable thematic tropes while sending up those very tropes, and render the whole crazy self-knowing thing as a vaguely delusional desert mirage. When they aren’t showing their hand, they’re tipping their hats: to westerns classic and spaghetti, to Chinatown, to the twisted comic perspective of Hunter S. Thompson, and to the paintings of Salvador Dali, among (many) other pieces of cultural arcana.

The titular skin-and-bones chameleon (voiced quite brilliantly by Johnny Depp, who hasn’t sounded this engaged in a few years at least) begins the film in a literal glass box, and is repeatedly placed inside frames by Verbinski, purposely constructed as being purposely constructed. He’s a solitary lizard, and an amateur theatrical: indeed, his eventual heroic stranger turn is prefigured as being another of his self-styled stage characters. His progression through the Joseph Campbell checkpoints of the story is marked by a sort-of Greek chorus of mariachi burrowing owls (yes, you read that exactly right), who strum out summations of his quest in Mexican rhythms and seem increasingly put out by Rango’s evasion of the imminent death they predict for him.

Sprung from his limited terrarium reality and left to fend for himself in an unforgiving arid environment, Rango stumbles upon a bone-dry, anachronistic frontier town called Dirt, inhabited entirely by a bizarre coterie of animals squeezed into late-19th-century garb and expressing themselves like supporting characters in True Grit. There’s more than a bit of twisted Coens peculiarity in the often-hilarious dialogue, which unsurprisingly flies right over the heads of the putative target audience of children, given that particular influence. Jokes about puttanesca, conjunctivitis, thespians (“That’s illegal in seven states!”), and removed goiters that “looked like Tony Bennett getting out of the shower” are clearly not meant for the youngins, but for their parents and/or snarky teen chaperones (though I’m not sure who a line like “I once found a human spinal column in my fecal matter” is meant for, really).

The incongruous parallel tones of wacky animated slapstick comedy and sophisticated referential humour can sometimes coexist in the same scene. A bravura sequence in which Rango and his townsfolk allies attempt to repatriate what they believe to be the remainder of Dirt’s dwindling water supply from an army of bat-riding hillbilly gophers (again, an accurate description, if you can believe it) parodies Stagecoach, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and borrows Ride of the Valkyries  from Apocalypse Now, but is also rife with frantic corporeal action. An earlier chase through the alleys of Dirt features an inspired left-field turn gag of Rango sheltering from a pursuing hawk in a discarded vending machine; the raptor pops a coin in the slot and dials up the lizard’s number, before the two face off in a life-and-death licorice tug-of-war. The character design is also delightfully loopy: a villainous outlaw snake (Bill Nighy) has a Gatling gun for a rattle, there’s a Indian War veteran bird with an arrow through its eye, and a rabbit doctor with only one ear.

All of Verbinski’s obvious efforts to make Rango into something truly different in the animation genre don’t quite coalesce, though. The plot arcs towards the formulaic at just the predicted juncture, and Logan’s script abruptly stops informing us that it’s aware of this formula at just the wrong time. We are at least provided with Rango’s meta meeting with “the Spirit of the West” (a ringer for Clint Eastwood voiced by Deadwood’s Timothy Olyphaunt) at a crucial moment, complete with alabaster chariot (a golf cart), mock-heroic pronouncements, and supernatural suggestions; when Rango asks him if they are in heaven, the Spirit replies with one of script’s most gobsmacking dialogic oddities: “If it were, we’d be eating strawberry Pop-Tarts with Kim Novak.”

In the last moments of the film, just as Sheriff Rango makes ready to ride into the stereotypical sunset, a precocious Dirtonian minor (voiced by Abigail Breslin) provides a canned academic summary of the film’s self-conscious theme that sounds like a direct quote from the aforementioned Campbell: “In order to satisfy the needs of the collective, the hero must abandon the self and solidify his image as an icon.” Had the last act or two of the film preceding this statement not forsaken this species of savvy self-reflexivity for generic plot turns, perhaps this last-ditch swing for the meta-commentary fences would resonate more. As it is, though, Rango grants more than free rein to magnificent surrealist imagery and cultivates a distinctly odd sense of humour, and is far smarter about even its least original elements than most films of its type. I’m not sure if it’s brilliant or just deeply cracked, but it’s worth judging that for yourself, if you can handle it.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Hellboy II: The Golden Army

February 12, 2012 Leave a comment

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008; Directed by Guillermo Del Toro)

Taking visual and metaphorical cues from his magnificent Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo Del Toro places Mike Mignola’s cigar-chomping demonic action hero in a stunning and occasionally meditative tale of folkloric magic fighting back against aggressive modernity.

"Ragtag band" doesn't begin to cover this crew...

To some extent, The Golden Army is more of the same as both Del Toro’s Spanish Civil War-set masterpiece and his first Hellboy film from 2004, but it franchises and deepens what might have stood simply as a solid one-off comic book film. Ron Perlman’s Red struts his way through more exciting paranormal adventures, accompanied by his hot (in more ways than one) girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), sophisticated, logical, and now-lovesick sidekick Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), exasperated government liason Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), and a by-the-book German ghost encased in a mechanical suit (voiced ludicrously by Family Guy svengali Seth MacFarlane). Del Toro’s action setpieces are clear, concise and elegantly shot; you’re never disoriented, and spatial concerns are always paramount. Perlman is once again pretty great even under his complex prosthetic; he lets rip with the one-liners, banters with friends and foes alike, and emotes when the need arises.

But the comic-book accoutrements are just a framework for Del Toro’s latest beautifully-crafted blend of harsh modernity and fragile mythological fantasy. From the film’s haunted prologue of wooden puppets waging war on forward, the symbolic background of magic hidden beneath concrete is what’s really memorable about Hellboy II, and provides plenty of opportunities for Del Toro and his collaborators to lay down a thick layer of beauty. A sequence in a troll market beneath the Brooklyn Bridge is a feverish expansion of both the cantina scene in Star Wars and Diagon Alley of the Harry Potter films, a complete, bustling world of fantastic monstrosities that passes by almost unnoticed, its mundanity the wellsrping of its magic. The action sequence that extends out of the market is even more striking, as Red wastes a towering beanstalk-like elemental that then sprouts into a delicate green garden in the midst of a faceless New York City street. Even the villain, the pale elf Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), is presented less as a world-threatening psychopath than as a representative of a magical underworld that promises to welcome Red more gladly than the bland post-industrial world of the humans ever will.

Even in a whiz-bang comic-book action blockbuster, then, Guillermo Del Toro manages to craft a thoughtful and poetic film about being haunted by mythological possibilities. That the film is also purely entertaining on its own merits is just the icing on the cake. It all just makes one lament his now-lost vision of Middle Earth for the forthcoming Hobbit films even more. Can you imagine what that might have been like? Watching Hellboy II, it’s sadly clear that we’ll only ever be able to imagine it. But for Del Toro, imagination is everything.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

@Sidslang’s Best of Twitter

February 11, 2012 7 comments

I will freely admit that it took me some time to come around completely to the merits of Twitter, let alone to learn how best to use it (still not certain about that last part). Certainly its instantaneous nature and the direct and unfiltered nature of its communication was always pregnant with possibility, but it could be as prone to insularity and contextless snark as any blog comments section. But I’ve come to see Twitter’s greatest strength as being the feature which I initially found to be its greatest weakness: its enforced brevity. Though I remain irked by the “be more clever” exhortation when the character limit is exceeded, the bonds are useful ones; Gord knows my prose could stand to be reined in more often.

So, for my own edification and in the interest of building up the follow lists of the curious, I present a choice few Twitter accounts that I have found to be worth keeping up with. Each one employs the format to great effect, and demonstrates its potential as a medium for creativity that the comparatively sprawling Facebook could never hope to match. Three examples shall suffice for today, but I may suggest other good ‘uns in future. Therefore, consider:


The Brooklyn-based Nigerian novelist, author of the critically-acclaimed Open City (which has an intimidatingly long waiting list on hold at the library which has thus far kept me from reading it), sometimes employs his Twitter to express thoughts on various aspects of life and culture, as many as wont to do.

But most of his feed is given over to what its subtitle dubs “small fates”. Combining a tone of quasi-journalistic detachment with a sense of irony that is as mild as it is wicked, Cole passes along often-violent events in the lives of fellow Nigerians that give clues to the character of the country and of its people. The construction of Cole’s sentences is always superb, and the masterful ironic twist can hang on a final word or two, or even a comma. The result neither edifies nor mocks his subjects, but reveals instead the absurdity of human choices and the inherent difficulty of understanding and sympathizing with others in a complex world of joys and horrors. In other words, I’ve really got to read the guy’s novel.

Representative Tweet:


Maybe it’s a Toronto thing, seeing as this city has the largest urban raccoon population in the world. But there’s something both amusing and poignant about these skulking nocturnal scavengers, with their probing forays into compost bins and waddling gait. They are the furry carrion-pickers of unchecked urbanization, feasting on leftover scraps of North American’s blithe excess. And I cannot imagine their nightly reality being imparted with anything more appropriate than the gently observant humour of @City_Raccoon.

A parody of the insipid “what I’m doing right at this moment” Twitter updates that dominate the platform, the often extremely short tweets describing tableaus of rodent action (“Waddle triumphantly”, “Scurry across the garage roof. Scurry”) take on an almost zen-like quality that trades on the collective recognition of these shadowy animals by city-dwellers. It also demonstrates a full appreciation of the comedic potential of repetition (“Nibblenibblenibble”). A simple-delights kind of account.

Representative Tweet:


With their beloved team closing in on six long seasons out of the playoffs, Edmonton Oilers fans have plenty of reasons to feel disillusioned, which is what makes this brilliantly therapeutic and slyly sophisticated satirical account so wonderful. @SHorcov, you see, is purportedly the Twitter account of long-time, overpaid Oiler center and current team captain (or “Kaptain”) Shawn Horcoff. The key comic distinction is that, while Horcoff is a reserved Western Canadian guy from Doukhobor stock, “Horcov” is a brash and talkative Russian stereotype who grew up under Communism, fought in the Chechen War, expresses himself with Yakov Smirnoff-style clipped English grammar, and has a wife named Olga with whom he has frequent “sexiness”.

@SHorcov is exasperated with the Oilers’ spiral of failure since their 2006 run to the Stanley Cup Finals (as most thinking fans tend to be) and expresses this feeling constantly, calling the Oilers “barely an NHL team” while openly defying his bosses in highly bawdy terms, wiping his penis on head coach Tom Renney’s silk scarf after masturbating into a rookie’s skates and having “sexiness” with Olga on general manager Steve Tambellini’s desk (while the latter looks on with impassive blankness, as always). This tweet-narrator’s extreme Russian-ness and stories of deprivation in the Soviet Union and in Chechnya (where he claims he once survived a frigid winter’s night by cutting open a fat dead Chechen and sheltering inside, like Luke and Han in The Empire Strikes Back) prove to be apt hyperbolic analogies for the experiences of the denizens of Oil Country, who can now officially be referred to as “long-suffering”.

But @SHorcov is truly great as a demonstration of worldcraft through the Twitter format. Rife with subtle literary and cultural references, the litany of tweets really constitutes a sort of makeshift situation comedy through the sometimes-bizarre comic exaggerations and ironic inversions that characterize its portrayals of the members of the Oilers roster. @SHorcov is not much interested in the Oilers’ blue-chip young stars like Taylor Hall or Jordan Eberle. He focuses instead on the established veterans as well as the misfits and also-rans that fill out the bottom of the roster.

Thus, top-pairing defenseman Tom Gilbert is a Adonis-like ladies man, slaying puck bunnies with his flowing locks and “massive knob”. Recently returned folk hero Ryan Smyth, not exactly known for his erudite range of expression in post-game interviews, is a widely-read intellectual with a “big brain” (Horcov recently imagined him giving a lecture on Goethe in the Catalan language). Ales Hemsky is gleeful about his likely-imminent trade away from the frozen hellhole of losing hockey that is Edmonton in February. And Finnish fourth-liner Lennart Petrell is just plain nuts – like all Finns, in our hero’s opinion, although this did not stop Horcov from taking a bacchanalian sauna-and-snow holiday in Finland during the All-Star break alongside Petrell and former Oilers Janne Niinimaa and Esa Tikkanen, which read across several days on Twitter feeds like a slowly-unfolding work of ragged comedic genius. And this is how @SHorcov reads in general, and why it’s a must-follow for Oilers fans (and maybe even for Flames fans, too).

Representative Tweet: