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Decalogue: The Top 10 Films of 2012

December 31, 2012 2 comments

As Random Dangling Mystery’s content silos has been gradually conquered by my multiplying movie reviews, I have managed this calendar year to see enough new films to complete a list of the year’s best releases in cinemas (at least those that I managed to see, with my limited funds and time). Write-ups on certain titles here will soon be appearing on year-end movie lists at PopMatters, but this is a rough Top Ten of the year’s best film products, from my standpoint.

1. Argo (Directed by Ben Affleck)

“Simultaneously conscious of its historical fidelity, contemporary political applicability, and entertainment imperative, Argo succeeds at all three disciplines. It manages to be a tense espionage thriller, a resonant social-political document, and a sharp send-up of Hollywood artificiality, often melding the genres to the point of erasing the supposed boundaries between them.”

Review – October 21, 2012

2. The Queen of Versailles (Directed by Lauren Greenfield)

“A remarkable portrait of the heaped symbolic excrement of American capitalist excess, Lauren Greenfield’s mind-boggling documentary of a bloated, self-consuming carnival send-up of the American Dream is often hilarious, sometimes poignant, but always really kind of depressing.”

Review – September 17, 2012

3. Cloud Atlas (Directed by Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer)

“Both its maximal scope and technical accomplishment smooth out the frequent wrinkles, and the sheer ambition and visionary quality of the picture is the conduit for its rare magic. Tykwer and the Wachowskis have made a memorable, often beautiful picture that does not telegraph its messages and trusts its audience to stick with it and put things together as they go.”

Review – October 31, 2012

4. Girl Model(Directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin)

“From its opening sequence of pale, waif-like, bikini-clad teenage Siberian girls queuing in an auditorium for an audition of a few scant seconds in front of a talent scout to the pathos of scenes of Nadya’s struggles in Japan, the camera pushes right up to the faces and bodies of its female subjects. The close-ups become unsettling and even intrusive, but reflect the similar unsettling, intrusive voyeurism that lurks just behind the flashbulbs of the fashion world.”

Review – April 16, 2012

5. The Imposter (Directed by Bart Layton)

The Imposter gives itself away in its very title, and yet the film’s gripping interest lies in how the elaborate and imaginative false-identity con is unveiled and just how many of its participants, even its ‘victims’, are deeply implicated in its perpetuation. The answer is that everyone is implicated, but that is a very lonely answer, as Layton’s film declines (or is unable) to provide many more.”

Review – December 26, 2012

6. The Other Dream Team (Directed by Marius A. Markevicius)

“This documentary comprehends very well that the team represented a fresh conception of the liberation theology of the game. The journey of Lithuania on and off the court was not a classic story of escape from difficult circumstances. Instead, they pursued a more challenging freedom, to remake those circumstances into something less difficult, something more human. There at the crossroads of rock and roll, political upheaval, and quick-passing basketball, freedom stands, sure of recognition. The Other Dream Team slows down just enough to offer it a friendly wave.”

Review – October 4, 2012

7. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Directed by Peter Jackson)

“If it does not share the iconic burnish, the narrative gravitas, or the general cinematic near-perfection of the LOTR trilogy kickstarter The Fellowship of the Ring, then An Unexpected Journey is still fun, clever, exciting, impressively-made, and even, sometimes, surprising.”

Review – December 17, 2012

8. Life of Pi (Directed by Ang Lee)

Life of Pi is pure, experiential, transportational cinema for its fantastic central half-to-two-thirds. Kickstarting with the freighter’s gut-churning demise in the midst of a nocturnal squall, the adventure-story element of the tale is brilliantly envisioned by Lee and his team. The fastidious details of Pi’s survival practices are imparted with intelligence and humour, the mortal threats that face him feel real and menacing, and the sheer, overwhelming beauty unleashed by Lee on several occasions cannot be easily shaken.”

Review – December 4, 2012

9. The Dark Knight Rises (Directed by Christopher Nolan)

The Dark Knight Rises is overstuffed with good ideas, bad ideas, big ideas, and dangerous ideas, and the distinctions between them are not too keenly felt. Nolan’s film is not without emotional heft, dramatic momentum, or committed performances. Indeed, it is often pure heft, momentum, and commitment, with only the briefest interludes of weighty wit for breathing room. It also presents multiple contending and even contradictory ideologies without ever adopting any of them.”

Review – August 5, 2o12

10. The Hunger Games (Directed by Gary Ross)

“The antidote offered up to this smothering (and occasionally deadly) conformity is, as usual, personal integrity and individuality. That this avenue of pursuit amplifies rather than dampens the social ills critiqued with Collins’ broad generic strokes seems not to have occurred to anyone involved. Still, at least The Hunger Games is able to diagnose those ills, even if its medicine is at best a painkiller and at worst a placebo. Youth-oriented blockbusters could do worse, and very often do. One that depicts and seeks to resist capitalist hegemony deserves our qualified appreciation.”

Review – September 3, 2012

Categories: Film, Reviews

Ian McEwan’s Saturday: An Ill-Suited Vessel for the Contents of Its Time

December 28, 2012 3 comments

British novelist Ian McEwan’s exploration of upper-middle-class malaise and uncertainty in the wake of 9/11 was contemporaneously heralded as a timely and prescient slice of insight into the then-current social and political mentality of the bruised world order of liberal-democratic capitalism. Following his almost universally-praised Atonement, a finely-balanced novel about guilt, forgiveness, and stortytelling set in the Britain of the 1930s and ‘40s, Saturday was bound to be greeted as a high-profile follow-up in literary circles, and greatness was again expected.

How disappointing, then, that Saturday finds McEwan facing up to defining issues of the early part of the 21st Century and having little of consequence to say. Reaction at the time of publishing trended towards the positive, but with the benefit of hindsight, I generally found myself agreeing with John Banville’s scathing take from The New York Review of Books: the politics are “banal” and the tone is “arrogant and self-satisfied”.

Even in Atonement, McEwan was concerned primarily with the problems of rich people (although WWII had a certain class leveling effect, at least on his characters), and once again he drops a big, heavy happening of consequence into the middle of their lives to shake them up and make them question their privilege, though not too much. In Atonement, it was a child rape and then the most deadly and destructive conflict in human history; in Saturday, it’s a fender-bender that leads to a home invasion set against the backdrop of historic protests against the Iraq War, all unfolding in the space of a single Saturday in London.

But McEwan’s whole package is redolent of the smug, conventional moral rectitude of then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who pedantically lectured his country and the world on the righteousness of the neoconservative-led invasion of Saddam Hussein’s rogue state and paid for it with his political life when he turned out not to be quite correct enough. McEwan does include a small comic tableau of Blair’s politician-ly willingness to ingratiate: at a gala opening of the Tate Modern in London, the PM mistakes the protagonist Henry Perowne, a capable but humble and self-doubting neurosurgeon, for an admired contemporary artist, and smarmily covers his error.

It’s a nice moment, and there are plenty of nice moments in Saturday. McEwan writes with extreme control and poise, building occasionally towards measured epiphanies and strictly-apportioned truths. The problem with this is that he often strives to knock his regimented fictional reality off-kilter, to introduce elements of unpredictability and chaos into his plot to keep it interesting and, one supposes, to advance his central themes as well. But the precision of his prose undermines these efforts, renders them busy and forced, like an elaborate laboratory experiment mimicking natural stimuli. This writing approach works fine when employed in describing the Georgian layout of London’s Fitzroy Square or in detailing Perowne performing brain surgeries, but is perhaps not the best method for imparting the stressful aforementioned invasion of the Perowne home or a furious amateur squash game.

The details are subordinate to the larger social-political observations that McEwan is aiming at, however. In its time, Saturday was one of those artistic works that were odiously prefaced by the term “post-9/11”. Suggestive of both mainstream pundit-peddled sociology and watered-down critical theory, the phrase indicates, essentially, a text that deals with the then-prevailing mood of paranoia and disquiet that followed the terrorist attacks on America (and continued into later such acts in Madrid and London, the latter which McEwan predicts with muddled idiot-savant generality in the late stages of the book). If this idiom carries less weight now, that must be a statement of the extent to which the events that once stood astride all public discourse have faded in intrinsic cultural importance, if less so in shared memory.

For all of the metaphysical fulminations of our Ian McEwans and Jonathan Safran Foers, the West moved on from 9/11 and its aftershocks. We internalized its lessons and even came to regret the paths its looming spectre scared us into following, namely the Iraq War, the Bush-era surveillance state, and the United States’ descent into the moral stain of officially-sanctioned torture of terror suspects, to say nothing of the more quotidian suspicion and mistrust it inspired. But all of this is still mostly in the unforeseen future for McEwan and his characters, although some younger anti-war figures (Perowne’s poet daughter, for example) pessimistically see it coming and are generally dismissed by McEwan through Henry, who adopts a wait-and-see approach that dispenses with the moral clarity of youth (and is thus dismissed by youth, for its part).

An argument between Henry and his daughter Daisy lays out all of the now-dated Iraq War talking points on both the pro and con side. Although it is difficult to separate McEwan’s own views from his main character’s psychological perspective, his sympathies appear to be with the baby-boomer father, who abhors a war but is swayed by the sudden governmental concern for disposing of the monstrous dictator Saddam. His daughter suggests a fiasco and distrusts American power, especially as wielded by the neo-con bogeymen (Paul Wolfowitz’ name is mispelt as “Wolfovitz” in the text, a typo that one hopes has no intent of inflating his Semitism for nefarious purposes).

They rage at each other with surprising intensity, a political teeth-baring episode that is common enough in family gatherings Stateside at all times, but especially in our partisan age. And yet the perspective of time that Henry Perowne (and McEwan through him) appeals to vindicates neither perspective fully. Iraq was rather a fiasco; there were no WMDs, too many civilian and combatant deaths, an undammed flood of foreign nationals affiliated with terror cells into the country to target American troops, nasty sectarian violence, and a tenuous, imposed democracy that may not last far beyond the U.S.-led coalition’s withdrawal. But Saddam was deposed, captured and eventually executed for his crimes; his regime was wiped from the national slate. There has even been a relative flowering of liberty, or at least non-specific demands for greater freedoms, across the Middle East, very much as the neocon fantasists were derided for talking up.

Iraq’s relation to the Arab Spring is likely more one of correlation than of causation, and it was hardly a bloodless victory without suffering even if it eventually proves to be anything more than a regrettable venture at all. But Ian McEwan’s Saturday sees that war, those turbulent times, and everything else that could be construed as upsetting through the prism of wealthy refinement and comfort. It is too prim, too controlled, too eminently respectable to get near to the spirit of our era of subcultural fragmentation, social balkanization, and political division. The novel is a scrupulous-chosen vase on a pristine coffee table for a world that fears that it cannot keep a roof above its own head. It’s an ill-suited vessel for its ambitious contents, and the liquid leaks out from the cracks.

Film Review: The Imposter

December 26, 2012 1 comment

The Imposter (2012; Directed by Bart Layton)

It seems like a simple-enough story, to start with. A 13-year-old boy named Nicholas Barclay disappears from the San Antonio, Texas area one night in 1994. Three years later, his family receives an unlikely call stating that he’s been found. Such outcomes are not wholly unheard-of in missing-child cases, though they are quite rare.

But the true story that unfolds from there, as laid out by first-time feature director Bart Layton with psychological-thriller tension and film-noir re-enactments largely unseen in the documentary form to which the film nominally belongs, is hardly so clear-cut even at its beginning, and becomes stranger as it progresses. The Imposter gives itself away in its very title, and yet the film’s gripping interest lies in how the elaborate and imaginative false-identity con is unveiled and just how many of its participants, even its “victims”, are deeply implicated in its perpetuation. The answer is that everyone is implicated, but that is a very lonely answer, as Layton’s film declines (or is unable) to provide many more.

The young man who is found in 1997 and claims to be the missing Nicholas Barclay is actually Frédéric Bourdin, then 23 years of age, a Frenchman of Algerian descent and a serial identity thief who claims to have assumed 500 false identities over his criminal career. Found alone, barely speaking, refusing physical contact and without any ID in a small town in Spain, the man who would be a boy claims to be Nicholas, who would have been about 16 or 17 at that point if alive. He convinces a few key American embassy officials and then Nicholas’ older half-sister that he is who he says he is, explaining away obvious discrepancies with a detailed story of his imprisonment, transportation, and torture by an international child sex slave operation. He is issued an American passport and flown back to San Antonio to continue the life that had been interrupted. Nicholas’ family accepts him with few qualms, but the FBI and a local private investigator are less easily fooled, and in their suspicion lies the kernels of Bourdin’s eventual undoing.

This may sound somewhat interesting or somewhat less so to you, as far as it goes. But I can assure that this synopsis merely scratches the surface of the unnerving psychological portrait of humanity’s surprising capacity for deluding and for being deluded (perhaps unwittingly, perhaps wittingly) that the The Imposter presents. Layton intelligently decides not to provide an omniscient voiceover narration, allowing the participants themselves to unspool the narrative threads. This results in multiple unreliable narrators whose perspectives contradict and overlap each other in their bizarre assumptions and conclusions. Bourdin himself, a notorious confidence man, provides most of the details, and his narration style is a disarming mix of self-justification, self-deprecation, and open confession that makes the implausible and even the monstrously dishonest seem plausible and forthright. It isn’t hard to fathom how he could fool so many with such a seductive and audacious approach to telling his own story, whatever he decided he wanted that story to be at the moment of the telling.

A product of a broken home who says he never knew his Algerian father and was rejected by his mother’s traditional, white supremacist French family, Bourdin self-diagnoses the stealing of the identities of so many lost children as being part of a lifelong search for the love and sense of familial connection that he was denied as a child (he is currently married with three children, and has purportedly given up on the confidence game now that he has achieved his share of human affection). He also diagnoses the apparent willingness of Nicholas’ family to accept him as their own long-lost loved one despite deal-breaking differences between Bourdin and Barclay (his hair and eye colour are different, he is much too old, and he speaks English with an obvious French accent that no Texan-born-and-bred person would possess). He suspects a dark shared secret about Nicholas’ disappearance among his family, especially in the case of the boy’s mother, a habitual drug user with health issues and an evidently limited mental capacity.

The conned family members, especially the sister who travelled overseas to meet him first and who Bourdin claims was coaching him about family details with a set of photos, deny this accusation vehemently and attribute it to a con man’s instinct of self-preservation. Ultimately, whomever we decide to believe or not to believe, no evidence has ever been found to give any clues about Nicholas Barclay’s fate. Layton ends his unsettling documentary of tangled mysteries with the private investigator (actually named Charlie Parker, like the protagonist of a dime-store detective novel) watching a hole being dug in the backyard of a house once resided in by Nicholas’ older brother, a suspect in unproven theories of the disappearance. 16 Horsepower’s haunting version of “Wayfaring Stranger” plays on the soundtrack. The film ends before anyone learns what’s been buried or what’s been unearthed, and this is an appropriate metaphor for a real-life mystery with no real-life (or even cinematic) closure.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Dark Knight

December 23, 2012 6 comments

The Dark Knight (2008; Directed by Christopher Nolan)

The reinvention of Batman as a morally-ambiguous anti-hero for a morally-ambiguous time continued with The Dark Knight. As in its predecessor Batman Begins or the less-worthy trilogy capper The Dark Knight Rises, Chris Nolan’s starkly realist interpretation of the Caped Crusader has its unquestionable strengths and its nagging weaknesses. For one, it’s oddly paced, set forth in a spiking series of mini-climaxes, after half of which the film could well have ended. This movie doesn’t flow so much as thrust and parry, and it’s a strange and sometimes tiring experience.

Performance-wise, even if all of the actors aren’t hitting every note perfectly, they are at least working hard to play real people rather than comic book caricatures. Caine, Freeman, and Oldman are solid if generally unremarkable in basically stock roles, Maggie Gyllenhaal may actually be slightly less engaging than Katie Holmes as the same character (I am stunned, too!), and Aaron Eckhart is upstaged by his makeup in the late stages of the film. It’s astoundingly cool makeup, mind you, but still. Christian Bale, however, is at his most phoned-in here; he’s a cipher, lacking any of his usual sneaking subtexts, which is disappointing given his abilities as an actor.

But, of course, this is Heath Ledger’s movie. This is the kind of performance that seals the near-legend status that his unfortunate passing already hinted at. Unlike Jack Nicholson’s scenery-chewing Joker, Ledger’s is a vicious, unpredictable, deeply twisted freak, a self-professed “agent of chaos” who gleefully adds an “s” to the front of “laughter” when given half a chance (but still slips in some snide humour here and there). Always a trickster figure, here the Joker takes those inherent possibilities to the extreme, posing large-scale philosophical quandaries to his bat-shaped nemesis that risk hundreds of lives in the process. The influence of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke is often apparent, but at times Ledger’s Joker is aligned much more closely with another Moore creation, “V” from V For Vendetta. An anarchical situationalist whose violent, criminal demonstrations always have deeper points about morality (or the lack thereof), he’s also always many steps ahead of the authorities and seems to operate with impunity and with an unexplained infinite reach, to say nothing of the fixed grin and the fondness for explosives.

The Dark Knight‘s Big Moral Questions only really carry any bite when the Joker poses them, however. Ledger’s mercurial trickster takes the heavy-handed statements about good and bad, moral and immoral that Bale, Oldman, and Eckhart are saddled with and twists a knife in them, all the while asking, “Why so serious?” His skewed role (along with the occasional badass action beat, when Nolan relaxes his editing finger long enough to show us one) suggests something more uniquely corkscrewed and less ponderous than the movie’s “heroes” are able to provide.

And yet the Joker is also allowed to question his own purported role in this morality tale, pointing directly at his own essential unreliability even as an agent of violent deconstruction of social order: “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?” Nolan had tended in his Batman films to throw around open-ended questions of moral philosophy while offering no remedies to the ills depicted, outside of some vaguely fascistic appeals to duty-bound male power. But in Ledger’s Joker, he finally had a figure whose willingness to upend and mock the very tenets of morality allowed him an out from the thorny answers he was so skilled at dancing around. No wonder that same figure was the element that audiences seized upon most enthusiastically, and remains the notable feature of the film that deserves to be best remembered.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

TV Quickshots #12

December 20, 2012 Leave a comment

The Amazing Race – Seasons 1 & 21 (CBS; 2001, 2012)

Viewing the most recent and the least recent installments of the veteran CBS reality competition program in succession has proven to be a revealing look into the structural development of a television juggernaut. The season that just concluded, won in a surprise result by upstate New York same-sex goat farming couple Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge after several near-eliminations and zero leg victories before the final and deciding one, represented 20 iterations’ worth of tweaks, adjustments, and refinements to a seemingly endlessly-repeatable formula.

Watching the first worldwide race unfold after extensive experience of fresher editions is a study in contrasts. Host and narrator Phil Keoghan (who looks every one of the ten intervening years younger in Season 1, complete with boyish haircut) simultaneously lays out the rules and developments with what feels like unnecessary detail and also appears much more seldom. He is supplemented considerably less by the informative subtitles adopted in later installments, which constantly update viewers on the current standing of the two-person teams respective to each other, give flight ETAs as they are set, and repeatedly remind us of the competitors’ names and relationship hooks. These changes smooth out informational wrinkles in the show’s fabric in a manner that both trusts audiences to process more important information more quickly and does not trust them to process the proceedings without making them painfully clear. The early legs of Season 1 unfold almost casually, the challenges more vaguely-defined but also a touch more difficult. The most recent season, in comparison, is a well-oiled machine delivered with an almost cold precision that is saturated with intrusive corporate sponsor product-placement (they won a Ford; we get it).

The Amazing Race‘s formula has also been refined in the casting of competitors. The team templates themselves have remained fairly regular: minorities (of the race, physical disability and sexual orientation categories) are well-represented, there’s nearly always male and female friends, parent and child, husband and wife, and requisite older contestants. Even as the personalities have largely retained their compelling qualities, the competition that once thrust relatively ordinary Americans into a whirlwind tour of the culturally-diverse globe has gradually sent out more photogenic pretty people and minor celebrities (especially CBS reality franchise crossovers) on that televised quest. Even as the televised product has generally become quicker, tenser, funnier, more efficient, and more self-aware, the profusion of contestants with public images to protect and to foster has reduced the feeling of panicked spontaneity and interpersonal conflict that the show originally encouraged.

This transformation can be seen most clearly when Season 1’s dwindling number of teams arrives in the chaotic, poverty-stricken social vivacity of India. Accustomed as I had become to the more recent Amazing Race standards of preening aspiring model-actors spewing paternalistic neo-imperialist platitudes about the plight of the poor in the developing world putting their own socioeconomic good fortune into perspective, this initial season’s clear-eyed approach of showing the setting in all of its complex nuances was striking. As the teams found themselves logistically and emotionally unable to navigate this unfamiliar locale without tremendous difficulty, The Amazing Race seemed, briefly, to be more than a hyper-touristic game show with occasionally tiffs thrown in for added tittilation. It felt, if only for fleeting minutes, like it was about the limits of American cultural saturation and about Americans who take that saturation for granted being confronted very directly (even painfully) with said limits. This is a far more challenging Roadblock than any that has been hidden in a yellow envelope, and the show has lost sight of that to its own long-term detriment.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey

December 17, 2012 9 comments

The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey (2012; Directed by Peter Jackson)

The Hobbit is here, and I’ve seen it. If you can’t stand to wade through the detailed thoughts to come, here’s the upshot: Either An Unexpected Journey, the first in a trilogy of films directed by Peter Jackson based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s brisk and lively classic children’s novel of a quest by a wizard, a gaggle of dwarves, and one special little hobbit, is better than we’ve been led to expect, or my self-vaunted critical faculties crumble when faced with the vivid richness of Peter Jackson’s still-wondrous vision of Middle Earth. I have my reasons for doubting the latter (few scales remain on my eyes after a decade of deep familiarity with the Lord of the Rings film trilogy), so elimination of that option leaves the former.

Why, I found myself asking, were so many critics so eager to equate this first Hobbit film with the franchise-souring wrong turn that was Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace? If it does not share the iconic burnish, the narrative gravitas, or the general cinematic near-perfection of the LOTR trilogy kickstarter The Fellowship of the Ring (still the best picture of the series, when taken as a whole), then An Unexpected Journey is still fun, clever, exciting, impressively-made, and even, sometimes, surprising. Why the suggestions of boredom, flagging pace, and dreary blockbuster drudgery? Are its harsher critics feeling free at last to tilt at Jackson’s digital windmills after the Rings trilogy’s avalanche of success in the commercial and aesthetic departments smothered any hint of dissent? Is it a general malaise with endemic Hollywood franchise-ology coming to the surface, an expression of principled frustration with the industry drawing the wrong sort of lessons from Jackson’s game-changing earlier adaptations and privileging CG-enabled world-creation, staged fight scenes, and drawn-out serialization over the Old-Hollywood bravado and expert cinematic narrative-crafting of those films? Or did this vision of Middle Earth simply not impact upon or resonate with them as it did for me?

I can understand any of these critical impulses, though none so much as the last. My engagement with Jackson’s Rings films was profound in a manner that cannot be fully explained and that the films, for all of their laudable qualities, did not perhaps fully earn. I sunk my expanding perspective on art and culture into those movies until they became more than themselves. Perhaps that overwhelming feeling bleeds into The Hobbit, erasing its knottier elements (and there are, undeniably, a few to note) under that same smothering avalanche of glorious cinema that may have frustrated naysayers. Perhaps. Or perhaps the answer is simpler: An Unexpected Journey is a cracker of an entertainment, and I just enjoyed it.

There is much to enjoy, first and foremost of which is Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins. There has quite possibly never been a more inspired bit of casting in any such enormous blockbuster film undertaking (and this takes into account the decision to toss the intense and underappreciated Method actor Viggo Mortensen into the role of Aragorn in the original Rings trilogy). The most wonderful part of Freeman’s performance is that, essentially, he’s doing his trademarked shtick of the befuddled and frustrated everyman: opening his mouth to object, raising a finger, then thinking better of it, clamming up, and moving along. Where previously his perfectly-timed comic ticks demonstrated Tim Canterbury’s bafflement at the awkward excesses of Ricky Gervais’ David Brent on the original British The Office or John Watson’s exasperated amazement at the eccentric deductive genius of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes on Sherlock, now they are turned to the insistence of a pushy wizard or the poor manners of dwarves or the ravenous appetites of trolls or the inconvenient bother of fighting a swarming army of subterranean goblins. He becomes the ideal Bilbo by remaining entirely himself, even when the film asks un-Bilbo-like acts of physical courage of him.

There is only one month in the Dwarven calendar: Movember

Freeman is most amusing in the film’s Shire-set opening act, as a baker’s dozen of dwarves and Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Grey (much missed and as michieviously authoritative as ever) invades his cozy hobbit hole, devours all of his food, and insists that he join them in their quest to slay a deadly dragon and regain their home kingdom of Erebor. All of the hoary history of this is laid out in an opening prologue that is meant to echo that of Fellowship but mostly substitutes visual sweep for dramatic context. Once Dale and the Lonely Mountain are laid to waste and the dwarf diaspora is achieved, things don’t exactly pick up, but the leisurely pace is welcome and grounded in the familiar, and I could not muster the objections to the amount of time it takes to get on the road that seemed to trouble so many other observers.

There is some important plot to be established in Bag End, as well as the sketched personalities of the company of dwarves to lay out. Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield, a king without a throne or even a realm, obviously predominates, and the Aragorning of the character is the clear project of the screenplay by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo Del Toro (the latter was to direct the film before dropping out due to scheduling issues brought on by project delays related to the New Zealand labour situation, and these films will always be the fantasy epics that were nearly, tantalizingly his).

Armitage musters every scrap of nobility at his disposal to show a side of the dwarves that is more proud and heroic than the earthy hungers of John Rhys-Davies’ comic Gimli in Rings, and comes across as a bit of a humourless and stubborn twit as a result. But then, Thorin is stubborn and proud to the last (my partner memorably dubbed him “a Republican dwarf”), so this is accurate enough. Beyond the hero-dwarf, the measured old hand Balin (Ken Stott) stands out, as does the active young archer and warrior Kili (budding Irish hearthrob Aidan Turner), the towering, hammer-wielding Dwalin (Graham McTavish), and James Nesbitt’s forthright Bofur, who has a nice scene with Bilbo that emotionalizes his people’s exile status.

Once we have our company established, Jackson of course itches to throw them into physical peril. If his plethora of imaginative action sequences introduce a note of violence to the proceedings that is more muted or skimmed over in Tolkien’s book, then we can nonetheless appreciate them for the models of tension and active wit that they are. The wonderful, spatially clever escape from the realm of the goblins beneath the Misty Mountains is the true highlight, though earlier drag-outs with trolls and warg-riding orcs, as well as the climactic scene on a burning forest precipice, have their points of recommendation, too. There’s also a scene of the company stumbling into the gladiatorial exertions of rock-hurling stone giants on a mountain pass that takes Tolkien’s similes a mite too literally and feels like a moment from a lesser CGI punch-fest, but it’s also scrupulously epic in its scope.

There is one who could claim the throne of Gond… I mean, Erebor.

All of these action beats fall short of the suspense, intelligence, and surprising pathos of Bilbo’s fateful encounter and riddle contest with Gollum (more vivid than ever, thanks to the evolving talents of Weta Digital and motion-capture master Andy Serkis). Gollum’s well-established split personalities play off of Freeman’s Bilbo beautifully; in the midst of so much saturating cinema, this scenes feels almost like a theatre piece, a give-and-take between two (or three, really) well-crafted characters. And the key moment that ends their encounter, an instance of empathy and mercy whose consequences ripple down into the famous events of a greater conflict to come, is both underplayed and abundantly clear. In a movie much lighter on profound emotional appeals than the films it follows, this was a peak of pathos.

For everything that is done right, one must still register the notes that sound a touch off-key. Of great concern to all close observers of Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien was the various material briefly hinted at in The Hobbit text or in The Return of the King‘s appendixes that would be woven into the narrative of this film trilogy. I can report that while it’s hardly the leaden bore it’s been called in some quarters, the White Council involving Gandalf, Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) discussing an evil that is creeping back into the world does not contribute much to the overarching narrative of this film. Nor, really, do the scenes with the ratty off-grid hippie wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) which propel the party into Rivendell, necessitate the council of the wise, and hint at the dangers of Mirkwood to come in Film #2, though comparisons to Jar-Jar Binks are distinctly off-base (though how he crosses the mountains from Mirkwood to meet the company near Rivendell on his bunny sled is not exactly rationalized for us, and there’s a couple of forehead-slapping drugs jokes that we could have done without).

There are niggling notes of oddness, though, the sort of things that may have been scrubbed from the slate or tweaked further if not for Jackson’s legendary down-to-the-wire delivery schedule for his expensive tentpole releases. Deus ex machina irruptions are multitudinous, though Tolkien is more to blame for that than Jackson and his co-writers can be. Despite some funny culinary stuff and excellent Martin Freeman awkwardness in the encounter with the trolls (Bilbo sneaks towards them at one point, but turns seamlessly the other way when their attention is drawn his way, a hilariously elegant bit of physical comedy), Jackson cannot resist inserting some scatalogical humour, including a graphic snot gag. And even with a score by Howard Shore that generally deserves to be compared favourably with his amazing Rings music, there are some curious cues, including the strange use of the Ringwraith theme from Fellowship to accompany Thorin confronting his orcish Moby Dick, the imposing Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett).

Keep it secret, keep it cozy. I’m still hashing that out, give me a break.

I’ve written repeatedly in the lead-up to this film’s release about the nature of expectations, of the baggage and context that viewers are bound to bring to The Hobbit film trilogy. In fact, the awareness of these expectations seem to be acknowledged right there in the title itself, although for moviegoers, this journey is now a long-expected one. The thing is, I know what The Hobbit is, in its published literary form. I like it well enough, but let’s not kid ourselves: it ain’t much. There’s a reason readers flock to the more portentous and absorbing LOTR, and a reason those books were adapted for the screen first. The Hobbit cannot hope to match either its scope nor its world-crafting depth nor its sociopolitical applicability, the latter which has found purchase across several historical contexts. By the same token, The Hobbit films cannot hope to approach the axis-shifting achievement of Jackson’s Rings trilogy.

Perhaps even Jackson could not help but recognize this fact, which is why he sunk so much more innovative effort into his well-publicized high-frame-rate projection initiative (I did not see it in 48 frames-per-second or in 3D, so I can comment on the effect of neither as of yet) than he did into providing the synthesis of cutting-edge onscreen technology and old-school cinematic spectacle that made his earlier efforts the modern classics they have become. For all the subtle and unsubtle call-backs to the Rings films that are built into An Unexpected Journey, there is a restless desire at work behind the scenes of this movie for it to be something more than knowing nostalgia or corporate-driven re-capitalization of brand loyalty (although that Hobbit menu at Denny’s can’t really be understood any other way). Maybe it’s that thirst for the new and exciting, that refusal to just go through the same precise motions again, that saves Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit movie from the potential tedium that haunts its steps and that was felt by so many critics. It is not a transcendent achievement, but it is also far from a misguided attempt either. This first stage of the journey is enough of an adventure to sustain our interest and pique our anticipation of the next chapter.

Categories: Film, Reviews

The School Shooting in Connecticut: Reason and Emotion in America

December 14, 2012 Leave a comment

Contrary to our best hopes but entirely in line with our fearful expectations, there has been another deadly school shooting in America today. Facts continue to trickle in and the outline of the tragedy remains sketchy (and Columbine should have shown us the folly of leaping on patchy, unreliable initial reports and tying them into a narrative that suits our prejudices). But what we know is that a gunman opened fire at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut this morning, killing 26 people including himself, among them as many as 20 children between the age of 5 and 10.

Reasons and causes are as yet unclear, but then, really, they always are in such cases. What can we know of the mind of any mass shooter, let alone one who targets children? Reason collapses in the face of such senseless hate, such reckless destruction. What does “why” matter in the face of wilful murder of innocents? “Why” matters no more or less than “how”, which will also become more terribly, painfully clear in the coming days. This is the only certainty in such an event: the gradual, painful unfolding of details and facts, the picture filling in but the accretion of information offering little solace and less enlightenment of meaning. Reason holds that evidence leads to conclusions, solutions, and closure. Reason cannot fathom what has happened in that school in Connecticut.

And so emotion and ideology step in to fill the void left by impotent rationality. The immediate reactions, especially among the decent mainstream in the centre and on the left (the right has been and is likely to remain fairly silent; nothing their belief-system suggests to them can avail them in this discussion), have been righteously angry, in particular at the continued laxity of American gun control laws. The same arguments for and against stricter gun laws have been and will continue to be loosed from their rarely-closed cages. Perhaps 20 or so dead children are enough to shift the Overton window on the subject; perhaps not even dead children can shift the axis of the NRA and their gun lobby confederates. Yet despite the inordinate number of mass shootings in the past decade or so in America, gun laws have moved more towards permissiveness than restriction. Protestations aside, Americans have, by and large, chosen to live in a country with a liberty of access to guns, and have not yet been moved to change this by any number of massacres. If dead kids are the price to pay, lawmakers and even the general public have seemed to say, “So be it”.

Still, this time already feels different, and we are still in the immediate aftermath of the event. As can be seen in the video statement below, the President (hardly known for his hysterical displays of public emotion) can barely compose himself when discussing the cruel murders of so many children. Barack Obama is not a feel-your-pain sort of politician; indeed, at times during his re-election campaign his even-keeled nature seemed so at odds with the frustrated, strained barometre of the nation’s voting public that he threatened to lose control of what turned out to be an easily winnable contest against the flawed representative of a moribund, cynical ideological movement.

But this may be a moment that defines him, especially if it sparks long-overdue legislative action on gun control. Obama’s tenure manifests the earnest hopes of level-headed Americans who wish an end to the counter-productive practices of political-tribal resentment that have frozen America’s longtime upwards trajectory in mid-climb, if not actually spinning it back down into a precipitous plummet from progress. It is tragically ironic that it may require an intense and raw emotional wound to make a more reasonable and productive social polity possible. But for all of our hope for the future and attempts to forestall its darker possibilities, it often takes a horror to move us to real action. This may be that horror. What, then, will be the action? The American future awaits the answer.

Categories: Current Affairs, Politics

Film Review: Brave

December 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Brave (2012; Directed by Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman)

A mild delight from the prolific Pixar stable, Brave reasserts popular Hollywood thematic paradigms unlike anything else to recently come out of the hit-making animation factory (or at least anything not involving talking cars). While evidently intended as a feminist-lite challenge to the submissive and romantic “princess” image that the studio’s mother corporation Disney has so lucratively disseminated for decades, Brave instead finds itself reifying other equally pervasive themes, namely those of individual freedom and red-blooded Celtic authenticity.

Set in a verdant fantasy of medieval Scotland, Brave is the tale of Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a teenaged Scottish tomboy princess with a shock of red hair, a fierce independent streak, and deft skills as an archer. While she dwells in a castle of cold, hard stone, she escapes it regularly to ride through lush forests, climb rocky cliff-faces, and drink from fresh waterfalls.

These settings reflect her contrasting relationship to each of her parents. Her hulking, lusty father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), is her obvious model of behaviour, and the influence of his adventurous warrior spirit is what drives her into her sojourns in the wild (she shares his red hair, a clear stereotypical marker for this sort of temperamental inheritance shared by her three mischievous younger brothers). Her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), rules over the domestic sphere with prim dignity and firm propriety, her rigid, proto-Presbyterian properness a seeming extension of the stony, immovable bones of the castle itself (she not-so-subtly directs the official court proceedings for her husband, who is more brutish than eloquent) .

Elinor has very specific and traditional ideas about the sort of correct and feminine princess the rebellious Merida must be, and those ideas decidedly do not involve riding, climbing, archery, or any other such “masculine” physical exertions (the French-language title of the film is the punning Rebelle, a far superior moniker considering the nature of the product). Like many a teenager, Merida chafes at the bonds of expectation her mother imposes upon her, and the conflict comes to a head when Elinor arranges an audition of marriage suitors from three of the great clans in Fergus’ kingdom for the hand of her resisting daughter. When Merida crashes an archery competition set up to determine the winner of, well, her, a wide rift opens between mother and daughter, symbolized by a rent torn in a painstakingly woven family tapestry between queen and princess.

Merida storms out of the castle and is led by mysterious faerie wisps to a hermit witch (Julie Walters) disguising herself as a woodcarver.  In reply to Merida’s exhortation to provide her with an enchantment that will “change” the queen, the witch whips up a compact cake that will do the trick when fed to Elinor (our heroine neglects to specify the nature of the change, a prudence which would render many a similar fairytale dull and predictable). Of course, the spell has unintended consequences: it turns Merida’s mother into a large black bear, and the princess must race against time (and against discovery by her self-styled bear-slaying father) to change her back.

If the plot’s main elements have the taint of the borrowed about them, then many of the colourful particulars are more inventive. Plenty of comic detail concentrates around the clans, one of which is smirkingly called Clan MacGuffin and features a young scion whose Scots dialect is wholly, hilariously impenetrable (Kevin McKidd voices both him and his more verbally distinguishable father; Robbie Coltrane and Craig Ferguson are the other clan leaders). Merida’s brothers are unstoppable ginger triplet hellions who terrorize the castle and occasional aid in her schemes. If I was mostly unamused by their antics, it would take a willfully blind observer to deny that small children are likely to dig them.

Most consistently funny and nicely-observed, however, is the physical comedy of Bear Elinor, who attempts to preserve her dainty mannerisms and cultured self-containment despite being saddled with an outsized ursine form. She tries to tread softly and gracefully through the castle after her transformation, but smashes objects inadvertently left and right; she attempts to eat berries with twig utensils and awkwardly flops about in a river to catch herself a meal of fish. Elinor’s gradual acceptance and ease with her wild animal form opens her up to reconciliation with and understanding of her unruly daughter, just as her daughter is able to accept in return that her mother’s manipulations come from feelings of care and concern.

The Scotsman is presenting. The circle of life circles on.

The trajectory of the healing of their bond privileges Merida’s personal ideology of active, unfettered freedom over Elinor’s emphasis on decorum and customary gender roles. Although she briefly shows enough self-possession to defuse an inter-clan dispute (with her bear-mother’s background coaching) by employing a queen’s tact and a king’s appreciation of the exchange value of masculine martial prowess, it is a freedom without responsibility that Merida wishes for and eventually receives. It’s also a freedom blithely unconcerned with historical anachronism. Her rejection of marriage as a tool of political alliance-building and assertion of individual control of her fate is a wish-fulfillment fantasy of modern proportions (as well as an oft-exploited corporate tool of marketing mass conformity as an expression of distinctiveness). Much like Braveheart’s vaguely democratic exhortations to freedom, there is nothing in medieval social custom to support Brave’s conception of personal command of life choices, in particular for a noblewoman.

Another similarity between Brave and Braveheart, and the one that sticks most firmly, is the film’s pandering to pervasive stereotypes of the Highland Scots culture and character. Like Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning epic, Brave’s medieval Highland Scots alternately wear kilts of belted plaid (not worn in Scotland until the 16th Century) and Celtic woad body paint (common to the Picts of the earlier Roman period but not later, it is believed), all while drinking and eating and fighting like the vigorous, savage wild personifications of the id that they supposedly are. These stereotyped and inaccurate elements are deployed here as pastiche and meant to satirize the ludicrous depictions of the Scots common to the American cinema, certainly. But the result is that Brave glibly ridicules these widely-recognized markers of Scottish cultural identity while simultaneously crafting a visual aesthetic based on mist-shrouded Highland settings and the lines of Celtic art. It wants to have Scotland both ways, and it can’t, really.

Brave, therefore, is a bit of a liminal film, stuck in the gutters between the tropes it wishes to upend and the ideological compulsions that it cannot help but follow. It faintly mocks the misapprehended terms of Scottish cultural identity while relying on popular conceptions of stereotypical Celtic self-reliance and unruliness to advance its central themes. The dialogue it seeks to establish between princessly femininity and contemporary feminism is awash with fuzzy maternal dominance, and mistakes furious physical activity for pure female agency (it also does next to nothing interesting with its witch character, which could be fertile ground for a more groundbreaking cinematic feminism). More than anything, Brave is not terribly brave. It wastes its enjoyable qualities and the considerable potential of its ideas on vaunted re-workings of conventional animated film tropes that serve mostly to re-entrench those tropes. Which is too bad, as there was ample opportunity for much more.

Categories: Film, Reviews

The Royal Baby Affair: Monarchy, Celebrity, and Mortality

December 9, 2012 Leave a comment

Media buzz over the British royal family – in particular their current youthful standard-bearers, Prince William and Kate Middleton, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – has been relatively subdued as of late. This is the nature of royal-watching, as opposed to the promotional vagaries of entertainment celebrity. Unlike pop singers with new albums to sell or movie stars with new film releases to promote, the British royals don’t really do anything that contributes in an immediate wqay to our mass culture. There’s no consumer-capitalism-driven reason to push them to the fore, most of the time. If there’s clear popular interest that drives media coverage of the monarchy, it’s not related to any sort of time-sensitive product release. At least, not most of the time.

Media interest in Will and Kate has spiked again recently with the public announcement that there is something new on the way: the Duchess is pregnant with another heir. The Windsors can’t seem to get enough of those, in these contemporary times of minimal mortal danger to lines of succession to the throne (Henry VIII would die of envy at the abundance, were he not already a corpse of long standing). The hands of the monarchy and their handlers seems to have been forced to some extent in the timing of the public reveal by a minor health crisis for the expecting Middleton, who was hospitalized early this week for severe morning sickness. What followed was the usual media blitz, which is entirely characteristic of the British tabloid press but only exacerbated by the established international celebrity of its principals.

This is the most well-protected wheelchair ramp in all of the British Empire.

As the cameras and microphones and their wielders stood vigil outside of King Edward VII hospital in London waiting for updates, an absurd tragedy began to unfold in this shimmering spotlight. A pair of radio DJs from Australia (since suspended from the air) executed what they likely believed to be an amusing prank call at the time, phoning up the hospital to check into Middleton’s condition while pretending to be Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles. Some of us had a laugh with them, some of us engaged in some hand-wringing over the security breach, but no serious consequence from the incident seemed to be forthcoming.

Then, the news broke that the duty nurse who transferred the call through to another nurse (who dutifully gave out the requested info to the presumed monarchs) had turned up dead just days later. Suicide over the humiliation of being duped in the care of such a high-profile patient was the widely speculated cause in the death of Jacintha Saldanha (and how English a reaction would that have been: death from mortal shame). No official statement of cause has been forthcoming from Scotland Yard, who are calling the death “unexplained”. Thus followed recriminations of and apologies from the Aussie radio station, statements from the various parties including the word “tragic”, and, of course, even more hand-wringing.

As we are well aware, this would not be the first time that the breathless media predators circling the gilded form of the British royal family have wound up with blood on their hands, if the Australian prank call is indeed judged to be the fatal catalyst. William himself, we can’t forget, has felt the sting of this sort of thing rather more personally before, and it may be that he’ll make some more direct statement about it drawing on past experiences when more information comes to light (or maybe not; the stiff-upper-lip stuff is also highly English). But the ironic juxtaposition of death alongside the promise of a new life, a life sure to be lived in the same harsh glare that its parents have experienced, is interesting as a metaphor for the ravenous fame machine that is sure to entrap this unformed infanta. A fairly inspired Twitter account for the Unborn Royal is already providing a commentary on the convergence of power, fame, and infantile innocence to be put on display. Will the hype monster around the royal family of Britain expand its appetite to matters of mortality as well as of birth? It seems like it already has, whether it would choose to or not.

Categories: Culture, Current Affairs

A Good Omen: Howard Shore’s Score for ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’

December 6, 2012 1 comment

I’m not sure which I’m anticipating more: the first installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit film trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, or the new score to that film by Howard Shore. While there is still a little over a week until the former opens across the civilized world, the latter can be heard in its entirety in an exclusive live stream on the Rolling Stone website.

Shore’s work on The Lord of the Rings, for my money, was more than simply a film score. Beyond setting moods or striking tones or cueing audience emotional reactions, it became a dominant feature of the films, as vital a character as any member of the Fellowship itself. It did not merely provide an aural backdrop to key onscreen moments, it transformed them, transcended them. The flutes and fiddles of the Shire themes established the nostalgic country Englishness of the setting beyond doubt. How affecting would the Fellowship’s reactions to the fall of Gandalf have been without that exquisite single falsetto dragging Jackson’s slow-motion shots of crying hobbits into true pathos, or the gradual crescendo of “Journey in the Dark” rendering the wonder of the pillars of Moria’s dwarf halls in overwhelming terms? The battle music as well, percussive and relentless, ebbed and flowed with the harsher ambient sonics of war. It helps that it was applied with a masterful editing hand by Jackson, building it up with his initiating charges before cutting it off with the clash of colliding armies at its peak, a technique borrowed directly from Prokofiev’s score for Eisenstein’s hugely influential battle scenes in Alexander Nevsky.

All this wordy praise for past achievements places Shore firmly in a shared boat with Jackson as far expectations for their work on The Hobbit is concerned. As is the case with the film itself, the score of The Hobbit has a tremendous act to follow, namely the modern model for the epic film score for the modern model for the epic film. If it seems doubtful that, for whatever new wonders Jackson unleashes, this prequel trilogy will not surpass his smashing earlier success, then the same is true for Shore’s music. There is some lovely stuff here, but much of the experience of listening to this score, especially in advance of viewing the film it accompanies, amounts to leitmotif-spotting. A jaunty Hobbiton waltz here, the uneasy strains of Gollum’s Ring theme there, Elven beauty in between, and dwarf singing everywhere.

This last feature is not as heavy an element on the soundtrack as might have been suggested by the first trailer, with the cast-sung take on the textual song “Misty Mountains”, which here brings the album’s proceedings to an a capella halt (and is rendered in memorably heroic instrumental overtones in “Over Hill”). But it is prominent enough in the background of the music of corporeal excitement that takes up the latter portions of the score album, as Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves fight, run, blast, and squeeze their way out of the mountains ahead of hordes of goblins (or so we with knowledge of the literary source material must only assume).

The more intriguing musical cues relate to the material that is clearly being patched into the movie from other sources (mainly Tolkien’s appendixes to his famous trilogy, we are lead to expect). Tracks clearly meant to connect the seemingly light quest narrative to larger power developments in Middle Earth at the time (mainly revolving around the Necromancer, an alias for the Dark Lord Sauron who was ensconced in a fortress in the south of Mirkwood at the time of the events depicted) vibrate on a more powerful and stranger wavelength. “An Ancient Enemy” is replete with menacing brass and choirish fortitude, “The White Council” and “The Hill of Sorcery” suggest portentous magical acts, and “Radagast the Brown” is full of wavering melodies and unique touches (percussion like the feet of clambering rodents, a rootsy violin screeching woodily). For the theme music of a mostly carefree sylvan wizard, it carries a cartload of foreboding weight.

Although the score album concludes with New Zealand singer-songwriting Neil Finn’s folky but unremarkable “Song of the Lonely Mountain” (with orchestration layered a bit thick in apparent hopes of impressing the highly fickle Best Song Oscar voters), its true emotional end point is “A Good Omen”. The cut is likely to commemorate the last narrow escape of Bilbo and his travelling party to be made in this movie at least (more so even than the LOTR films, The Hobbit movies will have a hard time convincing us that their cut-off points are to be anything but arbitrary). But it strives for a note of emotional finality with a hint of unease for future perils that was carried by “The Breaking of the Fellowship”, the swelling climax of the Fellowship of the Ring score album. That it doesn’t quite achieve the earlier-established lofty level of indelible film score timelessness may be a microcosm for the full effect of the score and the film as well (though the latter remains to be seen, of course). Ultimately, it’s difficult not to hear Howard Shore’s score for The Hobbit in terms entirety yoked to the film it accompanies and (hopefully) uplifts. Even, and perhaps especially, if we’re yet to see the film itself.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews