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Film Review: Wreck-It Ralph

June 28, 2013 2 comments

Wreck-It Ralph (2012; Directed by Rich Moore)

Disney’s highly-entertaining dip into the world of video-game culture was heralded by portents of dense intertextual crossovers and winking references to highlights of the faded arcade realm. But what emerged instead under the title of Wreck-It Ralph was something more conventional narratively and thematically which creates its own core of characters and sociopolitical implications, using licensed characters and visual trademarks from iconic video games as cameo-based, referential background colour, rather like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? once did. Like Roger Rabbit, however, the resulting product is not only an excellent technical achievement, but a strong and spirited entertainment of its own, and not merely a post-modern sprinkling of hat-tips to gamers of many ages.

The titular wrecker (voiced by John C. Reilly) is self-introduced as the villain of a 30-year-old stand-up arcade buttons-and-stick game called Fix-It Felix, Jr. Ralph is a red-haired, big-handed behemoth in overalls who climbs and smashes up an apartment building while the game’s earnest, magic-hammer-wielding contractor protagonist (Jack MacBrayer of 30 Rock) chases behind furiously fixing his damage. Owing something to the 1980s arcade and Sega Master System classic Rampage, the game has retained its spot in the arcade even as the gaming landscape around it has changed. But its rigid pixelated reality has begun to wear on Ralph, who, like all other game characters in the arcade, is a sentient being with a consciousness inside the game machine and in the inter-game exchange system. This world is centered around the powerbar hub of Game Central Station, where characters from all of the arcade’s consoles mingle in the off-hours after closing time, chatting, having drinks at the bar from Tapper, and even pouring out their frustrations in support groups.

The Bad-Anon group hosted by Clyde from Pac-Man is where Ralph tells his story (other attendees include Super Mario Bros. antagonist Bowser, Zangief from Street Fighter, and a thoughtful zombie wielding a pair of hatchets). It’s not so much the monotony that bothers Ralph as it is the social exclusion he feels in his game home. Fix-It Felix (who was merely given the magic hammer from his father, a reference to the inherited privilege of the upper classes) is feted in the penthouse of the apartment building he fixes each day by its rotund bourgeois residents (who move in the digital-jerk progressions of 8-bit graphical interfaces that prove to be even more hilarious in the rounded hyper-reality of feature computer animation). Ralph, meanwhile, is thrown from the roof at the end of every game by these same residents to land in a mud puddle. If that isn’t humiliation enough, at night he dwells in the adjacent mountainous rubbish dump like a common homeless ogre, snuggling down for the night beneath a makeshift quilt of the bricks shaken loose by his daily in-game smashing. Ralph’s literal pariah state is constructed as part of the natural game-order, but there’s a razor-sharp suggestion of real-world socioeconomic disparities lying just beneath and strongly underlining it.

Ralph is a sensitive soul behind all of his tempermental destruction, though, and is stung by his rejection by his fellow game-citizens. But this is the code of the game: Felix is the good guy, Ralph is the bad guy, and Bad-Anon’s mantra emphasizes that this cannot change and must be accepted to ensure the mental and emotional health of the game-world’s villains as well as the gaming-world order. Ralph tries to penetrate the invisible curtain of social regard sundering heroes and villains, showing up uninvited to a celebration of the game’s three-decades’ anniversary, but the divisions (always-already coded not only technologically but also socioeconomically) prove too resilient.

This latest public rebuff is one too many for the tender-hearted giant, and Ralph departs Fix-It Felix, Jr. on a quest for a hero’s medal of his own, which he conceives of as his golden ticket to the appreciation of his peers. Stumbling onto a shell-shocked mecha-marine by the men’s room in Tapper, Ralph learns that just such a medal is the ultimate reward of the Halo-esque first-person-shooter Hero’s Duty. Ralph steals into the stark sci-fi military environment of this game, but finds its high-definition action to be overwhelming. Still, he survives the assault of hordes of malevolent Cy-Bugs (game characters who die in their own game can regenerate, but stay dead if killed in other games, a rule of the universe that the film does not explore enough) and snatches the medal, only to be hurled (along with a newly-hatched Cy-Bug) out of the game and into a saccharine candy-themed racing game called Sugar Rush.

There he meets a cute but snarky black-haired girl named Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), who steals his medal to employ as an entry fee to the nightly candy-car race to determine the selectable player avatars in Sugar Rush for the next day in the arcade. Vanellope’s entrance and potential avatar-hood is staunchly opposed by the game’s autocrat King Candy (Alan Tudyk, all spittle and nebbishness), but she’s plucky, engaging and has something he wants, after all. Ralph decides to help her in her quest to win the race, at first to get his medal back but thereafter because he recognizes a kindred outcast spirit as well as a rewarding opportunity to create rather than to destroy.

She’s a regular Maria Cand-retti! Get it? A bit too sophisticated, I know.

Wreck-It Ralph is expertly helmed by veteran animator Rich Moore, who directed many Classic Period episodes of The Simpsons including the legendary Michael Jackson guest-spot of “Stark Raving Dad”, the Top-5-Episodes-Ever “Marge vs. the Monorail”, and “Cape Feare”, with its famous extended rake gag. With that sort of resume, you know that he’s kind of good. Director’s pedigree aside, Wreck-It Ralph is highly inventive but not often really funny; it entertains with confidence, but doesn’t become a great animated comedy like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. It’s worth bringing up that film, because the richly-imagined sweets kingdom of Sugar Rush owes far more to Cloudy‘s oversized-food structural design than to any established video-game-verse. With more than half of the film set there, the candy-world needs to be clever and richly-drawn and certainly is: King Candy’s security forces include two cops in the shape of anthropomorphic donuts (hardy-har) and Oreo palace guards who chant their brand name in a homage to The Wizard of Oz (genuine hars for that), the racers have twee saccharine monikers similar to Vanellope’s and resemble various desserts, and a Mentos-and-diet-cola volcano figures prominently in the climax.

Wreck-It Ralph is also notable for the gender of its best-written characters: they’re both women. Vanellope could have been a highly irritating creation, but instead is a hugely likable impertinent oddball. The writing is quite good, but it’s Silverman, finally granted an apt playground for her slightly-askew, whip-tongued coquettish comic style, who truly shines. And if that isn’t enough, another female comic heavyweight shows up, too: noted verbal flamethrower Jane Lynch voices Sergeant Calhoun of Hero’s Duty, a comely but no-nonsense warrior who chases Ralph and the Cy-Bug he unwittingly unleashed in Sugar Rush with an assist from the hopelessly square Fix-It Felix. Aside from her woman-of-action act, she also lets loose with a PG-rated litany of colourful R. Lee Ermey drill-sergeant-isms (“The selfish man is like a mangy dog chasing a cautionary tail”).

In addition to its considerable entertainment content, Wreck-It Ralph further contextualizes the continuing dialogue on the ostracized hero figure provided in recent animated features, as discussed in my ParaNorman review. While Ralph’s exclusion in his game is quite obviously grounded in assumptions of socioeconomic disparity and class difference, Vanellope’s pariah situation is based more so in political philosophy and the ruthless self-preservational calculations of the powerful. At the predictable point of conflict in the plot, King Candy attempts to dissuade Ralph from helping Vanellope to enter the race because, at least according to him (and King Candy never seems like anything other than an unreliable source), she’s the product of a system glitch and could threaten the entire existence of Sugar Rush if her technical faults lead to a dreaded out-of-order sign and removal from the arcade entirely. Additionally, as a glitch, she would not be able to leave the game as the other characters would when it is shut down, and she would be deleted along with the rest of the remaining game elements.

When did you first feel bad about being… bad?

Thus, King Candy argues that allowing the individualist “freak” Vanellope to compete on a level playing field with others would not only threaten the common good but her own safety as well. The monarch laments that with the kingship comes such hard choices (heavy is the head that wears the candy crown). The difficult balance of the desires of the individual with the needs of the collective is straight out of Hobbes’ Leviathan, and is also referenced in the self-examining Rango. King Candy’s perspective is that certain seditious internal elements must remain excluded and discriminated against, not only for the common security of his society but for the personal protection of those elements as well. That King Candy turns out to be a tyrannical manipulator is unsurprising, and locates his emphasis of trading freedom for security in multiple real-world historical examples (not least of all America’s contemporary national security state) as well as in Hobbes’ work (Leviathan was ultimately an argument for the monarchy as the ideal stabilizing force in the social order, after all).

Wreck-It Ralph invokes these themes as many recent animated features do, as simultaneous narrative and marketing appeals to its target audiences of smart children and culturally-aware adults, both groups assumed to nurture some grievances when it comes to social exclusion by a conformist mainstream. These themes are also undoubtedly redolent of genuine personal meaning for the creative figures behind the films’ creation, many of whom experienced the ostracizing and even outright bullying for their divergent interests that they empathize with in the lives of their target audiences. It shouldn’t be surprising that the recent wave of outcast narratives in animated film has accompanied both the new commercial ascendancy of geek culture in Hollywood and more widespread anti-bullying initiatives on a social level.

As entertaining and thematically rich as Wreck-It Ralph is, however, it mostly joins the middle-ground of the current animated feature discourse on the outcast figure. One can’t help but feel that a fuller engagement with the video-game culture that serves mostly as a backdrop to the narrative might have provided greater access to these ideas. Who in recent pop-culture circles, after all, is more marginalized than the video-game nerd? Wreck-It Ralph‘s pariah discourse might have benefitted from the deeper involvement of gaming, rather than nodding allusively to it before immersing itself in the sugary imaginings of the Commonwealth of Candyland.

Categories: Film, Reviews

PopMatters Television Review – Mad Men: Season 6

June 26, 2013 3 comments

Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title to go to the review.

 

Mad Men – Season 6

 

Categories: Culture, Reviews, Television

PopMatters Television Review – Under the Dome

June 24, 2013 1 comment

Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title to go to the review.

Under the Dome

 

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: Hot Fuzz

June 21, 2013 7 comments

Hot Fuzz (2007; Directed by Edgar Wright)

The Wright/Pegg/Frost creative team takes a further step towards becoming the finest comic filmmakers out of Britain since the Pythons with this energetic send-up of action blockbusters and buddy-cop movies. As hilarious and prodigiously entertaining as Hot Fuzz is from its opening moments, it’s the density of visual detail, the genre-collapsing energy, and the intense intertextual intelligence being displayed that sets it apart from, well, basically anything else, including its cult-classic predecessor.

Much like that predecessor, the mildly overrated Shaun of the Dead, was both a parody of zombie movies and an honest homage to the genre, Hot Fuzz references American cop action flicks (sometimes directly, often cleverly and obliquely) while professing an unabashed love for their mindless but rousing violent streak. The fact that the explosions and shoot-outs and punch-ups are set in the idyllic English countryside raises them to the level of satiric absurdity, certainly. But the film is always playing both sides, nimbly and effectively.

But its plot is not as simple as this description may seem, mind you. Simon Pegg is Nicholas Angel, a tremendously dedicated and, indeed, over-effective officer for the London Metropolitan Police. His aggressive hypercompetence at his job embarrasses his Scotland Yard superiors (a trio of cameos that, if you haven’t seen the movie, I wouldn’t dream of giving away to a British entertainment fan), who transfer him to a cozy Gloucestershire town called Sandford. Angel has trouble adjusting to the more casual rhythms of small-town policing, chafing under the cake-dispensing glad-handery of the local inspector (Jim Broadbent, ever wonderful) and the action-flick-bred enthusiasm for the possibility of crime-busting violence of the inspector’s son Danny (Nick Frost). But the superficial gentleness of Sandford conceals a dark and deadly conspiracy to retain the town’s model English village reputation, and the town’s prominent citizens (led by a deliciously smarmy Timothy Dalton as the owner of the local supermarket) will use any force necessary to prevent Angel from exposing and defeating their circle of local control.

As may be apparent, beyond all of the glorious comedic action (Wright understands well that action movie fans, like zombie nuts, are quite happy to laugh at the proceedings), there’s a cunning satire of the English rural perspective in play in Hot Fuzz, as well as of the insular functioning of smaller communities. The Kinks’ “Village Green Preservation Society” shows up on the soundtrack, and the film offers a twisted take on the tune’s iconic subject: the beautified country town that feels itself the very representation of all that is traditionally English, a shiny facade that conceals old-fashioned parochial prejudices against modernity, discrimination of cultural difference, and a general hegemony of conformity.

So there’s a meaning hiding beneath the finely-tuned buffoonery, whizzing bullets, crunching punches, and spurting action blood. It can be a bit heavy-handed, though it’s imparted more slickly and with greater verve than the anti-consumerist assumptions of Shaun of the Dead. But the message is muscular and well-rounded, and is interwoven tightly enough with the entertaining veneer of the material that it never detracts but only deepens. Hot Fuzz balances its literal and figurative content as well as it balances its satire and homages, an impressive achievement considering its inexorable momentum and rapid-fire comic inventiveness.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Towards An Aesthetics of Hockey Violence: Fascism, Futurism, and the Boston Bruins

June 18, 2013 5 comments

Contending for the greatest prize in professional hockey for the second time in three seasons, the Boston Bruins are matched against the Chicago Blackhawks in this year’s Stanley Cup Finals (and took a lead of two games to one in the series with a grinding Game 3 win on Monday night). More than any other current NHL team, the Bruins are surrounded by a discourse that values old-fashioned smash-mouth hockey above all. Even if they are a strong puck-possession team with a protective defensive system (hallmarks of the coaching style of Claude Julien throughout his time in Boston), the Bruins are identified with all of those hoary old clichés clustered around the fading aura of hockey’s traditional culture of barely-controlled violence. Toughness, truculence, hitting, fighting, being “hard to play against”; these tropes are trotted out again and again to explain the current Bruins roster’s successes (which include a Cup in 2011).

Bruins forward Milan Lucic composes his Futurist manifesto, influenced as it is by the critiques of the Frankfurt School.

Certainly, the prevalence of former Bruins players and coaches in the hockey media goes some way towards explaining the spread of the concept of the value of hard-edged hockey. CBC’s hockey coverage flagship Hockey Night in Canada utilized no less than three former Bruins figures in its studio team of only about half-a-dozen not so long ago: Mike Milbury, P.J. Stock, and Don Cherry were also, not so coincidentally, the broadcast’s most stringent voices in favour of fighting, hitting, and violence in the game in general (Stock and Cherry still do defend that battered rampart, as Milbury still would as well, had his preference for physical violence not become unfortunately literal in a minor hockey setting). Other public hockey figures stick up for the role of violence in the game, certainly, but there is an added element of stubborn righteousness to those who have passed through the Bruins organization and into the media. They boast the intransigent certainty of true believers, of ideological foot-soldiers for the cause of Bruinism.

The always detailed and thoughtful Ellen Etchingham takes up this subject in a fascinating recent post in her blogspace at TheScore.ca. Her insightful consideration of the Bruins’ association with conceptions of the role of nastiness, aggression, and above all physical pain concludes that these elements are valued in the hockey context not as means to an end, but as an end in themselves. What matters is not whether smash-mouth hockey leads to winning; there’s little empirical or analytical evidence that it does, and considerable agreement that high hit totals in particular are indicative of a team with poor possession percentages that tends to unproductively chase play. Violence – and for Etchingham, the shared experience and understanding of pain above all – has an aesthetic value in and of itself; indeed, it is perhaps the central defining aesthetic of the sport of hockey, in its traditional delineations.

Etchingham, who loves the game with the passion of a recent convert, conceives this aestheticization of violence and pain as essentially positive or at least grounded in the lived experience of hockey’s fans and thus basically unchallengeable in reality if not in theory. To my mind, however, this aesthetic is more problematic; indeed, even the use of the term “aesthetic”, accurate though it may prove to be, is not without its attendant issues.

My thinking on this point is influenced by the epilogue of Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (which I have employed on this blog in the past). This epilogue is often overlooked, as its specific contemporary focus on the ideology of the fascist movements sweeping Europe at the time of its composition is less widely applicable than the Marxist critique of industrial production in a cultural context that precedes it. But Benjamin’s consideration of the Futurist concepts of the aestheticization of war does seem to apply, surprisingly, to the Boston Bruins and the aesthetic of hockey violence that circles around them.

My Photoshop skills are insufficient to the task, so you’ll have to simply imagine Walter Benjamin wearing a hockey helmet.

Benjamin discusses the manner in which, in a fascist state that includes a sizable proletarian class but does not threaten the holding of private property, the masses must necessarily turn to the political arena for the purposes of expression. The purest and most powerful method of that expression is through war, which becomes highly aestheticized in the Futurist conception as the ideal melding of human productive activity with industrial processes. Benjamin quotes an Italian Futurist at length as he rhapsodizes about the artistic truth inherent in bullets, shells, and gas masks, about the greatly-desired “metalization” of the human body, about the artistic glories of death in battle and the “symphony” of “the stench of putrefaction”. The massively-industrialized and hugely destructive war launched by the fascists in Benjamin’s home country of Germany shortly after (the upheavals of which cost Benjamin his life) would have come as no surprise to him. Indeed, war is not only inevitable but inevitably desirable in the discourse of fascistic Futurism.

Although the Marxist Benjamin does not connect this aesthetic valorizing of mechanized violence to the concomitant valorization of masculine strength and physical prowess in the mass culture of the fascist states (Nazi Germany in particular), it is this association that connects the aestheticization of war to hockey’s aestheticization of violence. Modern capitalist democracy has diverted the masculine self-expression of the masses away from its centuries-old conduit of martial warfare, ironically due mostly to the increasing mechanization of armed conflict that Futurists embraced as a harbinger of aesthetic fulfilment.

The expression of masculine aggression in the modern West has thus fallen increasingly to the sphere of sports, also famously extolled by the Nazis as a source of aestheticized Aryan glory. From the direct contending of weeknight sports leagues to the vicarious experience of rooting for pro sporting heroes, the masculine aggression of the masses once released in cathartic slaughter in war is now sublimated into the controlled, rule-bound competition of sports. The traditional hockey culture is often accused of glorifying violence, but Etchingham recognizes that what it truly glorifies is the endurance of pain, suffering, and physical difficulty, which are also the elements of war that are so often constructed as romantic and heroic. Hockey, therefore, is an ice-bound kabuki of teeth-gritting fortitude in the face of hardship enacted for the edification of the generally white, male, conservative, proletarian fanbase of the sport, or for the edification of this fanbase’s own hardscrabble daily negotiation of an increasingly obscure post-capitalist socioeconomic reality through association with their heroes’ struggles with adversity.

The point of this discussion is not to suggest that the Boston Bruins are Nazis (although Brad Marchand at least has probably been called worse), nor to simply equate sports to war in the one-for-one euphemistic substitution manner often favoured by its media. But dubbing hockey violence or “toughness” an aesthetic, just as suggesting that war is aesthetic as the Futurists did, opens up deeper and less intellectually ghettoized conceptions of its dissemination than dubbing it an ideology might do. Ideology exists beyond conscious adoption by subjective agents; it “works” even if you don’t believe in it, in Slavoj Žižek’s conception at least. But an aesthetic is closer to a preference or a predilection. It is chosen, while ideology chooses us. However we choose to justify it, either by Etchingham’s appeal to common empathy or the Bruinist insistence that it correlates to success in the win column, understanding hockey violence as an aesthetic makes its continued prevalence in the sport that much more troubling and difficult.

Film Review: Oz The Great and Powerful

June 16, 2013 1 comment

Oz The Great and Powerful (2013; Directed by Sam Raimi)

Disney’s expensive and flashy reanimation of L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz mythos is saddled by as many rosy cliches and saggy bromides as it is buoyed by wondrous visual imagination. But Oz The Great and Powerful is redeemed by its knowing winks at its own fundamental silliness. This abiding self-awareness is visible not merely in the broadness of its actors’ performances, as miles-broad as they often are. As the origin story of Oz’s man behind the curtain (this time, we are asked to pay lots of attention to him), the film is a fitting tribute to the classic magician’s act of illusion, misdirection, ingenuity, and, above all, flamboyant, old-fashioned showmanship. These are not only its textual themes (and ideological implications) but the basis of its technical cinematic element as well, as director Sam Raimi celebrates the theatrical flourishes, exoticism and makeshift trickeries of the carnival midway, transposed onto the frame of a blockbuster fantasy epic film.

But Raimi opens with that carnival midway, in a field in Kansas in 1905, leaving no doubt that his sympathies, his artistic inclinations, and his cinematic antecedents lie in league with the circus freaks, trick shooters, and showy hack conjurers of this vanished, romanticized culture. One such hack conjurer is our protagonist, Oscar Diggs (James Franco), a self-involved, egotistical, ambitious carnival magician who puts on under-attended, orientalist-tinged performances for hayseeds of varying degrees credulity. He treats his long-suffering assistant and his sole sort-of-friend Frank (Zach Braff) with cavalier dismissal, and leaves a trail of broken-hearted female conquests behind him. To the great credit of not only the grinning, rakish Franco but also screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire (from a story by Kapner), Oscar (“Oz” for short) remains essentially unreformed in his abilities, appetites, and personal foibles, even when circumstances demand of him not only the greatness he aspires to but also the goodness he feels he cannot achieve.

What are those circumstances? Well, as Oscar escapes in a hot-air balloon from the angry strongman husband of one of his scorned lovers, he is swept up in a towering tornado and begs whatever force summoned the avenging storm for a chance to prove himself to be worthy of survival (jagged splinters of wood jab through the walls of the balloon’s basket in this sequence, a playful 3D-era homage to horror imagery from the erstwhile director of The Evil Dead). Oscar does survive, and drifts out of the squared aspect ratio and black-and-white palette of the Kansas sequence into a widescreen technicolour land of marvels called (like him) Oz. This technical transition is an obvious homage to the legendary shift into colour of the 1939 MGM classic The Wizard of Oz, a film that Raimi and Kapner reference and rejig but whose actual contents must be tiptoed carefully around for legal reasons (although Baum’s Oz books are in the public domain, Warner Bros. owns the rights to iconic elements of the iconic film, and character likenesses in particular could not be replicated).

Copyright stipulations do not dissuade Raimi from making his Wizard’s entrance into Oz a memorable one, however. After a rollercoaster ride in the balloon basket over a waterfall (3D gimmick again), Oscar drifts past a wondrous visual and aural symphony of musical flora. Multichromatic flowers hang pendulously and ring out like church bells, crimson butterflies flutter past lilypads tapped gently like cymbals by dripping dew and strum sinuous fiddlehead reeds like violin strings, and segmented bamboo catches the wind to blow a woodwind’s welcome. Reveals of CGI-assisted wonder are a stereotypical element of these recent blockbuster fairy tales, and Raimi’s film includes several more of diminishing affect (in one later such moment, our aesthetic reaction is clumsily prompted by a character intoning “It’s beautiful!”, as if we are unaware that it’s supposed to be). But this arrival sequence is a genuine overture of awe that Oz never again quite matches.

Emerging from this quasi-dream, Oscar is met by the lovely Theodora (Mila Kunis), who immediately and without much prompting identifies him as the great Wizard prophesied to arrive in Oz, claim the throne as king, and liberate the land from evil and tyranny. Her good impression of him is further reinforced by his freeing of a trapped flying monkey in a bellhop uniform named Finley (voiced by Braff), who becomes his defacto sidekick. What she neglects to mention, however, is that her own black-clad sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) is the actual source of that evil and tyranny in the land, lording over the green Art Deco pinnacles of the Emerald City with her crystal ball, mastery of finger lightning, and armies of Winkie Guards and vicious flying babboons.

Still, the naive Theodora falls for the handsome, flirtatious putative Wizard (Franco revels in his character’s slippery, indulgent charms) and believes him to be not only the saviour of the land but of herself as well. Ever the nomadic cad, Oscar betrays her faith not only in his ability but in his affection for her alone as well. This precipitates the scorned Theodora’s turn towards a wickedness equivalent to (if not greater than) that of her sister, which, without giving away too many particulars, has a distinct chartreuse tinge to it. Both Kunis and Weisz give themselves up to the camp value of their villainy, though Weisz’ subtle sarcastic nastiness is more amusing than Kunis’ overt cackling badness.

At any rate, Oscar must stay a step ahead of these malevolent sisters, who dispatch him to earn his throne by venturing into the Dark Forest (is there any fantasy realm that doesn’t boast one of those?) and slaying a Wicked Witch who turns out to be a Good one: Glinda, Good Witch of the South (Michelle Williams). Glinda’s kind and generous father was the last King of Oz before being usurped and killed by Evanora, and his daughter rules the last remnant of Ozians resisting the Wicked Witch’s domination, protecting them from Evanora with her bubble-magic. At Glinda’s urging (though she knows full well that he’s no Wizard), Oscar is to take charge of her citizens, a doughy petite bourgeoisie of Quadling farmers, aged tinkers, and singing Munchkins, and forge them into an army that can defeat the Witches’ forces and free Oz from their tyranny. Though he has his doubts about their value as soldiers (they are rather portly and decadent), Oscar does realize that they are well-adapted to pull off an ambitious plan of trickery much more in tune with his talents for misdirection and sleight-of-hand.

Oscar’s grand scheme is grounded in precisely the tinkering technical creativity and arm-sweeping carnival showmanship that Raimi romanticizes and identifies with in the opening scenes, and is associated with Oscar’s American contemporary “wizard” hero, Thomas Edison. For all of its computer-assisted technology and grandiloquent Hollywood thematic material of good triumphing over evil and belief in ideals trumping deceptive appearances (about which more in a moment), Oz The Great and Powerful is conceived of by its director as a direct spiritual heir to the turn-of-the-century travelling cavalcades of wonders that captivated the same emerging mass audiences that embraced the modern fairy tales of Baum’s Oz novels beginning in 1900. Few current big-name directors are so well-attuned to precisely the mix of greasy histrionics and ingenious stagecraft demanded and reified by this particular material as Raimi is, and he mostly strikes just the necessary balance.

Ideologically, mind you, the effect of Oz The Great and Powerful is not only different but perhaps even directly contrary to the old-fashioned entertainment impulse being lauded. Indeed, the film encases Oscar’s ultimate triumph, achieved as it is through makeshift artifice exploiting mass belief in the grounded terms of power and governance, in fundamentally Straussian assumptions. Oscar is the enlightened elite that sells a seductive lie of magical power to the gullible Ozian masses, an ingenious mustering of ideological propaganda in service of the common good. The decent and well-meaning Glinda not only tolerates this illusion but enables its establishment, and the egotistical stage performer Oscar Diggs embraces his new role as a symbol, a disembodied spectacle of hegemonic power. They both believe firmly in the power of belief (of ideology, as Slavoj Žižek would probably say) as an essential conduit of control and direction of the energies of the masses, even if that belief is based on a lie whose deceptive truth they both fully realize.

These implications lay an interesting framework for anticipated events in the established mythology of Oz, namely the arrival of Dorothy Gale (whose future involvement in the narrative is hinted at subtly in the marriage-taken surname of one of Oscar’s Kansan ex-sweethearts) and her unmasking of the Wizard’s hegemonic illusion. But this promise is tempered. Raimi’s film relies too heavily on the good-evil binaries and banal quest narratives of contemporary Hollywood fairy-tale adaptations; it’s no surprise that Joe Roth, who oversaw similar-pitched products like Alice in Wonderland and Snow White and the Huntsman, is the lead producer here.

Straussian neo-conservative implications aside, Oz The Great and Powerful boasts neither the sociopolitical complexity or moral ambiguity of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked books, and its production, release and commercial success likely procludes those superior literary Oz adaptations from receiving the serious cinematic treatment they richly deserve (a film version of the proscribed but popular Wicked musical remains likely, and a miniseries version of Maguire’s first tome at least has been rumoured to be in the works at Disney’s television arm, ABC). But for its imagination, humour, and dedication to anachronistic, carnivalesque showmanship, Oz The Great and Powerful, despite its foibles, still deserves to take a bow, if not a very deep one.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Seven Psychopaths

June 13, 2013 4 comments

Seven Psychopaths (2012; Directed by Martin McDonagh)

A golden rule of independent film: if one of the main characters is a screenwriter, you’re in for a fair bit of meta. In Seven Psychopaths, that screenwriter character is Marty (Colin Farrell with his Irish accent and related comic timing fully intact), an Irishman in Los Angeles struggling with alcoholism (“It’s part of your heritage!” a friend cheekily tells him) as well as with an unfinished, directionless screenplay called (of course) Seven Psychopaths.

Marty is also struggling with his disapproving girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish) and his rather unhinged best friend, Billy Bickle (the reliably terrific Sam Rockwell), who is one of the things Kaya disapproves of most. The unpredictable Billy repeatedly interjects himself into Marty’s screenwriting efforts, often unwelcomed; his concepts are wild, tangential, violent, and formulaic, and Marty wants to resist Hollywood cliches. Billy also runs a dog-kidnapping scam with a disarmingly direct older gent names Hans (Christopher Walken). Billy snatches up the vulnerable pooches of rich Los Angelenos, and Hans sheepishly returns them and reluctantly accepts the rewards they offer. It’s a lucrative scheme, but it gets Billy, Hans, and the unwitting Marty into mortal danger when the wrong dog is stolen from the wrong dog owner.

This dog is Bonny, a chill ShihTzu whose bulging breed-standard eyes are often utilized for comic effect. The owner is Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), a distinctly unchill gangster who does not hesitate to kill and cares for no one but Bonny. Once he traces the canine theft back to Billy and Hans, he pursues them and unwilling tagalong Marty with deadly intent, even as far as the isolated expanse of the desert for a final showdown.

This traditional synopsis of the film fails to fathom its nuances, internal connections, and mad digressions. The literate but iconoclastic McDonagh indulges the wild tangents of Billy Bickle’s disturbed imagination both literally and figuratively. Interspersed with the main plot described above are fascinating, funny, poignant, and often gruesome micronarrative vignettes focusing on the titular psychopaths.

These interwoven Psychopath Chapters are even accompanied by Tarantino-esque onscreen titles (“Psychopath No. 1”, “Psychopath #2”, so on). There’s the evocative, religiously-tinged tale of guilt, redemption, and judgment involving a stoic Quaker (played in the imagined sequence by Harry Dean Stanton) haunting the reformed murderer of his daughter. There’s a richly-written parable of sorts about a Vietnamese man in a priest’s frock threatening a prostitute that does not resolve anything like what you might expect. And Tom Waits shows up as Zachariah Rigby, an oddball with a bad haircut and a white rabbit who tells Marty his personal history as one half of a travelling duo of killers of serial killers.

But while seeming initially tangential or fantastical, these Chapters link directly in with the themes and the characters of the main plot until they are a part of it as well as corkscrewing bursts away from it. The main figures in the dog-kidnapping narrative are very much among the Seven Psychopaths Marty tries to write about; one of them, in fact, is more than one of the psychopaths.

The conceit, of course, is that all of these stories as well as the main dog-napping scenario are finding their way into a script for a movie that Marty is writing. This script, in Marty’s artistic ideal, eschews not only aforementioned Hollywood convention but violence as well. This ambition is laughable for a piece of work about psychopaths, and he is rightly ribbed for it. Indeed, the outlandish ultra-violence of McDonagh’s movie (another Tarantino nod) further mocks Marty’s pacifistic leanings. Nowhere is this more upfront than in Billy Bickel’s ludicrous, enthusiastic contribution to Marty’s screenplay during their sojourn in the desert: a comically overblown vision of a climactic action shootout in a cemetery involving excessive violence, melodramatic deaths, and gratuitous female nudity. Amidst the carnage, and after several female participants have been gunned down, Billy insists that Zachariah’s rabbit must escape unscathed, “Because you can’t let the animals die in a movie, just the women!”

This line is a satirical venting for McDonagh, directed in specific at hypocritical Hollywood censorship standards (which mandated that he avoid planned violence to Bonny) just as the scene is directed in general at those same standards and their resulting formulaic conventions. But it’s precisely the sort of irony that McDonagh likes to layer into his writing, and precisely the sort of contextual foundation he cleverly lays for his scurrilously off-colour dialogue and subject matter. The quintessential McDonagh joke offends on its face while acknowledging both the cause and the rightness of that offence; it will call out discriminatory assumptions while scoring a laugh off of them, and then inflate them to such outsized proportions so as to upend them again. Hence, a self-conscious line about the hypocrisy of preventing the depiction of violence towards animals but not towards women, placed in a film where several women are killed with brutal disregard, but later features a separate moral excoriation for such mysogynistic violence.

McDonagh’s humour thus walks a very fine line, or perhaps crosses and re-crosses it so often that the portent of this line is called into question. It is in this way similar to but more sophisticated than the borderline comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen (I’m thinking specifically of the moment in Borat that a man in a preposterously anti-Semitic parade costume squats and lays a “Jew-egg”, a surreal illustration of the nonsensical assumptions behind a pernicious discriminatory ideology). Like McDonagh’s previous (and better) film In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths is not just a comedy, turning to genuine character pathos and evocative passages (especially with previous collaborators Farrell and Walken), pregnant with the implications of religious faith, and conscious of the consequences of rampant cinematic violence.

Seven Psychopaths also demonstrates McDonagh’s burgeoning mastery of the visual craft of moviemaking, especially when the scene shift to the wide vistas of the deserts of the American West. Many theatre creators who shift to film transfer their static assumptions from the stage to the screen, but McDonagh is flowering in film like it’s the format he’s been chomping at the bit for the chance to work in. Seven Psychopaths is not his big-screen masterpiece (nor, ultimately, was In Bruges, despite its considerable appeal), but it is further compelling proof that Martin McDonagh’s idiosyncratic artistic sensibility may one day produce such a masterpiece and will likely produce more subversive pleasures until it does.

Categories: Film, Reviews