Archive for July, 2013

In Which I Describe a Strange Dream Concerning Nail Yakupov

Last night was a restless one for yours truly, and in one extended patch of sleep, I dreamed briefly about dynamic Russian Edmonton Oilers forward Nail Yakupov. Perhaps last night’s breaking news of the trade of Oilers Kaptain Shawn Horcoff to Dallas sparked something in my unconscious dreamzone, I can’t rightly say. But I will lay out the detail of this Yakupov dream without interpretation or judgment, and let any amateur psychoanalyst who stumbles upon it speculate on my mental state as they will.

The dream-frame, as it were, was a television broadcast of some sort (my dreams are often couched thusly, like that odd faux-documentary on pink German-made anti-Frankenstein-monster foam my brain conjured up once upon a time). It constituted coverage of an international hockey tournament of some sort, a mixture of the yearly senior and junior world championships (I recall an in-game clip of Oilers farmhand Chris Vande Velde scoring on a point shot only to have the goal disallowed, which seems like a decent summary of his marginal NHL career to this point). The lead-in to Yakupov’s appearance was a montage of free time activities of players from teams already out of the tournament, showing them drinking, playing ping pong, setting off fireworks, and proposing to their girlfriends (the latter two were combined into one act with the fireworks spelling out a rather lengthy proposal message, which seems like an original idea, if a bit lugubrious).

After a short, wary introduction (these guys don’t seem too sure about him), Yak City himself stands among these bro-ish off-duty athletes, attired nattily in a suit coat and open-collared dress shirt and expounding on some subject or another. The program shortly cuts away from this social tableau and to a documentary-style interview with a seated Yakupov (I recall an onscreen title to the effect of “Nail Yakupov – Gentleman”).

Evidently more comfortable speaking his mind in Russian, Yakupov’s words were imparted via subtitles, and covered his eclectic interests away from the game of hockey. He first lamented that, due to his move to North America to play in the NHL, he had to give up his favourite pastime of ranching and riding llamas in his native Tatarstan. He expressed concern that he may have to sell off the property altogether, ultimately. He explained eloquently that being a substantial landowner is a vital factor in a Russian hockey player’s sense of identity and self-valuation, a form of conspicuous consumption used to measure his success against that of his peers. For example, Dallas Stars defenceman Sergei Gonchar, Yakupov tells the hidden interviewer, has title to most of the territory east of Krasnoyarsk, which he rules as a semi-independent duchy.

But Nail Yakupov is a sunny sort by nature, and has other sideline projects to keep this sort of thing from dragging him down. For one, he’s establishing an architectural firm called McElroy & McYakupov. He considers the Scottish affectation important, as it is well known in architectural circles that Scots have an appreciation of fine lines and cutting-edge design and the name will help to build a client base. Furthermore, he’s looking forward to re-organizing the discourse in the Oilers locker room along the free-thinking dialectic principles of the Socratic Method, though he acknowledges that this may take some time to implement.

At about this point, the particulars of the dream fade, and no more can be recalled. Again, I will abstain from analysis, but I think it’s fair to say that Oilers fans can safely add these fascinating details to the growing popular legend of Nail Yakupov.


TV Quickshots #13

The Supersizers (BBC; 2007-2009)

The discerning television viewer can generally trust the British to fabricate a strong television concept, execute it with the proper balance and tone, and complete its necessary arc before it becomes stale. This is certainly the case with The Supersizers, a 13-episode series on the history of food in Britain with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. Beginning with Edwardian Supersize Me in 2007, The Times restaurant critic Giles Coren and broadcaster/comedienne Sue Perkins immerse themselves in a different era of British history for one week, eating only period-appropriate food prepared for them while also donning period dress and experiencing the hobbies, activities, professions, and social conventions of the time.

Both Coren and Perkins are enormously witty, assessing the often-disgusting victuals and the outmoded customs of periods from the High Middle Ages to the Restoration to the 1980s with razor-sharp dissections. The delightful, laugh-out-loud-funny Perkins owns the program, though, filleting the traditionalist assumptions of women’s roles throughout the UK’s long and patriarchal history while simultaneously puncturing Coren’s inflated, preening chauvinist act (which never really seems to be ironic). It certainly doesn’t hurt, either, that both hosts faithfully consume the vast amounts of alcohol their historical counterparts would have drunk and wind up absolutely stewed every night as a result.

But in addition to its high entertainment value, The Supersizers is also a record of undeniable gastronomical progress. The title of the original Edwardian special was a knowing riposte to Morgan Spurlock’s famous personal laboratory experiment documentary chronicling the unhealthiness of a McDonald’s-only diet. What The Supersizers shows beyond much doubt is that whatever criticisms can be levied at the average contemporary Western diet, it remains a definite nutritional improvement over the protein-heavy, hugely-portioned meals of the past, just as our messy democratic social polity remains a conditional improvement over past strictures.

Dinner Party Wars (Food Network Canada; 2010-Present)

Staying on the subject of clever, snide commentary on food and social manners, Food Network Canada staple Dinner Party Wars provides both in spades, though without the historical education element of The Supersizers. Hosted by chef Corbin Tomaszeski and Brit TV presenter and domestic etiquette guru Anthea Turner, the show pits three Toronto-area couples against each other in a reality-game-show literalization of the neighbourly social competitive effort to top each other’s dinner parties.

Corbin and Anthea watch the proceedings as recorded by robot cameras in the host couple’s home and sample the same food served to the guests, nitpicking and judging their cuisine and their behaviour and eventually assigning both the meals and the party presentation scores on a 10-point scale. It’s fly-on-the-wall voyeurism mixed with culinary critique and it’s delicious stuff, mostly. Obvious effort is made by casting to mismatch backgrounds and personalities of contestants to create fireworks, if only mild ones; it is Canadian television, after all, as further evinced by the indefinite winners’ prize of cookware, gold-painted collander trophy, and amorphous “bragging rights” as competition champions. At least they get a tangible prize; contestants on Canadian cable hit Mantracker slog through the bush for a couple of days and aren’t awarded a darn thing for their troubles.

Despite its trademarked Canadian production frugality (and disproportionate implication of warfare that is a tiresome repetition of the competition-show trope), Dinners Party Wars works as well as it does by allowing the running snarky commentary that any engaged viewer provides in their own living rooms to be embodied in the frame of the show itself. In practice, the assessment of the food, the social interactions, and the domestic host setting is thus presented in layers: by Corbin and Anthea in their curbside panoptic chamber, by the dinner guests themselves to the private confessional camera, and then by the viewer, who also critiques the critiques. It’s not exactly Borgesian in scope and sophistication, but such opportunities for nested-doll meta-commentary are few and far between in the generally theatrical realm of reality food competition television, after all.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: Attack the Block

July 1, 2013 3 comments

Attack the Block (2011; Directed by Joe Cornish)

Attack the Block is a quick, dirty, smash-and-grab alien invasion movie with a difference: the human protagonists represent the feared and demonized Other as much as the aliens do. These protagonists are introduced as apparent antagonists: five urban youths in hoodies with scarves over their faces mug a young woman (Jodie Whittaker) as she walks home from work at night in South London. It’s a tableau straight out of the feverishly disseminated nightmares of Britain’s right-wing tabloids, that spectre of a rising social tide of non-Anglo-Saxon immigrant crime flowing direct from Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood.

But the robbery doesn’t resolve as anyone would expect it to, as the criminal act is interrupted by the fiery explosion of a nearby car. As the woman flees, the youths approach the flaming automobile husk, from which escapes a small, hairless, sharp-toothed creature that scratches the face of the group’s ringleader, Moses (John Boyega). As a product of the hardscrabble, low-income council estates in Brixton, Moses has learned to reply to such disrespect with retributive violence. He and his fellows corner the creature in a shed and he beats it to death. No gentle kindly boy is this Moses (though he may be a savior, after all).

They return to the estate where they live (“the block”) in boastful triumph, trying to impress some girls with their hunting trophy and hauling it up to drug kingpin Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) on the top floor to store it until they can identify and maybe cash in on it. But this creature is not the only one of its kind, and more follow it to earth in similar meteorite space pods, the bright flashes of their arrivals disguised by the constant fireworks of Guy Fawkes Night.

No hairless, defenceless “Gollums” are these new visitors; they’re pitch-black-furred beasts with a mouthful of razor-sharp bioluminescent teeth. These “gorilla-wolf motherfuckers”, as Moses’ mouthy sidekick Pest (Alex Esmail) describes them, lay bloody waste to two policemen who bust Moses for the mugging, rip apart Hi Hatz’s armed muscle, and pursue Moses and his crew with single-minded predatory zeal. Whatever his unsympathetic narrative origins, Moses is thrust into the hero’s role, and he and his friends must use brawn and brains to free themselves and the block from the alien menace.

Attack the Block is the directorial debut of Joe Cornish, a British entertainment jack-of-all-trades who co-wrote the recent Tintin movie with Edgar Wright and Steven Moffat and often pops up in the orbit of Wright’s own films (which, like this one, came out of the Big Talk Productions stable). It’s got a harder edge than Wright’s detached hipster genre satires (and its alien invasion subject definitely steals a march from Wright’s The World’s End, which is on the same theme), with a strong sense of place and a very particular South London dialect of “bruv”s and “blood”s and pop cultural references whose denotations take a few scenes to become more lucid.

It’s also almost perversely brief, a furious series of action sequences, rough humour, and socioeconomic snapshots. Cornish never quite allows it to stop moving long enough to come into its own as a social critique, and the scale of its action and its political commentary strains to surpass the micro but is blocked from the macro by obvious budget constraints. Cornish does quite well in the face of these limitations, peppering the screen with mercurial movement and iconic hero poses for the laconic Moses (Boyega is a compelling presence). The supporting cast is made up of engaging performers, among them the chattery skinny-boy Esmail and Whittaker, a nurse who falls in with her muggers when an alien injures Pest and they drag him to her aid. Frequent Wright collaborator Nick Frost even shows up as the perma-stoned doyen of Hi Hatz’s stash, Ron’s Weed Room (“It’s a room full of weed, and it’s Ron’s”).

Attack the Block boasts many elements of genre interest (the aliens are pretty freaky and neatly designed), but its political commentary proves to be more obscure. There’s certainly an obvious play on the meanings of “alien”, pitting the sci-fi implication against the sociological one. The xenophobic tendencies in British society that confine the residents of the ethnically-diverse estates to an outsider’s role in the life of the country could be understood as being discursively analogous to that of extraterrestrial intruders. Most of the block residents are black, as is the fur of the aliens (blacker than black, reflecting no light). Their deadly battle-royale with each other is confined to the estates, more contained immigrant-on-immigrant violence to shock the fretful wealthy bourgeoisie of modern Britain as well as to confirm their snobbish prejudices about the savagery and degeneration of the urban poor.

The screenplay’s allusiveness to the Biblical leader of the Exodus as well as to the Catholic rebel terrorist Guy Fawkes aligns the struggle of the characters of Attack the Block with historical discrimination of marginalized minorities. Tellingly, the references of the main character’s name and the night of the events point to instances of these marginalized parties rising up against their oppressors. There’s little of that in the film’s plot itself, beyond the familiar ghetto distrust of the police and of snitches; Moses and his friends violently resist the hostile incursion of a new Other, after all. Cornish quite deliberately suggests, however, that the boys’ unsavoury criminal actions early in the film are a result of the economic deprivation of their surroundings, a liberal canard of long standing. But he also lets his film be very clear that, whatever the sociological justifications for criminality, personal actions have personal consequences, and the hard life of the urban poor may leave them better prepared for acts of physical courage and defensive violence in a crisis than the more comfortable classes.

Categories: Film, Reviews