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Meth, Masculinity and Moral Consequence: Breaking Bad – Seasons 1 & 2

August 30, 2013 7 comments

As the final season of AMC’s critically-acclaimed drama Breaking Bad broadcasts out to its dedicated viewing base, it seemed like as good a time as ever to rectify a standing oversight and finally watch through Vince Gilligan’s saga of an ordinary chemistry teacher’s descent into meth dealing, treachery, and deadly violence from the beginning. The picture that emerges, at least from the first two seasons that I’ve worked my way through thus far, is an artful, uncompromising portrait of the increasingly sociopathic efforts of Walter White (the revelatory Bryan Cranston) to re-assert a measure of patriarchal masculine power in a shifting social milieu by navigating the dark underworld of sun-drenched New Mexico.

As even those who have never seen the show surely know by now, Breaking Bad narrates the downward moral spiral of Walter, a brilliant chemistry PhD who has found himself teaching high-school chemistry in Albuquerque and gets into manufacturing and selling methamphetamine with former student (and drug addict flameout) Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). He embarks on this dirty business venture ostensibly to provide for his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), his cerebral-palsy-afflicted son Walter, Jr. (RJ Mitte) and unborn daughter (who is born by the end of season two) after he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He keeps his activities from them, although the demands on his time and the financial windfalls that result from it make the deception increasingly unsustainable, and Skyler has exposed nearly all of his secret life by the end of the second season and left him.

Although Walter is constantly justifying his actions (up to and including multiple murders) as being for the sake of his family and to pay for his cancer treatment, by the end of the second season his family is fractured and his cancer is in remission. And yet, we can be sure by the show’s subsequent seasons that he hasn’t gotten out of the meth game despite this (for what does it profit a man to gain the world, etc.). The lure of filthy lucre is often suggested as a more baseline motivation; Walter is shown repeatedly carefully hiding and moving and grabbing at stacks of bills, his eyes ever fixed on this tangible pecuniary prize. But recapturing some measure of male pride for himself, after a life marked by diminished agency, crops up as a more primal driving force in his actions. The writers even show their hand on this subject, having Walter defend his right to act as he wants, to make his own decisions for once after deferring to others for his entire life, when faced with stark medical options for his cancer treatment.

Walter asserts his purportedly threatened manhood in other, more dangerous ways, of course. He sets fire to the expensive convertible of a cocky businessman who, though obviously a douchebag, has done nothing more than irritate him indirectly in a banking queue. He constantly dominates and belittles his dealing partner Jesse, ripping his lack of intelligence and backbone when it comes to the meth business. And he causes an unsettling scene at a party celebrating the evident success of his cancer treatment, insisting on giving Walter, Jr. more tequila than he can handle in defiant resistance to his blabbermouth DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), a rival father figure for the boy. Indeed, Junior’s function in the show (as the least-developed of the central characters) tends to be to occasionally remind his dad not to be such a “pussy”, to stand up and be a man.

These recurring themes, in combination with its drug-underworld subject matter and attendant threats and violence, has earned Breaking Bad a vocal fanbase of young males who openly understand it as an artistic lightning-rod for their undirected social discontent. Perhaps due to this association, the show has sometimes been accused harbouring misogynistic sentiments. Such sentiments have swirled menacingly enough around the character of Skyler, who attempts to draw out the increasingly secretive Walt and limit his (misspent) independence, that Gunn felt compelled to pen a New York Times op-ed pushing back against anti-Skyler (and anti-Anna Gunn) fan chatter on the internet as well as against more sober assessments of Breaking Bad as an essentially anti-feminist text.

Not to dismiss Gunn’s insider understanding of creator Gilligan’s intentions as far as signification goes, but reading Breaking Bad as proceeding from an anti-woman discursive location is not off-base. This is not to suggest that Gilligan or any other creative force behind the show is purposely misogynist, per say. It would be nearer to the point to analogize that Breaking Bad prepares suitable laboratory conditions in which misogyny can thrive, and steadfastly refuses to stamp down such inclinations when they arise. Indeed, actively contradicting those inclinations would directly undermine too many of the show’s core themes to be worth the risk.

Perhaps this is why those who lean more progressive are more hesitant in their praise of Breaking Bad. It may also serve to explain why the show’s social commentary is much more proscribed than that of a serial television text similarly focused on the drug underworld, like venerable liberal totem The Wire. Like the gangland dick-measuring that now pervades the once-promising period drama Boardwalk Empire, the attempts by anti-hero Walter White to annex the traditional masculine privilege connected to the position of economic provider carry on despite the complexities of shifting social structures.

Unlike Boardwalk Empire, and to Breaking Bad‘s greater credit, there is little ambiguity about Walter’s choice to pursue an expression of male agency having deep, powerful moral and mortal consequences for not only himself but especially for those around him. Breaking Bad‘s mastery as narrative is most evident in this last element, the gradual, devastating cause-and-effect relationship between choices and consequences, the trickle-down of tragedy and pain from the bloated reservoir of immoral conduct and greed. Just as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings theoretically becomes a destructive hurricane an ocean away, Walter’s decision to do nothing to help a young woman in distress ripples into the deadly mid-air airplane collision that ends season two. And the consequences of this event will multiply further as Walter White’s path from righteousness winds on into the dark desert valley in which he finds himself.

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Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: Captain America – The First Avenger

August 26, 2013 6 comments

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011; Directed by Joe Johnston)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe‘s first venture into its deep well of revised comic-book world history glows with occasionally imaginative takes on 1940s futurism. But it also comes off as oddly prosaic and fairly nostalgic for not only square-jawed all-American heroism but for its dissemination through sweeping wartime propaganda. Director Joe Johnston, who previously produced paeans to just such a half-imagined golden age of corn-fed, selfless duty of a vaguely white-supremacist nature like The Rocketeer and October Sky, swaddles America’s complex wartime experience in the gilded robes of aventurous romance, pits it against implacably foreign evil, and locates it in the realms founded by Raiders of the Lost Ark and since annexed by more recent comic-book blockbusters. That Captain America: The First Avenger was met with fanboy acceptance and commercial success testifies to Johnston’s affinity for translating the source material, but its knottier implications remain problematically unloosened.

It will be no spoiler for devotees of the intentionally patriotic superhero character to reveal that the buff Stars-and-Stripes-embalzoned super-soldier was once a small frail kid from Brooklyn named Steve Rogers, played by a CG-reduced Chris Evans in this form and then as the rippling hero (albeit after a few reps in the weight room). Rogers’ physical embiggening fictionally fulfilled the wishes of many a comics-reading skinny boy marginalized by the Second World War era’s valuation of muscular masculinity. But it’s no Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension exercise regiment that packs the bulk onto this weakling, but a medical serum devised by German exile Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and injected into Rogers’ body under the aegis of a secret experimental unit of the U.S. Army called the Strategic Scientific Reserve.

Headed by the cynical Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones, spitting crusty fire) and also overseen by a British officer named Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), the SSR initially deploys the Captain as a propaganda tool promoting the sale of war bonds, but Rogers yearns for action on the front as he always has. This is especially the case when he learns that his best bud Sergeant James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and his unit was lost behind enemy lines in an altercation with the shadowy forces of HYDRA, a rogue Nazi organization resembling the SSR and led by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving). Before Dr. Erskine fell victim to an assassin, he revealed to Rogers that Schmidt is his dark mirror, an earlier injectee of the magic muscle juice whose megalomanical evil was also amplified by the serum, just as Rogers’ aw-shucks decency was.

Rogers forms a one-man rescue mission and springs Bucky and the boys from HYDRA’s secret base. This assault puts his nemesis on the run and allows the freed company to capture an arsenal of powerful energy weapons developed by Schmidt and his team with the unlimited power supplied by a mysterious plasma cube called the Tesseract (which re-appears as the central McGuffin of The Avengers film that this movie sets up) that he smash-and-grabs from a medieval church in Norway in the film’s opening sequence. The Cap also catches a glimpse of Schmidt’s larger plan, and forms a special strike force of international badasses to help him take down HYDRA before it takes down, well, everything.

This is not unexciting stuff, and special-effects vet Johnston melds the digital with the visceral effectively, staging action sequences around the Captain’s punches and shield-throwings as well as aboard planes, trains, and automobiles. The production design is a bit early-1940s theme park mixed with an era-specific futurism redolent of steampunk (motorpunk, let’s call it), especially when Rogers and Bucky visit a version of the 1939-40 World’s Fair in Queens headlined by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), the billionaire playboy engineer/manufacturer father of Tony, a.k.a. Iron Man.

Evans’ cocksure Human Torch was perhaps the only good thing about Marvel’s lamentably second-rate Fantastic Four movies, but he’s left in a tough spot as the lead here. Steve Rogers’ earnest sincerity seems like an anachronism even in the period setting of Captain America, and it was later the butt of incessant Whedonspeak jokes at the hands of Robert Downey, Jr.’s younger Stark in The Avengers (Cooper’s elder Stark gets a barb or two in, but never lives up to his name or to the snarky promise of his trim mustache). Captain America’s Greatest Generation devotion to duty and national service can’t help but feel alien to modern audiences, and it isn’t dwelt on for too long once the shooting and punching and explosions ramp up. His courtship with object of affection Carter is nicely underplayed by both Evans and Atwell, but can’t escape generic conventions and as a result undermines a potential robust female foil character. Atwell enters the movie by dropping an insolent, sexist SSR recruit, but her personality and intelligence is siphoned off gradually by plot requirements until she’s reduced to a sex-object appearance in a red dress, jealously shooting bullets at the Captain’s iconic vibranium shield after she catches him with another girl, and a teary farewell phone call to the self-sacrificing male protagonist.

Please allow me to gauge the structural integrity of your nipple. Don’t worry, I’m a professional.

If Captain America: The First Avenger has a defining handicap, though, it’s surely Johnston’s inability to reconcile his own and the material’s nostalgic fondness for the propagandistic jingoism that the character inescapably represents with a more sober, revisionist modern view of the implications of that jingoism as well as of the morally-complicated war that it helped to romanticize. The montage of Rogers’ career as a walking war bond advertisement attempts to lampoon wartime propaganda, but does so only gently. There is some wit to the sequence, as Rogers begins by delivering his exhortations to the crowds to support their brave boys over there awkwardly before warming to the performance, then becoming disillusioned when battle-hardened troops scoff at his bluff act. He also punches out the same creeping, dastardly Hitler proxy in one city after another (Buffalo! Chicago! exclaim onscreen titles like previews of Saturday afternoon serials).

Johnston clearly feels undisguised affection for such clumsily earnest propaganda, and splashes famous images from its annals across his end credits with the brassy accompaniment of Alan Silvestri’s heroic score. He even tosses up J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It!”, now a commonly repurposed feminist empowerment image, next to Atwell’s credit, an insufficient atonement for allowing his movie to reduce her independent identity. But the darker side of WWII propagandistic discourse, which traded on xenophobia and racial stereotypes and fed into the national stain of the Japanese-American internment, is glossed over.

Some token lip service is given to multiculturalism with the Captain’s strike force, a microcosm of the Allies which includes a Frenchman, an Englishman, and a multi-lingual African-American, granted (no Soviets, though; old prejudices die hard). But the white supremacist (Aryan, even) implications of a blond-haired, blue-eyed male as the symbol of a complex, multi-ethnic and multi-national democratic resistance to Nazi tyranny is never interrogated, only reproduced with direct intentionality. Additionally, the movie apes Raiders‘ vaguely irresponsible innovation to the long-standing utilization of Nazis as movie villains. Schmidt is constructed as so dangerous and frightening because his lust for power pushes him out from under the National Socialist big tent into a special strain of megalomaniacal world-destroying super-villainy. Compared to HYDRA, the actual Nazis appear fairly reasonable, and hinting at that, even in a silly superhero movie, is a mite troubling.

Now, it’s perhaps not fair to ding Johnston for these ideological lacks in his movie. Had he crafted a genuine revisionist critique of the patriotic mythos of Captain America (like Gore Verbinski’s villified The Lone Ranger offered a proscribed kick at American colonialism in the West), popular audiences may not have embraced the product and fidelity-obsessed comics fanboys would have undoubtedly crucified him on the digital Golgotha of internet fan site comment threads. Like practically all of the successful products of Marvel’s onscreen Avengers stable, Captain America: The First Avenger is assured entertainment that only intermittently condescends to the masses and respects the devotion of comics fandom (although even the latter must agree that Stan Lee’s awful cameos really ought to cease; the man may be a living geek god, but his appearances are hell on the suspension of disbelief and smack of brown-nosing). But there’s not even the commonest poetry to it and what scant political suggestions it carries are unappealing. Unlike Marvel’s usually socially-aware products, this superhero is protected from reality by a figurative shield made of a more impenetrable material than vibranium: nostalgia.

Categories: Comics, Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: The Frighteners

August 22, 2013 1 comment

The Frighteners (1996; Directed by Peter Jackson)

The frantic, often hugely entertaining climax of this frantic, often hugely entertaining genre film earns director Peter Jackson his belated druthers. Indirectly, the sure hand Jackson showed with the film’s complex and artful digital effects likely also earned him his massive Lord of the Rings budget, and made him a blockbuster film mogul and as much of a household name as a film director can get.

If PJ’s career will always retrospectively be divided into its pre- and post-Middle Earth phases, then The Frighteners is the border-stone marking the transition. The creative embrace and boundary-pushing of CGI effects hints at what is to come in the trilogy that would make Jackson a cinematic immortal, while the gory humour of his low-budget early films is largely preserved (though undoubtedly toned-down; Jackson seems to have little to prove in that vein by this point).

The story focuses on Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox, in his last lead film role before a Parkinson’s diagnosis pulled him away), a purported paranormal detective and exorcist who takes advantage of his ability to see ghosts (and his friendship with a roguish trio of them) to run an ongoing con on superstitious locals. He “detects” his dead buddies, and “clears” them out of the afflicted customer’s premises, for which he charges a comfortable premium. This greedy scheme is dangerously disrupted by a genuine, malevolent spectre in Grim Reaper garb, harvesting the souls of the living like a serial killer from beyond the veil. Both this supernatural murderer and Frank’s unique ability to see it are connected to his wife’s apparent death in a car collision years before, and he’s the only one who can put a stop to the pitiless reaping of unready souls.

The supernatural hijinks that follow spike up and down, though they build towards a frantic, well-executed crescendo. The Frighteners is hardly a flawless film; the story takes its time amping itself up, all of the villains are miles over the top (especially Jake Busey as an insane sort and Jeffrey Combs as an oleaginous, paranoid FBI agent), and some of the jokes fall flatter than the lid of a sarcophagus (Jackson never has had a good sense of when he’s really funny and when he’s just stretching).

For its propulsive last hour, however, Fox (always at his most endearing when rushing, flailing, from one location to another) is hurled through atmospheric cemeteries, abandoned hospitals, a Psycho-esque house inhabited by demented killers, and past the threshold of death itself. In The Frighteners‘ climactic phase, it’s exquisitely-staged, exciting filmmaking, barely taking a pause to check its pulse. While not exactly a great overall piece of work (which its middling box-office receipts may reflect upon, though that likely had more to do with its MPAA-imposed R rating), The Frighteners remains a testament to Jackson’s skill with images, action, and movement, as if the triumph of Lord of the Rings left us needing any more.

Categories: Film, Reviews

@Sidslang’s Best of Twitter #6

August 20, 2013 Leave a comment

@Schama_ebooks & @zizek_ebooks

One of Twitter’s underappreciated glories is that it manufactures its own ephemeral context, moment by moment. Those who expend their 140 characters establishing where they’ve been, what they’ve been doing, and how they’re feeling about it are missing the point, or one very specific part of the point, of the medium. Twitter is not a rolling Facebook status update with arbitrary limitations of brevity. Whatever you write on Twitter, it is there to be seen, enjoyed or not enjoyed, for that minute fraction of time, fading with time but (with the archive in full effect) never vanishing.

It’s a discursive realm ideally adapted to what might flippantly be entitled “randomness”, and what we might with a bit more consideration call bursts of semi-public out-of-context rhetoric. Twitter shows its own hand; is the word “wit” not nestled snugly in the midst of its name, after all? With the mass spread of the format, the wit at the soul of its brevity has been diminished. But it’s still there if you know where to look, and doesn’t need to be contextualized by the latest pop cultural or current events happenings, either. It doesn’t even need to be intended for the medium by its original utterers.

One of Twitter’s earliest phenomenons demonstrated this privileging of serendipitous non-sequiturs, and two of its best academically-tilted typify its effect. @Horse_ebooks became a widely-followed account when its gnomic and often fragmentary tweets (drawn from equine literature) gained fans for their bizarre and seemingly accidental wisdom or simple quirky unintended comedy. A proliferation of similar “ebooks” accounts has followed, on every conceivable subject and theme.

Anyone in tune with the Twitter scene follows a few of these at least. My two personal favourites feature excerpts from two of academia’s most prominent and peculiar public voices. @zizek_ebooks posts snatches of the thoughts of philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek, he of the voluble, lisping Slovenian accent, salt-and-pepper beard, and Lacanian-Marxist intellectual trolling. Despite the ebooks suffix, most of these tweets seem to be drawn from his lectures, television appearances, and films, The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Although Žižek is a fascinating communicator of ideas (whatever you think of the ideas themselves), being fed his observations absent the arguments that they are a part of is a whole different kind of experience that is rewarding and funny in its own right (even if the postings tend to happen in overwhelming spurts, obviously released in gaps of the custodian’s free time). Certain rhetorical usages recur (“My God”, “Eat this garbage”, “You turn into monkeys”), revealing go-to phrases preferred by Žižek in public speech that might otherwise has slipped by unnoticed, but the dislocated, non-sequiturial nature of the tweets matches the thinker’s own message of deconstruction, as well as amplifying the peculiarity of the stand-alone phrases.

A similar practice animates @Schama_ebooks, although the account tweeting out snatches of verbose narration from the television documentaries of the British historian Simon Schama has its own particular appeal as well. This appeal is also Schama’s, grounded in his habit of expressing relatively straightforward and widely-accepted interpretations of historical events in language of over-the-top vocabulatory eloquence. Although the less-followed account has not produced as much material as the prolific @zizek_ebooks, it evokes Schama’s rhetorical turns much more vividly. The background of the account homepage, a screen still of Schama with a (accidental?) couplet of ridiculous quasi-poetry (“human existence” is rhymed with “luminescence”) sums up his choice of verbiage succinctly, but the archive of “quiescent marital urges” and “throngs of unwashed cavaliers” makes it clearer what the account is about. Both of these ebooks prisms of public intellectual quotations rip words and arguments out of their chosen contexts to be placed in Twitter’s own “random” context, and wring humour out of them while preserving the rhetorical kernels of their unique set of expressions. Who says this medium is limited in its discursive scope?

Representative Tweets:

Film Review: Pacific Rim

August 16, 2013 4 comments

Pacific Rim (2013; Directed by Guillermo del Toro)

Regular readers of my film reviews (all three of you) will be well aware of my tendency to intellectualize the implications of Hollywood blockbusters. No critic can deny their abiding methodology, and my own focus on the ideological undercurrents in mass-market movies is often front-and-centre. But whether I’m tracing the contours of the Hobbesian social contract in Disney animation, suggesting that the Wizard of Oz’s origin story carries suggestions of Straussian neoconservatism, or diagnosing superhero epics as hermeneutic black holes, never convince yourself that my intention is to ignore or lose track of the sense of wonder and awe that the movies can produce at their best. I may marginalize the elements of pure visceral entertainment as I consider deeper implications, but if I don’t often discuss these elements it’s probably because movies so rarely come up to that standard.

This preamble may go some way towards explaining why Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is such a refreshing and renewing cinematic experience, and how wonderful it is as a frequent consumer of Hollywood product to be gifted with an onscreen vision of such astounding scope and resonant power as to submerge ideological quibbling. This does not mean that there is no quibbling to be had, but the prevailing feelings engendered by Pacific Rim are precisely those elusive inklings of wonder and awe. The images that del Toro unleashes in this film are nothing short of astounding.

Pacific Rim is the enthusiastic geek auteur’s imaginative, muscular contemporary take on the monster-centric tokusatsu films produced in Japan in the 1950s and ’60s, the most famous of which was Toho’s iconic 1954 Godzilla. The Japanese name for these strange cinematic beasts was synechdochized into the generic term for the films featuring them: kaiju. Del Toro’s quasi-reptilian monsters are named this as well, enormous amphibious beings emerging from an inter-dimensional rift in the ocean floor and wreaking havoc on the cities at the edge of the Pacific. Earth’s response to these attacks is to pool economic resources and build robotic mechs of equivalent size to battle the kaiju. These mechs are called jaegers (German for “hunter”) and are operated by two pilots who are neurally linked to fully control the movements of their fighting colossus (this is called “Drifting”).

The initial countermeasures of the Jaeger Program meet with great success in defeating the kaiju, as we are told in a prologue that feels like its own mini-movie and establishes the reach of del Toro’s sci-fi panorama. The pilots become rock stars, the Jaegers become action figures, and the kaiju become children’s plush toys. Complacency creeps into the defences, and when the kaiju gain size and strength and adapt to the Jaegers’ methods, robot and pilot casualties result. We witness one of these defeats in the opening fight sequence following the prologue, as hotshot kaiju-killer Raleigh Becket (the merely adequate Charlie Hunnam) loses his co-pilot brother in a stormy nighttime dust-up off the coast of Alaska.

Years pass, the kaiju keep gaining ground, and the Jaegers fall out of favour and lose their funding to the construction of a defensive wall around the ocean perimeter (it should be no surprise that this measure is ineffective; del Toro is Mexican, after all). Becket, haunted by his brother’s death (they were Drifting at the end and the mental trauma was shared), is labouring on this project, following the work wherever it takes him until he’s offered a chance to get back in the proverbial saddle. This offer comes from the outstandingly named Stacker Pentecost (an ineffably commanding Idris Elba), the embattled marshal of the Jaeger Program who has scraped together the funds, manpower, and equipment for a last-ditch mission to drop a bomb down the neck of the kaiju-spewing dimensional rift and close it for good.

Becket doesn’t seem to have much union seniority on the wall project anyway, so he makes for the last Jaeger base in Hong Kong. Working with an international team of pilots (including forbidding Russians, Asian kung fu triplets, and an Aussie father-son crew), techies, and scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman are the main researchers, continuing the head-scratching American blockbuster tradition of science being played for comedy), Becket and Pentecost aim to finish off the kaiju menace once and for all, even as the monsters get bigger, smarter, and meaner.

This story is dotted with the macho militarism, troubled pasts, heroic self-sacrifice, and futuristic holographic tech common to the big-budget blockbuster genre. Indeed, del Toro is working along fairly conventional avenues in Pacific Rim, and considering the breathtaking, evocative originality of previous work like Pan’s Labyrinth, his choice to skew to genre convention here caused no small disappointment in critical quarters. It doesn’t help, either, that the film’s sub-surface meanings deal with grand but fuzzy liberal-humanist themes like international cooperation and environmentalism; the kaiju incursions are rated on a Category 1-5 scale similar to hurricanes, and lines of dialogue make this association absolutely explicit. Additionally, as J.F. Sargent points out at Film School Rejects, the atomic-age alarmism of the classic kaiju films is directly, troublingly inverted by del Toro, as the nuclear science that spawned the monsters in those films saves the world from them in this one.

To be perfectly honest, though, none of this matters much when placed up against the blazing glory of del Toro’s fantastical images. The central set-pieces of the Jaeger-kaiju battles are pupils-dilated, jaw-to-the-floor spectacle, staged in an awestruck style both magically epic and scrupulously real. Del Toro has cited the unsettling painting The Colossus (long attributed to Francisco de Goya, but now believed to be the work of one of his disciples) as inspiration for the scale of the kaiju-Jaeger encounters, and the lineage is clear. Wonder and terror are inextricably mingled in del Toro’s mighty cinematic canvas as they are in The Colossus; human beings are dwarfed by the city-leveling combatants, but their fundamental agency is never diminished. A flashback to a kaiju-attack trauma from the youth of Becket’s putative partner Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, played as a little girl by the riveting Mana Ashida) features these tones most prominently, as she stands face-to-face with a crab-like behemoth amidst urban ruins, a red shoe in her hands, her scream seeming eternal.

Scale aside, the battles are massively entertaining and stunningly imaginative exercises. That geek-out shot from the film’s trailer of a Jaeger dragging a container ship down the street of a wrecked city to wallop a kaiju with it? Barely scratches the surface, as far as amazing action beats go. And del Toro’s peculiar monster-crafting sensibility finds a large-scale outlet here as well. The kaiju designs suggest toads, iguanas, frilled lizards, crocodiles, hammerhead sharks, and other crawly, scaly predators. A scene in Hong Kong involving the salvage of a dead beast for its body parts by a local dealer (played by crusty del Toro favourite Ron Perlman) features a slime-covered newborn kaiju being strangled by the winding umbilical cord, precisely the sort of visceral image of disrupted innocence that del Toro finds himself returning to.

Del Toro’s smaller touches are indeed unique and finely-tuned. The almost inexpressible delight felt at the unexpected appearance of a Newton’s cradle in the midst of a city-smashing sequence, of massive destructive forces expressed in simple, microcosmic physics, typifies his expert approach to the contemporary CGI epic. Like the young, fragile Mako’s meeting with a skyscraper-sized kaiju, this one moment is a reductive snapshot of exactly what makes del Toro’s sense of scale and imaginative leaps in Pacific Rim so exhilirating to the film fan. Del Toro’s is scrupulous is imparting proportions, weight, and age to his blockbuster milieu. It is made abundantly clear how towering the Jaegers are from the early scene where Becket’s Gipsy Danger collapses on a foggy coast in front of a man and a boy searching the beach with a metal detector; the Jaegers and their Hong Kong base are profusely mechanical, high-tech but likewise bursting with pistons, steam, and stressed metals shedding chemical blood as they oxidize. It is not abstract, but terribly concrete.

Like The Colossus, Pacific Rim leaves us in awe not only the impressive sizes of the giants but the tangible panic of smaller figures below, the fragile mortality of those fleeing before its unfathomable power. We are those figures as well, or we hope we never will be. Outsized computer-effects epics have proliferated in recent years, and their grandiose action can feel as remote and detached as a button-mashing video game (a bad game, not a good one, which can feel like great film). But Pacific Rim is not detached but horribly, enchantingly vivid. Guillermo Del Toro has fashioned a notable and often magical career envisioning monsters simultaneously of our collective dreams and of our collective nightmares. Pacific Rim is an irresistible popcorn-flick variation on that resilient theme that expands to mighty proportions while never forgetting that below the grand godlike activity is a small, breakable human, cowering in fear, gazing in awe, and conceiving of methods to master even the seemingly unmasterable. Despite the film’s generic underpinnings, that is what makes it undeniably brilliant.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The World’s End

August 13, 2013 2 comments

The World’s End (2013; Directed by Edgar Wright)

The third feature film collaboration between director Edgar Wright and rangy comic actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (fourth if you count The Adventures of Tintin, in which they all played minor roles) continues in the vein of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, synthesizing and extending the themes of those efforts as well as approximating their geeky wit and genre-lampooning satirical energy. But The World’s End‘s generic focal point is too laser-precise to match those superior efforts, and the wider ideological points about soul-sucking capitalism and traditional, ordered social conformity that Wright was aiming at with his earlier films rage out of control by the film’s flailing conclusion, consuming all trace of its better qualities like a wildfire.

The World’s End is the closing chapter of what Wright, Pegg, and Frost have dubbed the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, named for the recognizable three colours of the popular British ice cream treat: the red for Shaun of the Dead‘s gory zombies, the blue for the coppers of Hot Fuzz, the green for the space invaders of The World‘s End. This trilogy concept itself neatly encapsulates Wright’s particular comic sensibility: an over-elaborate conceit based in a cultural reference dripping with juvenile nostalgia, edifying the sugary guilty pleasures of modern life. This intention is almost directly expressed in the film itself. Perhaps as The World’s End is the final installment in this loosely-related three-film cycle, Wright felt extra pressure to shoehorn in a more complete elucidation of his perspective and sensibility, to make it clear what these films were meant to accomplish beyond laughs and entertainment.

Wright’s case is not helped by the milieu into which The World’s End drops, mind you. This third Cornetto film follows its predecessor Hot Fuzz by twice the amount of time that Hot Fuzz followed Shaun of the Dead (six years to three). In the interim, Wright squandered some of his creative buzz on an under-attended boutique hipster geek piece (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) while Pegg became a J.J. Abrams favourite in Mission Impossible 3 and Star Trek. It does not help this “green” film distinguish itself, either, that its long-promised subject matter of aliens was covered recently by the Pegg/Frost vehicle Paul as well as Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block (from the same production stable as Wright’s film and co-starring Frost), nor that its release follows hard on the heels of that of the similarly-titled apocalyptic buddy comedy This Is The End. Despite its considerable pedigree, The World’s End is hobbled by these pre-existing associations for popular audiences as much as it is by its insistent batch of ideological messaging.

This is a damned shame, because there’s enough to like about it, too. Its storyline follows the efforts of Gary King (Pegg), a mouthy, volatile 30-something party animal with related addiction issues who seeks to rekindle the faded youth that he never really relinquished by completing a mythical but unfinished pub crawl in his sleepy English hometown with his four best high school buddies (Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan).

Unfortunately for Gary, they’ve all moved on to comfortably upper-middle-class jobs and lives in London, and need considerable (and sometimes dishonest) cajoling to agree to join him on this mythical (in his mind) “Golden Mile” odyssey. Most reluctant is Andy (Frost), Gary’s former right-hand man, now a teetotaling, high-powered City lawyer who fell out with his freewheeling former partner-in-crime over a betrayal involving a drunk driving incident. Some continuity in the trilogy is achieved by Pegg and Frost playing bosom buddies once again, although the inversion of roles (casting Pegg as the man-child screw-up and Frost as the more sensible and mature party, a mirror image of their relationship in the previous films) is welcome and cleverly executed.

Gary and his troupe return to their hometown of Newton Haven for this second crack at the Golden Mile, but find it very much changed. None of the locals recognize Gary, despite his expectation (or his fervent hope) that they will; a refurbished town square includes a futuristic modern-art figure as its public art centerpiece; and the first two pubs on the crawl are precisely identical, having been converted to the same franchise. But as the crawl progresses, it becomes clear that something much odder than simple encroaching corporatization is going on. It bursts into the open when Gary gets into a bathroom argument and then a tussle with a local youth, whom he wants to conceive of as a proxy for the younger version of himself that he is desperately chasing after and attempting to recapture (Wright himself sometimes seems to be doing the same through his films, in particular with this plot built out of early-’90s reminiscences and given a period soundtrack).

The kid, and eventually most of the town, is revealed as not human at all. They are extraterrestrial human-replacements, their movements and speech stiff and robotic, their lusty human desires erased and replaced by a will to flat, conformist comforts of productivity and consumption. These “blanks”, as they are called (one of the movie’s funniest moments closes a riff of the drunken crawling crew devising a term for the beings), are slotted together like plastic action figures and are filled with blue gooey liquid (one would have thought they’d go for green, considering the film’s colour-coding in the trilogy concept), and these visceral elements are exhibited in great detail as Gary and his comrades resist attempts by the replacements to assert their power over them with physical violence as they progress from pub to pub. Wright stages fight scenes and breathless chases with an abandon that becomes overwhelming and repetitive, although memorable individual action and comedy beats crop up here and there (like the soon-to-be-iconic sequence where a booze-fortified Frost goes at a pub-full of the creepy blue-bloods with a barstool on each arm).

Wait a minute, this is apple juice! Confounded aliens!

As fun and as funny as The World’s End can often be, though, the aforementioned ideological underpinnings swamp its wit, its energetic activity, and its engaging character dynamics. The World’s End very quickly asserts itself as a fulfillment of the themes of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, namely the former’s equation of the mindless undead with the thoughtless consumer of capitalist product and the latter’s layered portrayal of the traditional conservative establishment’s quest for undifferentiated social conformity. These themes are filtered through the particular Invasion of the Body Snatchers aliens-replacing-humans genre that Wright is referencing in this film but only rarely satirizing, and are amplified to a level of strident pedantry.

At the movie’s climax, Pegg and Frost do offer a heartening defense of warts-and-all humanity and our sacred sovereign right to do what we want, even if that means repeated failure. But the post-apocalyptic epilogue that follows on this scene’s heels takes the knee-jerk countercultural beliefs that crop up elsewhere to incoherent excess. A post-technological, blasted social landscape of self-grown organic food, country shacks, and a crusading band resisting the general human discrimination against the leftover blanks, it’s a nightmarish dream of contemporary urban progressive wish-fulfillment that unwittingly exposes a deep-rooted, old-fashioned conservative streak at the heart of yupster subculture.

Wright used to punctuate the frenetic film-geek referential wit of his films with hints of cultural opinions, but something appears to have shifted. Perhaps, having marinated for a year or two in the juices of the self-regarding alternative echo-chamber for Scott Pilgrim, Wright has internalized its unwavering ideology and has taken to regurgitating its tenets with a lack of reflection that contradicts the knowing tone of his engagement with film genre elements. Maybe his co-writer Pegg contributed to this signification as well, having been more exposed to the pitfalls of corporate Hollywood in recent years, but Wright’s screen resume puts the onus more on him for the unbalanced focus.

I keep coming back to a feeling of profound disappointment at all of this, and that does lead to an undervaluing of the quality of The World’s End. Every onscreen performer is fantastic, especially the comic genius Freeman, Frost’s intelligent, eloquent, take-no-shit Andy, and Pegg’s bacchanalian motor-mouth Gary. Pierce Brosnan shows up as Gary’s former schoolmaster and snobbish advocate for the extraterrestrial agenda, Bill Nighy voices the disembodied overseer of the blanks (if only he and Brosnan had switched, but I digress), and Rosamund Pike is Considine’s love interest and a staunch ally in the resistance. But they can’t quite pull The World’s End out of the fire of smug hipster ideology that it is needlessly thrown into. If such knee-jerk themes continue to become trademarks of Edgar Wright’s films, his considerable skill and potential as a filmmaker may sadly be frittered away.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #5 – A King’s Ransom

August 10, 2013 Leave a comment

August 9th, 2013 marked 25 years since the public announcement of the momentous trade that sent Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player ever, from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. It seemed like an appropriate day to finally get around to watching Peter Berg’s 30 For 30 documentary film (the first one aired in the long-running ESPN sports film series) about the deal’s lead-up, its execution, and its long-tailed aftermath, A King’s Ransom. The initial verdict on Berg’s film is that it’s a fairly cursory and facile portrait of an event whose psychic scars are still visible on a certain generation of Edmontonians and whose legacy continues to be manifested in the NHL’s stubborn insistence on succeeding in southern U.S. markets.

But then Berg (director of macho Hollywood dreck like Hancock and Battleship as well as Friday Night Lights, both the film and the more acclaimed television show, which he helped to develop) can only work with what he has. The principal players in the deal – Gretzky himself, Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall, and Oiler general manager Glen Sather – give a pretty simple picture of the trade-building process. The decision to move Gretzky was influenced by a combination of factors. There was dire economic need: Pocklington was losing money on the Oilers, a trend which continued well into the ’90s when he sold the team and then later filed for bankruptcy, and he got $15 million in cash from the Kings in the deal. There was roster and contract calculation: Sather and Pocklington would have to convince Gretzky to re-sign for less money than he was most definitely worth to keep him in Edmonton and keep a strong team around him, and Gretzky was looking for compensation that befitted the best player in the game at the peak of his powers. They couldn’t let him walk for nothing in another year so as a free agent, so they grabbed assets for him while they could.

But there was a grander, deeper motive behind the deal which has been enshrined as a foundational moment of the modern NHL, and Berg gives it more than a bit of lip service. Quite simply, there was a vague feeling that the game’s greatest player should play in the continent’s glitziest media centre, and that this could only serve to benefit the game’s growth in the U.S. The league, especially under the stewardship of Gary Bettman, has aggressively pushed expansion into non-traditional American markets, often to the perceived detriment of the game’s passionate grassroots in Canada (although, ironically, it is now the muscular incomes of the Canadian franchises that support the zombie American ones through revenue sharing).

In this way, the Gretzky deal – benefitting a southern U.S. franchise and damaging a northern Canadian one – is a sort of creation myth for the contemporary big-money NHL, or perhaps more properly its messianic break from the smash-mouth backwoods heritage of the game. Once the Great One’s name was in lights in Hollywood, there was no going back for the league; flash and glamour were a part of hockey for good, even if they were supported by law-breaking robber barons like McNall (who later spent a few years in prison for fraud). Hardy northern outposts of dedicated fandom like Edmonton would have to return to the wilderness. With the exception of a few playoff series wins around the turn of the millennium and a Stanley Cup Final run in 2006 that is beginning to feel almost as distant as the glory days of the 1980s, the Oilers have mostly wandered in that very wilderness ever since.

As mentioned, A King’s Ransom only addresses these long-established readings in a cursory way: a closing onscreen title half-credits Gretzky’s coming to Los Angeles for the three teams now based in California. Berg also doesn’t do much more to explore the divergent reactions in both cities to the trade other than to show that Edmontonians were pissed (it didn’t help that Pocklington was clumsy at PR and local media hacks like Jim Matheson fanned the flames of anger unwisely) and Los Angelenos sycophantically hopped on the shiny bandwagon (as they are wont to do; witness the glamourous reception for David Beckham when he signed for the MLS’ LA Galaxy a few years ago, despite soccer being even more marginal a sport in the city than hockey was in 1988). Longer-term effects are left unconsidered.

What’s much more interesting is the glimpse A King’s Ransom provides into the perspective and feelings of the Great One and those closest to him concerning the whole affair. Though Gretzky will forever be hockey’s demigod, he has hardly covered himself in glory since retiring from the game, or indeed since leaving the Oilers: no further Cups, only a single MVP, a painful Olympic defeat in 1998, and in retirement, a failed dalliance with co-owning and then coaching the increasingly-disastrous Phoenix Coyotes franchise and a gambling controversy embroiling his wife Janet and a close associate.

Janet appears here, downplaying the role she may have played in the event. Although she was a Hollywood actress (“I saw Police Academy 5!” yells one fan following her wedding limo in the doc, a hilarious summation of her onscreen career) who had married Wayne the same summer as the trade and they had begun living in L.A. in the off-season, she tells us she had nothing to do with any of it. No thinking fan was ever fully comfortable with the misogynsistic tone of the popular effort to cast her as the Yoko Ono of the Boys on the Bus, but neither could a thinking fan believe that Gretzky’s decision was not influenced by his recent marriage to a Californian. Gretzky’s father Walter also shows up, relating how he told his son a few hours after the last Cup win in Edmonton that he would leave for more money soon. The influence of this most famous of hockey fathers is also underplayed, though most inside views have understood the elder Gretzky’s sway over his son was considerable.

Most revealing, however, is how Berg, speaking to Gretzky on a golf course in the film, perhaps inadvertently exposes the great sports hero as a bit of a shallow intellect. When trying to explain his decision to accept the trade, Gretzky says that he decided to leave because he was angry that Pocklington and Sather were thinking of trading him. They were thinking of trading him, so he let them do it; I’m sure that showed ’em. Gretzky is fully aware that more Cups were to be won in Edmonton with that wonderful Oilers team, and from an on-ice perspective, the motivations for the move are much less clear. Indeed, Berg shows plenty of highlights of Gretzky’s prowess with the game, but A King’s Ransom represents one of the first major points in hockey history where what was happening off the ice trumped what was happening on it. In our era of cynical lockouts and shady ownership machinations, perhaps this was the true legacy of the Wayne Gretzky trade. Big business came to NHL hockey in a major way, and the game itself hasn’t regained primacy over the course of its own destiny ever since.