Archive for September, 2013

Film Review: Marley

September 29, 2013 Leave a comment

Marley (2012; Directed by Kevin MacDonald)

It’s a curious feature of Scottish director Kevin MacDonald’s 2.5-hour-long documentary on the life and music of Jamaican reggae immortal Bob Marley that it holds back its purest illustration of the persistence of the Marley legacy until the end credits. Over the highly familiar strains of “Get Up Stand Up” and “One Love”, MacDonald shows people from Marley’s home island, from Africa, India, Tibet, London, and the U.S. posing in front of Marley-themed murals, wearing shirts with his face on them, and dancing and singing to his anthems. For a film rich in biographical and philosophical detail but light on insight into what has made Marley into a secular, post-modern Christ figure, these shots speak volumes into the musician’s enduring global appeal.

MacDonald’s first documentary feature since the riveting alpine classic Touching the Void (he also won a Best Documentary Feature Oscar for One Day in September, a superb exploration of the hostage taking and eventual killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich), Marley is interesting enough even as it shares the vague sense of intrusive, neo-colonial unease that engulfed the director’s Oscar-winning The Last King of Scotland. MacDonald eschews a voice-over (although not onscreen titles, which carry essential the same didactic effect) and allows those who knew Marley well to tell his story: family, friends, bandmates, and acquaintances populate the film. But however much the Scottish arriviste auteur tries to stay behind the curtain, the question repeatedly presents itself: is this his story to tell?

Many of the story’s details are fascinating and a little surprising to those whose familiarity with Bob Marley does not go far beyond posters on frat house walls and that ubiquitous Legend album that everyone’s parents own. Born in the rural Jamaican town of St. Ann, Marley was mixed-race, the son of a white British functionary and a black Jamaican mother, and more than one observer attributes his extraordinary ability to speak to both sides of various social, cultural, political, and racial divides to this heritage of métissage. Marley (or at least his art) did indeed span supposedly irreconcilable gulfs: black and white, rich and poor, First and Third World, colonizer and colonized, left and right. Marley could appeal to both (or all) sides without necessarily belonging to any one. This uncanny ability was exemplified in one of the most famous incidents of his public career, when Marley convinced implacably opposed Jamaican political leaders Michael Manley and Edward Seaga to join hands at the end of the One Love Peace Concert of April 1978.

Rejected by his white father’s family and marginalized by Jamaica’s social system of assured poverty, Bob Marley gave himself instead to the world, the film argues. He certainly gave himself freely to many people who passed through his life, as well as to many women besides his wife Rita (he had 11 children from 7 relationships, and MacDonald only features interviews with two additional partners and two of his offspring). This openness endeared him to many, but allowed threats to slip through gaps that subsequent megastars have tightened. His near-assassination by gunmen in the days preceding a free concert in 1976 that became associated with Manley’s socialist People’s National Party almost silenced a global voice before much of the globe had heard it, but his open-door policy at the legendary 56 Hope Road rehearsal house in Kingston enabled such violent incursions.

Still, Marley’s particularities are given a full treatment as well, in particular the obscure minority Rastafari faith which he made world-famous. The influence of his spiritual beliefs on his music is not overstated but could not be understated either; the songs adored by millions are expressions of the released energy of a faith that can boast only a few hundred thousand adherents, a minority even in Jamaica. The more eccentric tenets of Rastafarianism (its celebration of marijuana as a spiritual conduit, the belief that Ethiopian Emperor Hailie Selassie was the Second Advent of Jesus Christ) are not shied away from in Marley’s music and yet do not prevent his art from being reconciled with the modern world (the decadent, godless rabble of what Rastafari would call “Babylon culture”). This is generally taken as a statement of the resilient and universal appeal of Marley’s take on reggae music, but it may be just as revealing of the adaptive appropriative powers of Western corporate capitalism.

And yet, Marley himself endures, his charismatic solar flares undiminished. The snatches of live concert footage that MacDonald presents are undeniable case studies of his subject’s blazing stardom. Marley’s grimacing passion and lithe, dred-bouncing rhythmic motion collaborate with the appealing music in communicating as widely as possible. Bob Marley wished fervently to reach and to commune with as many other people as possible, a desire which universalized his peculiar belief-system and sometimes set him at odds with his collaborators (Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston both left Marley’s group the Wailers on the eve of breakthrough popular success, and Marley implies that it was as much about a militancy of alternative independence than money).

When Marley‘s credits roll, it’s clear enough that he has succeeded. Marley elucidates how and why Marley accomplished what he did, moving from poverty and obscurity to a demigod-like cultural immortality. But how that immortality proceeded from his accomplishments is left fuzzier and open to audience interpretation. Whether that is to Marley‘s credit or not is likewise a matter of personal opinion, but I’m left with the feeling that MacDonald could have crafted a film that might have done more on that score.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review: Blades of Glory

September 25, 2013 Leave a comment

Blades of Glory (2007; Directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon)

At many points during this film, I found myself wondering the same thing. No, not “Why am I watching this?” (though that may have bubbled to the surface on occasion, I grant). What I repeatedly wondered was if figure skating really needed the satire treatment that Blades of Glory provides, or if it was indeed even possible to accomplish anything of the satirical kind with a sport that is so obviously absurd and richly mockable in the first place.

With its flamboyant costumes, corny musical selection and dubious conceptions of “artistic merit” that are at once oddly technical and ripe for corrupt exploitation, competitive figure skating is such an easy mark for comedy that the most notable thing about a movie like Blades of Glory is that it bothers to ply its trade at all. And yet, not only is it not unclever in its skewering of an athletic competition that practically invites mocking dismissal, it affords figure skating (a tough, physical, and even dangerous activity despite its flowery image) a begrudging respect as well.

Directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon (not that directorial credits matter in a movie of this sort) from a script by more writers than I care to mention, Blades of Glory focuses on two fierce rivals in men’s singles figure skating whose animosity explodes into an embarrassing public dust-up after they tie for a gold medal that gets them both banned from solo competition. The lusty sex maniac Chazz Michael Michaels (Will Ferrell) and coddled, squeaky-clean Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder) find an unlikely comeback route when the latter’s former coach (Craig T. Nelson) suggests that they team up to compete in the pairs competition.

The entire situation, as well as the movie’s execution of it, is a tender-footed negotiation of the obvious slippages of gender roles inherent to men’s figure skating. Often dismissed by the traditionally masculine in overtly homophobic terms (“That shit is so gay,” said the dude in the oversized Dallas Cowboys jersey), figure skating, like its blade-less fellow art of dance, actually features a highly stringent traditional code of men’s and women’s roles, with gendered signals embedded in even the smallest wrinkles of performative motion and ruthlessly policed by coaches and choreographers. Pairs choreography privileges the romantic tropes and strong-male, precious-female roles of ballroom dance, and men’s singles has evolved into a dichotomous battleground between masculine skaters privileging athleticism and more flamboyant performers exploring the much-maligned “artistic” element (and sometimes coming across to their critics as androgynous or even effeminate in the process).

Blades of Glory moves gingerly on thin ice when it comes to these implications. It’s sensitive and progressive enough to evade lazy gay-bashing jokes while at the same time firmly constructing both halves of the same-sex skating partnership as unambiguously heterosexual. Jimmy MacElroy has a female love interest (a mousified Jenna Fischer) and Chazz is an outrageous lothario, with Ferrell mixing together a delicious cocktail of confidence, stupidity, and outlandish belief in his own sexual prowess that is the film’s laugh highlight (the speech about his hairbrush is alone worth the price of admission). Hetero poses aside, though, it’s made crystal clear that Chazz is the alpha male to Jimmy’s gentler female substitute in this particular athletic partnership, and homosexual implications aren’t given an iota of oxygen to breathe.

I’ve long enjoyed Ferrell’s film work, even if he seems to have been running in place for the last few years (the forthcoming Anchorman sequel does not bode well for a performer who seemed to be branching out with more nuanced material like Stranger Than Fiction). In the midst of a largely throwaway yukfest, his Chazz Michael Michaels may be what finally converted me to an acolyte of the breadth of his comic abilities, mind you. Will Arnett and Amy Poehler are also very funny in supporting roles as the central duo’s implacable on- and off-ice enemies, and Nelson suggests that Mr. Incredible may have been the harbinger of a late-career renaissance (that never quite came).

But Jon Heder’s one-note performance of squeaky-clean dweebiness (while it may indeed be the joke) drags things down a little. Heder is a devout Mormon who shies away from portraying objectionable content of any sort onscreen, and the movie feels like it was shot around his prudish objections (and indeed, rumours swirled around the production that it was). At all times, there seems on Heder’s part an unspoken refusal to be party to the sort of raunchy humour that populates most Hollywood comedies, and this works at cross-purposes to the movie’s apparent aims. The scrubbed content of his breakout role in Napoleon Dynamite was refreshing enough, but Blades of Glory suggested that Heder was not capable of anything more than endless repetitions of that iconic (for better or worse, depending on who you ask) debut performance. He also isn’t up to the quality of pros like Ferrell, Nelson, Arnett, and Poehler, quality which can shine through even middling material like this. Little wonder that his feature film career did not feature much more glory after his tepid, proscribed effort in this uneven release.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Men Who Stare at Goats

September 22, 2013 1 comment

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009; Directed by Grant Heslov)

The Men Who Stare at Goats, as advertised, is definitely an odd movie, but it’s unfortunately not nearly odd enough. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Jon Ronson (with a research assist from documentary filmmaker John Sergeant that goes uncredited in the film), the film deals with the U.S. Army’s covert efforts to adapt New Age philosophy, psychedelic drug counterculture, and all species of other loosely-related psychic and paranormal mumbo-jumbo to combat situations and national security applications.

The fictional conceit of the barely-there plot involves Ann Arbor, Michigan journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor, employing a rare American accent that slips now and again), whose wife leaves him for his one-armed editor in 2003. Broken-hearted and eager to prove his masculine worth, Wilton decides to ship out to cover corporate contractors in post-invasion Iraq, but has some trouble getting into the war-torn country. A chance meeting in a Kuwait City hotel bar with Len Cassady (George Clooney, who sports a mustache and therefore promises to be playing an eccentric), a retired Special Forces agent on what he claims is a secret infiltration mission, gives Wilton his ticket into Iraq, but also his prized story.

Wilton recognizes Cassady’s name from an interview he once conducted back in Michigan with a former soldier (Stephen Root, as usual providing mild eccentricity to prepare the ground for more extreme weirdness), who claimed that the Army was experimenting with outlandish psychic powers, training so-called “Jedi” warriors waging war on America’s enemies with non-traditional methods (McGregor, most famous for playing a Jedi, clearly relishes his lines asking Clooney if he is one). Cassady was the most talented member of the “New Earth Army”, a unit groomed in New Age flower-power quasi-warfare by the slightly loopy Vietnam vet Bill Django (Jeff Bridges, of course, who sells this kooky stuff better than anyone else could). Cassady accomplished perhaps the unit’s greatest “successes”: remotely discovering the whereabouts of a hostage in Italy through telepathy and, in the titular incident that still haunts him, staring at a goat until its heart stopped.

Wilton thinks Cassady’s kind of a nut, but follows him into Iraq’s danger zones anyway in search of his story. They are taken hostage by criminals, briefly tag along with bluff, bullet-headed American security contractors (who wind up in a firefight with a rival team of gun-toting corporate vultures), and eventually find their way to a secret base run by Cassady’s New Earth Army rival Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) that constitutes a neoconservative War on Terror perversion of Django’s vision for enlightened warrior monks.

The history of the New Earth Army (based on an actual unit called the First Earth Battalion) and its multitude of bizarre practices is sprinkled in flashbacks in the midst of this contemporary plot. It’s strange stuff, all the more so for being generally true, and plenty of the more out-there stuff sparks guffaws. The infamous stared-at goat was one of a hundred de-bleated ungulates smuggled into Fort Bragg from South America for training medics to dress combat wounds; a brigadier-general who supports the project believes that the Soviets are into psychic experimentation and is convinced that human beings are capable of walking through walls; and Django drills his troops with dancing, breathing exercises, and recreational drug use.

Heslov, a producer for Clooney’s much-better directorial efforts, works from a script by Peter Straughan that sees in the New Earth Army an endearing and open-minded post-Vietnam attempt to reconcile the implacable opposing poles in American public life of the time, the leftist hippie counterculture and the authoritarian military-industrial complex. The problem is that Heslov is too tentative and non-assured a filmmaker to whip Straughan’s ragged, directionless screenplay into fighting shape. The eccentric elements are amusing at first (the first frank discussion of the program between Wilton and Cassady is frankly hilarious, and the montages of the unit’s seemingly random Fort Bragg training regiment has its moments), but aren’t wedded to a larger narrative or thematic scheme. This is a film that shares its subject’s dubious grasp of the value of seemingly irrational nonsense, and this lack of focus hobbles its potential satirical punch.

The Men Who Stare at Goats does marshal a subtler connection between the fuzzy evidence supporting the unit’s mandate of paranormal warfare and the ideologically-shepherded fantasies engaged in by the Bush-Cheney Administration that led to the Iraq War debacle in the first place. Django and Wilton witness Iraqi detainees being subjected to the demented cheeriness of the Barney & Friends theme song for hours on end, and recognize it as “the dark side” of their efforts at a gentler, more positive military strategy. It’s as close as Heslov’s film gets to a more muscular point about the danger of not merely believing in things that aren’t real but conducting large-scale government policy that has life-and-death consequences for millions of people based on those dubious beliefs. But The Men Who Stare at Goats finds something mildly amusing and even appealing about these beliefs instead, and would rather have us chuckle at them than be outraged by their misuse.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Good Old-Fashioned Wholesome Fun With Search Engine Terms #7

September 19, 2013 Leave a comment

Time for more headscratchers from the realm of search engine entries that directed websurfers to this blogspace. Done it before, will do it again. Go with eleven terms this time. Have at it.

bear man detective

I’m picturing a series of hardboiled detective novels featuring a grizzled grizzly gumshoe who solves crimes and mysteries entirely by catching salmon, rifling through garbage, and mauling anyone who crosses its path. So, basically, Maltese Falcon-era Humphrey Bogart only 8 feet tall and covered in fur. Kind of like this (a print by Portland artist Ryan Berkley):grizzly-bear-ryan-berkleyAmazing.

was trayvon martin good grades

The implication of this search is just too rich, especially with the crap grammar. But I can’t enjoy it all that much because an unarmed kid was shot dead by a pocket fascist who then walked. So.

rabid oxfordians

They do occasionally foam at the mouth during debates, but that might simply be due to retainers and/or lacklustre NHS dental care.

cancel us election during war

America is already permanently at war, guys. If Bush and Cheney didn’t find a way to cancel democracy, I doubt anyone will.

belgium shithole

From my own experience it is not a shithole, but I can make no definitive claim either way about the Walloon region, so let’s not be too categorical in contradicting the statement.

what party belongs of allpresidentof america

Beg pardon? Was your English teacher a charter member of the Tea Party, perchance?

blasphemous david beckham

I know he played for Manchester United and Real Madrid and that’s a middle finger to goodness and the righteous path, but cut the dude some slack, man.

what’s pedantic in brave new world

Wouldn’t answering that question with any degree of accuracy be inescapably pedantic in and of itself?

where can i find copy of symbol legend for disney’s little fluttering friends quilt

I did not understand any of that which followed “copy of”, but I can assure you that you must have taken a wrong turn somewhere between Pinterest and Epcot Center.

when is foreshadowing used in the devil in the white city

Um… before the shadow?

god is a badass

Pshaw. Vishnu could totally take him with three arms tied behind his back.

Film Review: Anna Karenina (2012)

September 17, 2013 1 comment

Anna Karenina (2012; Directed by Joe Wright)

You just knew that, sooner rather than later, Keira Knightley was going to play Anna Karenina. Each role of her post-Pirates of the Caribbean career phase as the pre-eminent young British female lead in serious, post-modern costume dramas has seen her orbit nearer to that most blazing sun of classic, tragic protagonist woman characters. The desirable, romantic Russian aristocratic who tosses aside her respectable attachment to an honourable man of affairs (Jude Law) for a passionate and self-destructive love affair with a dashing army officer (Aaron Johnson) is one of the towering figures of world literature, and has a considerable cinematic heritage as well, where Anna has previously been played by iconic Hollywood actresses Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh.

Knightley has always been an odd specimen as a physical presence on film. Thin, elongated, and poised as a crane, her jutting chin and ineffable Anglo-Saxon-ness (she never even bothers to try on foreign accents) make her perfectly suited to heroines both proud and strong and inherently mercurial and unstable. Her fluctuations from joy to indignance to fevered jealousy and mental disruption as Anna all vibrate with the self-same flighty energy. And yet, even as Knightley sinks her physical being into the psychic ordeals of Leo Tolstoy’s complex, tortured upper-class adulteress, she effortlessly holds herself above the fray with an ethereal aristocratic snobbishness, a dignity that Anna carries herself with through the worst of the social censure that her misdeeds engender (and only serves to further infuriate her high-society persecutors and intensify their ostracizing). It’s difficult to identify Anna Karenina with any one actress who plays her, in the way that Audrey Hepburn conquered Natasha Rostov forever in the otherwise compromised 1956 Hollywood War and Peace, but the revelation of this adaptation is just how valid and plausible a conduit for the character’s being Knightley proves to be.

If only the film that contains her strangely compelling turn was as worthy of its literary subject matter. Director Joe Wright, who also collaborated with star Knightley on an uneven version of Pride and Prejudice and a stronger adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, layers the artifice onto Tolstoy’s exquisitely detailed portrayal of the implications of quotidian social interactions in the Imperial Russia of the 1870s in a quite literally theatrical way. The film’s settings are stylistically interwoven with the stage, audience pit, balconies, backstage, and upper catwalks of an old theatre. Characters move through the wings, flat scenery backdrops are shifted and passed through; a key horseracing sequence involves the horse ridden by Anna’s lover Count Vronsky (Johnson) tumbling over the lights at the end of the stage; doors open from the set to a remote snowy field, and the final shot is of gently swaying grass filling the entire theatre.

As visually striking as Wright’s theatre conceit is (and the influence of acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard, who wrote the screenplay, cannot be ignored either), its thematic grounding in Tolstoy’s masterpiece is more tenuous. It’s true that the wide social sprawl and moral magnanimity of Tolstoy’s great novel of manners inspires general underappreciation of its fine, deliberate construction; the world and the people in it seem so vividly real that it’s easy to lose sight of the puppetmaster’s strings. The first meeting of Anna and Vronsky takes place over a deadly railroad accident that unsubtly foreshadows the tragic heroine’s final fate (and Wright seeds visions of locomotives throughout Anna’s breakdown); Anna’s adultery is likewise anticipated by that of her brother Oblonsky (a rather amusing Matthew Macfayden), and is contextualized by the warmer glow of the romance between Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and his eventual wife Kitty (Alicia Vikander).

So Anna Karenina, like most narratives, is highly constructed and fundamental artificial, despite its aura of truth and believability. Does Wright’s attention-drawing theatrical conceit gesture to an awareness of this structuring? Is it more focused on exposing and critiquing the intricate poses and rules of appearances and decorum inherent to the 19th century aristocratic society that judges and rejects Anna for her perceived sins? To get to the point, is it deconstructive in nature?

The answer is: No, not really. There’s a wonderful, hilarious passage in War and Peace wherein Tolstoy presents the superficial histrionics of an operatic performance with withering deconstructive wryness, describing the onstage display with a pitiless literality that lays bare the basic ludicrousness of the representation. Though it would have taken considerable cajones to approach a canonical work with just such fresh and deconstructionist eyes, it would have been not merely a valid but even a fascinating exercise.

But Wright’s amplified performativity stays on the surface. There’s much artful intertwining of bodies, hands, arms (in particular in a ballroom dance that is very much not period), and flowing, elegant dressings and undressings. The dance-like choreography and theatrical settings do not deconstruct Anna Karenina so much as reconstruct it as something it’s not. The choices are stylistic and audacious, but make little sense for a text without much of a heritage on the stage. Indeed, the viewer feels like Wright is tiptoeing up to the edge of some species of glitzy stage musical; one practically expects the characters to burst into song at any moment.

There is much to recommend this Anna Karenina. Knightley is shocking apt as Anna, Jude Law is superbly contained as Karenin, the costumes, sets, and cinematography are sumptuous throughout, and the Levin-Kitty counternarrative is more faithfully adapted than it usually is (down to a swelling take on his proposal scene to her, adapting the chalk and slate from Tolstoy’s novel – and his real life – into children’s letter blocks). But the conceit is pre-eminent, and this is consistently, naggingly an issue. It stubbornly keeps Joe Wright’s adaptation from greatness, if it was ever much of a threat to be great at all.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

Right Action, Reflection: New Singles from Franz Ferdinand and Arcade Fire

September 15, 2013 1 comment

Of all of the elements of popular music that post-millenial indie artists have rejected and have adopted, the most fraught relationship remains with the fundamental ephemerality of the form. The dominant aesthetic of the indie counterculture privileges the integrity of artistic creation above all, no matter how fleeting and disposable the products of that creative impulse might seem. And yet to be fleeting and disposable, but momentarily entirely engaging, is the very purpose of pop music, its intent and its most comfortable status. Indie music in its ideal form seeks to embrace the ephemeral while refusing to relinquish the more substantive elements of art.

We can see this productive tension in two new single releases from indie rock heavyweights who first made their name with seminal releases in the middle of the last decade. Montreal-based giants of the subculture Arcade Fire premiered the first single from their follow-up to their 2011 Grammy Album of the Year The Suburbs this week. The musical semi-collective, centered on vocalists/primary songwriters Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, arrived on the scene in 2004 with the instant classic of love, death, and fragmented family bonds, Funeral. Though there may be American indie acts of at least an equivalent popular profile, Arcade Fire’s international reputation and arena-ready sound made them the pre-eminent act in indie rock well before their Grammy win. They are the most recognizable ambassadors of the indie aesthetic in the musical realm, although that means that they perhaps aren’t all that recognizable after all.

At any rate, “Reflektor” is the lead single from the album of the same name, due out October 28th. The song is a thrust-and-parry electro-drama in the style of the Cure or Low-era Bowie that stretches out to nearly eight minutes. If these comparisons don’t tell us anything terribly new about the band, then “Reflektor” itself doesn’t give us much deeper insight, either. Thematically, both the lyrics and the accompanying video are focused on the image of the mirror, a well-worn trope for the group. If it’s not unappealing, then it’s also not surprising. Certain segments work better than others (the muscular “reflection of a reflection” crescendo at about the 3-minute mark, the closing instrumentation), and the band’s aural imagination is never in doubt. But the pressure felt by Arcade Fire to be perceived as creatively serious and ambitious pushes “Reflektor” into the territory of sagging, top-heavy excess. It’s to their credit that they are able to pull back from this precipice upon approaching it, but the vertiginous plunge ever threatens, and it shouldn’t.

Much simpler in scope and yet much more successful in accomplishing its goals is the new single from arty Scottish post-punkers Franz Ferdinand. “Right Action”, from the now-released record Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action, follows previous punchy, ready-made power-pop hits like “Take Me Out”, “Do You Want To?” and “Ulysses”, usually accompanied by sharp music videos referencing early-20th-century art and visual design (or in the case of “Do You Want To?”, hilariously puncturing the over-inflated balloon of contemporary art pretention). “Right Action” kicks out the jams reliably, its angular guitar lines jabbing percussively while singer Alex Kapranos sneers out clever barbs (“Practically all / is nearly forgiven”).

It’s certainly not a surprising product, and indeed makes less evident effort to push itself out of the band’s comfort zone than “Reflektor” does in Arcade Fire’s case. But Franz Ferdinand gladly accepts a pop ephemerality in “Right Action” with enough self-awareness to avoid inanity and enough enthusiasm to make it fun. It’s certainly not uniformly the case that celebrating temporary impact over lasting affect is the path to success in indie rock or in any other creative milieu, but in the particular contrast offered by “Reflektor” and “Right Action”, it certainly seems to be the case that it works out that way.

Categories: Music, Reviews

Film Review: Monster House

September 6, 2013 Leave a comment

Monster House (2006; Directed by Gil Kenan)

A lively little animated surprise from rookie feature director Gil Kenan. Short of the production marvels that are the trademark of the Pixar stable, this is about as technically and creatively impressive as a children’s movie can get, even in the age of computer-generated artistic freedom. Kenan’s camera is rarely static: it is almost constantly swooping, soaring, swaying, lurching, plunging. The movement is inventive,  the angles just skewed enough to grant the sturdy, sly script a playful momentum in addition to its built-in fable-like quality.

Exec-produced by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, Monster House dives headlong into the childhood myth of the neighbourhood haunted house, deepening its imaginative as well as its narrative possibilities. DJ (Mitchel Musso) and his friends become enmeshed in the affairs of a decrepit local Colonial abode, which has taken on malevolent supernatural qualities due to a secret in the past of its ex-carnival worker owner and resident Horace (Steve Buscemi). When the house proves not only a ready trap for unwitting trick-or-treaters but also a mobile threat to the safety of the whole town, the kids will have to face up to their fear to stop it.

There’s plenty of solid voice work, sometimes from expected sources (Buscemi, Catherine O’Hara and Fred Willard as DJ’s parents), as well as from unexpected ones (Nick Cannon steals many moments as a twitchy rookie cop). But really, the titular house is the star here. The consistently clever anthropomorphizing never grows old, and its transformation into a roaring, splintered behemoth during the audacious and exhilarating climax is pretty darned spectacular. If this movie came out when I was a kid, I would’ve been even more captivated (and maybe a little scared) by it. But even as a (putative) adult, I’m impressed enough with its rich visual imagination.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: No End In Sight

September 3, 2013 2 comments

No End In Sight (2007; Directed by Charles Ferguson)

No End In Sight provides the best argument for the value of the perspective it provides. If the Bush Administration had approached its ill-conceived reactionary military venture in Iraq with the sobriety and clear-headedness with which this film approaches their astounding failure to do so, perhaps it would not have been such an astounding failure and this film would not have been necessary.

Perhaps one more left-wing documentary exposing the destructive hubris of the departed and well-and-truly repudiated Republican administration is not nearly as vital today as it might have been in the waning days of the Bush Era. The flood of insider accounts of what these irresponsible neoconservatives ideologues have wrought upon their country and the world had long surpassed critical mass even by 2007, but the stunning thing about the Bush cabal’s governance of malfeasance is that there always proved to be more dumbfounding tales left to be told.

Charles Ferguson (who later oversaw Inside Job, a similarly calm but steely documentary on American overreach, a few years later) packs his film with these incredible but true stories. No End In Sight shows how the policy structure for post-war Iraq was being set by people with little to no direct experience of the region, many of them who had never even set foot in the country, did not speak Arabic, and had little to recommend them beyond ideological suitability. Many key positions in post-invasion Iraq’s provisional authority were filled by fresh-faced College Republicans with even less expertise than their bosses. Most disturbing was the still-baffling decision to disband the Iraqi military, which removed a potential ally in securing a volatile situation and practically invited legions of armed and trained professional soldiers to convene an (or at least join an already-convened) immediate insurrection. Dozens of other missteps and errors are likewise revealed, most of which seem almost willfully wrong-headed, as if some spurious value was being attributed to devising the worst possible solutions to Iraq’s spreading problems.

Ferguson’s resulting final documentary product is a powerful and quite nearly irrefutable condemnation of arrogant mismanagement that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. Even after the withdrawal of American forces and the trumping of sectarian turmoil in Iraq by greater Middle Eastern conflagrations stemming from the Arab Spring, the pessimistic verdict of the title rings true enough. A quietly but profoundly devastating documentary.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Syrian Intervention: The Dearth of Favourable Options

September 1, 2013 1 comment

As we move into the fall of 2013, the United States of America once again stands where it did ten long years ago: considering a military strike against a Muslim nation in the Middle East ruled by a brutal dictator who has targetted his own people with chemical weapons. Syria is not Iraq, Bashar al-Assad is not Saddam Hussein, and the Syrian rebels are not the Kurds (there are also Kurds in the midst of the Syrian conflict, by the way). The loose factional opposition to Assad’s Ba’athist regime may have sprung from the populist Arab Spring protests that so heartened Western liberals, but it now (and maybe always) included among its number Mujahideen and al-Qaeda splinter thugs, not to mention more above-board Islamic fundamentalist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood that has been at the heart of the painful upheaval in nearby Egypt.

If Assad’s chemical weapon attacks are judged to be beyond the pale by the international community (by which we mean the U.S. and whoever is willing to rattle sabres with them) and worthy of a robust military intervention, then the opposition can boast an impressive resume of similar if only slightly less horrible violations of its own. Most of the Euro-North American major players in this quickly escalating saga – the U.S., Russia, Britain, France – have experienced bloody internecine conflicts too distantly in their national histories, one supposes, to recall that brutality towards civilians is central to these sort of civil wars. What would the modern U.N.-NATO international policing machine make of, say, the monstrous, drawn-out savagery of the Russian Civil War, for example? Despite the stubborn insistence of Serious People throughout history that war can be contained and concentrated along productive vectors to achieve loftier political goals, in practice, the common people who find themselves in the path of this apparently focused destruction are sacrificed at its black altars. As it long has been elsewhere, so it is in Syria.

Will air strikes properly address the Syrian situation? No, because the situation cannot be properly addressed by any player in it, internal or external, when it is based in assumptions so inherently improper as are those that come with war. Wars must eventually have a winner, but until they do everyone involved in a loser, frittering away resources and goodwill and community and lives, ever so many lives, until one side or the other can sustain no further sacrifice. It’s a profoundly unnatural state that comes far too naturally to human beings. The Syrian situation is extremely complex; regime change is not an ironclad solution (and does not seem to be sought by the interventionists), and it’s hard to pinpoint local partners with whom a better administration could be collaboratively forged.

In this calamitous circumstance, U.S. President Barack Obama, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and once the most towering progressive hope in generations, faces no good options. Already bruised from both sides of the political spectrum by the revelations of the depth of the National Security Agency‘s domestic surveillance practices, Obama must think and think hard before taking action (and, it appears, run whatever action he hopes to take past the fractious Congress). Fortunately, he has shown himself to be a President who does nothing without careful, analytical consideration. Unfortunately, he has also shown himself to be thoroughly in the thrall of the seemingly omnipotent national security state whose influence he once sought to diminish, and war, however limited, is always quite on the table for its shadowy masters.

A second-term war, however limited in its scope, was a part of his political legacy that Obama surely would have hoped to avoid. But international affairs, particularly in a Middle East that is ever unstable in changing ways, do not always afford easy choices or preferable options; indeed, they rarely do. Neither acting nor not acting promises to improve the situation in Syria; indeed, there’s little agreement about what “improvement” would even entail in a civil war (at least mostly) between a secular despot and Islamist extremists. But the unforgiving choice between multiple unfavourable outcomes in Syria seems like a particularly contemporary one, after all.