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Film Review: Into the Abyss

October 30, 2013 1 comment

Into the Abyss (2011; Directed by Werner Herzog)

“Describe an encounter with a squirrel,” intones the inimitable German filmmaker Werner Herzog off-camera in the opening moments of his remarkable documentary Into the Abyss. Herzog is exhorting a pastor ministering to death row inmates to share a story about the transience of mortality, the strange fortune of existence, and rodents with puffy tails. He does, and despite the easily-lampooned ponderous, over-articulate Herzogian framing, the pastor’s brief narrative is not ludicrous but sincere and strangely moving.

Or perhaps, like so much of Into the Abyss, it’s so sincere and moving because it’s so strange and ludicrous. Herzog takes an idiosyncratic view into an idiosyncratic crime, a brutal triple murder in Conroe, Texas that puts one perpetrator (Michael Perry) in line for the lethal injection gurney and another (Jason Burkett) in prison for a life sentence. Herzog interviews both men, separated from him and his camera by glass and metal in correctional unit visitation rooms. He also speaks to an investigator from the local sheriff’s office who gives him an overview of the details of the crime, family members and loved ones of both the convicted men and of their victims, and a retired death unit captain haunted and traumatized by his experiences as an executioner for the State of Texas. There are creepy crime scene videos, visits to sites involved in the murders, and quasi-poetic slice-of-life scenes from East Texas: Christian billboards, rusting pickups, flocks of birds swirling in the air above a garbage dump.

This is all standard true-crime documentary boilerplate, and Herzog even prefaces his exploration of the events and the fascinating characters around them with a statement of his moral opposition to the death penalty. But it’s the details that matter, and the odd volubility that Herzog displays in extracting them. Never seen, only heard, and keeping clear of the speculative existential voice-overs that mark another documentary feature highlight of his, Grizzly Man, Herzog is vocally present only in his esoteric lines of questioning to his subjects. The occasional query is constructed with such arch Herzogian obscurity and eloquence that the rural working-class types he speaks to seem only occasionally to grasp his meaning, but are stunned into disarming honesty nonetheless.

There are unexpected twists and baffling turns in the unspooling portrait of these damaged people and their variant reactions to the challenges of life. A long-incarcerated father who blames himself for his son’s criminal acts does something important for his boy in sentencing testimony. A legal advocate of one of the convicted uncovers much deeper feelings for her client. And a shattered family member of the victims, crushed under an avalanche of recent loss and tragedy, finds guilty and unexpected solace in the execution of her mother and brother’s murderer.

Certain figures stand out, including a roofer once stabbed with a screwdriver by one of the murderers (he didn’t even go to hospital) who Herzog treats like some species of rural proletarian ideal. Burkett’s eyes are intense and piercing; they are pitiless portals, but undeniably seductive too (it’s his legal aid who falls for him, marries him, and carries his child, all while he’s behind bars; you won’t believe quite how it all works). Burkett’s father is broken by a lifetime of incarceration, a man responsible for his bad choices who is redeemed by his powerful sense of emotional shame.

But Perry is the first principle figure that Herzog introduces, and he remains the most odd and unnerving player in this tragic drama. With his flat bangs, gap-toothed grin, and big-eyed boyish earnestness, he’s eerily reminiscent of Jim Carrey’s Lloyd Christmas from Dumb & Dumber. Only, you know, a cold-blooded and callous killer about to be put to death. All of the awful gravity of his deeds fades to the background and his youthful enthusiasm pushes to the fore when he narrates a surreal childhood summer camp experience to Herzog. As the director’s assured accented tones veer towards the incredulous, Perry relates a sojourn in the Everglades during which he drops his gear in the water, frets over parental waivers providing for alligator attacks, and describes an encounter with a monkey. Herzog commences his conversation with Perry by divulging that he does not expect to like the convict, and yet he clearly identifies with Perry’s assurance and communicative openness as a dark mirror of his own.

Faced with such unlooked-for complexity, viewers are surprised and they are moved, if not by sympathy precisely than by a sense of impotent sadness at the inescapable feedback loop of violence, death, and criminality that stretches from the poverty-stricken fringes of rural American society to its security-obsessed upper-middle-class and ineffective structure of legal process and punishment. This, more than anything, is the core thrust of Into the Abyss. Herzog allows the perpetrators to contradict and complicate the police investigator’s narrative of events, but does not use his film to construct a counter-narrative or to suggest that a miscarriage of justice has transpired. He largely leaves Perry’s avowal of innocence unexamined. This astounding film is not about a quest for justice, but about exposing the conspicuous hole at the centre of the comforting fortress of justice. Werner Herzog’s magisterial view of these events and the people involved in them portrays one heavy, sighing tragedy orbited by smaller ones, the whole atomic structure of human pain poised uncomfortably but immovably in advancing, unforgiving time. And yet, people endure and continue to be.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Trip

October 28, 2013 1 comment

The Trip (2010; Directed by Michael Winterbottom)

It only stands to reason that Steve Coogan, perceived for so long as the great British comedic performer who has failed to break through to a larger international (especially American) audience, would sooner or later begin to construct self-reflexive meta-commentaries on this perception through his work. The Trip is just such a project, a character-centric sort-of-extension of director Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy meta-adaptation A Cock and Bull Story.

Coogan and Welsh comedian and impressionist Rob Brydon play exaggerated, egocentric versions of themselves along the lines of that earlier film, in this edited feature-film edition of the BBC Two TV series. The premise is that Coogan has planned and booked a romantic gastronomic tour of country inns and fine-dining restaurants across the North of England for himself and his girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley).

Unfortunately, Mischa flies to America to write a magazine story about Las Vegas prostitutes instead (and to get away from what is evidently a failing relationship), leaving Coogan with a full itinerary for two and only himself for company. This will not do, so he invites his friend Brydon along. The latter is pried from his affectionate wife and child with some difficulty, and with some trepidation on Coogan’s part, as their relationship seems largely grounded in laddy but borderline passive-aggressive professional one-up-manship.

Coogan and Brydon load into the former’s Range Rover and drive across fog-shrouded moors along winding country lanes (there’s a running joke about Coogan’s tedious obsession with planning the driving route and laying it out in great detail for Brydon as they set off each day). Along the way, they sample (and josh at) elegant fashionable cuisine (Brydon always seem to order the scallops), admire quaint inn architecture and natural landscapes, learn about and discuss the exploits of Lake District poets Coleridge and Wordsworth, and bust each other’s chops so consistently that they practically return home swollen and sore. The bromantic tropes may suggest mainstream comedic convention, but the balance and execution impart an energy and humour all The Trip‘s own.

Coogan is portrayed as a self-absorbed womanizer who, despite dutifully wandering the wastes (which are beautifully shot by cinematographer Ben Smithard) to find decent cell reception to call Mischa, hooks up with Eastern-European innkeepers (“improving Polish-English relations”, as Brydon puts it) and Spanish photographers he meets along the way. He’s also quite hoping to be recognized more often, but is frustrated when the cheerier Brydon, with his collection of ingratiating, quickly-offered impersonations, is noticed by the locals more than he is. Coogan copes by quibbling with the accuracy of Brydon’s takes on Michael Caine, Sean Connery, and Anthony Hopkins, all while offering his own impressions as superior alternatives. Indeed, Coogan seems so unreasonably jealous of Brydon and his abilities (or perhaps of his relative happiness) that, in one brilliantly-modulated monologue sequence in a churchyard burial ground, he faux-eulogizes him as a silly conjurer of cheap tricks and parlour games, rather than a serious artist like the great Steve Coogan himself.

The key to that scene, and to Winterbottom’s whole film (or television show that has become a film), is how Coogan pulls back from more vicious jabs and softens his blows with humour, affection, and generous openings for rebuttals and ripostes from his chum Brydon. At the core of The Trip is a knot of affection shared sometimes begrudgingly between two clever, funny men who feel as liberated in each other’s creative presence as they feel threatened by that same presence.

Much of The Trip is improvised by Coogan and Brydon, and Winterbottom (who also directed Coogan in his finest film role in 24 Hour Party People) grants them the space to pursue their comedic fancies. Their riffs are blissfully non-self-conscious, marked by repetitious in-jokes and male competition undercurrents. In other words, they feel like the eavesdropped interactions of two guys who defuse the discomfort and tension they feel around each other with their shared callings of humour and wit. In other, other words, they feel bizarrely real, for all of their staged reality. The casual, almost narrative-less structure might have admitted a rambling spirit, but Coogan and Brydon have a chemistry and commitment that keeps it light but tightly focused. They’ll apparently be going to Italy for a sequel, and we will look forward to travelling along with them again.

Categories: Film, Reviews, Travel

Film Review: Doubt

October 25, 2013 Leave a comment

Doubt (2008; Directed by John Patrick Shanley)

Here’s a pithy summary quote to be going on with: Doubt left me in doubt.

John Patrick Shanley’s film adaptation of his own play is certainly well-acted. Meryl Streep in particular is a firebrand as a steely religious-school headmistress, and Viola Davis has a killer scene with her that earned the latter the first of her two Oscar nominations. It’s likewise well-constructed, a tight litany of intimate, direct scenes that drives home its central point: people are complex and you can never judge them without at least trying to understand them.

But, like a lot of essentially filmed plays (Mike Nichols’ wildly overpraised and interminable Closer comes immediately to mind), there’s a sense of visual limitation to the composition and an overstated directness to the dialogue that grates more than it inspires. Doubt‘s great deluge of dialogue is certainly a common feature of theatrically-sourced material like this, but like Closer, its characters don’t speak to each other so much as evacuate every conceivable thought and sentiment from each deepest crevice of their beings.

A trusty trick of mine in diagnosing terminally overwrought serious-theatre writing of the sort that afflicts Doubt is to try to imagine what characters would say to each other if they dispensed with realistic human dissembling and tactful privacy and vocalized precisely what they were thinking or feeling (at least eventually, some dramatic delay must be expected). If they say it, bad writing; if they say something else that might indicate that or can be taken to mean that, or if they don’t say it at all or even come out with quite the opposite, good writing. People don’t tend to tell each other how they really feel, despite the insistence of playwrights that they often do. Granted, this view could be considered a matter of preference for one of two particular writing styles, each equally valid enough. But I see it in more black-and-white terms, and Shanley’s writing in this film falls on the black side of the equation.

The point of the film is that doubt is vital, not only in considering contentious accusations of misbehaviour but also in one’s attitude to authority and to belief. The problem is that Shanley’s script leaves so little room for doubt on that point that it seems to be placed more on the side of Sister Aloysius’ withering religious certainty than on the side of enlightened complexity. To put it otherwise, my greatest issue, to risk redundant repetition, is that Doubt has no doubt about its doubt.

Still, the classy realism of the film’s setting and the committed performances of its central trio of actors (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams ably hold up against Streep’s thespianic scorched-earth policy) do much to carry the film beyond its hermeneutic issues. Even the push-button central issue of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church does not overwhelm the drama or the core themes. But after all, is Doubt a great film? I doubt it is.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Power and Corporatization in the Meth Underworld: Breaking Bad – Seasons 3 & 4

October 21, 2013 4 comments

It’s easier to consider the ways in which Breaking Bad stays the same through its run than to consider the ways it changes. The finely-tuned, incremental amassing of narrative detail remains constant and superlative; whatever else one might have to say about the thematic content of Vince Gilligan’s television opus, there’s little question that its storytelling is exquisite. Quibble about its constant thematic drumbeat of motivating masculine pride and immoral Machiavellian manipulations if you will, but Breaking Bad has enraptured a mass audience with its developing plot, and rightly so.

As mentioned, the assertions of masculinity, in particular through the seedy underworld of meth-trade crime, never go away and never really wane. They even flare up on key occasions, against the better mental judgment of the show’s characters, pushing the story forward in a way that is not merely about imparting meaning but also about the unavoidable and unforeseen consequences of human agency. This tendency, the closest thing to a formula that Breaking Bad can be said to follow, crops up repeatedly in the show’s third and fourth seasons.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston), for instance, unadvisedly keeps his DEA brother-in-law Hank’s (Dean Norris) investigation into the meth operation he has been involved in alive when it might have advantageously wilted on the vine. A bit elated with liquor at a family dinner, Walter shoots down Hank’s theory that Walter’s former meth lab assistant Gale Boetticher (David Costabile) was “Heisenberg”, the true chemistry genius behind the pure, blue-tinted methamphetamine product flooding the streets of Albuquerque and beyond, a suspicion that may have put the investigation to sleep and at least temporarily left Walter and his collaborators in the clear. Walter speaks up in his disinhibited state largely because, perversely, the quality meth he secretly manufactures has become the signature accomplishment of his disappointing life, and the protection of that accomplishment the sole opportunity to fulfill any sort of male dominance over his world. Although the cruel irony of this accomplishment is that he cannot openly take credit for it for risk of legal consequence, he’ll be damned if he lets another man, even a dead one like Gale, receive the laurels due to him. And damned, one gets the distinct feeling, he will be soon enough.

This choice by Walter ripples out from him, in the form of increased DEA pressure on his drug-lord employer Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), which further strains their already-poisoned professional relationship (once friendly and even understanding of his brilliant but volatile employee, Fring is trundling Walter out to the desert to make death threats against his family before too long). But Fring, constructed by the writers and played by Esposito as a calculating logic-bot who matches and surpasses Walter’s meticulous double-life practices, makes his own emotional, masculine power-asserting miscalculation which costs him most dearly. Seeking to diffuse escalating cross-border tensions with the Mexican cartels, Fring poisons kingpin Don Eladio (Steven Bauer) and his entire cartel leadership to death. Mass murder may seem an extreme reaction for a highly-controlled man like Gustavo Fring, but then Eladio did have Fring’s former meth-cooking partner killed before his eyes, as a flashback reveals (the trigger-man was Hector Salamanca, memorably played by Mark Margolis as a crusty old invalid in a wheelchair who rings a bell like a mute, avenging angel).

A desire for revenge clouds Fring’s judgment in this matter, and only some unexpected quick action by Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), who has become a trusted figure in Fring’s organization, saves Fring, Jesse, and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) from a fate similar to that suffered by the cartel elite. But with primary underhanded operative Mike out of commission in Mexico with a gunshot wound, Fring is left vulnerable to an attack from his newly-minted nemesis Walter, who engineers a final explosive encounter between Fring and Hector. Fring’s unwise, personally-driven overreach proves very costly, as many of our own emotional choices do as well.

Walter and Jesse’s inculcation into Fring’s meth operation dominates both of these seasons, although parallel and related storylines make their presence known as well (the cartel’s attack on Hank which leaves him temporarily paralyzed, Skyler and Walt buying the car wash where the latter once worked in order to launder their money, Jesse’s attempt at family life with a fellow recovering addict). But Breaking Bad‘s continuing allegory for American capitalism circles persistently around Fring’s diversified holdings, and it pulls lesser narratives and implications into this same orbit.

If the early stretches of the show commented on the consuming pressures of the laissez-faire American economy and the dark side of the entrepreneurial spirit, then Walter’s hiring by Fring and relocation into the industrial meth super-lab beneath an unassuming laundry facility represents the pitfalls of corporatization. Walt chafes under Fring’s increasingly close supervision and intrusive surveillance, become progressively more defiant in defending his position in the lab. After Walter put a great deal of effort into getting Fring’s attention and then eventually his patronage for his particular form of chemical art, the protagonist of Breaking Bad finds the supposedly more secure realm of large-scale meth production and distribution no more welcoming or easily navigated than the street-level knife-fight he sought to avoid. Selling out, it turns out, is not the solution to all that ails economic players.

Ever get the feeling that we’re being watched, Mr. White?

Fring seeks to minimize risk like a true micromanager, and Walter White is nothing if not one big walking risk (throw in Jesse Pinkman and that’s two). His fried chicken franchise is a cunning cover, but it’s also a profitable business that could have kept Fring living very comfortably without the drug trade sideline. The car wash project is mostly about “cleaning” Walter’s income so that it can be used for Hank’s recovery (Skyler suspects quite rightly that the attack on Walter’s brother-in-law had something to do with him), but it’s also a modest step towards at least the appearance of fiscal independence, like Fring’s Los Pollos Hermanos. It’s conceivable that, like his boss’ fast food chain, the car wash could give Walter a chance to live straight. But neither man can resist the lucrative profits and ample opportunities for robust dick-measuring that the meth business has to offer. And, to tell the truth, they are both in far too deep to get out, even if they wanted to.

One other notable way in which Breaking Bad shifts on its axis in the third and fourth seasons has to do with its once-balanced portrait of meth culture. As the show has focused with more and more detail and complexity on the business and extortionary side of the trade, it has lost touch with the seedy, painful underworld of the afflicted addicts who actually buy and use crystal meth. The window into this realm was Jesse for a long time in the show’s early days, and and this perspective reached its unsettling climax in his Dante’s Inferno descent into the den of two addicts with a neglected, half-feral son (Season 2’s “Peekaboo”).

Hard as this material was to watch, it was necessary to ground the meth trade intrigue in real, harsh consequences. It became impossible to forget that whatever pecuniary rewards Walter ultimately earned, at the bum end of the whole sordid affair was a person whose life was being strangled by the drug he made for them to pay to use. But the intrigue was simply too intriguing to Breaking Bad‘s creative braintrust, and the crime noir elements take firm precedence over the depiction of meth’s social costs by the fourth season. My previous consideration of the first two seasons lamented the privileging of the incident-laden story over the possible thematic social messages, and if anything, this issue intensifies as the show carries on. As the fifth and final season looms for this one delayed follower of Breaking Bad, the appeal of narrative appeal remains the main draw.

Categories: Culture, Reviews, Television

The Slow Start of the Edmonton Oilers and the Trials of Nail Yakupov

October 19, 2013 2 comments

Another NHL season has begun, and this time it was supposed to be different. After seven long seasons out of the playoffs, this was the year that the youthful Edmonton Oilers were supposed to have grown and learned enough to at least contend for the second season, if not burst right through that ice ceiling at last, after so long.

Of course, that hasn’t happened, and Oiler fans of the current cynical vintage ought not to be surprised. Going into today’s road tilt against the Ottawa Senators, the Oilers have only a single win through eight games, that one coming in a shootout against the New Jersey Devils. Their losses have included multi-goal defeats at the hands of superior clubs like Vancouver and Washington as well as more dispiriting defeats: they blew a two-goal third-period lead against the Winnipeg Jets in the season opener, and took the stick to the Toronto Maple Leafs (near the top of the league, though perhaps not deservedly so) on national television, only to continuously lose their lead, including in the final minute, before dropping the game gut-wrenchingly in overtime. For a team whose long-suffering fanbase finally expected to be better, it’s been a disappointing opening tenth of what might be another long season.

If I recall, this goal was not Dubnyk’s fault. But it’s so hard to tell sometimes.

When a sports team is not winning, there is never enough blame to go around, and fans and media have been liberal with it. Much of the heat has fallen on starting goaltender Devan Dubnyk, whose decent career numbers have cratered in the opening weeks of the 2013-14 season. Ignoring all the undocumented palaver about his body language or tendency to allow “bad” goals (as opposed, I suppose, to “good” ones), Dubnyk and backup Jason LaBarbera do need to be better if the Oilers are to compete.

But plenty of more salient issues present themselves away from the easy goalie blame-game. The defence in front of the netminders has been prone to chaos in their own zone (especially prized d-man Justin Schultz, who leans offensive more than defensive), and the power play and especially the penalty kill have been putrid, too. Indeed, many of the areas that the Oilers were strong in last year – special teams, above-average goaltending – have gone south, while areas of the game where they were weaker – faceoffs, generating shots, using Ryan Smyth – have gotten much better. Early times, but the Oilers under new coach Dallas Eakins appear to have flipped the script on the Oilers under the last couple of coaches, for good and for ill.

In the midst of the year-opening slump, as if to make matters appear even worse, Eakins decided to leave last year’s rookie phenom Nail Yakupov on the bench for the games in Toronto and Washington. A healthy scratch is one of the nuclear options in a coach’s discipline tactic-book, and has been used on players of more experience and rounded ability than the still-raw former #1 overall pick. It can also be taken to mean more than it does, and before Yakupov return to the lineup for Thursday night’s loss to the New York Islanders, trade rumours lit up the internet with Yakupov as a central piece, perhaps to acquire goaltending help. That the rumours (even those pushed by mainstream media figures) were more than a little ridiculous in their misevaluation of Yakupov’s value did not make them any less alarming to Oiler (and especially Yakupov) fans, present company included.

Leave aside lazy xenophobic distaste for Russian players or skilled offensive dynamos, as well as any blather about “toughness” or “heart” or “two-way game” or whatever other dog-whistle term is used by Canadian fans to justify their tendency for preferring Canadian players to any others. Are Yakupov’s hiccups in learning defensive responsibility or how to play a team game really what kept him out? Is there a personality clash with the evidently intense and demanding Eakins? I’ve not kept my fondness for Yakupov’s extravagant enthusiasm and flair too quiet at all, and have great hopes for his transition from the fledgling folk hero he already is to a bonafide superstar for the Oilers. But these things take work and adversity, not merely talent and skill. Yakupov’s latest trials, like those of his team as a whole, will hopefully presage an overdue rise to come. If they do not, then suffering through them will have proven to be that much more difficult for the team and for its fans.

 

Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports

Always Thus in Vanity Fair: Thackeray’s Encyclopedic But Moral Satire

October 16, 2013 3 comments

I’m an avowed slavish admirer of Leo Tolstoy and his sprawling masterpiece of the Napoleonic Era, War and Peace. William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, a minor masterpiece in its own manner, examines roughly the same period but in a wildly divergent way. Tolstoy imparts the gravity of warfare, in particular the socially-draining totality of Russia’s scorched earth resistance against Napoleon and his Grand Armée, but also the epiphanous truth of peacetime life, the little hopes and kindness, microcosmic slights and tragedies, that make up what passes for human life in the early 19th Century, or in any time. But for Thackeray, it’s all a lark, an elaborate masque of assumed poses, consumed by petty jealousies and cruel disguised mockery and overt shunning. The virtuous and true are taken advantage of by the manipulative and unscrupulous, and the only decent defence against the essential predatory urges of the social animal is to satirize it mercilessly. Even the great battle of the age, Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, is a mere offstage fling, another fashionable party from which, unfortunately, many attendees never came back again.

Thackeray skewers superficiality and social butterfly-ism with a silver blade in Vanity Fair, but does so with a very English sense of sniffy, incipient moral superiority. The novel was first published serially in 1847-48, before the reign of Queen Victoria had calcified into the prudish social straightjacket that the era bearing her name is synonymous with, when some remnant of Regency libertinism endured. Most of the novel does indeed take place before the death of George IV and the passage of the Reform Bill, in the waning twilight days of the magnificently fashionable post-Georgian aristocratic gentlemen and ladies of fashion. Its title references John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, a telling tip of the hat to a religous moral tract of a bygone Early Modern age; the fair in the town of Vanity represented the human attachment to earthly pleasures and the material world.

But for Thackeray, Vanity Fair is no allegory but a sort of mass asylum of popular upper-class consent. For all of the plot’s turns and reversals of fortune (literal and figurative), it is the pursuit, maintenance, and display of wealth, power, and privilege that motivates his characters. Faced with the absence or denial of these advantages, the appearance of them will suffice. The contentious focal point of this theme is always already Becky Sharp. Putatively Vanity Fair‘s heroine, Becky comes from ordinary, even low, stock (her father was a Bohemian painter, her mother a French stage performer; the horror!) but is well-educated and marries the rogueish military son of a faded noble family and employs her wit, tireless manipulative skill, and uncanny actor’s abilities to parlay her minimal opportunities (and finances) into a berth in fashionable London society. She captivates the men, outshines the women, intrigues with lords, and even meets the ruling monarch before it all comes crashing down into disgrace, ostracization, and Continental exile.

Contrasted to Becky’s cunning finagling is the kind-hearted suffering of Amelia Sedley, who marries her childhood sweetheart George Osbourne only to see him leave her behind for loose society living and an undeserved hero’s end on the field of Waterloo. With her family’s income wiped out by her father’s unwise investment schemes and her late husband’s forbidding father disinheriting her and her beloved son, she lives a life of near-poverty in a small suburban house, suffering her slights in naive devotion to the frivolous, departed George as well as the honest attentions of William Dobbin, George’s best friend who is hopelessly in love with her.

Things do turn out better for Amelia than they do for Becky, although both the sincere sweetness of the latter and the determined scheming of the latter come in for filleting from Thackeray’s narrator. Indeed, Vanity Fair most resembles Tolstoy in its author’s refusal to see his characters, however archetypal they may be, as one-dimensional. Unlike the Dickensian caricatures of Thackeray’s more famous contemporary, those that populate the novel are shown in good light and in harsher light, too. Thackeray can note laudable qualities (Becky’s role in reconciling Amelia and Dobbin, her gambling dullard husband Rawdon Crawley’s tender affection for their son) even while viciously satirizing their less praiseworthy features (Amelia’s brother Joseph is painted as an obese, vain poseur, and even the knightly Dobbin can be a bit of a stick-in-the-mud). Even a clownish figure of low-living like the elder Baronet Sir Pitt Crawley, a coarse penny-pincher whose fondness for the proletarian classes and for drink is viewed askance by the Vanity Fair snobs, is shown to be capable of fond regard and is allowed to be humbled and pitied before the end.

As satisfying as these generally rounded characterizations and sharp instances of satire are (there’s a wonderfully nasty knitting metaphor for Becky pretending to love her son to win society points when in fact she can’t stand him), Thackeray falls short of Tolstoy specifically but even a bit short of better English novelists by virtue of his proper judgemental Englishness. Tolstoy showed all facets not to judge his characters, but to make them seem more fully human; Thackeray sees it as a way to broaden his satirical reach. As mentioned, the nod to The Pilgrim’s Progress is revealing. Thackeray reserves some of his barbs for humourlessly religious milksops like Pitt Crawley the Younger and Lady Southdown (although he clearly thinks fake piety of the sort that Becky often resorts to is much worse), but he willingly upholds the fundamental Protestant moral code on which even the most free and fashionable English society is based.

All satires must necessarily have a firmly rooted basis in some ideological foundation alternate to the presumed social delusions which they have been designed to upend, naturally. And although Thackeray is at pains to give Becky the benefit of the doubt and does not have her repudiated or apologize for her actions, the whiff of moral judgement hangs about every sentence concerning her for the novel’s second half. Many more words could be exhausted on the subject of Becky Sharp’s personality and her choices in relation to the social mores of her time and place. Hers is a clever, resourceful strain of feminism that neither Thackeray’s other characters nor the author himself quite recognizes, and she is fairly pilloried for holding to it. For all of its encyclopedic satirical character and delightful bursts of wit, this arms-crossed moral undercurrent of snobbish disapproval (even if it did likely reflect and flatter the attitudes of its bourgeois readership) blocks Vanity Fair‘s path to first-rate Victorian-novel greatness.

Categories: History, Literature, Reviews

Film Review: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

October 14, 2013 1 comment

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967; Directed by Stanley Kramer)

This film’s revolutionary social issue impact has faded, and the once-shocking nature of its powerful central idea had slid into mainstream acceptance (though not nearly as much as people might think). Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner can fall to pat sermonizing when it’s not paying close enough attention, and it isn’t nearly as progressive on the issue of class as it is on race. Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton also seem at least a little unbelievable as an interracial couple dining together with the latter’s wealthy white parents for the first time, and not due to racial difference, either. Rather, Poitier is painted as a secular saint while Houghton, pretty and vivacious and well-bred as she is, is frivolous and a bit annoying. A nicely cleaned-up African-American doctor is not nearly as difficult for white audiences to come around to as an individual closer to the much more common street-level experience of Black America. That the film’s baby-steps approach to fostering tolerance of interracial couples was so controversial reveals more about 1960s American social norms than it does about the film itself.

The element that prevents Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner from becoming a mere liberal-Hollywood period curio is the strength of the writing (when it isn’t hopelessly ham-handed, which is sometimes is) and the unwavering commitment of the performances, especially those by industry vets and legends Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn (in their seventh onscreen collaboration) as the progressive but still doubting parents who must be won over by their daughter and her African-American lover.

Tracy was acting in his final film (he died 17 days after the end of filming) and perhaps he knew it. The final jewel in his acting crown, it’s an impeccable one. The film could conceivably be criticized for making Christina’s parents persuadable, reasonable progressives, but this is hardly the easy way out. Tracy’s august newspaper publisher is the personification of rooted liberal social concern, having spent his career campaigning in his paper’s pages for precisely the social advances that make it possible for his daughter to be with anyone she wants, and yet is ultimately the stubbornest hold-out when it comes to personal acceptance of this new order. Tracy is rumpled and conflicted for complex reasons that he only barely lets us in on, but emerges finally as valiant and true. It’s as open and human a performance as I’ve ever seen; truly wonderful.

The incomparable Hepburn, meanwhile, though as always not given nearly enough material to sink her teeth into, manages to be touching as well. That said, her real highlight is the cold bitch of a scene in which she summarily fires an employee and friend who disapproves of Poitier’s character purely on the basis of race. In a movie that is otherwise almost uniformly fuzzy, Hepburn briefly flashes some teeth, and it’s an absolutely rousing moment in the midst of a gentle argument for a more tolerant society, one family dinner at a time.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Identity, Image, and Art: Exhibitions from Ai Weiwei and David Bowie

October 11, 2013 1 comment

The interesting confluence (if not quite congruence) of two blockbuster touring exhibitions sharing special gallery space at this moment at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto brings several potent issues revolving around image, identity, and representation in the post-modern age into a tighter orbit. Prominent Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei’s According to What? show runs until October 27th, and the recently-opened David Bowie Is admits visitors until November 27th. Although the sprawling, multifarious oeuvre of the wildly-creative Bowie would initially seem to share little thematic ground with the focused conceptual provocations of Ai Weiwei’s work, they in fact provide fascinating opposing case studies into the contemporary construction of identity in the public sphere.

Ai Weiwei may currently be the world’s most famous artist, his shaved head, scraggled goatee, and hardened gaze familiar features to any follower of current developments in the fine arts. Weiwei’s work, to a great extent, conforms to contemporary art’s dominant practice of large-scale abstraction and privileging of concept over form, signified over signifier. As such, it often shares the movement’s smugly self-confident pretention, its conviction of its vitality and importance in the face of evident self-indulgent conceit. Just how important, really, is a shark preserved in formaldehyde, or a turbine hall full of ceramic sunflower seeds (Weiwei’s famous installation at London’s Tate Modern), anyway? Most would say, and have said, not very.

According To What?But even if his form follows that of major contemporary art influences like Jasper Johns, Marcel Duchamp, and Andy Warhol, its function, its meaning, is subtly modified and possibly even deepened by his engagement with Chinese cultural history as well as with the country’s current political situation. Weiwei often employs traditional Chinese fabrication techniques and materials in his works and installations, connecting the intellectual metaphors of conceptual art with the cultural bedrock of his nation. Examples in the According to What? exhibition include sculptures made of wood from demolished Qing dynasty temples that take the form of the map of China and a traditional rural woodpile, scaled-down house shapes made from pressed tea leaves, traditional wooden stools (constructed without nails) arranged in a vertiginous sunburst pattern, and Forever-brand bicycles attached in a circle, a suggestion of eternity that puns on the brand name.

Weiwei does not merely adapt Chinese cultural tradition to more modern usages, however. He also challenges the sanctity of that cultural heritage with a series of works confronting contemporary China’s modernization efforts and its concomitant erasure of that heritage. He dips centuries-old vases into bright industrial paints, photographs himself dropping and smashing another vase from 2000 years ago, and paints a silver Coca-Cola logo onto Neolithic pottery. Is he defacing ancient and valuable artifacts, making them beautiful or meaningful in new and striking ways, or executing both acts at once in a commentary on the post-capitalist order’s own focus on progress over preservation?

This would all be interesting enough fodder for contemporary art, but would not necessarily make Ai Weiwei a figure of the gravity and integrity that he has been invested with. Weiwei’s antagonistic relationship to and frequent challenges of the authority of the Chinese Communist state accomplishes that nicely, adding a note of agitprop frisson to the subtle wit of his works. His support of political dissidents and efforts to compel greater disclosure from the Chinese government with regards to the death toll and infrastructure failures of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake has gotten him arrested, beaten, and currently under house arrest, his passport confiscated, preventing him from travelling outside of China. These events have found their way into his art, as other works in the exhibition include a huge snake made of backpacks (5000 children died in the Sichuan quake, many in collapsing, shoddily-constructed schools) and a shattered wave constructed of rebar, salvaged from destroyed buildings and laboriously straightened for use in the sculpture.

What emerges from According to What? is an artist whose presented identity is grounded in his country’s history and character as much as in the provocations of contemporary art. But even as he challenges the authoritarian system of China and engages with its rich and ancient culture, his processes of artistic production reflect the industrial and commercial underpinnings of that system. The Warhol-esque repetitions of his works require a large labour pool to achieve the desired effect; According to What? includes video of Chinese labourers hammering the aforementioned rebar straight, and the sunflower seeds were made by a ceramic works that once provided precious objects to the imperial court (the project saved it from bankruptcy, apparently). Is Weiwei exploiting the huge Chinese labour pool like the government whose record he often protests, or is he turning its almost immeasurable energies to more productive creative uses? As with most of Ai Weiwei’s creative interactions with the Chinese portion of his artistic identity, he leaves it largely up to interpretation.

Speaking of identity left up to interpretation, David Bowie Is (put together by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and featuring hundreds of items from Bowie’s personal archives) is a multifaceted examination of a popular artist whose many facets have been presented at different times. Spawned by a comfortable suburban English milieu, young David Robert Jones sought out substitute identities based on a variety of sources: Buddhist spiritualism, science fiction, German Expressionism, ambiguous sexuality, even mime. His boundless artistic appetite has expanded beyond music into design, art, dance and performance, and film acting. Indeed, perhaps the most contained expression of his chameleonic powers in the enormous exhibition is a screening room looping scenes from his eclectic cinematic career.

There are also clips of performances, handwritten lyrics, letters, and notes, movie and stage props, photographs and posters, and a constant stream of Bowie’s varied musical output. Most revealing, however, are the profusion of costumes on displays (sometimes revealing in more than one sense of the word). From extraterrestrial jumpsuits to oversized Weimar cabaret outfits to kabuki-style robes to an iconic distressed Union Jack coat, it is made very clear that throughout Bowie’s image transformations, the clothes have always made the man in terms not merely proverbial but profoundly identitarian. Bowie’s wardrobe has not so much enabled his assumption of shifting identities as it has constituted it. There is no better illustration of David Bowie’s unstable but always precise image changes than all of these sets of empty clothes that he once wore, now standing idle on mannequins.

What these concurrent shows by Weiwei and Bowie shows us, then, is that whether tethered to contemporary politics and national heritage or to only the whims of one’s imagination, identity is constructed through image, and image preconditions identity.

Categories: Art, Culture, Music

Film Review: The Last King of Scotland

October 8, 2013 2 comments

The Last King of Scotland (2006; Directed by Kevin Macdonald)

Kevin Macdonald’s The Last King of Scotland is technically accomplished, texturally interesting, and full of strong performances. It also builds up some suspense and dread in its last half, even if it can get slightly overheated in doing so. But, like so many Western narratives about Africa, it’s more of a staging ground for the anxieties of imperial cultures than it is an honest and straightforward examination of the African experience of colonialism and its aftermath.

Macdonald’s Uganda has a sunsoaked look and sweltering feel, its roads popping in sharp maroons against the verdant jungles and savannas. Shot by Anthony Dod Mantle (who won an Oscar for his similar cinematography in Slumdog Millionaire, a vaguely Orientalist Scot-helmed colonial vision of a whole other sort), the film’s texture darkens and sinisterizes (new word?) as its content does. The effect of this is Conradian in the extreme, as James McAvoy plays a boyish Marlow winding inexorably down the river into that eternal “heart of darkness”, this time embodied by the inner circle of power around Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker). McAvoy’s Nicholas Garrigan carries the film’s immense colonial responsibility, and his descent from a brash, spoiled idealist to a battered, desperate state, complicit in war crimes and helpless to escape, is balanced elegantly by a young actor who seems to be coming into his own before our eyes as the film unfolds (and who has followed this role with more in its mirror image).

This descending arc of the Garrigans character (a composite of several true-to-life European consigliere in Amin’s orbit) likewise mirrors that of the idealized colonial project, a self-justifying discourse of good intentions twisted into poor results (rather than a selfish and greedy venture that presaged predictably disastrous consequences, as a less rosy view of African colonialism might conceive of). The British agents he runs into seem jaded and weary of the place, satisfied to let Amin do as he pleases. One of the film’s most memorable and disturbing sequences, Garrigan’s dizzy walk through dimly-lit hospital corridors past wailing, mournful Ugandans on his way to the film’s most gut-wrenching image, is Macdonald’s closest approximation of Conrad’s (in)famous downriver voyage that haunts so many postcolonial narratives.

Forest Whitaker’s Oscar-winning turn as Idi Amin ought to have been a golden opportunity to deepen and contextualize the film’s post-colonialist critique. Plucked from poverty to be trained to kill by the British Army, Amin became a grotesque hybrid of British imperial and homegrown African excess, blasting out anti-colonialist rhetoric while yearning to belong to the proud Scottish culture of his one-time commanding officers, claiming to be doing his best for Uganda while murdering hundreds of thousands of its citizens. Although Whitaker eerily approximates Amin’s accent, ticks and imposing stature, and though he balances the dictator’s charming populism with his paranoid vindictive streak, his depths go unsounded. What truly drove his powerful identification with Scottish culture and tradition? What led him to denounce the very colonial structure that uplifted him, if it was anything more than political survivalism? Is the film’s only real explanation for all of his dangerous eccentricities really Garrigan’s climactic, paternalistic pronouncement that Amin is a “child”? Is Garrigan really so absorbed in imperial hubris that he thinks he’s any more mature? For all the exquisite actorly detail of Whitaker’s performance, his version of Amin remains the film’s enigmatic Kurtz, a compelling mystery that stands in for other darkenesses and other evils as he stands astride his central African fiefdom with absolute power.

One can’t help but notice the plethora of Scots at the centre of the production, working out their own fundamentally colonized culture’s active participation in the colonial project of their English administrators through the tragic horror of a man who wanted desperately to be one of them. As potent and indelible as The Last King of Scotland can often be, it demonstrates the continued unwillingness of Western culture to see Africa (and its continued endemic problems) on its own terms. The narrative structure of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (like Amin, Conrad was a man of a marginalized nation who yearned to be a citizen of another one, and, unlike Amin, managed to become what he desired) continues to dominate stories about “the Dark Continent”, and this film is no exception. As powerful and effective as it often is, its central interpretation is essentially a century old. And that, it seems to me, is a problem.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

October 6, 2013 1 comment

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (2013; Directed by Cody Cameron & Kris Pearn)

The diminshed sequel to the inventive and hilarious Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is disappointing, manic, and derivative where the original was surprising, quick-witted, and inventive. Writer-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller step back into an exec producer/story supervisor role and loosen their grip on the impeccable, particular comic tone that is their signature, allowing a committee of less funny people (including co-writer John Francis Daley, who plays Dr. Sweets on Bones) to lacquer on a goopy layer of eye-rolling puns and overworked slapstick and physical humour. Even some imaginative visual designs, appealingly odd subplots, and insolent satire of Bay Area tech companies can’t overcome this general dumbing-down of the material. When Mr. T opts out of a project (Terry Crews impersonates him without much inspiration in voicing supercop Earl), it should be a sign that you ought to opt out as well.

Cloudy 2 picks up literally exactly where Cloudy 1 left off, mere seconds after nerdy, excitable inventor Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) saves the day by apparently destroying his own water-into-victuals machine (acronym: FLDSMDFR) that has buried his island hometown of Swallow Falls under a disastrous deluge of mutated food items (events helpfully, boringly summarized in a short prologue). While celebrating with the whole town, his dad Tim (James Caan), and his supposed new girlfriend Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), Flint is stunned when his scientific idol Chester V (Will Forte) descends in a sleek, futuristic craft to whisk him away to the city of San Franjose (har) to work for his hero’s “applied imagination” company, Live Corp.

An Apple/Google/Pixar-type innovation factory that dresses up its cubicle-bound drudgery with the distant carrot-on-stick of an orange-vested promotion and a gargantuan volume of caffeinated drinks (“Quinoa latte?”), Live Corp’s obviously dehumanizing corporate structure does not dim Flint’s enthusiasm for inventing or his admiration of Chester V. His admiration should be dimmed, though; Chester has dispatched teams to “clean up” Swallow Falls, but in fact he wants Flint’s food-making invention for his own nefarious purposes. When the teams begin vanishing, Chester sends the “expendable” Flint back to his old home to locate the FLDSMDFR. Accompanied by Tim (a fisherman who provides the boat to get them there), Earl (plucked from a job selling cupcakes), Sam and her Latino cameraman Manny (Benjamin Bratt), the wholly superfluous Brent (Andy Samberg), and his pet monkey Steve (Neil Patrick Harris, who provides Steve’s one-word verbalized thoughts, translated through a headband device), Flint discovers that his invention has become a quasi-god figure, creating sentient animals out of food (a.k.a. foodimals) and populating the overgrown, multi-coloured island with them.

While the first Cloudy parodied disaster-movie tropes in making a none-too-subtle point about the excessive consumption of the average American diet, its sequel references exotic-island monster films like King Kong and Jurassic Park to extend the critique to unethical corporate production of processed foodstuffs. This would be totally valid if anything more than the digs at the superficial elements of contemporary “creative industry” managed to hit home. And the satire (if I’m being generous enough to call it that) might go over more smoothly if it was surrounded by anything approaching the rare comic verve of Lord and Miller’s first film. But Cloudy 2 feels not like “another movie by a lot of people” (as the modest crediting ode to collaborative animated filmmaking refers to), but a movie by people who liked the last movie and thought they’d give it a whirl, because why not!

There’s tons of overly cutesy stuff (much of it with a big-eyed, baby-talking anthropomorphic strawberry) aimed cynically at smaller children, three or four bodily function gags aimed cynically at slightly older children, and lots of overwrought, unrealistic cartoon motion, especially with Chester V’s pipecleaner limbs. The veritable avalanche of truly awful food puns also makes one long for the punchier wit of the original. Almost all of this sequel’s gags are of a similar species to those favoured in the original film, and yet practically every one is less effective, less funny, and more grating. There is also nothing as creative and edge-walkingly ironic as, say, the snowball fight scene in Cloudy. This movie desperately needed a sure hand or two to vet the humour, if not to craft it carefully. Lord and Miller provided those hands with #1, but keep them in their pockets with #2.

This lack of consideration and intelligence with the material sabotages a reasonable premise (albeit one that contradicts the rebuilding coda over the credits of the first film) and some memorable animation design. The various foodimals are wildly inventive, from elephants made out of watermelons to baked potato hippos to a carnivorous taco-ingredient dinosaur. Tim, left on the boat as Flint and his crew trek across the island, has a deeply surreal subplot with a brood of sardine-loving pickles whom he teaches to fish. Indeed, at its very fleeting best moments, Cloudy 2 occasionally evokes a near-psychedelic Yellow Submarine surreality.

But it’s all for naught, as the comedy bends to the sophomoric and the proceedings descend from animated to merely cartoonish. On top of its many surface-level failures, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 also messes around with the consistency of the characters as established in the original film. In order to serve the plot and to provide an antagonist, Flint’s admiration for Chester V is shoehorned into the opening re-statement of his devotion to science, a devotion emotionally grounded in the first film in his natural overflowing nerdiness but also in his fondness for his deceased mother, who encouraged those tendencies in her son. Though we never heard of him in the first, better film, Chester V becomes Flint’s raison d’être as an inventor in this one. Additionally, although the last film ends and this one begins with Flint and Sam kissing and evidently becoming a couple, their attachment is completely dormant in the rest of the film. Much more focus is placed on more vague themes of friendship. In a diagnosis that pinpoints the poorly condition of the product as a whole, the entire damn movie has been friendzoned.

It’s perhaps a bit too much to expect of an animated feature aimed squarely at children to have the sort of consistency or sly wit and sophistication that I seem to be craving. But Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, a sugary confection of a movie that I nonetheless adore unabashedly, had those elements down cold, and delivered them with a quirky energy and desire to upend genre cliches that very much suggested Lord and Miller’s brilliantly funny cult animated show Clone HighCloudy 2 re-entrenches those cliches and misdirects that energy. This disappointing movie can never takes its infinitely superior predecessor from us adult fans of creative, smart feature animation, but it dishonours its relatively minor legacy nonetheless.

Categories: Film, Reviews