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Film Review: Source Code

November 29, 2013 1 comment

Source Code (2011; Directed by Duncan Jones)

In the opening minutes of Duncan Jones’s Source Code, the camera sweeps above Chicago and its environs, tracking the progress of a commuter train from the metropolis’ suburbs into its core. The arterial transportations network of roads, tracks, rivers divides the great sprawling metropolis into a grid, something resembling a circuit board of a computer or a large-scale rough model of a human brain. An insistent, suspenseful musical cue, like a Hitchcock score for the iPhone age, thrusts and parries in the speakers.

Flash to the familiar face of Jake Gyllenhaal, asleep against the window of the closely-watched CCR train. The darting scan motion of his eyeballs as he awakes indicates clearly that he perceives something is not right with his surroundings. He doesn’t recognize them, doesn’t know the pretty young woman (Michelle Monaghan) sitting across from him speaking to him with flirtatious semi-intimate familiarity, doesn’t recall the faces of the regular commuters in his car. The woman (he eventually discovers that she’s named Christina) keeps calling his Sean, even though he insists that his name is Captain Colter Stevens and he flies helicopters for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. The ID in his wallet supports her position, and a glance in the bathroom mirror does as well: the face reflected back to him is not his own. Just as he’s beginning to find his bearings, however, a fiery explosion rips through the train, killing him and everyone else on board.

Following this irresistible suspense-film setup, Captain Stevens awakes in a cold metal capsule, something like an old lunar module with even more basic technology. He’s strapped down and disoriented, and a military officer named Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) is speaking to him from a video screen, feeding him a playing-card-centric recall code. Goodwin and her boss Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) are unwilling to give Stevens any details on his situation, simply repeating that he is on a vital mission and must identify the person who bombed the train in order to save more lives from an imminent terrorist threat. He is “sent back” to the train again and again, each time with only eight minutes to track down the bomber, but Stevens chafes at being kept in the dark about the nature of his situation and tries to work it out on certain passes rather than attempting to ID the culprit.

Goodwin and Rutledge finally, reluctantly debrief the soldier, revealing that he was badly wounded in a copter crash and kept barely alive by their secret military agency. They have connected his brain to the mostly-dead cortex of Sean Fentress, a run-of-the-mill teacher who was one of the victims of the Chicago train bombing that same morning but whose physical and mental profile is a match for that of Stevens. The final eight-minute stretch of Fentress’s life as stored in his memory banks is referred to by Rutledge as a “source code”, which can be accessed and interacted with by Stevens as many times as is necessary, but (as far as Rutledge is aware) cannot be changed. Stevens cannot save Fentress or Christina or anyone else on that train, but he can do whatever is necessary to discover who blew it up before the suspect detonates a dirty bomb in Chicago that could kill millions.

Certain facile reviews upon Source Code‘s release dubbed it a sci-fi thriller version of Groundhog Day, and while that gets at the essentials of the concept, it doesn’t do justice to the cleverness or the tenacity of its dramatic tension (Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train and Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express are also reference points, and The Manchurian Candidate is given a nod with the card-related mental programming). Stevens’ actions alter the unfolding events in the source code each time, but it resets like a tape at the end of each eight-minute period, with only Stevens remembering what happened in that run-through. Ben Ripley’s script plants seemingly incidental details in the opening run through the code that Stevens follows on later runs, clues that are rabbit holes to alternate realities. A tote bag, a cell phone, or a lost wallet can all be portals to tangential possibilities. Source Code is not fiendishly complex, but it requires some mental exertion to keep up, always a welcome feature of a genre piece of this type.

This is ideal material for Gyllenhaal, who excels at being adrift in unfamiliar surroundings onscreen and finding his way gradually, awkwardly, but eventually asserting himself physically over the situation. He has good chemistry with his dual female foils, with Monaghan’s Christina ever game for his seemingly impulse schemes as “Sean” and Farmiga’s iron facade of officiousness incrementally penetrated by his dogged pursuit of answers. Wright is a little more baroque, with Rutledge’s evasiveness, scientific arrogance, and unexplained, symbolically obscure use of a crutch to move around his facility. There are plenty of mediocre supporting actors, as well as a couple of odd cameos, including Russell Peters as a comedian on the train and Scott Bakula’s disembodied voice as Stevens’ father.

The direction of Duncan Jones, behind the helm of the acclaimed cerebral sci-fi effort Moon and David Bowie’s son, vacillates between inspired and workmanlike, but the often electrifying, imaginative writing redeems any artistic hiccups. If the film falls short in reaching the goals it sets out to achieve, a considerable spoiler is required to discuss it. If what you’ve read thus far sounds of interest and you haven’t seen Source Code, stop reading now and ignore the last paragraphs.

If you’re still with me, here’s the thing: when Stevens succeeds in preventing the bombing, saving the life of “Sean”, Christina and everyone else on the train, the limits of the source code are transcended. Despite Rutledge’s assurances that Stevens cannot go beyond the eight-minute limit of the system and that the technology does not contain a kernel of possibility of changing the past, that’s exactly what ends up happening. Source Code is speculative fiction and it’s a classic imaginative leap. I get where Ripley and Jones are going with it, it’s not an ineffective twist in the narrative, and it’s nicely metaphorized visually by a closing visit by Stevens-as-Sean and Christina to Anish Kapoor’s beguilingly mirrored public sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park, the Cloud Gate.

But there’s little offered up to explain how a repeating loop of linked consciousness between two men’s minds overleaps mental boundaries into altering actual reality. The technical details of the source code device are left fuzzy, but this climactic turn is almost too fuzzy, too speculative. It outstrips even the softly-defined rules of this fictional frame by a margin that may well be too great, and credulity is duly strained. But do feel free to give this otherwise strong film a try, and see if you find yourself in agreement.

 

Categories: Film, Reviews

The People vs. George Lucas: Centralized Creative Control and Collective Cultural “Ownership”

November 25, 2013 3 comments

In the annals of fandom, there are Star Wars nerds and there is everyone else, in diminishing scope of impact and importance. The object of their impassioned mixed affection and frustration is more commercially successful and culturally penetrating than Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings, Doctor Who, Alien, James Bond, or any other major film-based subculture. Even the deeply-rooted superhero comics milieu that pre-dates all geek film properties doesn’t quite measure up to Star Wars geek culture.

Since it inspires such focused devotion from its acolytes, the creative influence of George Lucas’s original space-fantasy trilogy is also unparalleled in contemporary American culture, sparking not only homemade internet creations like Troops or Star Wars Gangsta Rap or the brilliant Star Wars Uncut project (about which more in a moment) but also corporate-funded products from the likes of artists as diverse as Kevin Smith, Seth McFarlane, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and J.J. Abrams (whose longtime open fandom finally got him the dream gig of directing the new Star Wars sequel trilogy for Disney beginning in 2015).

But the fandom is not uniformly of the positive variety. Indeed, as is pointed out in an insightful soundbite in the course of Alexandre O. Philippe’s comprehensive documentary examination of the Star Wars fanbase’s alternately worshipful and spiteful relationship to the universe’s steward Lucas, it is often a badge of honour for fans of a certain product to be able to prove the intensity of their devotion to that product by openly hating it. Star Wars fandom is nothing if not consensus-based; once an opinion gains intertia among the base, it’s nigh-on impossible to keep it from becoming almost universally accepted.

This would seem to be an appropriate tendency considering the nature of the core formative experience of Star Wars fans. As profound as the shared experience of the original trilogy is for fans who first saw it as children, they all basically experienced it in the same way. Every film is ideally open to audience interpretation, but the notable thing about Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon is the lack of variance of interpretation among its legion of fans. They tend to love the same things about Lucas’ creation, and so they mostly hate the same things about it as well.

The consensus opinion can be summed up thusly: the first Star Wars film in 1977 (now referred to as Episode IV: A New Hope) was a revelatory experience to those who saw it in theatres (especially if they were young boys), the rest of the so-called “original trilogy” (comprising Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi) satisfactorily completed the saga (to some extent), and fans filled the void left by the absence of further sequels by purchasing mountains of official merchandise. With accelerating advances in computer-generated imagery, Lucas elected to first re-release “special editions” of the existing films with re-mastered sound and image and a series of CG additions (which did not always go over well) and then to return to the Star Wars universe he created and profited from with a prequel trilogy, beginning with Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1999. Greatly anticipated by longtime Star Wars fans, the prequels were critically panned and savaged by the Original Trilogy generation for dozens of egregious missteps at the least and for violating their childhood dreams at worst. Though they did get better and it’s possible that children might have enjoyed them, the prequels were a forceful end of innocence for older Star Wars fans, a rupture of the charmed relationship between the universe’s creator and his cohort of lifelong devotees.

The People vs. George Lucas, despite fandom’s will to consensus and the film’s courtroom-ish title, does not cling to a single perspective or argument concerning the sometimes antagonistic trajectories that fans and creator take to Star Wars. Just because most fans of Star Wars have the same basic experience with the films (the ones they liked and the ones they didn’t), that doesn’t mean that they cope with that experience similarly. Not every fan goes the “George Lucas raped my childhood” route, although that deplorable catchphrase is mentioned, along with other similarly-pitched analogies to child and domestic abuse that betray the callous insensitivity of a largely homosocial fanbase. Just as much blame is apportioned to fan expectations and to the passage of time, and there are appearances by relative apologists for Lucas’s errors, or at least by devil’s advocates who agree that he blew it but don’t agree that he owes the fans a pound of flesh for doing so.

But George Lucas does absorb some shots. It wouldn’t be an accurate portrait of this ongoing relationship if he didn’t. The usual complaints are dutifully dragged out and discussed, scanning like an accounting of artistic atrocities for Star Wars geeks and like an indecipherable code to the uninitiated: Greedo Shoots First, the Star Wars Christmas special, midichlorians, Vader’s “Nooooo!” at the end of Revenge of the Sith, and, of course, Jar Jar Binks. Theories are offered for the turning of the space worm, most convincingly Lucas’s insistence on total creative control over his work after his pre-Star Wars run-ins with interfering Hollywood studios, which has led to a creative isolation that has left him out of touch with not only the expectations and tastes of his fans but of the larger culture as well.

The most interesting aspect of the love-hate conflict, as I have examined in the past, is the question of ownership of Star Wars as a cultural object, as a cinematic mythos, and what Lucas’s additions and alterations to the popular text jive with fandom’s engagement with and understanding of it. Legal copyright dictates that Star Wars belongs to Lucas (or, now, to Disney; the documentary feels incomplete with the subsequent sale of rights and the promise of new Star Wars films constantly in one’s head). He may do with it as he pleases, even if what he does changes the terms of his fans’ emotional investment in the product, not to mention its constructed meanings.

The fans do have a voice, though, a role in the continued construction of the Star Wars myth. The documentary is quite enjoyable as a flood of (sometimes witty, sometimes just petulant) opinions on the ins and outs of that myth; the section detailing the elation and then deflation that characterized the fan reception of The Phantom Menace says nearly all that needs be said about that painful turning point in the fandom’s history (it doesn’t say nearly enough about the film’s old-fashioned and offensive racial stereotyping, I think, but judge for yourself; video is below). But The People vs. George Lucas is at its best when it shines its spotlight on the participatory culture of Star Wars fandom, typified most clearly by the deluge of internet videos expanding, critiquing, and parodying the canonical material. The aforementioned Star Wars Uncut is the most consistently employed example, particularly being utilized by Philippe to fill visual gaps left by the expensive-to-license clips from the Star Wars films.

The Uncut project, if you’re unfamiliar, is the brainchild of Casey Pugh, who split A New Hope into 473 15-second segments and put out a call for fans from around the world to craft and submit the scenes to be cut into a fan-made version of the film. It’s remix culture at its simplest, its most surprising, and its most epic. Uncut has everything from amateur camcorder video shot in garages and backyards to sophisticated animation sequences to scenes recreated using cats, alcohol bottles, paper bags, and ferrets as “actors”. It’s a supreme collaborative act of defamiliarization, alternately endearing, impressive, hilarious, and surreal. Nearly everyone with even one eye on pop culture knows A New Hope quite well, yet in this version you never know precisely what’s coming next. And if a certain segment doesn’t work for you, you’re mere seconds from the start (and the end) of the next. It shares A New Hope‘s expert construction and approximates its fresh-eyed creativity as well as anything under the title of Star Wars can, at this juncture, be expected to.

Now, of course, we can expect to come at Star Wars with something resembling fresh eyes again, thanks to J.J. Abrams, Disney, and George Lucas’s not inconsiderable greed. As was tangentially mentioned, The People vs. George Lucas might be comprehensive in its examination of three decades of fraught fandom and shifting cultural profiles, but it was completed before the most recent twist in the tale, which casts many of the theories presented about Lucas’s perspective and his relationship to his intergalactic creation in a very different light, if it doesn’t contradict them entirely. Involved in the new films as a creative consultant only, Lucas has nonetheless claimed to exercise guru-like control over the boundaries of his universe, telling the filmmakers that his creation spawned what they can and can’t do and still hold a claim to Star Wars. Even as his world-famous cinematic invention passes largely out of his hands, Lucas won’t entirely relinquish his grip on it. It’s obvious that the opinionated Star Wars geeks of The People vs. George Lucas would nod knowingly at this latest development. Just George being George, after all.

Categories: Culture, Film, Internet, Reviews

Rob Ford and the Failure of Thinkpieces: A Rob Ford Thinkpiece

November 21, 2013 1 comment

Regular readers of this blog may have registered a noticeable silence as concerns the headline-making scandals of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford as of late. The absence of writing about the latest round of nonsense from the Ford circus might indeed appear to be in inverse proportion to the avalanche of media coverage in recent weeks. The burst of revelations (videotaped crack cocaine use, drunk driving, sexual harassment allegations, lies and more lies), clownish Ford brothers antics (Rob bumping over a female councilor in the chambers while his brother Doug confronted hecklers, his mayoral powers and budget being removed by lopsided council votes, a SUNnews show that was cancelled after a single episode) and ridiculous statements (Rob dismissing the cunnilingus-related harassment accusations with graphic language and by crassly claiming that, as a married man, he “gets plenty to eat at home”, Doug telling CNN that the embattled mayor is “the white Obama”, the Mayor comparing the council-voted reduction of his powers to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait) has been run into ground in mainstream, online, and social media all around the world, and has provided nightly fodder for American late-night comedians.

To a certain extent, this radio silence on the subject of Ford was a matter of long-promised principle. I’ve mostly said all that needs to be said about the man, his noxious politics, his counterproductive policies, his off-putting cultural associations, and his inflamed rhetoric. Nothing that’s happened in the past weeks changes these opinions, and if anything it deepens and broadens their applicability. Admissions of crack use and other evidence of misconduct and erratic behavior doesn’t really change the core problems with the man as a public figure. This tendency to avoid further discussion was also likely fed by the maelstrom of media attention and the heaving surplus of opinion pieces on the continuing Ford debacle. Why simply be one more voice in the crowd, echoing not only other voices but my own as well?

But is there not something more profound lurking behind the unwillingness to engage with the significance of this public mess of a mayor, I began to wonder? There might well be, and if there is, it might be this: what’s the point of thinking and writing about a subject that is so defiantly resistant to thinking and writing? Rob Ford has aligned his public image so thoroughly against the intellectual imperatives of the liberal-humanist tradition, made himself the personification of “common sense”, “gut feelings”, and other manifestations of Colbertian “truthiness”, that the traditional public discourse of the written word cannot dislodge him from his perch.

The central material function of the opinion piece (if it possesses one beyond the public edification of its author, that is) is to consider, to argue, to persuade with evidence, logic, and insight. Such a piece assumes that it’s part and parcel of a basic civil exchange of open, honest discussion that engages problems and is at the very least a lightning flash in the collective brainstorm for solutions. But the firewall approach of Ford Nation, the extreme epistemic closure of the self-contained conservative ideology of resentful blame, righteous victimhood, and unshakeable certainty of purpose stymies these lofty aims of the thinkpiece. It has no room to maneuver, no space to exercise its mental gymnastics. Or, rather, it has all the space and time in the world, but goes unacknowledged by its subject and unchallenged by the anti-Ford choir it preaches to. The sheer amount of writing on the subject of Rob Ford doesn’t help this case either. How do we sort through it, separate the wheat from the chaff? If everyone is thinking and writing about Rob Ford, is anyone?

This analysis should be unsurprising, being as it is a pretty clear diagnosis of the realities of the echo chamber in political discourse in our time. But there’s another angle to the shortfalls of the thinkpiece in the context of Rob Ford: Rob Ford himself. He doesn’t avoid or deflect the criticism, the diagnoses, the condemnations so much as absorb them, process them almost instantly, and make them elements in what we can call (hopefully not pretentiously) his growing public legend. He’s a blackhole of discourse, drawing in all surrounding matter that could threaten him and cosmically digesting it into oblivion. But it’s an oblivion that he loves, and that serves him well.

In a characteristic moment of propagandizing, Doug Ford has recently referred to his mayoral sibling as “the most honest politician in the world”. Strictly speaking, this is not remotely true; both Ford brothers have told many provable and publically contradicted lies and mistruths (whether or not Rob smoked crack is only the most sensationalist of them), to say nothing of the various assertions and convictions they have expressed that are contrary to observed reality. But in a subtly differing meaning of the word, the line is absolutely true. Rob Ford is “honest” in the same way that, say, a medieval peasant toiling for 14 hours in the fields is honest, wearing his pains and personal dramas in his fleshy, open face. “Frank” is perhaps a better adjective, as is dispenses with endless vagaries of objective truth. Ford Nation might prefer “real” or “authentic”, but these terms are likewise fraught, as Andrew Potter told us.

“Frank” works fine, and encapsulates how Ford will let fly with disarming truths and absurd, brazen lies in equal measure, without the classic wily politician’s instinct for whether what he says will help him or not. That same frankness, heavy and blunt as a cudgel blow, defeats the exquisite consideration of the thinkpiece, knocks it off balances, all while Ford transforms its surviving barbs into new pieces of armour. This may serve to explain this otherwise disgraced mayor’s strange resilience, despite any number of slings and arrows that would have felled a politician with more self-regard and a more robust sense of shame.

Film Review: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

November 18, 2013 1 comment

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010; Directed by Mike Newell)

Following onscreens titles spewing platitudes about destiny and lives linked through time, a credulous voiceover reveals the setting for this inadequate offering from the Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer action-adventure blockbuster factory: Persia, “a land far away”. Presumably not a land far away from, say, Persia, but it’s half a world away from the middling American imaginations that concocted this half-baked Orientalist adaptation of the Arabian-themed video game series.

This is a quasi-fantastical, roughly medieval Persia similar to the one featured in the games (most obviously the recent quadrilogy of wall-hopping, puzzle-solving, scimitar-swinging entries from Montreal’s Ubisoft). Persia is a vast empire that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush, and is ruled by the wise and just King Sharaman (Ronald Pickup). Advised by his shrewd brother Nazim (Ben Kingsley), the aging Sharaman has handed control of his armies to his three sons, the youngest of which is Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal), a wily but empathetic orphaned urchin from the streets of the capital that the magnanimous king adopted and raised as his own.

Now grown to manhood, Dastan is a daring and reckless athletic warrior; while his brother princes take sober counsel over whether or not to besiege the holy city of Alamut, he’s engaged in a bareknuckle boxing match. In the eventual assault (Nazim conveniently produces a shipment of illicit arms captured leaving Alamut for Persia’s enemies, convincing the princes to attack), Dastan distinguishes himself, clever and acrobatically breaching a side-gate and heading off a large counterattack by the Alamutians that leads to the Persian capture of the city with minimal bloodshed.

But the famous victory is only the beginning of Dastan’s trials and tribulations. The capture of Alamut is the opening chess move in Nazim’s Machiavellian plot to seize the throne of Persia. He next frames Dastan for the murder of the king with the gift of a poisoned prayer robe, driving the adopted son into flight from his fellow princes. Elder heir Tus (Richard Coyle) becomes the new ruling monarch and puts a price on the head of his apparently seditious sibling; it was Tus who suggested that Dastan gift the poisoned robe to their father, and so it’s him that Dastan suspects of masterminding the coup. With Dastan on the run, the new king and Nazim begin searching beneath Alamut for the forges that made the swords, the proverbial smoking gun of the city’s treachery.

Dastan soon learns from the princess who presides over Alamut’s holy relics (Gemma Atherton) that it’s quite likely they’re after something else, however. Before fleeing into exile, Dastan comes into possession of a gilt dagger with mystical powers to turn back time. The magical dagger becomes the object of pursuit for Dastan, Nazim, and Princess Tamina, with the power to change the past, to destroy the world, or to prevent either option hanging in the balance.

The quest takes Dastan and Tamina through generic mainstay settings such as desert dunes and oases, Arabesque urban marketplaces, the frosty highlands of the Kush, and to a climactic, time-travelling showdown over a subterranean hourglass containing the titular temporal sands. There’s a drawn-out and lame attempt at comic relief involving a shifty sheik (Alfred Molina) with purposely anachronistic libertarian views who runs an ostrich-racing racket in a secluded valley. “We run races on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” he tells Dastan, although properly speaking, Persians don’t have Tuesdays and Thursdays, but then who’s counting (except, you know, Persians)?

If you’ve got even half a brain in your head, there’s barely enough here to convince you to count, either. The dialogue alternates between stilted, high-flown nobilityspeak and tone-deaf misfired humour. The plot meanders along in the wake of the dagger’s travels, without particular dramatic impact; a cleverer filmmaker than Mike Newell might have made better narrative use of the dagger’s time-rewinding powers, but once the tantalizing ability is established, it’s not used again until the last act.

The protagonist Dastan is characterized as a physically gifted lout with a heart of gold, but even in his robust simplicity he’s far too trusting of his devious vizier uncle (“Don’t trust him, Jake! He’s Ben Kingsley!”) and too quick to blame his bosom brother for their father’s assassination. The action is frequent but uninspired; only the acrobatic bursts are at all memorable, the Errol Flynn/Douglas Fairbanks wall-climbing and rooftop-hopping acts of derring-do that were such a giddy feature of the gameplay of The Sands of Time and that translate well to the screen when they’re allowed the room to do so.

Gyllenhaal has spent some time in the gym in order to be able to embody such an athletic Persian beefcake, no doubt, and his bashful boyish grin is worth a hundred action-hero one-liners on the rare occasion that it’s appropriately employed. But this just ain’t his scene, and in between his displays of consummate professionalism, his faint embarrassment is palpable. Kingsley is better than this menacing villainous foreigner stuff, but it’s been a while since he’s done much else so maybe he’s really not. Atherton is lovely and her character’s sacred guardian role doesn’t quite conform to the usual gender clichés (though it doesn’t upend them either). But the rom-com pas-a-deux with Gyllenhaal, the “she hates him but then learns to love him” nonsense, is more conventional and burdensome to the charm of both actors.

Some critical affront was taken upon the film’s release concerning its Orientalism, its flirtation with Middle Eastern stereotypes, and its employment of Caucasian actors as putative Persians. Although the appeal to an audience’s collective sense of far-flung exoticism is (un)pure Old Hollywood, Prince of Persia treads lightly around anything resembling contemporary politics. The plot turns on classic dynastic power plays and Shakespearean throne-seizing schemes, and nothing resembling the political or social issues of modern Iran or the Arab world are analogized in the film (nor should they be, as this is a silly and unsubstantial exercise).

And even though the world of Prince of Persia encompasses matters of faith and holiness, the exact parametres of these questions are not made explicit. The Alamutians are characterized as “pagans” by one of the princes, but the Persians also treat the holy city with obvious reverence and King Sharaman has no qualms about donning what he believes to be the prayer robe of its patriarch, if more as a trophy than as a token of faith. The pagan line, the location and the period, and brief reference to “the Creator” would seem to point towards the Persians being Muslim, but no symbols or practices of Islam are visible. Even the most roundabout suggestion that a Hollywood action hero might be a Muslim must have made Disney executives leery.

But maybe they should have allowed themselves to be less leery. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time smacks of imposed compromises but also of ill-conceived creative notions. Its direct source material, though “only” a video game, jumps off from its Arabian Nights genre inspiration into richer veins of atmosphere and excitement. The film echoes the time-freezing effects of the game in fleeting showcase moments, but simply does not tell a story that is as good or as involving. With its enslavement to blockbuster convention and to a plot of royal succession intrigue, The Sands of Time proscribes its potential affect by being too much of a movie when it might have captured a wider imagination if it had trusted its gaming heritage a bit more implicitly.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Lone Ranger (2013)

November 15, 2013 4 comments

The Lone Ranger (2013; Directed by Gore Verbinski)

The most unfortunate thing about the bellyflop that The Lone Ranger took at the box office is that it may lead to a reactive proscription by a skittish Hollywood of the budgets and creative freedoms of the film’s director, Gore Verbinski. Helmsman of the initial Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, the American remake of The Ring and Rango, the fantastic, loopy, Oscar-winning animated deconstruction of the heroic tropes of the Western, Verbinski is one of the most consistently inventive and intellectually-tilted directors working in Hollywood’s blockbuster field today. Even a consensus failure like The Lone Ranger displays feverish creativity, technical acumen, and self-reflexive intelligence in not inconsiderable amounts.

Honestly, though, fuck the consensus. Although The Lone Ranger is certainly no roaring success (it’s likely Verbinski’s weakest effort since the second Pirates film), it’s no more a failure as a film than any number of aesthetically equivalent blockbusters that were far more profitable. It’s pretty fun at key moments (especially opening and closing train chase sequences), and addresses (and redresses) some of the central myths of American westward expansion circulated in the cultural discourse by classic Hollywood Westerns. Like Rango, the movie provides a homage to the influence of these seminal films while offering a learned, progressive pushback against their less savoury implications, in particular their symbolic erasure of Native American peoples from the continuing story of the United States of America.

Verbinski and his screenwriters (Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, the Pirates scribes, had their original, werewolf-featuring screenplay rewritten by Justin Haythe) were perhaps embarking on a nobly doomed exercise with The Lone Ranger. Seeking to adapt a cumbersomely old-fashioned cowboys-and-Indians property that never ventured far beyond its basic genre elements into a post-colonial atonement for the ill-acknowledged crimes of Caucasian-American settlement of the West and into an impressive, action-packed summer tentpole release is a surefire ambitious folly of massive proportions. Throw in Johnny Depp in redface as a character synonymous with the unsettling noble savage archetype and you’re baiting disaster to take a swing at your kisser.

But, as Verbinski managed to accomplish in Rango, even the tiredest of generic tropes are prefaced by knowing, self-reflexive commentary. Depp’s Tonto first appears in a 1930s travelling carnival’s Old West museum, posing as a living statue next to taxidermied bison and grizzlies, a label below his display cube reading, “The Noble Savage in His Natural Habitat”. Tonto relates his adventures with the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) to a young boy dressed as the legendary cowboy hero, who probes his tale with doubts à la Fred Savage interrupting Peter Falk’s reading of The Princess Bride. The narrative framing and the pre-emptive demarcation of the terms of the trope serve to mitigate its discriminatory implications, but only so far. Furthermore, Tonto’s reproduction of stereotypical enactments of decidedly non-authentic Native spiritualist practices are dismissed by his fellow Comanche tribesmen as not reflective of their culture but of only his personal soft-headedness. This aligns well enough with Depp’s performance, which, despite his likely-dubious claims of Native-American ancestry and “adequate” pronunciation of words of the Comanche language, follows his favoured thespianic method of layering physical quirks and personality eccentricities onto unreliable trickster figure characters.

Tonto’s quasi-spiritual oddities (which include a dead crow headpiece which he repeatedly attempts to feed birdseed to) are focused around his personal quest as a younger man in 1869 for vengeance against white men who have perpetrated a grievous wrong against his people, namely fearsome outlaw Butch Cavendish (the gloriously filthy William Fitchner) and ruthless railroad magnate Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson). Chained inside a train car next to Cavendish in the film’s serpentine kickoff sequence, Tonto’s attempt to eliminate what he believes to be a malevolent “wendigo” spirit in a human body is interfered with by the titular protagonist in his pre-masked state as a buttoned-down future Texas District Attorney named John Reid, who happens to be returning west on the same train. Our first glimpse of Reid plays hyperbolically on his putative squareness, as we’re lead to believe that he’s a plain-dressed Protestant evangelical flipping devotedly through a Bible (his “bible” is John Locke’s Treatises of Government).

Reid is returning home to Colby, Texas (which looks suspiciously like Monument Valley on the Utah/Arizona border), where Cole is supervising the driving of the last spike on the transcontinental railroad. He plans to bring civilized law to the Wild West, as his more rugged Texas Ranger brother Dan (James Badge Dale) has been doing in a more rough and ready manner while he’s been off in the East book-learnin’. Dan married John’s childhood sweetheart Rebecca (Ruth Wilson) and had a son, but there’s still an old frisson between John and Rebecca, who lives on a remote ranch on the border with Comanche country.

Would you like some oats, Noble Spirit Horse? An apple? Perhaps some tasty scorpions, hmm?

Anyway, Dan Reid and his posse ride off in pursuit of Cavendish and his gang amongst the towering sandstone buttes of classic Western movie iconography, a newly deputized John in tow. Ambushed due to the treachery of one of their number, the Rangers are slaughtered by Cavendish and his thugs, and the infamous gunslinger cuts out and eats Dan’s heart, which John witnesses before fluttering out of consciousness. Brutal enough stuff for a PG-13 adaptation of a gentle boy’s adventure serial, but all fairly true to the Lone Ranger’s established origin story down through its many versions over the decades (minus the heart-devouring, natch). It also faces up to the vicious violence that was an undeniable feature of the lawless West and was so often justified and scrubbed up in the genre classics being referenced and deconstructed by Verbinski.

Left for dead, John Reid is found by Tonto. Reluctantly following the lead of a mysterious and distinctly odd white “spirit horse” (which finds its way onto roofs and into trees, eats some scorpions, and generally steals every scene it is in), Tonto nurses the fancy lawyer back to health as a “spirit walker” ally in his wendigo-hunting quest, although he would have preferred his more dashing brother, as a running gag reminds us. Donning a mask at the Comanche’s vaguely-justified request, John sets out to avenge his brother, protect his widow and son, prevent a war between white settlers and the Comanche, and halt a trainload of ill-gotten silver that will finance Cole’s hostile takeover of the railroad.

This setup is even more lengthy onscreen than my non-brief description of it, and the pursuit of Cavendish and Cole sets Tonto and the Ranger along an even longer road of cross-country travel, captures and switchbacks rather similar to the plot construction of the Pirates films. It stretches on largely pointlessly, introducing one-joke supporting characters like Helena Bonham-Carter’s brothel madam with an ivory leg concealing a shotgun and Barry Pepper’s bluff, empty-headed General Custer parody of a cavalry officer. It does build up to the aforementioned climactic, spatially inventive showpiece chase sequence involving two intercrossing trains, which is quite fantastic. Hammer and Depp have some decent comedic chemistry in between the extraneous narrative u-turns. Wilson’s Rebecca flashes some formidable quasi-feminist teeth before being required to revert to the damsel in distress. There are some loopy touches from Verbinski’s vault of surrealist imagination, like vicious, razor-toothed hares that eat meat. And no movie that features Stephen Root in muttonchops exclaiming “My gluteus!” can be entirely dismissed out of hand.

Indeed, what was feared to be The Lone Ranger‘s certain downfall is really its most notable feature. Concerns that Depp’s wacky Indian antics would diminish the historical displacement, dispossession, and borderline genocide of the land’s established inhabitants even further are not entirely unfounded, but this is a film well aware of the crimes of history that places itself firmly against the narrative of progress that buttressed those crimes. The Ranger and Tonto have a little comedic bit where each reacts in his own way to the thought of stopping the construction of the railroad; Reid, despite his upright sense of justice, is all for the steel road, but Tonto, no pure, natural primitive, is dead set against it. Tonto challenges Reid’s unthinking characterization of him as a savage, and the Comanche chief that Reid meets (Saginaw Grant) is wordly and wise in unconventional ways. A literal and symbolic massacre of First Nations is even enacted, as a desperately brave Comanche force charges a U.S. Army detachment only to be mown mercilessly down by a gatling gun.

Unlike Rango‘s meta-commentary on the Western heroic tropes, however, The Lone Ranger‘s evident objections to the deprivations of westward expansion never coalesce around any specific critique. They crop up in symbols and indeterminate crossovers from the elderly Tonto’s storytelling frame, like the candy-striped peanut bag that Tonto takes from the Ranger-boy and later drops into a posse member’s grave. Cole habitually checks a shiny pocketwatch, the precision of the clockface heralding profound temporal and existential shifts as a direct result of technological advancement (it was the railroads, after all, that supplied the need of standardized time). Tonto possesses a similar watch, traded by Cole years ago for information that proved devastating to Tonto’s village. Tonto’s watch is tellingly broken; Chief Big Bear repairs a pocketwatch while telling the Ranger about Tonto’s past. Cole receives a new pocketwatch as a gift of gratitude for completing the railway, while the Ranger declines the same item after defeating the agents of greed and rapine attending the settlement process, implying that his stewardship will skew to tradition rather than forward-moving exploitation.

Like its technical and entertainment elements, The Lone Ranger‘s ideological features are scattershot, unruly, and a little crazy. Such disorder is par for the course in this rambling mess of a blockbuster that only occasionally hits its mark and even more occasionally chooses to feign having a mark to hit at all. Like Disney’s similar folly of the year before, John Carter of Mars, it could be argued that The Lone Ranger failed to connect successfully with a wide mass audience due to the relative lack of popular awareness of its outdated subject material due to its long dormancy in the public imagination. Verbinski’s resurrection of the Lone Ranger myth as a counter-narrative to its long-established ideological support for manifest destiny was a potential stroke of genius that, unfortunately, was hemmed in by so many competing concerns that it only intermittently lived up to its promise. Did The Lone Ranger do well commercially? No, it did not. Does it constitute a creative Dunkirk for the often exciting director Verbinski? Not entirely. Is it far more interesting than its now-calcified reputation as an irredeemable flop will admit? Most certainly.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

November 12, 2013 2 comments

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997; Directed by Clint Eastwood)

Meet the New South, same as the Old South. This was the general takeaway message of John Berendt’s colourful and seductive best-selling book about a high-profile murder in Savannah, Georgia and the rogue’s gallery of eccentric characters and situations circling around it. It’s also, to a lesser extent, the message of Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation of the book, with multiple emphases on “lesser”. Despite its rich source material, the cinematic take on Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a stilted and inert affair whose attempts approximating the quirky Southern Gothic black comedy of the book tend to fall flatter than a Coastal Georgian diphthong.

For those unfamiliar with Berendt’s charming book, it’s a non-fiction account (with some likely unacknowledged novelized elements) of the author’s time as a semi-permanent resident of Savannah, a balmy, insular city on the Atlantic coast full of preserved Southern antebellum architecture and vestigial noblesse oblige in equal measure, with a bit of occult mystery thrown into the stew as well. Berendt’s narrator (which is ostensibly, though not absolutely clearly, himself) arrives as a stranger in town, but soon makes the acquaintance of many of its peculiar characters.

His first new friend is Joe Odom, a barrister, speculator, piano player, and bon vivant who squats his way from one luxury townhouse to the next, evading rent and creditors and the law but never losing his cheery demeanor. He also meets Serena Dawes, a former society beauty of the 1940s whiling away her days in decaying magnificence in her bedroom, along with her mismatched boyfriend Luther Driggers, a mentally-disordered inventing genius who attaches string leashes to flies, concocts dyes to make aquarium fish glow in the dark, and possesses a bottle of poison potent enough to kill every living thing in the city. There’s society debutantes, publicity-hungry heritage building restorers, football-loving good-ol’-boy lawyers, a voodoo priestess and a highly expressive African-American drag queen named the Lady Chablis.

The central narrative of the book and of the film, however, focuses on Jim Williams, a debonair antiques dealer who lives in a magnificent mansion and holds lavish Christmas parties that are the highlight of Savannah’s social calendar. Williams also has a closely-guarded private life, which involves same-sex intimacy with Danny Hansford, a volatile redneck hustler described by another (female) character as “a walking streak of sex”. Williams employs Hansford for furniture restoring and, ahem, other services, but theirs is an occasionally hostile relationship. The two men pull guns on each other one night in the midst of a particularly heated argument, and, under contentious circumstances, Hansford is shot dead by Williams’ German Luger.

The four subsequent murder trials that result take up the lion’s share of the book. Eastwood’s film version, its adapted screenplay by John Lee Hancock, condenses this drawn-out, complex, shady process of Southern justice into a single trial, changes the name of the victim for no apparent reason (to Billy Hanson, played with smouldering insolence by a young Jude Law), and finds roles in the proceedings for the more colourful supporting figures from Berendt’s sketches of Savannah: Driggers is a juror, Chablis testifies to Hanson’s drug use and violent tendencies, etc.

The courtroom scenes otherwise transfer the themes that are predominant in the book faithfully to the screen, encompassing the theatrical folksiness of Southern lawyers, official tenderfooting around the region’s homophobic prejudice, and the casual, irresponsible police work that cripples otherwise strong criminal cases. An eerie, unintentional ominousness is imparted as well by the Georgia state flag behind the judge’s bench, which prominently featured a Confederate battle flag design at the time of production (added to the flag only in 1956, the infamous “Stars and Bars” was removed in 2001). The richness of Williams’ legal odyssey is diminished, as the local political wrangling between the rookie D.A. (supported by Williams’ rival, Lee Adler) and Williams’ defence team is removed, but much of the effect is preserved. The hidebound traditionalism of Eastwood’s filmmaking is well-suited to the established genre of the courtroom drama, and trudges along satisfactorily in these moments.

Where Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil fails is on the level of quixotic detail, that multitude of bizarre grace notes that makes Berendt’s book such a delight to read. It isn’t that Eastwood doesn’t find room for these details, exactly. They’re mostly there: Uga, the live bulldog mascot of the University of Georgia football team in the charge of Williams’ lawyer Sonny Seiler (Jack Thompson; the real Seiler has a supporting role as the judge in Williams’ trial), gets some loving close-ups, Mr. Glover walks the invisible, long-deceased dog of his employer, society ladies compares tales of their husbands’ suicides, and Driggers walks out on his diner breakfast without eating a bite, his leashed flies buzzing around him. These fragments are faithfully included, but feel shoehorned in; they’re here because they were in the book and Hancock liked them enough to airlift them in (certain telling details, like the Nazi flag that Williams places in his window to disturb a film crew, are left out).

The two most notable eccentrics that find their way into significant film roles are the aforementioned voodoo specialist Minerva (Irma P. Hall) and the drag queen Chablis Deveau. The latter plays herself, in one of two strokes of casting genius on display (Kevin Spacey’s exquisite Jim Williams is the other). Although Chablis seems a mite deliberate in front of the camera and is not the flamboyant, voluble figure that she comes across as in the book, she’s still the best thing about the movie by a Georgia mile. Her interplay with the reporter protagonist John Kelso (played, but only barely, by John Cusack) is sharp and delightful; he never knows quite how to handle her or what to expect next, but is hopelessly under her thumb nonetheless. Their interaction is much more enjoyable than that between Kelso and his heteronormative love interest, Mandy (played by Alison Eastwood, Clint’s daughter; Hollywood nepotism, check). It may be wrong to hope that they end up together, but if it is, then I don’t want to be right.

Chablis’ grandest performance in the book was her party-crashing appearance at the Alpha Phi Alpha debutante ball, the premiere social event of the respectable African-American community in Savannah. So it is in the film, as her plain-spoken spiels to the organizers, brazen flirtation with the debutantes’ male escorts, and booty-shaking dancefloor appearance let the air out of the aristocratic pretensions of the ball (which features extensive vetting of the background of the debutantes and a showcase minuet). Chablis manages to break through the Eastwoodian squareness and be kind of fun for a minute or two, but the director overplays his hand badly with wide-eyed reaction shots by the black men at the ball (who, it’s offensively implied, are looking for any excuse to toss away their napkins and go buck wild). Anyone who saw Eastwood onstage at the 2012 Republican National Convention, secure in the belief that talking to an empty chair as if he was lecturing a disobedient African-American President was absolute A+ comedic material, shouldn’t be surprised that he doesn’t know what’s funny here and pushes too hard to figure out what is.

Additionally, Eastwood’s depiction of Minerva’s midnight graveyard antics, undertaken on behalf of Williams to affect his legal proceedings, likewise reproduces the common trope of the primitive, spiritualist “magic negro”. Even if much of this material is again translated closely from Berendt’s text, it’s more than a little cartoonish on screen. Hall even utters the stock movie-voodoo phrase “bad juju” at one point, seemingly faintly embarrassed to have to do so. The pigeonholed roles of both whites and blacks in the film ultimately push the central implication of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil into a stark and uninsightful epigram. In the South, it is the place of blacks to be sexual, spiritual, and marginal, while whites, no matter how silly or eccentric or dedicated to byzantine social tenets and simmering prejudices they may be, are entitled to greater comfort, wealth, influence, and clouded justice. Berendt’s text produced this thesis as subtle, observant satire; Eastwood’s reproduces it as awkward, concentrated reinforcement.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

Film Review: Borat

November 8, 2013 1 comment

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America to Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006; Directed by Larry Charles)

Sacha Baron Cohen’s painfully, daringly funny cinematic opus is a comedic war of attrition. As naifishly crude and prejudiced as he is as Eastern European reporter Borat Sagdiyev, Cohen declared himself as either a master satirist, a crude shock artist, or, most likely, both with this audacious film. Whatever you decide to call him, Cohen finds countless ways to make you laugh in the course of Borat’s rambling trek across the United States. There are epic gross-outs (an extended naked dust-up between Borat and his hirsute producer comes immediately to mind), sharp social commentaries, over-the-top ethnic exaggerations (sometimes both of those at the same time), and flights of spectacular absurdism (the bear in the ice cream truck).

More than anything, his Borat is a brilliant device to draw the sheer madness of American society out into the open, and those scenes (particularly at a rodeo and a revival prayer meeting) are some of the most remarkable in the film. Much controversy was kicked up in the wake of the film’s release concerning Cohen’s improvisational, confrontational style of comédie-verité, not the least of which came from the victims of his prankish schemes. Some boorish University of South Carolina frat boys that he hitches a ride with come across particularly badly, and they sued for defamation. Their suit, along with pretty much every other piece of civil litigation to stem from Cohen’s American rampage, was dismissed.

This is not to absolve Cohen of all blame for his sometimes cruel and belligerent antics and hoaxes. There is some issue to be taken with the sort of deceptions for the purpose of ridicule that the film relies on, as well as some substance to the complaint that the participants caught unawares and made the figures of fun are merely trying to politely humour and respect Borat’s outlandish views and cultural practices. But the uptight objections to Cohen’s comedic method and (side-splitting) results constitute a manifestation of precisely the culture of polite correctness and plastered-over prejudice that is this film’s main satiric target in the first place.

In openly presenting the prejudices, offensive stereotypes, and scatological concerns that are so often carefully glossed over by polite society, Cohen exposes them to the oxygen of comedy. The satiric thrust of Borat, and what makes it more than a collection of outrageous stunts, is that simply papering over these noxious discriminatory constructions that have fed into so much social exclusion and conflict does not eliminate them. Disavowing them does not mean that they cease to exist. Cohen’s approach is more agit-prop in nature: confront the terms of discrimination directly and openly, and show them to be ridiculous and wrong.

The most memorable (and contentious) example of this sharp vector of choice in Borat is the ludicrously anti-Semitic parade that Borat attends in his native Kazakhstan. By the time a parading figure with a giant hooked-nose, horned papier-mâché head squats to lay a “Jew egg”, the monstrous protocols of anti-Semitic thought are exposed as not merely dangerous but also as fundamentally silly. Cohen, Jewish himself, channels his personal sensitivity about anti-Semitic imagery into a scalding critique of its outlandish dictums. What anti-Semitism says about Jews is entirely untrue, but that does not make it any less pernicious; Cohen understands that, and skewers its messages by inflating them to absurdity.

Overall, though, Borat succeeds as a true laugh riot, whatever other ends its intellectual critiques of prejudice may come to. Cohen’s dress-up act dovetailed into unfashionable excess with subsequent features Bruno and The Dictator, but Borat endures as a brazen, sometimes shocking set of comedic tangents with a sharp satirical edge.

Categories: Film, Reviews