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Film Review: Gangs of New York

January 30, 2014 6 comments

Gangs of New York (2002; Directed by Martin Scorsese)

Gangs of New York is easily the most ambitious film Martin Scorsese has ever made, but also one of his most flawed. The meticulously recreated historical setting of the notorious Five Points slum of mid-19th-Century New York City had fascinated and haunted Scorsese since he first read Herbert Asbury’s 1928 book about the criminal underworld of the district in the early 1970s. But it took Scorsese 20 years from his optioning of the book to get the actual film made, and the final product is redolent of his usual technical and metaphorical mastery as well as of the passionate bloat and overwhelming excess of any auteur’s personally meaningful cinematic labour of love.

Gangs kicks off with such cocksure potency that it seems certain to knock the stuffing out of you for its two-and-three-quarter hours running time (which it doesn’t quite accomplish). It’s 1846 in a New York City heaving from unprecedented foreign (especially Irish) immigration, and a ragtag band of warriors assemble in urban caves and tenement bowels and march to war to the half-feral rhythm of fife and drums. Led by the imposing, quasi-clerical Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), the Irish Catholic Dead Rabbits gang emerges from its hole-like den into the stark, snowy Paradise Square. Awaiting them is the Nativist gang of William Cutting, a.k.a. Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), who seek to drive this “foreign horde” back into the sea they crossed to arrive there like so many rats. After an exchange of threatening pleasantries, the gangs have at each other in a desperate, ugly, claustrophobic skirmish, staining the snow red with each other’s blood to decide in a primitive manner who gets to call themselves true Americans.

Bill the Butcher, a deft hand with a knife as his nickname implies, kills Vallon in front of his son to seal the Nativists’ triumph. Flash forward almost twenty years to 1862, and this son, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), emerges from the Hellgate orphanage on Roosevelt Island as a hard-bitten young adult with revenge on his mind. He tosses the Bible given to him by the priest at the gate into a pond, and Scorsese shows it breaking the surface in poetic slow-motion, an image of apostasy and rejection of religious morality as strong as any in the director’s morally-troubled oeuvre.

Back in the Five Points, Amsterdam gets the lay of the land since his orphaning. Bill has ascended into relative respectability, presiding over the slum from a tavern as he slices off prime cuts of meat for the locals. He’s working with the Democratic Party’s Tammany Hall machine run by Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent, feasting on gregarious corruption) to deliver elections and keep a tenuous order in his neighbourhood. Amsterdam finds that most of the Dead Rabbits’ captains have followed Bill’s lead: Happy Jack Mulraney (John C. Reilly) is a crooked cop kept in line by Nativist bribes, Walter “Monk” McGinn (Brendan Gleeson) no longer wields a deadly club, only barber’s scissors, and ex-boxer McGloin (Gary Lewis) has even become Bill’s chief lickspittle.

Amsterdam acclimatizes to the bawdy, dirty, lively world of the Points, gathers followers to his side, carries on a torrid romance with spirited pickpocket Jenny (Cameron Diaz), and ingratiates himself to Bill in order to get close enough to deliver the fatal blow of vengeance. Their inevitable confrontation dovetails with the cataclysmic Draft Riots of 1863 and is tellingly eclipsed by them; in fact, crowd-dispersing volleys from gunboats in the harbour break up their revisiting of the gang battle that opens the film. A social inertia more inexorable than Old-World sectarian resentments and Know Nothing xenophobia thus carries even the most resistent and stubborn forward into the future, or else leaves their unwilling corpses on the pavement.

Scorsese deserves considerable credit for getting this complex, unsettling vision of a pivotal, little-understood moment in 19th-Century America made. He deserves even more for coaxing the legendarily Method Day-Lewis out of self-imposed retirement as a cobbler in Italy (that’s right, he really is that insufferably pretentious) and allowing him to rip the exquisitely-mounted panorama to shreds as Bill the Butcher. Behind plentiful mustachios and a jaunty top hat, Bill is bountifully, charismatically, eloquently, seductively montrous. Even in his quiet, respectable moments, as when he comments on a lady’s perfume, he’s viciously charming and charmingly vicious. When he toys with Amsterdam, who he knows plans to betray him, during a knife-throwing performance in a Chinese theatre, he’s playful and menacing, all at once.

Unfortunately, DiCaprio is hardly his match, saddled with a patchy little goatee and a well-worked-out County Kerry accent, not to mention a herky-jerky love story of sorts with the misplaced Diaz. Broadbent, Reilly, and especially Gleeson are given much more interesting if underdrawn characters, and one wishes that Scorsese had made his movie more about them instead of the sulky kid on a quest for what is bound to be an unsatisfying revenge.

But Gangs of New York is bursting with such colourful period detail that its unhelpful plot barely matters. Scorsese and his writers embed myriad details from Asbury’s book. Indeed, the film becomes more about its setting and the kaleidoscope of eccentric, dangerous, unfamiliar life that takes place there than anything. We see a great variety of differently-attired gangs and criminals, bareknuckle boxing on barges, a theatrical performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, competing fire companies slugging each other rather than extinguishing blazes, torchlit dances, even an elephant on the loose during the riots. It’s all true, or at least true enough.

Amidst the eccentric language, diverse characters, and wild swings in quality of artistic expression, two resonant, bravura sequences demonstrate Scorsese’s complicated commentary on American history in Gangs of New York crystallizing into rounded, complete statements. Amsterdam awakes one morning to find Bill seated in a chair facing him, an American flag draped over his shoulders. Bill tells Amsterdam about his father Priest (though he doesn’t know he speaks to the son, and conceives of the young man as a surrogate heir of his own), and how his rival taught him important lessons about manhood and honour through violence. “Civilization is crumbling”, Bill concludes his monologue, understanding the country that is emerging as muddling and even contradicting the proud (if barbaric) principles that he and Priest stood for. Like conservatives of all times (including our own), Bill retreats to the easy comfort of persecuted social martyrdom when faced with the destabilizing uncertainty of progress.

But it’s in a sweeping single shot that a grander critique materializes. Scorsese’s crane-cam follows Irish immigrants as they disembark onto New York’s docks, are made American citizens and then enlisted into the Union Army, then are put onto another ship bound for the southern battlefields of the Civil War that is simultaneously, ominously unloading the coffins of the war dead. It’s a wondrously self-contained image of emerging America as a clockwork machine of exploitation fuelled by easily-discarded human bodies. The building of a modern, prosperous imperial country claimed many victims, Scorsese’s imperfect opus vividly illustrates. Not only those who stood in the way of progress, like Bill the Butcher, but also the hopeful huddled masses yearning for freedom in a land of opportunity.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #7: The Two Escobars

January 26, 2014 Leave a comment

The dark, twisting tale of drugs, football, and murder told in The Two Escobars is a deep tragedy in many ways. The Zimbalist brothers’ riveting, propulsive documentary tracing the connections between infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar and the similarly-named (but not blood-related) Colombian football star Andrés Escobar gives depth, context, emotion, and terrible immediacy to a shocking incidence of violence (many of them around the same time in troubled early ’90s Colombia, in fact).

But it pinpoints a grander tragedy as a result of the specific loss of the footballer Escobar, shot and killed shortly after scoring an own goal that doomed the highly-touted Colombian national team’s chances at the 1994 World Cup. The incident has been caricaturized by those who would dismiss the world’s most popular sport out of hand, who would paint its passionate fans with the same brush and define them all, but especially those in Latin America, as dangerous, irrational zealots who will kill for on-field allegiances. Smug North Americans will cite the Escobar killing, without details or nuance or even proper names, to dismiss “soccer” as barbaric, all while ignoring the logs in the eyes of their own sports of choice.

twoescobarsThe Two Escobars treats its twin subjects, its dual loci of fuzzy infamy, while tremendous seriousness and detail. The Zimbalists craft a narrative of late 1980s/early 1990s Colombia as a country marinating in the crooked profits of the cocaine cartels, with the larger-than-life Pablo Escobar, chief of the Medellín cartel, presiding over it all like a mustachioed Zeus. Though undoubtedly a ruthless, murderous criminal overlord whose operation sparked a level of violence and terror in Colombia that is almost unfathomable now, Pablo was hardly the one-dimensional villain that the American “war on drugs” rhetoric painted him as being. His associates (including his enforcer “Popeye”, who claims from inside prison to have personally killed 250 people, though “only a psychopath keeps count”) speak of him as a man of certain moral principles and codes that he refuses to transgress, unlike the drug lords who succeeded him. When he wasn’t sticking to this upright code by assassinating judges and government ministers who oppose his dealings, Pablo Escobar was a champion of the poor in the South American populist tradition. This meant using his huge profits from the cocaine trade (Forbes Magazine had him on their billionaries list in 1989 with a net worth of $3 billion) at least partially to build housing for Colombia’s vast underclass; upon his assassination in 1993, he was given a martyr’s farewell by lower-income Colombians at his chaotic funeral.

But Pablo Escobar was most passionate about football, and spent on it accordingly, building football pitches alongside the housing in low-income communities across the country. The Two Escobars also takes as fact that the drug lord funded Medellín club Atlético Nacional’s unprecedented rise in club football, climaxing with a Copa Libertadores title as South America’s top team in 1989. Although other rival cartels funded rival clubs, Nacional’s renaissance coincided with that of the national team, both of which were led by a steady, skilled defender named Andrés Escobar. A devout, earnest, and patriotic sort (at least according to his worshipful loved ones and teammates, who treat him as a martyred saint), Andrés is shown to chafe underneath the swirl of illegality that has at least partly made his opportunity for sporting glory possible. He also engages in philanthropic works to assuage his guilt, but still doesn’t feel quite right about being supported and fêted by a mass-murdering drug kingpin.

Matters come to a deadly head for both Escobars in the space of half a year, as Pablo is hunted down by his legion of domestic and international enemies and Andrés makes a high-profile on-field blunder that makes him a target as well. The death of Andrés is shown to be much more complex than conventional belief has held, not merely a case of disgruntled fans or even gambling criminals seeking revenge but perhaps more than indirectly related to the power vacuum in the underworld that the fall of Pablo Escobar created.

Like the best of the 30 For 30 films, The Two Escobars vividly illustrates the convergence of social forces and sport, demonstrating that neither is isolated from the other in either cultural stimuli or effects. It’s instructive to compare it with Catching Hell, another instance of a single error that affects on-field results leading to mass blame and ugliness. That Andrés Escobar did not survive the aftermath of his mistake and Steve Bartman survived the aftermath of his (albeit as a recluse) might only be a statement on the comparative levels of social stability and order in their given contexts.

But The Two Escobars may be the best film in the series, all told, as it tells its story with gravity and verve. Its documentation of Colombia’s social and political mayhem is painful and harrowing, and the transmutation of that hurt and tension into the glorious, kinetic joy of the national team’s World Cup qualification campaign marks it as a great sports film as well. When the upheaval and uncertainty back home works its way into the team’s game in the World Cup in the U.S., it operates as a disease, a phage that takes victims with virulent mercilessness. Andrés Escobar is not the only victim, only the most prominent, the most talismanic. Colombian football itself, the closing of the film suggests, is the ultimate victim (although the national team will be in this summer’s World Cup, its first finals trip since 1998, albeit possibly without recently injured star Radamel Falcao). The price eventually paid for the meteoric leap that Colombian soccer took under the financial support of the cartels was a steep one.

Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews, Sports

The Significant Complexities of an Errant Quenelle (And Other Words About French Things)

January 22, 2014 Leave a comment

Something very interesting, rather odd, and slightly complex has unfolded on the margins of international football’s richest league over the past month of so. To understand its intricate, sometimes self-contradictory workings, a bit of explicating is necessary. If you can stay with me, I’ll try to help it make sense, although I must warn you that it involves the confusing politics of the European hard right, questionable Continental humour, fisting references, several French people, and, most terrifying of all, a football club from Birmingham, England.

After scoring a goal against West Ham United in a Premier League match on December 28th, West Bromwich Albion striker Nicolas Anelka performed a celebratory gesture that was slightly obscure to many English spectators and surely wholly unintelligible to North American observers. With one arm pointed diagonally downwards, palm open, Anelka touched that arm’s shoulder with his other hand. On its surface, as you can see in the photo below, it seems a pretty innocuous gesture, especially as far as famously flamboyant professional football goals celebrations go.

But below the surface lay darker associations. The gesture is referred to as a “quenelle”, and is anything but innocuous, regardless of how it might be interpreted. Invented by French-Cameroonian comedian and political activist Dieudonné M’bala M’bala and now widely considered his trademark, the quenelle is a rude French working-class equivalent of flipping the bird or, more specifically, of the expression “up yours”. I leave it up to your curiosity to trace the convoluted connections of the name (which is actually a seafood dish) to the gesture and its implications (fisting, pretty much) in the Wikipedia link, if you will. Suffice it to say that it’s popularly associated with Dieudonné and his outspoken views, and Anelka is a friend of his who offered the gesture as a tribute and/or expression of support.

Dieudonné requires expressions of support, you see, because he’s often accused of flirting with antisemitism in his comedy and public statements. Although he rose to prominence with a Jewish comedian partner and ran for office against Jean-Marie Le Pen‘s quasi-fascist right-wing political party, the National Front, Dieudonné has since migrated closer to the socially-conservative, anti-immigrant, and often racist rightist popular movement in France. In addition to rapprochement with former adversary Le Pen (who is godfather to one of the comedian’s daughters), Dieudonné has depicted an Israeli settler as a Nazi on television, referred to the Holocaust as “memorial pornography” and has invited deniers to appears at his shows, and suggested it was a pity a Jewish journalist critical of him was not sent to the gas chambers. After being convicted on antisemitism charges eight times, Dieudonné has seen his live shows banned across France. To say he’s a controversial figure is, as you can imagine, a bit of an understatement.

Now, the quenelle is arguably not overtly antisemitic in intent or symbolism, though critics have suggested (imaginatively) that it does resemble an inverted Nazi salute. Dieudonné generally argues that it is an anti-establishment gesture, and it was on these grounds that Anelka has also defended it since the English FA charged him for making it against West Ham. “Up yours, oppressive system!” is the meaning suggested by its creator. The problem is that Dieudonné has become so closely associated with antisemitic statements (anti-Zionist, he claims, if there’s a meaningful distinction to be found) that it requires considerable mental effort to avoid the conclusion that the “system” being criticized so crudely and sexually in this gesture is not melded with conspiratorial conceptions of secretive Jewish power-brokers straight out of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The political messaging and the source of it would seem so deeply incongruous as to baffle North American observers. Far right antisemitic sympathies are not unknown on this side of the pond, but they are rarely if ever upheld by anyone but self-conceived Aryans. Why – how – can these protectionist views be held by a mixed-race Frenchman of half-African descent, a direct product of immigrants himself and an inferior subhuman under the aegis of the Nazi-derived Aryan ideology that he’s irresponsibly flirting with? To what extent do Anelka and Dieudonné’s legions of fans and supporters understand the implications of this flirtation, of the volatile “jokes” he engages in, and how much is their repetition of the statement a simple act of aggressive, supposed rebellion? And how much is Dieudonné seeking to satirize social and cultural sensitivity about taboo subjects, a time-honoured staple of edgy comedy product? Most vitally, is he succeeding at that?

The complex, simmering tensions in contemporary European society are writ large here, no doubt. Immigration from outside the continent has transformed long-insular societies like France’s into uncomfortable mosaics and strained its institutions and deepest ideals, sometimes beyond the breaking point, as seen in the intermittent banlieue riots, particularly those in Paris in 2005. But football has, in recent decades, provided a blueprint for an ideal of microcosmic cooperative efforts between Gauls of disparate ethnic backgrounds. Indeed, the country’s greatest recent sporting triumph, the 1998 World Cup title, was won by a team led by a midfield wizard of Algerian descent and featured many black Frenchmen in prominent roles. How symptomatic of a reactionary and uncertain political moment in French history that football now instead provides a confused and disturbing opportunity to express confused and disturbing ideas in the mass sphere.

Film Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

January 19, 2014 2 comments

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013; Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)

As lucid as it is cryptic, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis is a feedback loop with a tantalizing split end. The film is a masterful recreation of the early-1960s Greenwich Village folk music scene seen through the semi-fictional perspective of one talented but luckless performer who alternately drifts and blazes through it. It’s also concerned with the conflict between art and commerce, between bohemian practices and bourgeois ideals, between older and younger generations, between competing and opposed countercultural subsets. It also follows the narrative path of Homer’s Odyssey, though much more subtly and ambiguously than the Coens’ renowned musically-focused feature O Brother, Where Art Thou? once did. Llewyn says that a folk song was never new and never gets old, and like the uncanny recognition of just such a song circling back to its chorus, this is a film of eternal return.

Although Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn Davis is loosely based on Village folk fixture Dave Van Ronk (Davis’ album cover is a direct recreation of Van Ronk’s best-known release), the film that bears his name is haunted by associative echoes of the scene’s embryonic titan, the Coens’ fellow famed Minnesotan Bob Dylan. He appears at the film’s conclusion, glimpsed and overheard by Llewyn as he walks out of the legendary Gaslight Cafe, but is barely worth a longer pause. If more important and momentous things do happen in this life, the Coens suggest that they’re more likely to pass mostly unnoticed as we wander aimlessly and strive to survive. “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” sang Dylan songwriting disciple John Lennon. Llewyn Davis’ life is consumed in making other plans, or scrabbling together enough money and scant opportunity to try to make them.

The film opens with Llewyn (Isaac is a revelation as both a singer and thespian, a real find) singing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” (a Van Ronk staple) absolutely exquisitely in the Gaslight before being cornered and beat up by a shadowy man in a suit in the back alley. As lovingly detailed as the Coens’ revivified period Village scene is, it’s never romanticized. Music, even Llewyn’s unquestionably quality material, is not transcendent. Contrary to conventional musical film’s terms of inspirational uplift, it has no power to magically overcome material conditions in this wintry setting of perpetual failure, as the Coens repeatedly, insistently underline. Every time Llewyn plays a song, disaster and disappointment follows; physical violence, awkward social arguments, insults, voiding of bowels, rejection and diminishment.

“I don’t see a lot of money here,” is the withering verdict of influential Chicago folk club operator Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), whom Llewyn has travelled uncomfortably from New York City to audition for. What else need be said? Llewyn is an artist, and not a bad one. Commerce doesn’t give a shit about his art, though. Consumer capitalism needs something it can sell, and Llewyn’s labours aren’t worth much. When he does get a decent paying gig, it’s on a goofball novelty track about astronauts by his buddy Jim (Justin Timberlake, playing an accurately square period folksinger version of himself). And even then, he passes up on potentially lucrative royalties on the track for a one-time $200 payday to fund an abortion for Jim’s girlfriend Jean (a potty-mouthed Carey Mulligan), whom he may or may not have gotten pregnant. “You’re like King Midas’ idiot brother,” Jean tells him in a chilly Washington Square Park, and it’s true. Everything he touches turns to shit, except his music, and that can’t really help him overcome his other problems.

Llewyn drifts from couch to couch in New York’s boroughs, often returning to his sister’s place in Queens, to Jim and Jean’s in the West Village, and to the Upper West Side pad of a Columbia sociology professor named Gorfein (Ethan Phillips), who shows him off to dinner guests like a favourite party trick. He loses the latter’s cat, returns the wrong one, and then sets off for Chicago with the incorrect substitute feline in tow, hitching a desultory ride with a cantakerous, disdainful, and incontinent jazz musician (John Goodman) and his “valet” and amateur poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). Llewyn, like the Gorfeins’ cat (hintingly named Ulysses), finds his way “home” again in the end (“Llewyn is the cat,” Gorfein’s admin mishears him over the phone, a message as clear as a lighted marquee). The joke is that he’s homeless, and in his transient existence has no home to return to like the Greek literary hero. Llewyn’s narrative returns to its framed beginning by the end of the film, with a double-exposed promise of both a correction of his errors and suffering and a helpless repetition of them.

Inside Llewyn Davis is beautifully made, of course. The soundtrack (produced by O Brother impresario T-Bone Burnett with an assist from Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons) is unsurprisingly spectacular, as is the Oscar-nominated cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel. It could also be considered a bit of a downer for a viewer not sufficiently attuned to Isaac’s depressed reactions to his mounting failures and to the Coens’ wry, deadpan offbeat humour (“Where’s his scrotum, Llewyn?” Gorfein’s wife asks him hysterically when she discovers their male cat has been replaced by a female one). But like the folk songs that Llewyn sings with such moving precision and idiosyncratic feeling, Inside Llewyn Davis is both familiar and unfamiliar, never new and never old. Its artistry, like its protagonist’s, may confound commercial imperatives, but it circles back to a resonant crossroads of roughly equal hope and cynicism.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Television Review: Sherlock – Season Three

January 16, 2014 Leave a comment

Sherlock – Season Three (BBC; 2014)

There’s a particular scene in the midst of “His Last Vow”, the final episode of the third season of BBC’s acclaimed hit Sherlock, that encapsulates how this latest set of modern-day adventures of the world’s only consulting detective swerves so unwisely off the road. Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) is intently laying out expositional detail on his latest devious criminal nemesis, arch-blackmailer and media magnate Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen), but his compatriot John Watson (Martin Freeman) repeatedly pulls away from the details of the case to satisfy his curiosity concerning Sherlock’s new girlfriend (Yasmine Akram). The scene is a microcosm of the show’s encroaching failures in its third season as it increasingly privileges the sort of narrative elements that the literary iteration of Holmes would consider trivial frippery over the hard logic of deduction that he believes to be pre-eminent.

The show’s creators and overseers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (the latter also plays Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft, the secret brains behind seemingly everything the British government does) have always adapted and reconstituted canonical Holmes elements for contemporary concerns, as well as for their particular narrative style. Sherlock often manifests as a display of witty people saying witty things all while being aware of how witty they are and wittily letting the air out of their inflated balloon of wit at every opportunity. But it has also intelligently engaged with its voluminous source material and produced slick, entertaining takes on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective tales with likable lead characters whose personalities and emotional concerns (or, in Sherlock’s case, the lack thereof) are fleshed out without sagging the fast-moving, tightly-constructed stories. It was, in brief, a clever and marvelous balancing act that couldn’t possibly last.

It doesn’t last very deep into the third season, but it’s not any sort of immediate, stunning fall from grace, exactly. The premiere episode “The Empty Hearse”, as the title advertises, addresses last season’s cliffhanger ending of Sherlock’s faked death in a suicidal fall from a building before Watson’s eyes, after James Moriarty (Andrew Scott) backed him into it with a reputation-destroying masterplan, death threats to his friends, and a shocking suicide of his own. By “addresses”, I mean several possible explanations for how Sherlock pulled it off are presented but even the supposedly definitive version he presents to former police tech skeptic-turned-true-Holmes-believer Anderson (Jonathan Aris) has evident room for copious doubt. This playful flirtation with destabilizing unreliability shows Sherlock‘s tongue-in-cheek cleverness to its most favourable effect.

John Watson (Freeman has been noticeably aged by working on a Peter Jackson production) doesn’t much care how Sherlock pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes for two years before re-appearing in London as if nothing had happened. Watson grieved for his friend and compatriot in his reticent way, moving out of 221B Baker Street and mostly cutting off contact with landlady Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs). He’s moved on, grown a mustache (nobody likes it) and is about to propose to Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington, Freeman’s real-life partner) when Sherlock makes his flamboyant return, which gets the master sleuth a few resentful punches to the nose from his erstwhile partner in fighting crime. Of course, Watson will get over his anger soon enough to help Holmes to foil a modern-day Gunpowder Plot threatening Parliament. And he’ll forgive Sherlock sufficiently to invite the adventurous detective to tackle an even more stressful challenge: being the best man at his wedding.

This he does in “The Sign of Three”, as saggy, frivolous, and self-indulgent a shark-jumping episode as can be imagined for a show of Sherlock‘s quality. Perhaps Moffat and Gatiss (along with co-writer Stephen Thompson) are elaborately satirizing the sappy and sentimental “special episode” gimmicks attending television weddings, after all. They do include a mystery (involving a secretive murder attempt on Watson’s former commanding officer), some of Sherlock’s rambling best man’s speech manages to be amusing and even touching, and there’s a side-splitting (if totally, character-diminishingly silly) tangent involving Sherlock and Watson getting blind drunk and then attempting to investigate a case.

If there’s not multiple organs in that box for scientific experimenting, I’m afraid that the gift will go amiss.

But even as its embedded clues are expanded and paid off in “His Last Vow”, it’s difficult to understand “The Sign of Three” as anything but inconsequential, and sometimes quite possible to understand it as kind of annoying. In adapting the Holmes property for modern considerations, more focus has been directed on Sherlock’s emotional psychology, his status as a “high-functioning sociopath” who doesn’t comprehend let alone share the sentiment of “normal” human beings. This negotiation goes overboard in “The Sign of Three” with multiple professions of Sherlock’s fondness for Watson that far outstrip any expression of personal feeling that is consistent with the canonical character (at least in its proper Victorian literary form). It’s also the most meanderingly-written episode of the entire series, and introduces the concept of Sherlock being lonely in his cerebral, antisocial isolation and yearning for connection. Holmes is outside of people, and the wine flows.

Give Sherlock‘s writers enough time, though, and they’ll gladly upend your expectations and contradict your initial reactions and interpretations. As mentioned, Sherlock appears to have a girlfriend in “His Last Vow”, a development so entirely outside of the norms of his behavior that Watson has troubled believing it. As it turns out, Janine (who he met at Watson’s wedding) is simply being used to get access to Magnussen, and if Sherlock needs to feign a marriage proposal to get close to his true quarry, so be it. This is more like Holmes, and less like Sherlock; the more familiar first-name titling and referencing in dialogue (we even get his full name at the end of the season, as well as meeting his parents) telegraphs the increased closeness and personal investment encouraged by Gatiss and Moffat. Reintroducing the great detective’s drug addiction (Watson finds him in a heroin flophouse, a contemporary take on his appearance in a Victorian opium den in “The Man with the Twisted Lip”, and Holmes is a touch overfond of the morphine he’s given after being shot in pursuit of Magnussen) increases the scrutiny on Holmes’ private life away from his cases as well.

As Sherlock feels a nagging tug away from the adventure and danger of “the game”, Watson cannot help but be drawn inexorably back into it. If it isn’t enough that Sherlock’s detection activities interrupt his marriage proposal and intrude upon his wedding, the Magnussen case threatens the basic trust of Dr. Watson’s relationship with his new wife. Abbington’s Mary Morstan is less the stable figure of settled middle-class domestic respectability of Conan Doyle’s stories, which is just what Freeman’s Watson craves. She’s fond of Sherlock (unlike the witty, slightly antagonistic Mary of Guy Ritchie’s recent Hollywood Holmes films) and encourages her hubby to solve crimes with his longtime partner. But she’s no housewife, and turns out to have had a checkered past as an intelligence agent before assuming the Mary Morstan identity. Even when consciously retreating from a life of excitement and intrigue, Watson chooses a life partner who embodies those same qualities.

The revelation of Mary’s secret identity sets up the climax of “His Last Vow” and of the season. Magnussen sees fit to neutralize Sherlock’s investigations of him by blackmailing Watson with evidence of Mary’s past. Sherlock believes he can make a deal for this evidence, but makes a terrible miscalculation, or what seems to be one at least (the sleuth also seemed caught unawares by Moriarty’s gambits in “The Reichenbach Fall”, but reveals in “The Empty Hearse” that he and Mycroft concocted an elaborate plan to entrap Moriarty and only the consulting criminal’s suicide was unanticipated). In a season especially absorbed with how Holmes relates to and differs from other people, a major error stems from his inability to conceive that someone (namely Magnussen) might be more like him than he might have imagined.

Sherlock Holmes’ solution to the problem Magnussen poses, however, reaffirms the fundamental extremity of his distance from “normal” humans. As so often happens, the moral and legal consequences of his “solving” of this difficult case are swept away by his special abilities and Britain’s dire need of them. The last moments of Sherlock‘s uneven third season tease a tantalizing return of old nemesis Moriarty (the bursts of eccentric, unpredictable energy that characterize Scott’s singular performance are much missed, although he crops up on occasion in flashbacks and fantasy sequences). But the experienced fan of the show is ready for this to be further misdirection by the creative team. This sort of misdirection is a large part of what makes Sherlock so consistently appealing, even through its frequent issues in this season in particular. Misdirection is indeed great, but Sherlock‘s creators would be best served to be careful not to let it go in the wrong direction.

Categories: Literature, Reviews, Television

PopMatters Guilty Pleasure Films of 2013 Entry – #1: The Lone Ranger

January 14, 2014 Leave a comment

Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I will be contributing several short entries to the Best of 2013 lists for film, DVD and television over the next couple of weeks. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the titles to go to the list and each entry.

#1: The Lone Ranger

 

The Lone Ranger

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Elysium

January 11, 2014 1 comment

Elysium (2013; Directed by Neill Blomkamp)

In its classic generic form, science fiction is less about an imagined future than it is about how we live now. A blatantly obvious observation, granted, but then science fiction can often be blatantly obvious in its observations about contemporary social, economic, and political conditions, and cannot conceive of a method by which to reconcile fundamental tensions beyond violent action confrontations between proxy agents for the opposing concerns. This is perhaps the most deep-seeded problem with South African director Neill Blomkamp’s otherwise richly-imagined and exciting-staged Elysium. The film provides a grand, stark metaphor for economic inequality in compellingly-designed detail and then resolves the myriad conflicting anxieties by having two muscular men in exosuits punch each other while a quasi-magical technological reboot of the hierarchical order erases discriminatory distinctions.

The film gets to this point via an often fascinating and certainly impressive set-up. Set on and above Earth in 2154 (also the precise year that the very differently-concieved Avatar was set in, which may be clandestine political commentary in and of itself), Elysium depicts a social order that amplifies our contemporary wide gulf of wealth into a dichotomy that is nearly as extreme as that separating H.G. Wells’ Eloi and Morlocks in The Time Machine. Blomkamp begins his narrative in a sprawling, decayed Los Angeles that resembles the developing-world shantytowns which were the setting of his striking directorial debut, District 9. Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) resides in a rundown shack in the hills and works in a factory, which is more than most of the destitute underclass around him has managed. He once dreamed of something more, though, and we see flashback memories of Max gazing longingly at the sky with childhood sweetheart Frey (played as an adult by Alice Braga) at distant, inaccessible Elysium.

The rotating wheel space station Elysium is a mega-exclusive orbiting gated community whose preppie citizens wine-and-cheese their days away in luxuriously-appointed mansions equipped with high-tech Med-Bays that heal life-threatening injuries and cure deadly diseases in less time than it takes for a kettle to boil. The whole toney space-suburb is DNA-coded to authorized “citizens” of Elysium only, so even if desperate migrant earthlings manage to penetrate the station’s defences, they’ll be hunted down and deported, and medical and other services will not respond to them in the meantime. Alternating the Elysians’ privilege with the deprivation of the swelling masses on the planet they’ve abandoned, Blomkamp crafts a vision of starkly demarcated class division without compromise.

There’s an enlightened-liberal democracy of sorts at work in this snobbish stellar settlement, but the Elysian way of life is maintained through the undermining of its lofty, hypocritical principles. The dirty work of preserving the forcible class segregation falls to Secretary of Defense Delacourt (a prim Jodie Foster, speaking with a proscribed and likely redubbed Mid-Atlantic French accent). The President (Faran Tahir) disapproves of her Cheneyesque zero-tolerance approach to keeping the riff-raff off their collective lawn; all of those fatal missile strikes and mass arrests do have a way of putting his constituents off of their artisanal salumi boards, after all. He also doesn’t much like Delacourt employing the volatile sleeper agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley) in violent black ops missions and orders him dismissed. Stung at the President’s goody-two-shoes act, Delacourt plots with capitalist factory owner Carlyle (an exquisitely smug William Fitchner) to overthrow her rival by rewriting the code of the computer core that controls all public affairs and seizing power over Elysium herself.

While this is all happening above, Max struggles on down below. He’s harassed by robot police on his way to work, who break his wrist and send him to his parole officer, a kiosk-bot with a literally plastered-on smile, like something out of a fast-food drive-through. His supervisor threatens his job if he doesn’t perform some unsafe duties, and as a result he’s exposed to a lethal dose of radiation that leaves him with five days to live. Willing to do anything for a ticket to Elysium to heal himself in a Med-Bay, Max goes to his former employer, the underworld kingpin and migrant smuggler Spider (Wagner Moura), to see what can be done.

Spider insists that Max pay his way by leading a kidnapping crew to snatch valuable information from the mind of a prominent Elysian. Max insists that Carlyle, who runs the factory that gave him his death sentence, be the mark. Neither is aware that among the information in their target’s skull is a code that can overthrow Elysium’s government. Max is outfitted with a powered exosuit tapped into his nervous system to increase his capabilities and allow for the vital data upload from Carlyle. Despite this, he and his crew meet the stiff resistance of Carlyle’s robot guards as well as Kruger and his team of military toughs, called in by Delacourt to safeguard her coup attempt. This conflict sets in motion a series of pursuits, escapes, fights, double-crosses, and daring plans that take Max, Spider, Kruger, Frey and her leukemia-afflicted daughter to Elysium and permanently alter the rigid hierarchical divisions of their world.

This onscreen setting is richly imagined, and its details contain a multitude of social, economic, and political critiques that sometimes strike deeper than the movie’s grander messages. Immigration, health care, labour, policing, bureaucracy, technology, surveillance, government and military authority; Elysium fires off cynical but penetrating shots at what it perceives to be the official mishandling of all of these push-button issues and more besides. In a throwaway moment, Blomkamp can embed an explosive reference, like Delacourt’s name-brand comm-watch or Kruger’s weapons drop container emblazoned with “Civil Cooperation Bureau”, the particularly Orwellian name for an apartheid-era South African death squad. It’s very keen about the ethnic nature of class divisions as well. Max himself has a Spanish surname and nearly everyone he knows in L.A. speaks the language, a commentary on Latin-American immigration changing the linguistic and cultural nature of the United States. The L.A. scenes were mostly filmed in a poor quarter of Mexico City, while Elysium was shot in the posher environs of Vancouver; even in production terms, the divergent socioeconomic conditions on the same continent are demonstrated.

Even if her bizarre accent hampers her performance, Foster is a fine choice for the fastidious subaltern of oppressive privilege. Matt Damon is a bit too self-knowing in his portrayal of a determined member of the lumpenproletariat; Blomkamp was circling around various low-income-background rappers for the Max role (most prominently Eminem, who wanted filming to be done in Detroit) and one is left wondering if that might have been a more convincing option. Copley’s Kruger makes for a ludicrous villain, with his beard and tattoos, metallic implants, broad working-class Jobourg accent and samurai sword, but he’s a welcome agent of chaos and unpredictability in this ordered world of protected wealth and assured poverty.

Even if my critical perspective reduces its importance, it’s also worth noting that the genre elements of technology and action are compelling rendered and executed. Bodies are blown up artfully, spaceships crash-land on impeccably-manicured palatial gardens, plasma weapons release shimmering beams, and pectorally-stacked men in power suits slug it out for the future of humanity; involuntary guffaws of geek delight escaped my throat at more than a few moments. There’s a telling contrast between the polished surfaces of Elysium and the grimier devices employed on the fallen planet, but in both cases technology is deeply integrated into society (even in its lower-income stretches) in a manner that feels intensely familiar.

Elysium‘s macro social, economic, and political points feel less nuanced and provocative than its micro ones, mind you. If the jumbled details and terms of the dystopian disparity are fascinatingly drawn, then the neat computer reboot that promises a new and messy equality is entirely too pat. Elysium’s fatal flaw is not its oppressive exclusion of the poor from the fruits of progress, but an over-reliance on technology to direct that progress, leaving its future easily manipulated by the most clever and daring of the disenfranchised legions. Perhaps this is part and parcel of Blomkamp’s ultimate political point, that the wealth gap is such an imposing maw at this point that only an implausible reset could remedy its discriminatory conditions (though the wider-ranging social and cultural effects are a whole other matter). It’s practically a vision of spontaneous proletarian revolution, enthroned in the midst of an expensive summer blockbuster.

As in District 9, however, Blomkamp’s primary ideological focus is on the system and on its mechanical manifestations. Critics approached Elysium as a step away from the shadow of apartheid and grim realities of contemporary South African society that absorbed his breakthrough film, reading it as a recalibration of his established themes, appearance, and technical elements towards the more general Western progressive concern about the consequences of unprecedented levels of economic inequality. But the film contains seeds of the suggestion that the ethnic segregation of District 9 is cut from the same cloth as the economic segregation Elysium portrays, just as the haves’ oppression and exploitation of the have-nots shares a common ancestor of malicious hegemony with a white supremacist minority elite consigning an ethnically-diverse majority to the status of non-citizens. Even if it resolves its roiling tensions with mindless violence and instamatic wish-fulfillment, Elysium pack a greater wallop because its creator need not merely imagine the sort of hierarchy his film depicts. He’s lived through it.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews