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Film Review: Godzilla (2014)

May 31, 2014 3 comments

Godzilla (2014; Directed by Gareth Edwards)

The latest Godzilla is a large-scale movie canvas for remarkable images, mostly of destruction. Urban evacuation traffic snarled on a rural highway by the burning fuselage of a crashed jetliner. Paths of disturbed terrain trailing away from womb-like underground nests. Towering, primordial creatures crashing clumsily through cities and toppling skyscrapers as they battle each other, appearing as roaring, smashing embodiments of prehistoric terrors and lingering atomic-age anxieties of mass devastation.

But the images and sequences that stay with the awestruck viewer are the ones of quieter, tenser anticipation. Director Gareth Edwards tantrically holds off on a full frontal of his titular iconic reptilian monster for nearly an hour (let’s have an irresponsible Jaws reference here and get it over with, but this is not that sort of movie, really), and even this reveal is tantalizing brief (if also so powerfully iconic as to merit actual in-theater applause and conclusively prove his adoration for the material). Much of his film is vivid rising action and subtle, realist, almost zen-like enormity leading to spikes of even greater enormity. A little girl on a Hawaiian beach watches the tide recede alarmingly far and quickly. Red-glowing Chinese lanterns quiver and dance on suspended lines as something huge moves behind them in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Small, fragile, diminished human beings hold their collective breath in terrified awe as mountainous monsters pass with eerie grace beneath aircraft carriers or railroad trestle bridges, their skill at evading the feats of human construction no less impressive than their casual demolition of said edifices. Most profoundly evocative is a sequence of a HALO paratrooper drop above San Francisco, ankle-attached flares trailing scarlet tails behind the jumpers as they descend through cloud, fog, open air, and smoke into what seems like the writhing pit of sulfurous Hades itself.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, a more particular vision of similarly-scaled metropolis-leveling blockbuster action, was greeted by many as a bold and exciting new big-budget computer-generated variant on the classic kaiju genre (though a lot of people hated it, too). Edwards’ Godzilla may not be as good, but it’s got the considerable wallop and heavy, inevitable tread of its titular King of All Movie Monsters (as much as I love King Kong, Godzilla’s got him licked). Alexandre Desplat’s weighty, brassy score (very much inspired by the music for the 1954 Godzilla by Akira Ifukube) greatly amplifies this feeling of crushing dread.

The film is also erected on the metaphoric bedrock of the mass existential anxieties of its age like Toho Studios’ original, beloved 1954 film, a pulpy but elegiac synthesis of the radioactive ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as a sharp warning to the duelling superpowers precipitating a nuclear arms race with the potential to make Godzilla’s catastrophic destruction seem quaint in comparison. The 2014 Godzilla hearkens back not only to the Hiroshima bomb and nuke tests on remote Pacific atolls but to more historically proximal disasters like the South Asian tsunami of 2004 and the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. This is to say nothing of the usual 9/11 echoes of toppling skyscrapers and dusty panic in city streets that increasingly suffuse blockbuster Hollywood spectacles, a symbolic thumbing of the nose to the sniffing “Too Soon” crowd. It may be a tangential point, but what a curiously evocative accident of history it is that the development and improvement of filmmaking technology making it much more possible to convincingly produce images of stunning mass destruction coincided so closely with a real-world event that made such images so culturally indelible to the American public.

Anyway, Godzilla has a plot and characters in the same way that the human body has less-interesting but vital parts like lymph nodes and thyroid glands. It’s a bit of a family history, really. In 1999, a nuclear engineer (Bryan Cranston) and his wife (Juliette Binoche) are tragically parted forever by a mysterious seismic disaster at the Japanese nuclear power facility that employs them both. 15 years later, their son Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a US Navy explosive ordnance disposal officer (some Freudian transference of his childhood trauma that will also prove to be a useful plot element) with a wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son (Carson Bolde) of his own that his work keeps him away from more than he’d like. He’s pulled away from them again after a brief return home by his estranged father; haunted by having been forced to leave his wife to die in the quarantined reactor, the elder Brody is on a paranoid quest for the truth about the disaster, which he insists he can prove was not the earthquake it was officially claimed to be.

Dragging Ford along with him, the crazy-obsessed doomsaying stock character crosses paths with the monstrous cause of his pain: a gigantic, EMP-emitting insectoid creature dubbed a MUTO, which escapes from a high-security research and containment facility and begins seeking out any and every source of nuclear radiation it can find so that it can feed on them (it snaps into nuclear warheads like they’re carrot sticks). Something large, spiky and reptilian is also hunting the MUTO, which soon has a potential mate as well. The three monsters promise to converge on the San Francisco Bay Area, where Ford’s wife and son dwell. And they aren’t planning to have a demure wine and cheese soirée there, I can tell you that much.

Cranston and Binoche are barely in this film, and you might wish that they were the focus rather than the thick-necked toy soldier that Taylor-Johnson plays with stiff-lipped commitment but precious little personality, or than Olsen’s big-eyed, concerned nurse and mother, for that matter. The more experienced actors play their big emotional parting scene at the lockdown doors exquisitely; it’s the most powerful human beat in a film that consistently privileges those of a scale much greater than the human. The cast also includes David Strathairn as a serious but thoughtful Navy Admiral who does not relish any of his options for ending the monstrous threat to civilization and Ken Watanabe as the head scientist at the MUTO containment facility. Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa is something of a Gojira whisperer (in that he often whispers about the creature, not that he can stroke its nose and make it do things for him). He’s also more than a bit of a Japanese kaiju film stereotype, carrying serene Eastern wisdom about the ancient order of the natural world to gruff, “nuke it from orbit” American military brass. “Let them fight,” he urges the Admiral as Godzilla and the MUTOs approach San Fran, and even the doubtful Armed Forces vet can’t help but admit that it’s as good an idea as any other.

Fight it out they do, and the Big G’s cold-blue radioactive breath makes a couple of astounding appearances that should give the franchise’s nerdiest acolytes seizures of uncontrollable delight in the cineplex aisles. Edwards and his team make these sequences huge and loud and impressive, and they cultivate a humbling sense of scale that also served del Toro’s city-smashing behemoths well. Most vitally, however, they recognize that Godzilla is not exactly a villain to be targetted and destroyed, which was perhaps the central failure of Roland Emmerich’s much-maligned 1998 Godzilla (well, that and Matthew Broderick).

This Godzilla is an alpha predator, roused from a deep-ocean hibernation not to terrorize humanity but to track his gargantuan insectoid prey (although, to contravene this theory, not to eat them; I guess he just evolved to kill other monsters in a badass way for the pleasure of it). And like King Kong, he’s a tired old warrior with a lonely sadness deep in his lizard eyes. For so long the cinematic embodiment of man’s planet-threatening technological hubris, Godzilla must suffer sacrifices to save humanity from what the savant Serizawa calls our own arrogance, ie. our reliance on technology exposed by the MUTOs’ society-crippling EMP attacks and appetite for radioactive cores. Destructive streak aside, he’s the angel of our better natures. With radioactive breath. Are we sure we really deserve him?

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Categories: Film, Reviews

Good Old-Fashioned Wholesome Fun With Search Engine Terms #10

Like Real Madrid, I’ve reached La Decima in this series of posts chronicling the oddest sets of words entered into search engines to lead websurfers to this blog. Unlike Real Madrid, I did not collaborate with a fascist dictator in order to do so. I didn’t employ Cristiano Ronaldo to make it happen either, which may be worse than cozying up to Franco. Anyway, back on topic: amusing search terms, the tenth installment. Probably the appropriate thing to do would be to choose ten examples, so of course I chose twelve.

chevalier homosocial

No, that’s not what “homosocial” means. Don’t be bigoted.

visual metaphors in harry potter

Quidditch is an allegory for the social democratic welfare state. Think about it. No, think harder.

british soldiers flayed alive

Nope, none of that here. Try a Mel Gibson movie, maybe?

jar jar binks racist

He’s not a racist, he’s just kind of dumb and irritating and loud and nobody likes him. You can be those things and not be a racist, but it’s tough to be a racist without also being those things. Necessary/sufficient conditions kind of thing.

crebain from dunland

“Nothing, it’s just a wisp of cloud.” “It’s moving fast, against the wind…” Incidentally, I always thought it odd that Legloas could tell that the birds were from Dunland. Was a member of the flock carrying a flag or something?

good thesis statement regarding the lego movie

It shouldn’t be surprising that a great number of the searches that point to this blog are clearly undertaken either by students looking for essay ideas or by their instructors trying to catch them plagiarizing. This is far from the only one, merely the laziest.

navel fanfiction

I’m gonna go ahead and assume that’s a typo and they’re looking for some amateur fanfic focusing on the bygone era of sailing ships. Because the alternative is both too icky and too weirdly specific to contemplate.

nicolas cage grave new orleans

I was preparing a snarky joke about how Nic Cage might not need a grave but his career sure does (haw haw!). And that may well have proven sufficient. But googling it turned up something much weirder: the actor’s pre-purchased pyramid-shaped burial plot and monument in a New Orleans cemetery, complete with pretentious New-Age-y Latin motto. Wondrous.

infantile crisis wallpaper batman

No crisis is infantile when you have Batman wallpaper. The darkness of the human soul is your domestic decoration. You dwell in the shadows, and the shadows know you well.

(Please to imagine that read in Christian Bale’s growly philosophic Batman voice. Or at least Abed’s impersonation of the Christian Bale growly philosophic Batman voice.)

weakness of film beowulf

Can I have “Naked Golden Angelina Jolie” for $600, Alex?

wholesome detective novels

Nancy Drew? The Hardy Boys? Jesus H. Christ, Private Eye?

film analysis professional

Sure, go ahead and rub it in. Jerk.

Film Review – X-Men: Days of Future Past

May 25, 2014 2 comments

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014; Directed by Bryan Singer)

Marvel Studios’ comic-book superhero movie blockbusters have basically proceeded in three parallel streams, at least since their box office ascendance became unchallengeable around the middle of the last decade. The mostly self-contained Spider-man films, the Avengers stable comprising Iron Man, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, Thor and others, and the X-Men series. Perhaps at some point, the necessary corporate-crossover rights will line up and all of these characters will appear in some big screen über-epic in which they band together to fight alien invaders or trans-dimensional flying sharks or Xenu or whatever. But until this happens, causing teenage boys of all ages to spontaneously combust in a mass wave of joyous, orgasmic aspirational-transferential enlightenment, comics fans will have to be satisfied with the sort of proscribed channels of graphic narrative adaptations offered to them by Hollywood.

The Avengers, even if I steadfastly resisted liking the actual movie, demonstrated boldly how Marvel’s patient multi-film build-up could work, and how well it could function artistically and commercially. On its way to amassing more profit than the Southern slave system (exaggerrated and insensitive analogy, sorry, but apt enough consider the dominant themes of the X-property in question), The Avengers combined multiple established comics-film characters believably and, most important to comics nerds, within a mostly unbroken frame of continuity. But as comics writers discovered long ago, continuity is inherently limiting to long-term serialized storytelling. You do something once for dramatic effect or to create conflict or to explore what events might do to a character and you’re stuck with it for the rest of that linear story thread. Hence the innovation of retroactive continuity (or retcon), allowing slates to be wiped clean, Etch-A-Sketches to be shaken blank, narrative conditions to return to a given point where new story threads and departed characters can begin again.

If The Avengers took the comics stand-by “compiled super-team of heroes” concept to the cinema, then X-Men: Days of Future Past is Marvel’s most prominent attempt to bring retcon into the film conversation. It functions as not only entertaining spectacle (though it is most certainly that) but as a strong continuation/sundering of previously-established narrative and character development in this particular slice of the Marvel Universe. It’s serious but not too serious, not tackling themes and ideological undercurrents as big and as resonant as the series reboot X-Men: First Class did but not subjecting those themes to the blithely superior simplifications that Matthew Vaughn’s otherwise solid entry did either. Like the X-Men themselves, it is greater than the sum of its quirky, freakish individual parts. Also like them, it means well even if it does not always do the right thing.

One of retcon’s most useful narrative conceits is time travel. It’s how JJ Abrams got away with re-jigging Star Trek for a hipper ironic age, and it’s how returning X-director Bryan Singer (working from a story by Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Simon Kinberg and a script by Kinberg) reconciles his contemporaneously-set X-Men films (as well as the mixed-bag trilogy-closer directed by Brett Ratner) with those characters’ pasts in First Class, which left off after a mutant-affected outcome to the Cuban Missile Crisis. In Days of Future Past, it’s well into the (near-)future of the 21st Century (2020 or so), and the situation on Earth is grim. New York City is largely a ruin, with a sickly-glowing mass-internment camp in Central Park the only sign of surviving civilization. Human distrust of mutants finally seems to have reached a pitch fever-like enough for the normals to unleash sophisticated and deadly robot drones called Sentinels to hunt down and destroy anything with mutant DNA. Unfortunately, their targets also expanded to include humans who might breed mutants, which is pretty much everyone, so, yeah, matters are fairly apocalyptically dire.

Only the mutants who have trained intensely and weaponized their special abilities cling to a tenuous freedom on the run from the Sentinels. The surviving X-Men factions stay a step or two ahead of their relentless pursuers either by buzzing around in a jet or by a more ingenious method with major plot implications: Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) uses her phasing powers to send the consciousness of Bishop (Omar Sy) back a few days before the fatal Sentinel attack on their hiding spot occurs in order to warn their past selves in time to escape it.

Tiring of this cycle of futile fighting and barely less futile flight (recognizable X-People are killed off willy-nilly in these swiftly-retconned realities, because what else is a dark-mirror alternate universe for, really?), the group hatches a desperate plan to end the Sentinel threat with Kitty’s powers at its centre. Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart in a floating chair) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) ask Kitty if she could manage to send someone’s consciousness back not a few days or weeks or months but decades; to 1973, to be precise. It was in that year that the Sentinel program was fast-tracked to apocalyptic inevitability by the actions of Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who killed the program’s designer, the remarkably comic-book-named Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), at the summit in Paris that led to the end of the Vietnam War. Meant to avenge her fellow mutants that Trask has cruelly experimented on, Mystique’s assassination of Trask gave the program’s genocidal aims broad-based public support and her subsequent capture allowed the Sentinels to assume their deadly function to absorb and utilize the powers of other mutants, the scientific basis of which is her shape-shifting DNA. Got all that? It all has to unhappen or else giant robots will kill us all.

Grandfather paradox time, then, but who to send back on this most vital and confusing of missions? Xavier volunteers, as he stands the best chance to convince her to abandon her plan of revenge, his personal connection to childhood friend Raven being the strongest. Unfortunately, his body is not, and so Wolverine is drafted to have his mind sent back into his rippling, self-healing, non-aging bod of 50 years ago to prevent their grim present from happening. Not the most personally persuasive team member, Logan may seem like a poor match for the task; indeed, it was Kitty herself who went on this mission through time in the original comics storyline. But Hollywood must need have its roguish anti-hero male protagonists, and Jackman’s gruff but droll Wolverine has been a much more developed and consistently bankable character on the big screen, so he has to be the obvious choice.

Put under and teleported into his younger, pre-adamantium-skeleton body in a Matrix or Inception kind of way while his future body is guarded from imminent Sentinel attack in a remote Chinese monastery, Logan dons some 1970s lapels and embarks on a “putting-the-team-back-together” sort of quest. Unlikely to convince a younger Mystique who’s never met him to listen to his message, he seeks out the two younger men she might well listen to, since they are smitten with her: Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). The former is indeed former, as in no longer a professor. His school for mutants youths collapsed after the Cuban business, Raven left his fold for Magneto’s fledgling Brotherhood of Mutants, and even his telepathic powers have deserted him as a result of his addiction to a serum that restores his ability to walk after the spinal injury suffered at the end of First Class. Only Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) has not deserted him, keeping up his serum supply and nursing a common heartbreak: Hank too had some puppy love feelings for Raven, and his attempt to cure her of her mutation afflicted him with the blue-skinned Beast mutation that is his secret shame.

The lunatic is on the… wall?

Logan does get Xavier and McCoy on board, and they form a classic 1970s-vintage caper team to get Magneto on board as well. Turns out old Erik Lehnsherr simply cannot stay out of trouble: he’s been imprisoned in a super-high-security non-metallic cell beneath the Pentagon since bending the bullet that killed JFK in Dallas in 1963 (he tells Xavier that he was trying to save Kennedy, who was a mutant himself). Enlisting the aid of a mischievous, super-fast juvenile delinquent mutant named Peter Maximoff (the future Quicksilver, played by Evan Peters), they engineer a jailbreak, though Peter does most of the work. One of the film’s most delightful sequences follows him as he zips about a subterranean kitchen, impishly re-arranging the guards, bullets, and airborne knives that seem suspended in time relative to his blazing speed.

Lehnsherr takes some convincing to join the quest, mostly on board Xavier’s private jet (a good quarter of the movie seems to be set there), but he agrees to cooperate for the greater good of mutantdom (though the terms of his cooperation, as always, are entirely his own). The motley foursome of Logan, Xavier, Lehnsherr, and McCoy quite publically fail to prevent the Paris Peace Accords from becoming an incident that is non-beneficial to mutants, however. Trask survives Mystique’s attempt on his life, but his Sentinel Program is fast-tracked anyway by an alarmed President Richard Nixon (Mark Camacho; Nixon impersonations in bad makeup are a comic-book movie trope by now). McCoy, monitoring the post-Paris news on a sprawling piece of self-engineered machinery that monitors “all three networks, and PBS” (an episode of the original Star Trek series plays pointedly behind him, though NBC had cancelled it by the 1970s) speculates that timelines cannot be changed, and that their actions may only be ripples in an ever-flowing current leading to a deep reservoir of disaster.

Quantum physics won’t stop them from trying to change the future, however. Xavier rouses himself from his drugged torpor and uses his long-dormant telepathic abilities to track both Mystique and Magneto to Washington, D.C. where these less-compromising mutants plan separately to crash the launch of the Sentinel program. Mystique still just wants Trask dead, but Magneto’s plan is much grander. Without giving too much away, it involves hijacked prototype Sentinels, the bunker beneath the White House, and the movie’s most spectacular set-piece: moving RFK Stadium to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Okay, that probably did give too much away, but to properly discuss this movie, spoilers are a necessity. Raven is convinced by Xavier to turn away from her assassination of Trask at the latest possible moment, which simultaneously wipes out the dire future reality and saves the remaining X-Men from the Sentinels about to finish them. It also quite head-spinningly restores the contemporary X-timeline of the first film trilogy to a new re-set beginning, where not only the X-Folks killed by Sentinels but also those who perished in The Last Stand are alive and well in Xavier’s school.

All of this timeline jiggery-pokery has considerable consequences for future X-Men movies as well as retconsequences for previous ones, as Darren Franich lays out at EW.com. It essentially means that most of the key developments of The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (as well as a few of those in the other X-films) are either undone or prevented from ever happening. Few fans of the material will shed a tear at the retcon memory wipe of those two middling, ill-loved films, but this demonstrates a previously-unappreciated ability of retcon: to erase the narrative implications of critically and commercially inferior onscreen efforts (ask poor Ang Lee about that).

Behold, humans. These are the consequences of voting Republican!

Behold, humans. These are the consequences of voting Republican!

Days of Future Past is hardly artistically inferior, indeed quite the opposite. Its action and spectacle outstrips any of the series’ previous high-water-mark sequences, the characters’ interactions are rich and nuanced (Jackman and McAvoy have a weirdly appealing chemistry that makes me hope they one day appearing in something meatier together, and of course Fassbender, Hoult and Lawrence are way better than this material too), the various themes and meanings clear and compelling without being heavy-handed. A moment in the Paris scene demonstrates how gracefully Singer segues from action to ideas and back again: Beast jumps at Magneto and holds him underwater in a fountain to keep him from killing Mystique (thus preventing a dark future in his usual clear-cut manner), but the metal-master uses the sculptural tendrils in the fountain to pull his attacker off him and leaves him bound and exposed before a gawking, shocked crowd (some of whom film the mutants on Zapruder-like handheld home-movie cameras). Days of Future Past is far from Hank McCoy’s movie, and his shame at his genetically-marked difference is given much less play than it was in First Class, but in a passing beat, it’s given a revealing moment in the sun.

As mentioned, however, the bigger ideas that suffused First Class are less prominent here. Vaughn’s film was no less than a superhero-movie allegory for the post-Hitler social and political dialectical order of the democratic world, with Xavier as the liberal-humanist West and Lehnsherr as something like wounded, discriminated-becomes-discriminator Israel. Singer does not focus these beams of meaning as Vaughn did, nor does the misfits vs. conformists dichotomy clustered around the young Mystique and Beast burst forward often. The Vietnam War comes up but the movie has nothing worthwhile to say about it. The Sentinel element of the story quite obviously invokes Nazi-derived directives of racial purity, with Dinklage’s eerie Trask a mustached American-capitalist Joseph Mengele. But then that sort of thinking is fairly uncontroversially agreed to be wholly wrong, unlike the subtler and more insidious cycle of prejudice against and discrimination of difference that X-Men titles generally invoke.

Days of Future Past is certainly a more ambitious and probably a more enjoyable X-Men entry than First Class, even if it gives the sweeping political possibilities short shrift. It’s a big, strong superhero epic that is much more of a victory lap for the genre’s blockbuster ascendance than The Avengers managed to be, and its application of retroactive contuinuity demonstrates how comics-style storytelling practices can operate in a very different medium saddled with much greater practical, aesthetic and commercial challenges than comics are. If it can’t quite properly be dubbed triumphant, that’s not for lack of trying (indeed, it may be for excess of trying). Even if the consciousness-time-travel element leaves dangling uncertainties (which Wolverine in which time remembers what, and are they really the same Wolverine or separate ones?), Days of Future Past is a satisfactory and even superior superhero film. And more importantly for Marvel, it sets the stage for multiple sequels and spin-off possibilities, allowing both comics narrative methods and comics movie production to expand their potentials. With the exception of the Sentinels, everybody wins.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Vanity Fair (2004)

Vanity Fair (2004; Directed by Mira Nair)

Indian-American director Mira Nair’s handsome adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s sprawling, skewering satire of upper-class British society opens, not inappropriately, with oblique close-ups of a peacock. The flightless bird that displays its ostentatious plumage to impress the opposite sex is a self-evident summation of the aims of the human peacocks that populate the Regency England social milieu of the film.

Nair’s version of the story, penned for the screen by Downton Abbey doyen Julian Fellowes among others, mostly follows Thackeray’s text with some key nuances and compromising departures along the way. The core plot is the same, following the rise of the clever, penniless artist’s daughter Rebecca Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) from a governess position at the dilapidated estate of the crude baronet Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins) into a marriage with his bluff, soldier-gambler son Rawdon (James Purefoy). She ascends to the upper crust’s highest echelons despite the disinherited Rawdon’s lack of an income, impressing the imperious Lord Steyne (Gabrie Byrne) and even King George IV himself before a scandal humbles her and sunders her from Rawdon and from polite society.

A contrasting and intermingling storyline tracks the progress of Becky’s school friend Amelia Sedley (Romola Garai), who marries her childhood sweetheart George Osbourne (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) against the wishes of his forbidding merchant father (Jim Broadbent), who likewise disinherits his son, who dies on the fateful field of Waterloo in 1815. Both the settled, nurturing Amelia and the calculating surivor Becky will be laid low by whims and norms of the titular conception of their society’s superficial standards. But they will both also find companionship by the end, Amelia with George’s loyal and decent friend William Dobbin (Rhys Ifans) and Becky in faraway India with Amelia’s foppish nabob brother Joseph (Tony Maudsley).

I’ve previously laid out a more detailed analysis of the themes and implications of Thackeray’s novel and won’t provide a similar one for Nair’s film. It may not be surprising to learn that in the hands of Nair, Fellowes and Witherspoon, Becky Sharp is moulded into a far more sympathetic figure than the sociopathic, cruelly sarcastic striver of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. She genuinely loves both her husband and her son (she tires of the former and dislikes the latter in the book) and is blackmailed for illicit sexual purposes by the menacing Steyne, rather than willingly becoming entangled with him to improve her position. Becky’s happy ending with Jos Sedley in India also glosses over Thackeray’s implication that she engineers his mysterious death in order to get her hands on his money. But then Becky’s arc is pregnant with feminist possibilities that were either dormant or actively considered anti-social or even dangerous in Thackeray’s time, and modern audiences are less likely to look askance on the morality of her choices.

Casting the perky, intelligent Louisianan Witherspoon as one of British literature’s iconic (anti-)heroines initially seems like Nair’s greatest departure. But the reach pays off and Witherspoon’s driven, multifaceted femininity proves a match for her character’s similar qualities. Even her English accent is mostly impeccable. The cast around her is nicely chosen, and each get their moments to shine. The late Hoskins cockneys up Sir Pitt wonderfully, Purefoy rejoices in the rakish, romantic Rawdon, Rhys-Meyers is pure swishing, haughty insouciance, and Ifans is soulful and upright as Dobbin, the closest thing to a traditional male hero that the story has to offer. Garai is a bit too knowing as Amelia, and it’s hard to believe that her version of the character had no clue about the depth of Dobbin’s feelings for her, mind you.

Mira Nair isn’t solely invested in mounting a traditional literary period adaptation with a bit of Hollywood shimmer, however. She draws her own cultural interests and investments out of the material. The costume design (by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor) is sumptuous and flamboyant to an extent well beyond historical reason. The peacock association is strongly underlined by the spectacular evening gowns, feathered fascinators, and florid coats and tails. The clothes make the man, or the woman: the saintly suffering of Amelia is emphasized by her lightly-coloured dresses, while Becky’s chamaeleonic ladder-climbing is typified by her varied wardrobe. The predatory Steyne dons vampiric robes, stalking through his cultish fire-lit party like Dracula through his Transylvanian castle.

Much more noticeable is Nair’s elevation of the material’s sideline associations with the Indian subcontinent. This is her cultural heritage, and she gives it a much more central tonal role in her Vanity Fair. The excursion to Vauxhall Gardens early in the film sets the tone: as Becky flirts with Jos Sedley before he is steered away from an imprudent match by George, Indian dancers, music, food, and fashion suffuse the setting. Dobbin’s own self-imposed exile in India emphasizes his delusional disorientation away from Amelia’s steadying influence; he bizarrely wrestles another man in a Hindu temple as he decides he must return home. Becky’s command performance for the Prince Regent at Steyne’s party is culturally Indian as well, staged as a proto-Bollywood musical number in which she captures an essential exoticism that captivates but also disconcerts her proper English aristocratic audience. And her closing arrival in India with Jos, on the back of elephants with laughing children as a loose escort, glows with romantic fondness for the country of the director’s birth.

Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair emerges as an uneven but sometimes compelling hybrid of Hollywood sheen, literary fidelity, and personal cultural display. It’s not a great film and hardly a perfect adaptation, but its unpredictable peculiarities keep it from becoming a stilted period piece of staid costume drama.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

Film Review: Josie and the Pussycats

Josie and the Pussycats (2001; Directed by Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan)

I would like to preface this overlong consideration of a mostly silly, disposable, and forgotten candy-coated teen-comedy flop by contextualizing the terms of its peculiar appeal to me. Josie and the Pussycats, a fundamentally flawed but spirited and occasionally quite funny Hollywood adaptation of an Archie Comics sub-property, was an unlikely but hallowed in-joke among my group of friends in university. Drinking nights often climaxed with giddy screenings of a VHS copy of the movie (alcohol greatly improved its dumb-clever humour). Dialogue quotations became part of everyday parlance (“Jerkin’!”; “You slept with him!“; the astoundingly dated “Heath Ledger is the new Matt Damon!”). When a member of the circle and his band played their first show, a handmade sign reading “I’m with the band” was made up and their set-opener was a cover of opening credits rocker “3 Small Words”. Josie was central to our shared consciousness for a brief but important part of our youth; it was our theme movie. But why?

Box office returns, critical reception, and longer-term movie nerd assessments were not at all kind to Josie and the Pussycats. It still has its defenders, but it’s become a bit of a time capsule film, capturing a particular moment in American popular culture where bubblegum pop was ascendant, resistance to monolithic corporate capitalism still seemed faintly possible with just a guitar and three small chords, and Tara Reid could get a non-Sharknado central role in a feature film (she’s golden here, by the way, probably never better: “If I could go back in time, I would want to meet Snoopy”).

But viewed across the space of years, Josie and the Pussycats seems more weirdly, obscurely talismanic, like one of the representative artifacts of a vanished human culture collected from a post-apocalyptic landscape by a plucky, romantic archivist robot. Fluff it may be, but it’s fluff that targets the will to conformity of consumer capitalism with a surprisingly-sharp satirical blade, while its remedy to that conformity inadvertently exposes resistance as a form of re-entrenchment of the conformist order’s aims and goals.

Jettisoning any and all story elements of the original comics, writers/directors Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan (their resume previously included appreciated teen comedy Can’t Hardly Wait, which receives an in-joke shout-out in the film, and subsequently featured script credits on some pretty forgettable rom-coms) craft the adventures of this perky garage band of cat-ear-wearing young ladies into a zippy and comprehensive indictment of America’s corporatized assembly line of fame and celebrity.

The film opens not with the Pussycats at all, but with pitch-perfect boy band parody Du Jour (cameos by Breckin Meyer, Donald Faison, Seth Green, and Alex Martin). After performing in a sugary (but not-so-subtly raunchy) music video sending up the Backstreet Boys’ mega-hit “I Want It That Way”, the group lounges and bickers amusingly on their private jet in the company of their svengali manager, Wyatt Frame (Alan Cumming, exquisitely louche). But when the pop idols confront Wyatt with something strange buried in the mix of their latest single, he grows dead-serious. Signalling the pilot with a music-history code phrase (“Take the Chevy to the Levy”), Wyatt parachutes out of the crashing jet. Having apparently silenced his potentially insurrectionist superstars, he’s on the lookout for replacements.

Enter the titular Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook, at the peak of her brief popularity and comic-actress powers) and her supporting Pussycats, Melody (Reid) and Valentine (Rosario Dawson), a power trio plying their musical trade unappreciated in a bowling alley in small-town Riverdale. Discovered by Wyatt while busking (or, rather, while he nearly runs them over in the middle of the street), the Pussycats are fed into the MegaRecords star machine run by the flighty, capricious, hilariously megalomaniacal Fiona (Parker Posey). Spirited away to a glowing NYC-type metropolis of oversaturated corporate advertising (more on that in a sec), the Pussycats experience the frantic head-rush of the entertainment industry as well as its fracturing ego-stroking fantasies. Furthermore, they learn what exactly it was that Du Jour discovered that was too dangerous to be allowed to get out: pop music is being used to brainwash teenagers into consumerist conformity.

Well, of course it is, a cynical, ironically detached observer like yours truly would say. But Elfont and Kaplan simultaneously literalize and metaphoricize this message. MegaRecords is the focal point of a vast conspiracy between corporations and government (even including Reid’s then-boyfriend Carson Daly, who cameos on a fake Total Request Live set as an enforcer of the secret order) to re-program American teens into consuming the products and adopting the lifestyles that the powers-that-be want them to via “subliminal” messages hidden deep in the audio mix of hit pop songs (which, as Roger Ebert pointed out, technically makes them subaural; they are recorded by Mr. Moviefone, another time-capsule joke par excellence). Fiona and a government agent (Tom Butler) demonstrate the process to foreign dignitaries via a cut-up educational infomercial featuring Eugene Levy, and like the best satire it’s only a slightly exaggerrated re-casting of corporate capitalism’s actual youth-focused marketing practices.

And yet it’s not quite the best satire. Rendering the film’s critique of consumer culture as a shadowy high-level tinfoil-hat conspiracy (and one driven and ultimately co-opted by its masterminds’ own youthful social inadequacies) inevitably dulls its edges. The key point to understand about American capitalism at the turn of the millenium is how openly and shameslessly it had come to apply its devious manipulations to consumer agency and socioeconomic choice. It need not operate in the shadows at all. Contemporary television hits like Making the Band and American Idol showed quirky individuality being made over into polished, mass-consumable entertainment product before viewers’ very eyes, and consumers ate it up.

Josie and the Pussycats becomes mired in an untenable position of criticizing the exact segment of mainstream popular culture that economic concerns require it to appeal to; it lampoons the empty flash and superficial shimmer of teenybopper music, film, television, and fashion while aiming straight at that same demographic, relying on their dollars for its box-office success. No wonder it failed to find much of an audience. The rise-to-stardom montage of “Pretend To Be Nice” typifies this problem: Elfont and Kaplan can’t decide if they want to laugh at the blinding sheen of celebrity culture or celebrate its peppy, frantic glamour, and so the film defaults to the latter.

This encouraged critical misreadings, especially of the deluge of corporate logos and product placement that drown the film onscreen (the Pussycats’ hotel room is designed entirely of retail giant Target’s red-and-white logo scheme, for example). Elfont and Kaplan revealed in the DVD commentary track (which I have absolutely listened to, thank you very much) that they did not receive a cent for product placement and that the saturation-level visual cascade of corporate advertising was intended as a satire of the similar cascade that buries American public life. Few observers understood it this way (as the Rotten Tomatoes summary of the critical consensus makes crystal-clear), underlining the hobbled irony of the focus on the concept of subliminal advertising when so much of the film’s critique of advertising was rather more superliminal.

Making the Pussycats’ hit songs the sort of melodically appealing power-pop confections that music geeks feel ought to be hugely popular with young audiences (but never are) probably didn’t help the film overcome the feeling of being misbegotten, either. This doesn’t mean the music isn’t good, and the soundtrack album proved more popular than the movie, going gold. Exec-produced by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds with vocals by Letters to Cleo singer Kay Hanley, the songs that make up the soundtrack were co-penned by a who’s who of late ’90s power-pop songwriters, including Matthew Sweet, Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, and Adam Duritz of Counting Crows. This is not a vital critical observation, necessarily, but that last sentence was maybe the most Nineties sentence ever, so I couldn’t resist including it.

Josie and the Pussycats is not a great movie, and it’s arguably not even really a good one. In addition to the clumsy contradictions already mentioned, there’s metric tons of unnecessary detritus on display, including multiple superfluous characters from the comic (Josie’s sensitive balladeer love interest Alan M as well as band manager Alexander Cabot and his mean-spirited sister Alexandra, who is at least given a self-aware meta-line acknowledging her needless presence). But its central failure fatally wounds its grander satirical project. During the band’s climactic stadium concert, Josie exhorts her robotic hordes of corporate-programmed fans to remove the kitty ear headsets that deliver brainwashing messages into their collective cortex. She asks them to think for themselves and decide if they like her band’s music or not.

As Andrew Potter has convincingly argued, this essential post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment appeal to individuality and self-determination has been co-opted by corporations in order to sell their mass-marketed products and the attendant mainstream conformity that comes with them. This final twist in the complexly misdirected satirical thrust of Josie and the Pussycats exemplifies its internal ironies. But then those ironies, those animating contradictions, are also those of American capitalism. This may not be a great movie, but it both intentionally and inadvertently lays out the essential schizophrenic nature of corporate consumerism more clearly than many finer satires.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review: Young@Heart

Young@Heart (2008; Directed by Stephen Walker)

Confirming and exploding stereotypes about the elderly all at the same time, Stephen Walker’s documentary about the cutting-edge Northampton, Massachusetts seniors’ chorus can be cloying now and then, but quite sincerely so. It is also often quite seriously funny, full of verve and life, and painfully honest about the mortality of its likable senior-citizen singing stars.

Young@Heart was formed in 1982, drawing its singers from residents of an elderly housing project in Northampton. General mastermind Bob Cilman was one of the chorus’ founders and continues to be its arranger, conductor, and executive director. Playing in a variety of bands since he was a preteen and with a peculiar taste and sense of ironic humour, Cilman is not content to choose Bacharach ballads or showtunes for the group’s performances. He leans towards contemporary rock, pop, or even hip hop hits, often selecting songs that draw out certain qualities in his performers or invert the meanings or implications of lyrical content when sung by a gaggle of old folks. He also struggles through Walker’s film to find a balance between the band director’s tendency to demand excellence from his performers and his particular challenge of recognizing and dealing with the physical (and sometimes mental) limitations of his chorus members, who average an age of eighty years young.

Health and mortality are perhaps the greatest obstacles facing Young@Heart, understandably so when its ranks are filled by people near the end of long, full lives (none of its original members are still alive, and even many from this film have passed, too). The pathos and drama of illnesses and deaths of the chorus’ members underscores the scenes of rehearsals, music videos, and live performances. The grim reality of old age which the chorus seeks to rise above threatens the viability of performances but eventually imbues them with a deep emotional resonance. It’s a pat observation to call these performances “inspirational” (and what does that mean, anyway?), but what else can you call the chorus’ moving version of “Forever Young” at a prison? Multiple social barriers and life-limiting sentence collapse in those moments. It’s a profound thing.

And really, what isn’t there to like about 22 octogenarians singing Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia”, or sending up retirement home zombies with the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated”? Even Coldplay’s monument to heart-tugging namby-pambiness “Fix You” becomes a climactic, cathartic hymn to togetherness and empathy when sung by Air Force vet Fred Knittle, hampered by an oxygen tank but blessed with a deep, rich baritone voice. He personifies the spirit and artistic angle of Young@Heart, beautifully documented in this film: worn down by the years but lifted up in song.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review: The Brothers Bloom

The Brothers Bloom (2008; Directed by Rian Johnson)

Commencing with jazzy rhythms and syncopated editing, Rian Johnson’s second feature film opens by detailing the pre-teen origin story of a prodigious pair of sibling confidence men. Orphaned and shuttled from one foster home to another (“38, all told,” narrates actor\illusionist Ricky Jay with sardonic knowingness), brothers Stephen and Bloom hit upon their soon-to-be-mastered profession. Following Stephen’s masterfully-charted plan, Bloom assumes the role of the ingratiating charmer and convinces the “playground bourgeoisie” of a “one-hat” Mid-American town to pay him to lead them to a magical floating light in a forest cave. Their scheme is exposed and on they are shipped, but not before a fleeting measure of success illuminates the perfectly-structured con that will become their signature: the con where everyone gets what they want. The con men get the money and the mark gets to feel a touch of fulfilment, happiness, satisfaction, or whatever you might call it (until they check their account balance next, anyway).

The Brothers Bloom is a caper flick about con men, indeed. But a caper flick that invokes Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in its first ten minutes is also self-evidently going to be about the nature of reality and how the deception, fakery, and sleight-of-hand inherent to the con game calls the firmness of reality into question. This is borne out by the famous magician narrator, recurrent thematic card tricks, further literary references to varied existentialists Dostoyevsky, Melville and Joyce (the brothers are named after the latter’s best-known protagonists), and by a climax in an abandoned theatre, the closing shoot-out literally taking place onstage behind a closed curtain.

Much as Johnson’s debut Brick self-consciously transposed hardboiled Dashiell Hammett detective noir into a modern American high school setting, The Brothers Bloom has novelistic pretensions in dealing with the interplay of deceptive appearances and even more deceptive truths fundamental to the caper genre. Also like Brick, it constructs a world that is unquestionably contemporary but suffused with endearing, quirky anachronism. Brick built that anachronism into its baroque film noir dialogue, but Johnson has a real budget for The Brothers Bloom and thus fills his frame with just-outdated visual details and locations (mostly shot in Eastern Europe, though not always fictionally set there). Jokes about anime, cell phones, and karoake place the events firmly in our present, but the world feels arrested, artificially aged, a ships-and-trains era rather than our own intercontinental jetliner one (most of the music is several decades old, which doesn’t hurt the impression).

When the Blooms’ ideal model for the con is described as giving everyone involved what they’re looking for, there’s one important exception. Bloom (Adrien Brody) is not getting what he’s after. He’s not so clear on what that is, his adult identity having been swallowed by the serial fictions required of him by the byzantine cons concocted by Stephen (Mark Ruffalo), which are compared to Russian novels in their complexity and emotional shading. After pulling off another successful con in Berlin, Bloom tells Stephen that he wants out to figure out what it is that he wants (there’s a couple of leftfield camel jokes in this scene and I won’t spoil them because you probably never thought you’d read that in this review).

Unfortunately, what Bloom seems to want is to get drunk on an island off Montenegro. Not to knock such an ambition, more power to him. But Stephen has no trouble finding and convincing him to come back for One Last Job (where’s the caper movie about a team on its way up rather than out?). The job involves an orphaned New Jersey heiress named Penelope (Rachel Weisz) who lives alone in the largest private residence on the Eastern Seaboard and appears to have mild-to-moderate mental problems. With their mostly-mute Japanese explosives expert Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) in tow and posing as antique dealers, the brothers ingratiate themselves into her life via a vintage scheme involving a car accident, a sea voyage, a rare 8th-Century manuscript, a mysterious Argentinian, and a flatulent Belgian museum curator (Robbie Coltrane). But Bloom develops what he thinks are genuine feelings for Penelope, and this threatens the con and his relationship with Stephen.

The baroque nostalgia of the film’s askew sense of humour strongly evokes Wes Anderson’s work at times (indeed, Brody was working on The Darjeeling Limited when he first read Johnson’s script). But this is no hermetically-sealed doll’s house of deadpan quirk like Anderson peddles, but a freewheeling, energetic, and tonally inconsistent picture with plenty to recommend it but enough to dissuade the curious as well. It’s full of tossed-off wit (“Eat your waffles, fat man,” Bloom tells the Curator), wacky as all get out before being ground to a halt for emotional thrusts. Like his next film Looper, Johnson can’t resist concluding his labyrinthine thematic path with an unimaginative gunfight, either.

What delight can be found in The Brothers Bloom is found in the performances, or at least in one of them. Brody and Ruffalo are both just all right as the titular flinty brothers, Kikuchi and Coltrane are funny in supporting roles and Maximillian Schell shows up in his final screen role as their malevolent mentor Diamond Dog, complete with eyepatch, headscarf and quasi-medieval robes like a lurking figure straight out of Harry Potter‘s Knockturn Alley.

But Rachel Weisz snatches up as much of this movie as she can and runs with it, arms flailing wildly. Weisz is often reduced to the role of attractive love interest (name a Hollywood actress outside of, say, Meryl Steep or Cate Blanchett who isn’t). Johnson, unfortunately, slots her into that role as his film reaches its closing act; Bloom literally has her wait in the car as he goes off to the final confrontation. But prior to that, her Penelope is a hilarious neurotic. Hugely wealthy with no personal connections or responsibilities, she “collects hobbies”, demonstrating her many talents (including karate, Spanish guitar, breakdancing, skateboarding, and juggling chainsaws) to Bloom in a side-splitting montage. She becomes giddily excited when the con turns the brothers into smugglers, wanting herself to become one and doodling “Penelope the Smuggler” on looseleafs like a smitten schoolgirl. On a train journey to Prague, she gets plastered and becomes outrageously sexually aroused by a thunderstorm. Weisz’s Penelope is a memorable comic creation, and she throws herself into it with abandon when the movie allows her to.

The Brothers Bloom corkscrews amusingly into fun often enough, but it also relies on generic conventions a bit too heavily. Furthermore, it’s a film with things on its mind. Johnson laudably tries to deepen and expand upon the thematic implications of the caper/confidence genre, drawing out intellectual metaphors from the sort of movie that tends more towards performative mental gymnastics. It’s an uneasy fit, the breezy whimsy matched with the philosophical niggling of reality vs. fantasy, true vs. assumed nature. In the end, neither side of the equation quite adds up. The Brothers Bloom is neither an unqualified joy of a caper nor a chin-stroking rumination on the porous nature of reality and its implications for human identity construction. A bit of both, never quite enough of either.

Categories: Film, Reviews