Archive for December, 2014

Film Review: Frank

December 30, 2014 3 comments

Frank (2014; Directed by Lenny Abrahamson)

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is not terribly special, but he wants to be. Living with his parents as a young adult in a non-descript English town, he strolls by the seaside on his way home from his cubicle job, looking for musical inspiration and composing song snippets in his head (“Hey, lady in the red coat, whatcha doing with that bag?”). Inevitably, though, despite his passionate love of music, his dreams of songwriting, and all the instruments and composition technology that he owns, Jon’s songs are either pathetically bad or rip-offs of other artists. He tweets hopefully about one day finding his muse, but his miniscule Twitter follower count (14) also appears onscreen as a pitiless rebuke.

One day on the beach, Jon witnesses a man ranting and raving in the surf before being carted off in an ambulance. He’s the keyboard player in an indie rock band with the unpronouncable name of the Soronprfbs who are playing a local bar that night, and a half-friendly member of the group named Don (Scoot McNairy) asks Jon to play with them when the latter tells him that he plays the same instrument. The gig dissolves into disaster almost immediately, but not before Jon has attracted the notice of the group’s frontman Frank (Michael Fassbender).frank_movie_poster

Frank is the enigmatic left-field genius who keeps the marginal, penniless group together, despite a laundry list of idiosyncratic quirks, habits, and practices that is most definitely topped by the oversized papiermâché head that he wears over his own skull at all times (he doesn’t even take it off in the shower, as Jon discovers at one point). So when Frank tells his band that they ought to invite the unassuming guy who played keyboards for them for half a song to join them on an isolated Irish farm to make an album, their objections are moot.

The enthusiastic Jon very quickly discovers that living his musician’s dream with Frank and the Soronprfbs is not the romantic fantasy of creativity and fame that he imagined. For one, every member of the band has a past (and often a present) of mental illness: Don, who met Frank in a mental institution, can only be sexually satisfied by mannequins, Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is implacably hostile (“Don’t touch my fucking theremin!”), and the rhythm section either speaks French (François Civil) or not at all (Carla Azar). Compared to this rogue’s gallery of misfits, their leader in the big inscrutable head-mask seems relatively well-adjusted.

The recording session stretches bizarrely on, exhausting the band’s meager funds and Jon’s contribution of his inherited nest egg. The cornucopia of oddball details is dizzying, as they record wilderness sounds and bendy straws, drill themselves with invented exercises, craft new instruments, and rehearse and jam endlessly, sometimes while Frank exhorts them to pretend to be birds (“Clara, the owl. Night hunter, silent killer”). Jon documents the process on social media, and his blog hits, Twitter followers, and YouTube counts grow gradually, convincing him that their eventual album could become popular. He arranges a showcase set at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas that will either make Frank and his band or, more likely, break them all entirely.

Frank was directed by Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson from a screenplay by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan. Ronson based it on his experiences in Northern English comedian Chris Sievey’s band in the late 1980s and early 1990s, at the height of the popularity of Sievey’s cult Frank Sidebottom character, the basis for the design of this Frank’s head if not for much else of his personality or backstory. Sievey’s mask was the hook of a comedy act, but the one that Fassbender wears (and somehow manages to act brilliantly behind) is a metaphor for the performing artist’s simultaneous projection and protection of identity. The artist must reveal much of what is purportedly in their soul while remaining at a healthy distance from their art’s psychological implications; he must appear to give nearly all he has to the world while holding back enough to suggest unsounded depths and wellsprings of tantalizing mystery. The mask is Frank’s stage persona, but he is almost never onstage and yet never drops the persona.

Abrahamson’s film, a sort of outsider riff on This is Spinal Tap for the millenial hipster subculture, is a sharply absurdist and frequently hilarious satire of indie culture’s indulgent meta-embrace of creative expression for its own sake, as well as a dismantling of the bohemian ideal of artistic genesis as an outlet for transference of suffering and turmoil. Jon endures the flowering madness of the quixotic recording session because he believes that the deprivation, the frustration, the encroaching penury, and the hostility from Clara (who threatens to stab him pretty regularly) will release his inner songwriter as such circumstances have, apparently, inspired Frank.

The irony is that Frank is inspired by everything (including fingertips flicking toothbrushes, which captivate him as the band records their sounds) and yet nothing. His genius is innate, ineffable, unknowable; it is not the product of circumstances (Frank hails from a stable all-American home in the symbolically-charged town of Bluff City, Kansas that is not unlike Jon’s suburban “box”) but of a particular and sometimes distressing mental state. Frank does not dispel the long-standing and unshakeable myth of the intimate connection between mental disquiet and artistic genius, but it contextualizes that myth, making it seem less accessible or romantic.

Frank’s mask does finally come off, and he’s physically and emotionally scarred by it, but his musical ability does not desert him. If anything, it proves to have been a hindrance to his ability to connect with an audience, as Fassbender’s tremendous performance in a concluding band reunion demonstrates. Frank tells Jon at one point that directness and honesty is best, that no one should hide anything from one another. That he says so from behind his fake head, his ever-present artifice, is an irony not lost on Abrahamson, nor on his quirky, funny, subversively brilliant comedy film. It is, in its own peculiar way, quite special.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review – The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

December 23, 2014 3 comments

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014; Directed by Peter Jackson)

There’s a small but perfectly-pitched moment near the end of The Battle of the Five Armies, the final film in Peter Jackson’s hotly-debated trilogy of films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1930s children’s novel The Hobbit, that demonstrates the filmmaking instincts of Jackson and his team at their best in their rich, detailed, and deeply humane cinematic visualization of Middle Earth. Following the staggering slaughter and wrenching loss of the titular battle, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) sits down next to a stricken, shell-shocked Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman). He says not a word, busying himself instead by fastidiously cleaning his pipe. McKellen handles this quotidian act with such a fussy absorption and grace that Bilbo is comforted in his stunned grief, and the hobbit and the wizard share a weary smile.

Such moments formed the emotional bones of Jackson’s historic trilogy of film versions of The Lord of the Rings. I wrote a year ago about the depth and unconscious recognition created by the artistic heritage visible in the design of those movies and its contribution to the erection of a simulacrum of cultural authenticity. But Jackson’s Rings movies also resonated with such a large audience because he made them feel something; like many great filmmakers (Hitchcock, Spielberg, and Kurosawa all come to mind), Peter Jackson at his best is a master manipulator of emotion: pain, joy, longing, sadness, goodwill, and above all that ephemeral, giddy rush that movie fanboys (and fangirls) experience when something in one of Jackson’s endless action sequences leaps to that apex of the geek-pyramid of awesomeness.

Watch the elegiac slow-motion during Boromir’s last stand in The Fellowship of the Ring, the near-tantric build-up to the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers or the exquisite water-torture-like segue into Kong’s protracted fight with the T-Rexes in King Kong. The feelings engendered, like the unspooling image onscreen, may be superficial, fleeting, but they can be intense nevertheless. Perhaps it’s more strictly accurate to say that Peter Jackson, when working at the peak of his filmmaker powers, is a genius at sparking and directing the reactions of an audience. Even in his wild and woolly juvenilia, he possessed this innate ability: whatever else you might say about the depraved puppet romp of Meet the Feebles, you cannot say that it doesn’t create a strong reaction in whoever watches it.

You might have noticed some hedging references to Jackson “at his best” in that preamble. I’ve been more favourably disposed to The Hobbit project than many critical voices, as the record will show. As the trilogy draws to its spectacular close with The Battle of the Five Armies, however, even its most ardent defenders must admit that it has not lived up to the lofty promise of Jackson’s previous Middle Earth texts. There are many reasons for this that go beyond sniffing dismissals of Jackson’s filmmaking prowess. Most fundamental is The Hobbit‘s inherent paucity in character and narrative impact compared to The Lord of the Rings, which no amount of padding out by Jackson and his co-writers Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh and Guillermo del Toro could adequately compensate for. Del Toro, of course, was originally intended to direct the films, and his departure from the project left Jackson holding a multi-million Tolkien trilogy bag that he had been quite clear he did not want to oversee again. Peter Jackson has an inhuman work ethic, however, so he pressed on as he does, but make no mistake: The Hobbit was not the movie project that he wanted to be directing, and that’s rarely the prerequisite for inspired work.

Jackson and Boyens have also spoken in the DVD supplemental materials for the first two films about how they strove for a lighter, more comic tone for The Hobbit, to match that of Professor Tolkien’s text. Hence Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) with his bunny sled, recreational drug use, and birdshit-encrusted hair, the ribald dwarven humour, and the super-broad satire of political opportunism offered by the Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry) and his toady Alfrid (Ryan Gage). On a basic level, these have been sillier movies than Rings, with Jackson deciding not to rein in his overgrown adolescent tendencies as frequently as he did with his greatest screen accomplishment.

From its opening sequence, however, The Battle of the Five Armies strives for a much less flippant tone. Picking up moments after The Desolation of Smaug‘s cliffhanger with that film’s titular dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) swooping down with fiery catastrophe on wooden Laketown, The Battle of the Five Armies is a relentlessly paced wringer of a dire war movie. Unlike the book, in which Bilbo gets a bump on the head and naps through the meat-grinder of the battle, Jackson shows us thousands of beings breathing their last (some of which we might even have come to care about) and does not treat the slaughter with anything less than a stiff-lipped seriousness (mostly).

Smaug’s burning of Laketown demonstrates how it will be: buildings aflame crash into the frigid water as Smaug’s massive, lightning-quick bulk roars overhead. Jackson gives us the Master and Alfrid greedily making off with the The-Hobbit-Battle-of-Five-Armies2town’s gold hoard on an overloaded barge while the heroic Bard (Luke Evans) scales a tower to shoot down the beast with the aid of his son Bain (John Bell), all while sylvan elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), her potential dwarf lover Kili (Aidan Turner), three other dwarves (Dean O’Gorman, John Callen, and James Nesbitt), and Bard’s daughters (Nesbitt’s daughters Peggy and Mary, who get more screentime than he does) evade the inferno in a small boat. Fans of the book will know that Bard spots the dragon’s fatal weakness and exploits it skillfully, although here it has more to do with Bard’s keen eyes than with a messenger thrush. There will be several death scenes in this movie, but you won’t miss any of the departed quite as much as Cumberbatch’s eloquent, psychopathic Smaug as he plunges lifelessly from the sky.

This movie misses Smaug, too, and keeps him alive with callback line quotations throughout the descent into the near-madness of dragon-sickness suffered by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, fully justifying his casting at long last). Having won back the sought-after Lonely Mountain kingdom at last, Thorin loses the plot as he broods over the vast, dragon-infected treasure of Erebor and drives his company to the breaking point in search of the King’s jewel, the prismatic Arkenstone (whose look I can’t say I much like). They won’t find the Arkenstone in the hoard, of course, since Bilbo burgled it at the conclusion of his stand-off with Smaug; a flashback confirms this act, which was unnecessarily teased in The Desolation of Smaug.

Bilbo means to give it to Thorin; it is, after all, his purpose on the mission, and he wants this stubborn, self-important dwarf lord to have what he wants. But as he sees Thorin losing his mind even in its absence, he decides to withhold the desired object, even at the risk of alienating someone he now considers a good friend (for some reason). The gauntlet of battle scenes that dominate the last half of the movie sweep aside this psychological angle, and it’s not exactly Jungian in its sophistication anyway, but it’s still welcome and is generally executed quite nicely. There’s a fine scene on the reflective solid gold floor created by the dwarves’ attempt to destroy the dragon at the end of the second film in which Thorin’s greed and desires and powerlust and doubts rush him all at once and threaten to pull him down into the gilded void.

Thorin’s dragon-sickness blinds him to the gathering crisis outside of Erebor’s gates. Bard has rallied Laketown’s ragged, traumatized survivors and lead them to shelter in the ruins of Dale, the city of Men at the foot of the mountain; Alfrid has survived too, and Gage provides rather patchy comic relief with his constant incompetence and cowardice (with so many winks and nods to the Rings movies, I was half-hoping for a hint that Alfrid skulks off to Rohan to grandsire Grima Wormtongue). The preening, uncompromising Elf King Thranduil (Lee Pace) has also descended on Dale after hearing of the dragon’s demise. Both men look towards the Mountain and its putative king for compensation: Thranduil wants some lovely white gems back, and Bard wants a cut of the treasure to rebuild the lives of his folk, as Thorin promised to provide when the Lakemen aided his company on their way to the Mountain. Thorin parleys with Bard through a channel in the makeshift rock gates in a highlight of Armitage’s gold-sick nuttiness act, but despite appeals to honour his word, Thorin is unmoved and prepared to fight the superior forces of Elves and Men rather than part with a single piece of the treasure.

Matters are getting more complicated, however. Gandalf has been freed from his confinement in Dol Guldur at the hands of the Necromancer (also Cumberbatch), who he has realized is no mere sorceror but the returned Dark Lord Sauron himself. Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) strides into the crumbling stronghold and, with Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving) holding the ghosts of the Nazgul at bay, banishes the Flaming Eye to cower menacingly behind the walls of Mordor. She does so with the same green-tinted wind-machine and vocal-echo effects that constituted the worst 30 seconds of the otherwise world-beating Fellowship, so it’s hard to say that this scene is anything but a disappointing end to an undercooked subplot indulged merely as a prequel set-up to the core conflict of the Rings movies.


Agincourt ain’t got nothing on this outnumbering.

Anyway, the important thing about all of this as far at the Lonely Mountain situation is concerned is that Gandalf has seen orc legions marching from Dol Guldur under the command of Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett). He rides to Dale to warn Thranduil and Bard of the coming storm and to dissuade them from attacking Thorin’s faction, even while Woodland Elves Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel discover another orc force marching from the northern fortress of Gundabad under the command of Azog’s nasty offspring Bolg (John Tui). Gandalf is soon joined by Bilbo, so disenchanted with Thorin’s fall to madness that he’s given Bard and Thranduil the Arkenstone to barter for peace. The gambit simply ratchets up the tension, especially when a dwarven army arrives under the command of Thorin’s cousin, Dain Ironfoot (Billy Connolly).

Wielding a warhammer and a veritable dictionary of Scots taunts and insults, and riding astride an armoured war pig (a wacky-cool Jacksonian touch if there ever was one), Connolly’s Dain practically begs for his own spin-off movie. Just as his troops are about to clash with the elven ranks, however, gigantic earth-digging serpents burst through the nearby hills (Jacksonian, again) and Azog’s orc army follows them out. From this point to the Bilbo-centric denouement (which, heavy as it is on Martin Freeman’s excellent performance, is a strong closing), the battle is on. It’s tremendously exhausting, from colliding ranks on the open ground before Erebor’s gates to pitched street-by-street battles in Dale after a troll breaches the wall with the battering ram that is its head.

As all hope seems lost for the forces of relative good, Thorin shakes off his dragon-sickness in the nick of time and leads a rallying charge. He then mounts armoured big-horned ibex (where did they come from? Who knows? This is pure Peter Jackson feverish subconscious at this point) with Fili, Kili and Dwalin (Graham McTavish) and rides to the snowy overlook of Ravenhill to confront Azog for the long-promised final showdown, which for spectacle, drama and pure masculine-contention thrills (Thorin and Azog slug it out on a frozen river above a waterfall) cannot be said to disappoint for imagination.

Not all of the dwarves survive the encounter (don’t worry Extended DVD fans: Mark Hadlow’s Dori is fine, but I don’t think he gets a line in the whole movie), but unfortunately neither does the resurgent quality of The Battle of the Five Armies. A pair of subplots resolve on Ravenhill along with Thorin’s narrative arc and they demonstrate two of the trilogy’s most ill-begotten missteps. Legolas’ confrontation with Bolg, anticipated by their visceral fight at the end of The Desolation of Smaug, has some wicked action beats, and the big orc’s end is wonderfully satisfying in a way that Azog’s defeat is not, at least not to the same extent. Even as Legolas empties his personal arsenal to take down this particular foe on a precarious tower spanning the gap of the frozen waterfall, there’s a slowed-down video game moment that jars, and still hardly enough resolution to make the character’s presence in these movies worthwhile.

A far more egregious resolution, however, is that of Tauriel and Kili’s star-crossed interspecies love story. Any romantic subplot between a dwarf and an elf shoehorned into this story was always going to spark the ire of a male-heavy fanbase, but some of the establishing writing in the last film did not grate terribly and there’s a suitably tragic end to builds towards here. But the exchange between Tauriel and Thranduil which concludes the storyline finishes with a line so epically, stultifyingly awful that it calls into question the competence of Boyens and Walsh as screenwriters. Why do the storyline at all, let alone create the Tauriel character to inhabit it, if you’re going to end it with a generic rom-com stinger like that?

One could quite easily extend that specific critique to a more general one: why do this trilogy at all, we might ask Peter Jackson? Because the momentum of an anticipated, surely profitable production proved irresistible and compelled him to take the helm and make the best of it, might be one answer. You can never say that Jackson is not engaged in The Hobbit world, at least, and he utilized the project to advance his technical processes that will serve him on better material and push for format innovations in film projection that may one day revolutionize the medium (I didn’t see any of The Hobbit movies in high-frame-rate presentation, but found the 3D hit-and-miss; there’s one shot in particular on Ravenhill where Thorin looks like he’s on a Playmobil set). And like The Lord of the Rings, these are magnificently designed, well-acted, and often wildly imaginative movies packed with many diverting and absorbing delights.

But I fear that The Hobbit trilogy will enter into movie history as a diminishment of Peter Jackson’s previous cinematic accomplishments in the Middle Earth milieu. Much of that comes down to a story that is not as resonant and a group of characters that are simply not as sympathetic as Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Merry, Pippin, Theoden, Eowyn, Gollum, and all the rest of the Rings principals. Bilbo grows to be enormously fond of Thorin in a way meant to compel our empathy, but let’s be honest: Thorin’s a jerk and he doesn’t deserve it. His flaws are not quite so endearing, and as good as Armitage is, he suffers for it.

But this problem, like all of The Hobbit‘s problems of narrative and affect in literary form, have been exacerbated by the decision to expand the story to three two-hours-plus epic films. Though I find the dismissive hive nerdthink opinion that The Hobbit should never have been stretched like butter scraped over too much bread as tedious as others do, there is some truth to it. The trilogizing has extracted a steep narrative price, necessitating padding like Legolas’ presence and the Tauriel-Kili love story and Azog the Defiler and Jimmy Nesbitt’s daughters and Alfrid Overload and the White Council cameos. There are three intermittently exciting, impressive, funny, and even moving films to be drawn out of The Hobbit, Peter Jackson and his team have generally shown us. But the enduring aura of these movies might skew towards probing questions about whether or not it could have made for two even better films (possibly directed by an original visionary like Guillermo del Toro, even). As Peter Jackson draws the curtain on his version of Middle Earth (unless the Tolkien Estate has a drastic about-face concerning the remaining rights to the Professor’s work), he does not do so with the finality and closure that might have been desired by legions of filmgoers. But, after all, there are many paths to tread, and Peter Jackson most definitely followed his own to film immortality.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

December 20, 2014 4 comments

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014; Directed by James Gunn)

James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t begin quite like any other comic-book space opera (though it’s not like there are very many of those kicking around, anyway). A young boy waits in a hospital, listening to a mix tape on Walkman headphones. He’s called into a room where his stricken mother, weakened by chemotherapy, tries to take his hand in her dying moments. He shrinks from her touch, evades the sharp sting of loss and pain. She fades away, and the boy runs screaming out of the building, where a spaceship waits to abduct him and whisk him away to the stars above.

Years pass in the space of a pop song verse, and the boy has grown into a loose, cocksure galactic rogue, lip-syncing along to that same mixtape in the ruins of an alien world. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) introduces himself presumptuously as Star-Lord when he’s caught red-handed snatching a mysterious, sought-after orb in those ruins. The sequence visually references the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the character clutches at the brass ring of late ’70s/early ’80s-vintage Harrison Ford, John Milton’s Satan for the film genre geek generation. Indeed, Guardians of the Galaxy, despite its many contemporary concessions, longs for the aesthetic milieu of 1970s American popular culture, that fracturing landscape of AM radio, long-haired rock and matured Motown, disillusioned hippies and distrust of institutions, and the revolutionary shifts in cinema under the blazing stewardship of a new generation of uncompromising young ambitious firebrands.

James Gunn is probably a bit too bright and self-aware to seriously conceive of himself as an heir to Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, or any of their aesthetic iconoclast contemporaries. He did write not one but two Scooby Doo movies, after all; a surefire safety pin to any inflated balloon of self-regard, that. But Guardians of the Galaxy, an adaptation of a quite recent Marvel Comics property (itself a relaunch of a galactic superhero squad whose adventures were mostly published in the 1970s), wrily and repeatedly lets the air out of its own balloon to keep it from becoming too inflated at any point.

Back to that orb, the MacGuffin of this particular cosmic venture. Quill is confronted about his snatching of the object as soon as it’s in his hands by the henchmen of a genocidal zealot named Ronan (Lee Pace). Unrecognizable behind blackened facial paint and a metallic cowl/cape, Pace intones ponderously and carries a large hammer like an exiled Asgardian. Among his subordinates are two sisters, the daughters of a much greater space warlord named Thanos (played by an uncredited Josh Brolin and likely to play a larger role in the inevitable sequels). Green-skinned Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is sent after the desired orb, which hides a very powerful secret behind its unpresupposing exterior.

Gamora catches up with Quill on Xandar, capital planet of the Nova Empire, where he’s been incapable of selling the orb to a prospective dealer put off by Ronan’s interest in the item. With his space pirate abductor and mentor Yondu (an excellent Michael Rooker) on his trail for a perceived (and probably actual) betrayal, Quill also must contend with a pair of bounty hunters after the orb: a big-mouthed, heavily-armed talking raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his living tree companion, Groot (Vin Diesel voices his only, repeated, memefied line: “I am Groot”). A four-way dust-up over the orb between Quill, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot lands them all in a penal colony (the Nova Corps guards who arrest them are played by John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz, just a couple of the small roles in the film filled by very fine comic character actors). There they make the acquaintance of a muscular, tattooed/scarred individual named Drax (Dave Bautista), who nurses a grudge against Ronan for killing his family and possesses both a large vocabulary and absolutely no sense of humour (which, assuredly, is pretty hilarious in combination).

This crew of misfits bands together to escape the prison and sell the orb for shared profit, though revenge against Ronan motivates Gamora and Drax in particular. Guardians of the Galaxy is oddly a narrative of moral education, as Quill and Rocket in particular learn to subordinate their pursuit of personal enrichment to the greater good of the universe and the people in it. Furthermore, all five of these “losers” (ie. beings that have lost much and are fundamentally damaged) find a sense of unlikely unity and belonging in each other’s company and collaborative efforts to right wrongs across the vast expanse of space.

If this all sounds like a bit of a generic comics superhero story, you can rest assured that Guardians of the Galaxy only intermittently presents that way and Gunn’s screenplay (written with Nicole Perlman) is lightning-quick to wittily undercut it when it does. The slow-motion hero shot of the team walking awesomely towards the camera, Tombstone-style, includes a crotch-grab from the crude Rocket (a character whose balance of appealing and annoying characteristics doesn’t ultimately fall on the right side of the line). Drax’s sincere pre-climactic battle expression of affection for his compatriots includes an innocent reference to Gamora as a “green whore”. And Pratt’s Quill is always quick with his endearing dude-bro sparkle: when the seemingly unstoppable Ronan approaches him with deadly intent for the final blow, Quill’s response is to dance and sing and call him a “turd-blossom”.

This iconoclastic impulse, displayed in the midst of a big-budget summer release from the currently indefatigable blockbuster spectacle factory of Marvel Studios, may not be as strong as that which animates, say, the dizzying sugar-high satires of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. But like its crackerjack 1970s-heavy soundtrack (ostensibly the mixtape from Quill’s mother that gives his universe some emotional coherence), this nose-thumbing habit on the part of Gunn and his movie aligns it with the essential questioning of institutional authority and the fundamental nature of the American Dream that characterized the wildly diverse film output of the 1970s. Guardians of the Galaxy also suggests a fine pop song with its aesthetic appeal, throwaway wit, and brief but penetrating stabs of emotion. It breezes by in a burst of slick, violent, energetic delight. It’s what Marvel Studios films, in their generally successful but often joyless quest for a balance between storytelling coherence, character integrity, and sociopolitical resonance, often forget to be: tremendously, often transgressively, fun. In that way, Guardians of the Galaxy is not quite like any other comic-book movie, and we should be glad for that.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2

December 16, 2014 1 comment

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014; Directed by Dean DeBlois)

Picking up several years after the events of How to Train Your Dragon, its more confident sequel matures with its adventurous, inventive, and sensitive protagonist, Viking dragon-rider Hiccup (Jay Baruchel). After converting not only his hyper-masculine, warlike chieftain father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) but his entire island hometown of Berk to the gospel of human-dragon symbiosis, Hiccup has moved past his awkward outsider phase into young adulthood and social acceptance. Berk reflects his tinkering spirit and dragon-whispering prowess, having built itself into a hub of dragon stables, saddleries, forges, dental operations, and even a Quidditchesque species of dragon racing involving hilariously animated, deeply concerned sheep as key projectiles. Once a fortified, inward-focused, harsh stronghold against outside threats, the fear has lifted from Berk and its people (Berkians? Berkish? Berkings?) and, following the lead of their intrepid young hero, the place has opened to the world.

Mounted on his own dragon, playful, loyal fellow misfit Toothless (a design mixture of a cat, a salamander, and the big-eyed extraterrestrial from director Dean DeBlois’ Disney feature Lilo & Stitch), in a partnership of equals, Hiccup has begun mapping nearby lands, often accompanied by his fellow dragon-rider girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrara). On one such excursion, they discover a grand, spiky formation of hardened emerald ice and are nearly captured by a band of dragon-trappers led by Eret (Kit Harington). Eret tells Hiccup and Astrid that he captures dragons for a forbidding warlord named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), who dominates the creatures using intimidation and fear and is building a dragon army for purposes undivulged.

Having persuaded his stubborn father and the rest of Berk to accept the advantages of peaceful coexistence with dragons, Hiccup has great confidence in his ability to likewise persuade Drago to take a gentler, more respectful tack with the intelligent beasts. Stoick, however, has a terrible history with Drago and sees things quite differently, encouraging a more direct and aggressive response to the intelligence concerning Drago’s military ambitions. The generation gap in perspectives on sociopolitical relations between father and son that was at the heart of the first Dragon film has largely been bridged, but persists in their respective ideological preferences for hard realpolitik and soft-power diplomacy when faced with an opposing and potentially malignant force.

Into this respectful but philosophically divergent father-son dynamic comes a mother to jostle the Oedipal alignment. Valka (Cate Blanchett hazarding a slight Scots accent) was thought by Stoick to have been killed in a dragon attack, but she has in fact become a sort of guardian shaman for a vast secret dragon colony. Hiccup encounters her in one of the film’s many impressive, exciting airborne sequences (once again a major highlight, for which visual consultant Roger Deakins no doubt again deserves considerable credit) and soon discovers a kindred spirit and dragon-lover. The colony is constructed around a mountainous “alpha” dragon, a ice-spewing horned behemoth that heaves itself about in benevolently-dominating bulk like a beachmaster of elephant seals. But Drago and his forces threatens first this natural dragon utopia and then Hiccup’s constructed human-dragon collaborative society of Berk with a brutal challenge to the equilibirum of each, as well as to Hiccup’s own close family circle.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 tops its predecessor as a jaw-dropping visual spectacle, and polishes the more irritating edges of that earlier effort to a smooth sheen. The gaggle of goofy teenaged Viking sidekicks (including a cocky dude, bickering twins, and an overweight geek) have a diminished role, and the main running joke in their midst (the female twin, voiced by Kristen Wiig, has a major crush on the hunky Eret) is actually consistently funny. The sweet nature of the first film in the series concentrates here into a surprising emotional heft at times, and DeBlois’s story challenges the core relationships in Hiccup’s life with character-revealing conflict and tragedy. It’s exactly the sort of tonally varied, richly felt, entertainingly pitched, and narratively strong cinematic text that Hollywood tends to find so difficult to create and to sustain.

The film is also not without thematic power and subtext, though not all of these subtexts are to its credit. The villainous killer Drago is the franchise’s sole non-Caucasian cast member, a hint of racial stereotyping that undoes some of the decent work at crafting self-possessed female characters like Astrid and Valka. Moreover, although Drago’s focus on strength and will to power when it comes to “training” his dragons is contradicted by Hiccup’s deeper bond of friendship with Toothless, his basic insight on the social relations of dragon society as being based on these same premises is not overturned. Drago’s authoritarianism is reflected in the natural hierarchy of the dragons, grounded as it is in strength and power rather than in something closer to Hiccup’s vision of cooperative, peaceful understanding. Opinions on dragon training approaches differ in How to Train Your Dragon 2, but the instinctual nature of those dragons hardens quite consistently in a single direction.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

December 13, 2014 Leave a comment

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014; Directed by Jonathan Liebesman)

It may simply be the sad fate of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise that no single property produced can possibly live up to the promise of that glorious name. At once gleefully absurd and dully descriptive, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s title for their enduring comic-book creation conjures the suggestion of a rich popular culture cocktail, a mix of contemporary American youth culture, science fiction warnings of biological experimentation, and pop-orientalist martial arts enthusiasm. It evokes such runaway suggestions of a pulpy collage of superficial influences and generic elements that no single narrative text can contain them, let alone distill them into a wholly entertaining package.

The latest cinematic kick at the heroes-in-a-half-shell can falls pretty far short of this mark. This result may well have been expected by a film produced by blockbuster hucksterauteur (I just coined that phrase and sort of dig it) Michael Bay, directed by style-averse CGI-epic lens jockey Jonathan Liebesman, and starring the well-meaning but helplessly vapid Megan Fox as intrepid reporter and Turtle-ally April O’Neil. But Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles makes its selling job that much harder with a lazily ironic and detached tone that is dismissive of its own subject matter.

This undercutting approach is referenced explicitly in an early scene. In a New York City terrorized by a shadowy criminal gang called the Foot Clan, junior reporter O’Neil longs to produce Hard Hitting Journalism exposing this underground organization. Instead, she shoots fluff pieces about exercise on trampolines in Times Square. Expressing her frustration to her wisecracking cameraman Vern Fenwick (a strictly second-rate effort by Will Arnett), she’s told that people need something simple and positive in the face of serious events. People love a little bit of froth on their coffee, Vern tells her, though she replies that he probably means foam, and they digress.

This exchange seems like a clear hat-tip to the intent of this particular take on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (as well as a touch of meta-frustration on Fox’s part at her pigeonholed career, for which she at least partly has Bay to thank). Other movies based on superhero comics may invoke political, philosophical or historical contexts and embed metaphors and subtexts about society and culture in their mass-appeal blockbuster frames, but we’ll be having none of that here. Indeed, as O’Neil begins to get closer to the quartet of reptilian vigilantes battling back against Foot domination of the streets from the subterranean shadows and more is revealed about their true, unbelievable nature, the movie snidely waves that nature away as silly nonsense. First April and then later Vern scoffs at the very concept of mutant turtles, who are ninjas, who are teenagers. It’s a ridiculous concept, but the movie can only openly express that thought if it embraces that ridiculousness, which this particular film is entirely too unimaginative to achieve.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not Macbeth or Hamlet, and no one expects it to be. But just as the Turtles need to learn to believe in themselves in order to defeat their arch-nemesis Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), this movie needs to believe in its own premise to survive and thrive. There is some measure of hope that such a belief is held on the more technical side of things. The Turtles themselves, animated via motion-capture technology, are wonderfully detailed creations, imbued with real personality and charisma. Leonardo (Pete Ploszek mo-caps, Johnny Knoxville voices) is a mature leader without being a stick in the mud, Raphael (Alan Ritchson mo-caps and voices) is a hard-bitten lone wolf who yearns for his own path. Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) loses his now-dated surfer-dude vibe but replaces that with a chatterbox, hip-hop-inflected awkward charm that feels contemporary but not inappropriate, while Donatello has evolved with tech culture and is pure hacker-nerd (Jeremy Howard and the CG animation team craft the entire role as a perhaps-dubious tribute to the late Harold Ramis).

Unfortunately, as compellingly rendered as its central heroes are, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles prefaces their appearance with not only derisive laughter but also hampers their adventures with poor plot turns. April’s entire interaction with her television newsroom colleagues seems facile and unrealistic to any viewer that knows anything about journalism (or at least anyone who has watched State of Play and Season Five of The Wire). She bursts into a meeting about the nightly newscast’s lead story and demands her evidence-free experiences with a Turtle attack on the Foot at the docks be given airtime instead of building her story and then bringing it to her editor (played by Whoopi Goldberg, speaking of brusque disbelief). Even when she does put together some material, she fails to show her editor a cellphone photo of the Turtles flipping over rooftops when it could have saved her job (though she does show it to the philanthropic billionaire ex-colleague of her dead scientist father who inadvertently created the Turtles and now has dark plans for the mutagens in their blood, played by a mostly-wasted William Fichtner). Multiple moments in the film’s first couple of acts beg questions and explanations that go unoffered, when a leaner, smarter movie streamlining our path to ninja fight scenes would be vastly preferable.

Once plot ceases to matter and these action sequences swing into top gear, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles gets much more fun. A fantastic, careening chase down a snowy mountain slope (which is implausibly 45 minutes from Manhattan, but this is no geography lesson, after all) is the entire film’s high point, packed with ecstatic motion, exhilirating G-force shifts, and animating Turtle personality. It’s a model of what the entire film could have been, save for one sour, tasteless moment where Vern ogles April’s ass that sadly reminds us what much of the rest of the film really is.

As time passes and the TMNT property slides into the post-modern cultural fever swamp, it becomes ever more apparent that the flawed but good-humoured 1990 live-action feature film, with its Jim Henson Company creature work and slyly sophisticated perspective (Bush I Era street gang paranoia and War and Peace name-checks and all), remains the most successful adaptation in this most mainstream of formats. Liebesman and Bay get some key features right and whip up a froth (or is it a foam?) that admittedly tastes nice from sip to sip. Unfortunately, the coffee that this froth/foam tops off is strongly caffeinated and without flavour. To be honest, it’s hardly worth even the laboured analogy just constructed to describe it.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Gravity

December 7, 2014 2 comments

Gravity (2013; Directed by Alfonso Cuaron)

“Either way, it’ll be one hell of a ride.” These words, spoken by distressed astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as her harrowing and dangerous ordeal in space nears one of two, entirely opposing possible conclusions, reflect a stoically humourous existential acceptance and evoke a catchphrase-reliant action movie scenario. Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is definitely more the former than the latter, though its elegant long-take sequences of motion, collision, and corporeal peril are visionary evolutionary successors of the played-out “action scene”. Gravity is not quite as relentless as you might have heard, but it’s a shining, next-level model of what Roger Ebert memorably called the Bruised Forearm Movie (though it’s less frequently remembered that he coined the term to apply to the mixed-bag Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which deserves it much less than either its franchise predecessor or successor).

Years in the making, Gravity is 80% fashioned entirely in a computer, set almost entirely in Earth’s orbit, and features only two fully visible actors (Bullock and George Clooney, who plays an experienced, wisecracking mission commander). Yet for such an involved technical exercise, it’s a richly textured humanistic film, almost experimental in its direct experiential flow but also completely accessible to a wider audience (if you don’t believe that, check the box office numbers). A critic whose name eludes me said of The Lord of the Rings that artists get lost in productions of such size, difficulty and technical complexity. The aesthetic result of that decade-old trilogy demonstrated that Peter Jackson survived those films with his vision intact (though perhaps not the comparably massive passion project that followed them), and the same can definitely be said of Alfonso Cuaron and Gravity.

Gravity opens with a minutes-long single shot that begins with a space shuttle and its space-walking crew appearing as a miniscule dot at the curvature’s edge of the planet, floating into view while performing a routine servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope, cracking jokes and trading personal details. Floating weightlessly with the astronauts, the camera never looks away, never cuts to another angle as the destructive debris field of a damaged Russian satellite (those Russians, ever the antagonists, even when totally unseen) brings silent disaster down (or, more accurately, around) upon them. A conventional perspective would demand the slapping of a descriptive superlative like tour de force on this sequence, but such a term emphasizes artifice and Gravity has not a smidgeon of that, despite its elaborate technical construction. Or, I would argue, it has no artifice precisely because of its elaborate technical construction.

Cuaron has developed the use of long takes into his particular aesthetic signature. Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men both utilized long, unbroken single shot sequences to tremendous dramatic effect; even his game-changing, aesthetic-shifting Harry Potter film, The Prisoner of Azkaban, used long (if not quite unbroken) takes to create the impression of a continuous flow of images during the elegant, beguiling Time Turner sequence that forms the film’s climax. Gravity is the most complete illustration of the power of this effect, expanding on the vivid irruption of tragic, disastrous occurences into the casual, content stream of everyday interpersonal interaction demonstrated in the memorable car ambush in Children of Men. The depiction of these events gain an added vividness and immediacy through the employment of this uninterrupted camera perspective. It’s a impressive display of technical craft, but it’s not merely Cuaron showing off. There’s a specific affect that he’s looking to achieve through these shots, and he does achieve it very strongly in Gravity.

The achievements of Gravity as a piece of exquisitely-crafted filmmaking and as visceral, transporting entertainment are ample, but its political or metaphorical resonance is less so. Cuaron (who co-wrote the screenplay with his son Jonas) plays with general, syncretic religious imagery (Christian and Buddhist icons feature prominently in successive Russian and Chinese spacecraft that Stone occupies), and his closing shot is a connection to human evolution that constitutes Gravity‘s sole overt reference to that seminal space movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But Gravity is much more invested in its characters’ perspective and developing psychology in the face of crisis. Bullock, a consistently undervalued actor who receives some perfunctory critical praise from time to time but is obviously quite beloved by mass film audiences, is a compelling, sympathetic, relatable presence at the centre of the movie. It’s to Cuaron’s credit, in terms of specific emotional affect as well as of progressivism in onscreen representation of women, that he focuses on her rather than the charming but more sarcastic and detached Clooney. Bullock doesn’t even really need the slightly cloying backstory element of a dead daughter (who is named Sarah, which is always the name of an unglimpsed dead child mentioned only in dialogue and must therefore be a screenwriter in-joke at this point) to generate sympathy and engagement. She’s that good, and the film around her is up to her level.

It is worth considering Gravity in wider terms, nevertheless, as a metaphorical statement on the current state of manned space travel. Its release followed hard on the heels of NASA’s announcement of the suspension of manned space missions, and despite the criticism of that policy change in scientific and wider circles, Gravity comes across as an imaginative worst-case scenario that justifies its wisdom. If Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, whose release followed the more minimal Gravity by a year, was an aesthetic and intellectual argument for a human re-engagement with the exploration of space in the face of changing funding priorities, then Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is a visceral first-person exemplification of the mortal threat of space, which amazingly is yet to claim a human life (the atmospheric explosion of Challenger and break-up of Columbia aside) but by the end of this film has claimed the entirety of mankind’s flimsy orbital infrastructure. Gravity is a species of horror-suspense film with the hostile but impassive emptiness of space as its masked slasher monster, and it emphasizes the hanging-on-by-our-fingernails margin of survival for people in this unforgiving environment rather than the existential and philosophical possibilities of adventure into the stars. Either way, it’s one hell of a ride.

Categories: Film, Reviews

“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”: Race, Power, and Deference to Authority in America

December 4, 2014 1 comment

It’s distinctly possible that the specifically-focused protests in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, where white police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old black man Michael Brown in August to intense local and international popular outrage, have become extrapolated into a wider movement offering some form of pushback against endemic killings of black youths by white police across the United States. The protests that have sprung up across America and elsewhere have coalesced around a simple and resonant gesture/slogan: “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”.

Although the Hands Up movement has been percolating in American social justice circles since Brown’s shooting in August and the street unrest that followed it, its scope has expanded greatly in the last couple of weeks after nearly consecutive grand jury decisions came down not to indict Wilson nor the NYPD officers involved in the death of African-American Eric Garner on Staten Island in July. In neither case were the victims of police “pacification” armed; in Garner’s case, there was clear, unambiguous video evidence of possible unnecessary force on the part of police (even some conservative commentators, rarely willing to denounce police violence when it’s directed at visible minorities, were shocked at the lack of charges). Other cases of fatal police violence are attracting more mainstream public interest as well, most notably the gut-churning shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland in November. After the grand jury in Missouri declined to pursue a prosecution of Darren Wilson, St. Louis Rams players controversially utilized the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture in solidarity with the protestors in Ferguson.

Leaving aside the particulars of each case or the divergent attitudes towards police authority and employing of violence that reactions to them reveal in ideologically-aligned groups, much is evident about the nature of American society and culture from the symbolic genesis of this protest movement. Most immediately striking is how an expression of supplication and deference to the implied threat posed by the armed subaltern of state power has become a volatile image of resistance to hegemonic discrimination. Since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, non-violent protest in America has focused on small, mundane, quotidian injustices, at least to begin with, rather than leaping immediately to larger-scale minority discrimination, where positive modifications to existing conditions are much less likely. So protestors initially fought for the right to sit wherever they wanted on a public bus or at a lunch counter rather than taking a grander, riskier stand against income inequality or housing discrimination.

Even taking this deeply-rooted incremental approach to wearing down the resistance of a white supremacist-tilted system into account, asserting the right to surrender to police without being abused or killed demonstrates not only how far America still has to go when it comes to reducing racial inequality but also how helplessly deferential even the beaten-down underclass of the country continues to be to the web of state power that oppresses them. “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” emphasizes the fact that, in the case of Brown as well as of Garner and Rice, the deceased African-American males were uniformly unarmed (though Rice had a replica gun used to justify his gunning down) and inherently vulnerable. The police were in a position of power over them, and abused that power with fatal consequences.

But that inherent vulnerability and assumed position of power is an intertwined problem outside of the leveraging of consequence-free police violence against black male bodies. Whether their results are deadly or not, the built-in prejudices of state power in America are among the strongest factors in the denial of equal rights and protections under the law to African-Americans. The threat of violence on the part of the police compels deference from African-Americans at the least and self-damaging or self-incriminating obedience at the most. The Hands Up movement, though reliant on a potent image that has begun to see widespread penetration into the American cultural consciousness and may yet compel some fundamental shifts towards greater social justice, is predicated on a deference to the very state power whose chronic overreach that has made protest necessary. Very gradual change can be something worth believing in, but it’s not certain that the symbolic terms of this demand for change promise future rollbacks of discriminatory conditions in a way that is desirable.