Archive for April, 2015

Film Review: Noah

April 28, 2015 Leave a comment

Noah (2014; Directed by Darren Aronofsky)

Adrift in a massive wooden vessel upon the watery deluge that has drowned the world and everyone in it, surrounded by thousands of hibernating beasts and one unseen stowaway, the only living human family left alive huddles around a warm brazier. Noah (Russell Crowe), the clan patriarch and driving force of this most vital of nautical ventures, recounts his discouraged loved ones the story of the creation of the world and of life to inhabit it. The sequence of Noah’s telling of the events of the Bible’s Genesis 1 constitutes a flashback tangent from the plot of Noah, but director Darren Aronofsky realizes its thematic importance and crafts it into a remarkable audio-visual thesis statement for his tremendously ambitious but not always successfully awesome biblical epic.

Narrated by Crowe’s Noah in a sturdily poetic reworking of the familiar words of the King James Version (the cojones of that choice alone!), it moves from a light in the darkness through cosmic coalescence to planetary constitution, the flowering of plants and spread of animals, and Adam and Eve in Eden along with a slithering snake and a tantalizing fruit beating like a heart. Aronofsky moves through billions of years in enervating time-lapse photography, audaciously embedding a depiction of evolutionary science at the very core of the Genesis tale that predetermines creationism. The sequence concludes with the unforgivable sin of Cain slaying Abel in black silhouette before a vibrant sunrise (or sunset, the more likely given the ideas being expressed), the forms of both men cycling through the weapons and armour of all of the human race’s eras of war as the body of the slain falls. It’s the grandeur of Kubrick mashed together with Aronofsky’s own indie-bred existentialism run through the visual method of Madonna’s “Ray of Light” music video. The Onion‘s A.V. Club named it one of their top film scenes of 2014. I wouldn’t argue.

Coming where it does in Noah, the Creation sequence re-entrenches the main point of the larger tale and functions as an attempt by the fanatically devoted ark-builder to re-establish the importance of his mission to his doubting family unit. Mankind is irredeemably wicked, and so they must die en masse, with the sole scant exceptions to this holocaust tasked to sail animal life to safety before expiring themselves. At least this is how Noah interprets the dream visions that he attributes to his Creator, who is otherwise characterized as an impassive, cloudy sky who answers no queries as to his intentions. Perhaps the Creator finds this humourless zealot who purports to act in his name too insufferable to bother replying to, though not to use to achieve larger aims. This is latter-day Russell Crowe, after all, who can no longer lower himself to take on the role of anything less than a prophet or Christ-figure. Noble suffering abounds.

His family follows him, but finds it increasingly difficult. His wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japhet (Leo McHugh Carroll) are pained that the family line will end with them, what with their lack of female childbearers. Ila (Emma Watson), adopted daughter and lover of Shem, is barren due to a childhood wound and feels guilt at being with Shem and denying him a humanity-saving chance to procreate (recall this relationship dilemma the next time you and your significant other have a tiff over househould chore distribution). And, of course, the rest of the human race is hardly chuffed at being denied a berth on the ark and left to drown. Their representive is Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), an aggressive warlord who preaches the gospel of muscular self-reliance and promises to fight his way onto the boat if it’s the last thing he does.

Noah also includes Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah, an old mystical cave hermit with a powerful craving for berries. We cannot likewise forget the single goofiest element in the film: the Watchers, glowing, lumbering CGI rock giants who help Noah build the ark and defend it from Tubal-cain’s legions. They’re actually fallen angels encased in stone as punishment for their transgressions, and though the Watchers are resolutely non-biblical, they do have some grounding in religious texts of the ancient world (they’re described in the ancient Jewish work the Book of Enoch). Scholarly backing, and a sympathetic vocal performance from Frank Langella as one of the primary giants, lends the Watchers some support, but they are the most left field of elements in a movie that frequently challenges popular assumptions about a well-known myth almost to the point of straining all measure of credulity.

The suspension of disbelief ebbs gradually out of Noah and the temptation to scoff the film away creeps in slow, much as it has into this review. It’s worth keeping in mind that the story of Noah’s ark might be the single wackiest thing in the whole of the canonical Bible, which is really saying something when you take the talking snakes and raining amphibians and parted seas and proscriptions on seafood into account, to say nothing of the phantasmagorical, hallucinatory nightmare of Revelations (which even the most grimly dedicated of scriptual literalists must admit is just a tad metaphorical). Noah’s story is already operating on the level of fantasy, Aronofsky supposes, so why not push it as far as it will go? Why not portray magic and miracles alongside the weightiest moral choices ever faced by a mere man?

It’s not an invalid approach to the material, and Aronofsky’s vision is often remarkable. But Noah has deeper and more tangled issues than those that can be resolved by an auteur’s visual mastery or a handsome visual effects budget. Noah is invested in a faith-based sense of morality that is overtly unspecific but unquestionably Judeo-Christian in character, contained in a general visual storytelling package that is less secular than outright pagan. It’s too invested in belief to appeal to rationalists and too loose with sacred detail to persuade the faithful. The creation sequence is the film’s genetic code: no matter how striking Noah is as a piece of imaginative blockbuster filmmaking, it wants to have it both ways, be all things to all viewers. Aronofsky doesn’t want to alienate, but that instinct prevents him from transcending.

Categories: Film, Religion, Reviews

Film Review: Drive

April 25, 2015 Leave a comment

Drive (2011; Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)

“What do you do?” “I drive.”

Ryan Gosling’s laconic, nameless driver replies thusly to a query about his profession made by his neighbour and percolating love interest Irene (Carey Mulligan). Of course, the simple directness of both question and answer intimates multiple meanings. The driver drives not merely to make a living behind the wheel (he’s proper day job is actually as a mechanic, though he moonlights as a film stunt driver as well as in less straight circles) nor does he cruise around simply for recreation but rather as an outlet for existential fulfillment. The driver does much more than merely drive in Drive, but the events of Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylish, arresting L.A. neo-noir crime thriller proceed consequentially from the disruption of the internalized sense of self-possession and zen-like peace that driving a car grants him, as well as from perilous threats to the human connections that his lonely prowess behind the wheel has forged.

The Driver (let’s capitalize it, to avoid confusion though not preciousness) works in contemporary Los Angeles for Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a car repair garage owner and agent for film stunt driving work with a limp and a pathetically eager personality. Shannon’s inborn patsy nature carries whispers of doom when he gets enmeshed with an old underworld contact, Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), who finances a stock car (to be driven by the Driver) with a fellow mobster named Nino (Ron Perlman).

Meanwhile, the Driver’s flirtation with Irene and developing father-figure role to her son is transformed when her husband and the boy’s father, Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac, his character so named mainly to facilitate a single joke but also to carry an automobile suggestion), returns home after being released from prison. Standard owed protection money on the inside and the debtors decide to motivate repayment with threats of violence towards him and his family.

To raise the funds, Standard proposes a pawn shop heist with the Driver as getaway driver. Drive opens with a slick demonstration of his considerable ability in this role, as he escapes from a nocturnal robbery with two accomplices. The Driver alternately burns rubber and cleverly conceals his vehicle from pursuing police cars and air support. Dialogue is minimal, especially once the engine revs up; Refn soundtracks the sequence with Cliff Martinez’s pulsating electronic score, exposition via the in-car police radio scanner, and audio play-by-play of a Los Angeles Clippers basketball game that doubles as commentary on the Driver’s skills (“He’s performing at the top of his game”, etc.; hardy har). The Clippers game is his safehouse, as he parks in the Staples Center garage and melts coolly into the crowd exiting the arena.

Anyway, the pawn shop heist goes not even a fraction as smoothly, necessitating a tremendous high-speed freeway pursuit and then an escalating series of cat-and-mouse acts of retributive and safety-seeking violence. Refn melds ruminative indie artfulness with 1980s flash and 1970s blood-spattered grit in a seamless fashion. Drive varies drastically in terms of pace but never of tone or aesthetic quality; it has incredible flow, shifting gears as effortlessly as its protagonist does.

That unnamed protagonist dominates the film, and how you feel about Drive ultimately hinges on how you feel about Ryan Gosling. Gosling’s performance is one of great composure, and Refn composes him and his narrative journey in a manner that suggests a dangerous calm in the midst of struggle and challenge. As an observer of Gosling’s acting method here, however, I remain frustratingly uncertain about it. Gosling’s thespianic approach is transparently intended to convey his character’s roiling emotions beneath an unflappable exterior, that much is clear. It is less clear whether or not he does convey that depth of sketched emotion or just sort of stands there looking cool. There are actors that can pull off that most difficult of tricks (Jennifer Lawrence is masterful at it already, and Ian McKellen speaks with technical awe at Martin Freeman’s abilities in this vein in the DVD features of The Hobbit). I simply cannot decide if Ryan Gosling is one of them or is simply reproducing the techniques of one such actor.

Practically speaking, this doesn’t matter much to the effect of Drive. Refn’s mastery of image, sound, plot, and reaction is such that the debatable emotive chops of his lead do not reduce his picture’s potency and verve. Indeed, Refn works around Gosling’s performance to visually establish the nugget of intended signification at the deep core of the Driver: when “at work” in the crime world, the Driver dons a satin jacket embroidered with a golden scorpion as a sort of armour but also as an emblem of identity to signal his enemies, like a battle standard out of the medieval world. The Driver is a scorpion himself, Refn unsubtly tells us with this touch; coiled and ready for the deadly strike.

The cool self-possession of the Driver makes him a formidable foe. Even if Drive gets a tad lost in a spiral of violent revenge along with its protagonist, it doesn’t ever lose its resonant existentialist undercurrent. It retains and gradually magnifies its hints about his solitary personal state and his quest for some measure of meaning behind the wheel of an automobile, that most American of vision quests. Driving, literally and figuratively, is what he does.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Thin Blue Line

April 22, 2015 Leave a comment

The Thin Blue Line (1988; Directed by Errol Morris)

The American social justice documentary has become a staple of the form. A quick scan of recent Best Documentary Feature Oscar nominees, public television, or Netflix reveals a plethora of documentary films concerning social problems in America, particular those that go unresolved through the country’s courts, prisons, and justice system in general. Indeed, there is no shortage of films that see American justice as a prima facie social problem in and of itself and seek to interrogate and challenge its imperatives of law and order.

These documentaries nearly all owe a considerable debt to Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, an inventive, complex, and incandescently outraged polemic against the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of an innocent man for a crime he did not commit. Utilizing interviews, archival material, and illustrative re-enactments (and a spectral score by Philip Glass), Morris made such a potent case for the innocence of Randall Dale Adams in the killing of a Dallas-area police officer that Adams’ conviction (and pending execution) was overturned about a year after the film’s release. But in addition to that achievement, Morris’ narrative and technical methods have influenced not only documentary film but pulpier, less political astute and ambitious work as well, namely the glut of true crime programs oozing across cable in the multi-channel universe.

Adams, a single, unattached drifter who had worked his way into Dallas in the fall of 1976, soon experienced Texas justice firsthand. He found himself being made a patsy for the murder of a cop that was almost certainly committed by a crime-ridden local small-town good ol’ boy named David Ray Harris, though he was never convicted of the crime (Harris was executed by the state in 2004 for another murder). Morris documents the stitch-up job inflicted on Adams in great detail that builds and deepens in corruption and indignation as it goes on. Police statements are conveniently altered; a false confession is obtained; unreliable but extremely eager eyewitnesses readily finger the suspect; an immunity deal is struck with Harris to point at Adams as well, although even cursory police work would have found Harris to be the more suspicious figure in the case.

Morris (a former private detective) began the project by focusing on Dr. James Grigson, a psychiatrist for hire who had testified in over a hundred death penalty cases and invariably aids the prosecution case by declaring the accused to be a psychopath who would undoubtedly kill again if set free (he trotted out the same line on Adams to aid in conviction). Morris ultimately found the Adams case in particular more interesting and changed his tack, but Dr. Grigson’s transparently obvious and deeply cynical testimony racket is emblematic of a system set up to manufacture death sentences. It’s also set up to choose and condemn a fall guy in the high-profile murder of a police officer, with closed ranks among the force, collusion between the police and the District Attorney, and self-serving deals with dangerous offenders in exchange for evidence and testimony that will convict another.

This system, so well exposed by Morris here, has not really gone away, only manipulated its form to be less immediately apparent. The Thin Blue Line‘s focus is an injustice perpetrated on a white man and not on a black man as many recent cases in the United States have prominently featured. It’s worth recalling the social context of the time, when a long-haired free spirit without fixed address like Adams was as much a target for the hegemonic establishment as someone who wasn’t white.

Morris doesn’t telegraph much of this context, though. His gaze is fixed on the details of the case and their intense discrepancy with the lofty ideals of the justice system. As a result, some of the deeper implications of the practices of authority that convicted Randall Dale Adams are not pinpointed with nearly the same level of dead-eyed accuracy. This only reduces the impact of The Thin Blue Line to a minor extent, but it is a noticeable oversight in an otherwise powerful film made with great skill and possessed with deep and persuasive conviction.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: The Interview

April 19, 2015 1 comment

The Interview (2014; Directed by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg)

Several months ago, The Interview was the most famous movie in the world. Following the computer hack of funding studio Sony Pictures perpetrated by a North Korean group and overheated rhetorical threats of retributive violence for its disrespect for its Dear Leader Kim Jong-un from the isolated totalitarian state, Sony pulled The Interview from a wide release at Christmas. Though it trickled into theatres during the holidays and was also made available online (where it was Sony’s top digital release ever), The Interview had a mixed reception from critics and audiences. Its satirical targets (Kim Jong-un and the state that he runs) sought to quash the film by threatening terrorist attacks against exhibitors, but the American marketplace of box office and of ideas consigned it to a no less ignominious fate, by Hollywood standards. The headline-driven curiosity and the fear of reprisals seemed to cancel each other out, and The Interview fizzled in release.

Movies do not always get the reception that they deserve, however, and The Interview, while far from brilliant, got a raw deal overall. In point of fact, it may indeed be last year’s great American comedy. The relative loftiness of such praise depends entirely on how the praiser tends to feel about American comedy, and without spiralling off on a discursive tangent, let’s just say that there’s more than a bit of backhand to that compliment. Still, despite excessive amounts of comedic crudity, The Interview manages satire with real bite.

The film’s premise became pretty well known, thanks to the controversy it engendered, but it’s the key nuances that make it work. Dave Skylark (James Franco, going miles-broad quite hilariously) is the brash, confident, and insipid host of Skylark Tonight, a frothy but popular entertainment news talk show specializing in shocking, emotionally-charged celebrity revelations. Opening act guests include Eminem coming out as gay (he thought it was pretty obvious from his lyrics, honestly), Rob Lowe revealing that he’s bald and bewigged, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing with puppies (a brief shot only, but possibly the best moment in the movie).

Supporting Skylark is his producer and best friend Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen, also co-writer with Evan Goldberg and James Weaver and co-director with Goldberg), who likes and has fun with his buddy and front-of-camera star but also yearns for the opportunity to do Serious Hard-Hitting Journalism (Skylark Tonight features its host posing with Guy Fieri in the opening credits; Frontline, it ain’t). Such an opportunity presents itself when word trickles out that Kim Jong-un (Randall Park), despite the aggressive anti-capitalist, anti-American stance of his government, adores its popular culture, including Skylark Tonight. Rapoport reaches out through side channels and the North Koreans grant him and Skylark the right to enter the closed country to interview Jong-un, albeit only by asking the questions the dictatorship’s propagandists provide to them.

After announcing the coming interview on air, Skylark and Rapoport are approached by the CIA and asked to assassinate Jong-un, whose state has developed nuclear ICBMs capable of striking the American West Coast. They agree, but their resolve is separately challenged when they arrive at the Dear Leader’s private compound: Rapoport has qualms about the morality of murdering even a monstrous dictator and is attracted to propaganda agent Sook Yung Park (a very game Diana Bang), while Skylark has a ball sharing in Jong-un’s playboy pursuits (basketball, fast cars, alcohol, and women) and comes to feel that he’s misunderstood, trapped by circumstances and doesn’t deserve to be assassinated.


People of America, your new Academy Awards hosts.

The Interview ultimately treats Kim Jong-un as its villain, a manipulative and unpredictable sociopath who shouldn’t be entrusted with the management of a Starbucks, let alone a nuclear-armed totalitarian state. But he’s not unsympathetic. Park’s performance is wonderful, a shy and endearing expansion/extension of the concept of a lonely, sensitive absolute tyrant that was sketched (in much more racist colours) in Team America: World Police‘s portrayal of his father, Kim Jong-il. It’s made clear that his cool-guy act is intended to manipulate Skylark into treating him and his regime favourably (you’ll be quite familiar with the ins and outs of honeypotting/honeydicking before the credits roll). But when they discuss the taste of margaritas (which were forbidden by his father as a homosexual decadence) or sing an a capella version of Katy Perry’s “Firework” in a Soviet-era tank (an ironic confluence that returns in the action-movie climax sequence), Park convincingly embodies a man who has had godlike status and power thrust upon him when he’d much rather have a few beers and get laid like any other young man.

Skylark and Rapoport, in collaboration with the turncoat Sook, decide that comprehensively and publically stripping Jong-un of his godlike propaganda image is preferable to killing him. As sympathetic as Park’s Jong-un is for most of the film, he is revealed as a nasty piece of work and you’d best believe that his eventual comeuppence is quite complete. Rogen, Goldberg and Weaver are fully willing to extract pounds of flesh from all of their satiric targets (often literally), and reserve cutting barbs for America’s power politics and the CIA’s dirty tricks (“How many times can the U.S. make the same mistake?” Sook asks Skylark, who replies, “As many times as it takes!”) as well as the breathless glitzy distraction of its celebrity culture. But there’s never any doubt that North Korea, whose robustly old-fashioned totalitarianism makes for a juicy satirical cut of meat, is the primary victim.

Many of the comedic assaults are verbal, but many are visual as well. The Interview is very fine technically, with Jon Billington’s production design in particular telling a more rich and detailed story about North Korea’s image projection than the rest of this breezy bro comedy can be bothered to take the time for. At its core, this is a film about the resiliency of male society. Skylark is fond of likening his relationship with Rapoport to that of Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings (or, more ominously, to Gollum and his “precious” from same), and Tolkien’s boy’s-own fantasy quest epic is a decent ironic referential analogue to that undertaken in The Interview. Even the inevitable friendship-sundering conflict is expressed in these terms: when Rapoport disagrees with Skylark’s decisions as regards their assassination mission, Skylark tells him he isn’t Samwise but Boromir (Rapoport confesses that he doesn’t know who Boromir is, which is such “a Boromir thing to say”, per Skylark).

Indeed, there’s a generalized tension between the homosocial assumptions, pop culture referentiality and toilet-humour fixations of male-centric American mainstream comedy and more sophisticated forms of political satire that is not consistently productive and that The Interview never ultimately resolves. The nagging feeling that Skylark and Rapoport’s success is undeserved unless it considers serious political issues, so central to their character motivations, tugs at the larger film, too. But both inside and outside the text, these guys do the silly, crude, juvenile stuff far better (although there is a good Stalin/Stallone joke buried in there).

There was a tendency in responses to the cancellation of The Interview‘s theatrical release to extrapolate resistance to malevolent censorship and righteous support for free speech onto the film’s specific satire, reifying it as more potent and sharp-edged than it actually is (Charlie Hebdo‘s crude cage-rattling humour was treated similarly in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack on their Paris offices). The Interview aims sharp satire at North Korea and its Dear Leader, a target whose skin seemed extremely thick but proved much more thin than expected, with throwaway shots at more familiar domestic bullseyes as well. But its ultimate project of disassembling Kim Jong-un’s elaborate nuclear-equipped house of cards and labelling it the by-product of male insecurities is less subversive than its cause célèbre as the eye of an international diplomatic hurricane made it appear to be. There are several reasons for this, but perhaps the most compelling is that Seth Rogen and his team prove much less into satire about political economy than they are about jokes about putting things up one’s butt. Like its version of Kim Jong-un, The Interview is ultimately limited by its preconditioned context.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Free Birds

April 16, 2015 Leave a comment

Free Birds (2013; Directed by Jimmy Hayward)

Reggie is a turkey who doesn’t fit in with the flock. Free Birds does not really take the time to establish precisely why this is, but then it doesn’t take the time for much of anything at any given moment. It’s a computer-animated children’s feature of second-rate quality, so it’s fast-paced, desperately eager to please and generally lacking in depth, but Free Birds seems to be in more of a rush than is usual in the genre. The franticness of the affair is meant to be whipsmart and entertaining but it comes across as tiresome and uninspired more often than not.

But anyway, back to Reggie (voiced by Owen Wilson). He alone amongst his turkey flock realizes that their apparently blissful existence of eating corn and doing nothing ends up in an oven and then on dinner plates around Thanksgivingtime. But his warnings fall on deaf ears (if turkeys had those, that is; earholes?) and Reggie is ostracized by his peers.

Reggie is plucked from his pariah status in the turkey coop when the President of the United States (Jimmy Hayward) grants his hyperactive daughter (Kaitlyn Maher) her mercurial wish to free Reggie as the yearly turkey pardon. Nestled into Camp David with a purloined presidential remote control, Reggie becomes a pampered couch potato, ordering a succession of pizzas and binge-watching melodramatic Mexican telenovelas. With relatively witty and quickfire jokes skewering disposable TV, advertising, conformity, and even religious dogma, these establishing scenes are promisingly amusing and are blessed with a fleet comedic rhythm. It does not last.

Nor does Reggie’s lone wolf bliss. He’s abducted by a beefy, intrepid, distinctly dim alpha turkey named Jake (Woody Harrelson doing better voicework than this movie deserves). A member of the Turkey Freedom Front (perhaps the only one, a semi-reference to Monty Python’s Life of Brian alongside other, inert 2001 and Raiders of the Lost Ark homages), Jake enlists the reluctant Reggie for a mission to penetrate a secret experimental base, steal into its prized time machine, and travel back in time to the first American Thanksgiving in 1621 to remove turkeys from the holiday feast menu for good and all.

Why does the United States have a time machine and how do they intend to use it? We don’t know. Seeing as the “First Thanksgiving” feast shared between Puritan colonists in America and the Native Americans in a spirit of openness and cooperation is a sugarcoated myth, is Free Birds aware that the holiday’s New World origins and turkey-centric traditional foodstuffs likely lie elsewhere? Evidently not. Why are the European colonists armed with 18th to 19th-century weaponry in the 162os? Why do the indigenous turkeys in colonial America possess a definite First Peoples cultural character? Who can say? Historians and Native peoples alike would be offended if they cared enough about this mere trifle to notice it.

The attraction of Free Birds lay in its narrative concept, which seemed ripe for a fascinating metaphorical illustration of the disavowed colonialist exploitation central to American history. An outsider figure encounters a besieged indigenous community, targeted as a mere exploitable resource by white European colonist invaders, and helps them defeat those seeking to loot their natural bounty for their own selfish and destructive gain. Free Birds half-promises this premise and even half-delivers it, with a fantasy resolution uniting Pilgrims, Indians, and turkeys in a convivial pizza party. But it’s entirely too hectic, unfocused, and lacking in attention span to maintain such a larger metaphorical significance and too insubstantial to support even the fragments of that significance that linger on.

Some enlivened frisson percolates on that insubstantial surface. Amy Poehler injects some nice low-key feminism into the mix with Jenny, the daughter of the turkey chief Broadbeak (Keith David). Harrelson’s Jake, as mentioned, is a sometimes-funny goof on alpha male hero figures and engages in a loopy inflated-wattle dust-up for masculine dominance with the chief’s son Ranger (Hayward also). George Takei voices S.T.E.V.E., the time machine’s dignified but mischievous artificial intelligence system, with his peculiar mix of impishness and gravity. And there’s a surprisingly emotive communal mourning ceremony involving feathers and flapping wings in the middle of the silly perpetual motion of the action.

But Free Birds doesn’t settle on anything for long enough to stick with the viewer, casual or otherwise. What might have been a subversive cartoon satire of the Thanksgiving myth and its cheery historical whitewash of the decimation of the Native American population instead parrots that whitewash and even extends it to the meat-heavy American diet. A movie that might have crackled with cleverness instead gets caught up in its own chaotic energy and stumbles consistently. Free Birds is occasionally kind of fun, but it could have harnessed that fun to broader purpose and it simply does not.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Under the Skin

April 13, 2015 2 comments

Under the Skin (2013; Directed by Jonathan Glazer)

A distant pinprick of light grows and shifts out of black oblivion. Unsettling synths and strings vibrate menacingly as the light focuses into a beam, then a ring, then a circle. Finally, it settles on a form: the iris of an unblinking human eye. The eerie electronic cricket-song on the soundtrack persists and melds with the pronunciation of basic but only ephemerally-related words as the opening title appears.

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is constructed of such minimalist, ambiguous imagery, but its narrative implications at least are relatively clear. A strong, silent motorcyclist (Jeremy McWilliams) fetches a young woman’s lifeless body from a ditch, carrying it towards a white van. Now in a blindingly white infinite space, another woman (Scarlett Johansson) methodically, unsympathetically undresses the girl and dons her clothing. She finds her way to a mall to purchase more clothes and makeup. Trawling Glasgow’s streets in the van, she pretends to be lost and asks a series of single and apparently alone men for directions as a pretense to get them into her vehicle and seduce them into joining her at undisclosed locations of absolutely blackness (the visual inversion of the initial white space where she dresses herself in the dead woman’s garments, rather than undressing men). There, teasing them with disrobed sexual promise, they are swallowed by an invisible pool of liquid, to be suspended naked until they are gradually consumed, their remnants floating in the abyss like the skin of a burst balloon.

If Under the Skin‘s premise presents as a sort of arthouse Species, then the film itself is a whole other creature. Lean, philosophical, and observant, Glazer’s text is less concerned with the taxonomical detail of Johansson’s alien femme fatale and her mission of male entrapment than it is with casting a cool, detached eye on the concept of human sympathy. The never-named woman possesses none of it, staring out her windows at potential prey like a raptor on its hunting perch. She shies away from targets with hints of connection with others, but this seems more like a tactic of self-preservation (the lone hunter evading the collective strength of the herd) than an empathetic minimization of the collateral emotional damage caused by her mysterious, chastely erotic predation.

The depths of her lack of empathy are demonstrated while attempting to capture a Czech man in a wetsuit at a rocky inlet. A chain-reaction situation develops, as the man in the wetsuit tries to save a man from the waves who is trying to save his partner, who was trying to rescue their dog. When the Czech man is beached, he is exhausted despite his failure to prevent the tragedy, but Johansson strides ups to him, chooses a rock to brain him with, and drags him off to her jet-black den (presumably). A wailing infant is left alone on the beach, ignored by the woman and later by her motorcyclist ally. The level of human tragedy invoked in this scene is tremendous, but for the woman, it’s a chance to pick off easy prey without the need for erotic seduction.

Of course, when the middle act conflict arises, it’s grounded in an unexpected irruption of empathy. The woman can’t bring herself to consign a facially disfigured loner (Adam Pearson) to the depths of the dark pool, releasing him before going on the run from the motorcyclist, who is an enabler of her mission but apparently also an enforcer of its prerogatives. Where this choice, spurred on by a moment of self-reflection before a mirror, leads the woman, I leave for the intrigued potential viewer to discover.

Glazer, who also wrote Under the Skin‘s script with Walter Campbell (based on Michel Faber’s novel, though apparently loosely), is alternately in complete control of his images and willing to trust to the magic of spontaneity and improvisation. Johansson’s encounters with people on the streets were unscripted and often shot with hidden cameras and non-actors. They feel naturalistic and unforced, while the hyper-stylized milieu of the black room and the pool possess a heightened simplicity that maginifies the significance of the ideas suggested there. Johansson, not an actress much capable of convincing introspection even at her best, is perfectly applied, accruing an incremental corporeal self-awareness. She arrives at a costly approximation of human empathy via her own adopted human form, through an understanding of the nature and limits of her own body. Johansson is excellent at regarding herself while we regard her, though her gaze is not so fraught as ours.

Sexual and gender politics are the churning undercurrent of Under the Skin, with a succubus-type female being trapping male prey in the net of her desirability and then becoming subject to assault and violation at the hands of her former prey when she drops her predatory pre-condition. Her incipient vulnerability is memorably visualized by Glazer late in the film: while sleeping in a cabin shelter in the woods, Johansson is superimposed on the swaying treetops of the forest. She is alone in the wilderness, literally and figuratively.

Even if the implications about the nature of gender and sexual roles and their effects on the freedom of the body are not easily misconstrued, Glazer leaves precisely how to take those implications entirely up to his audience. He crafts a singular, artistically resonant statement with Under the Skin that never panders or proscribes its meanings while diffusing the most unsettling of those meanings into its dominant haunted tonality (greatly enhanced by Mica Levi’s unnerving score). The film ends with a plume of smoke dissipating into the wintry air, a fading dilution of materiality to contrast with the opening scenes’ luminous Big Bang. Our certainties of self-awareness dissipate along with that smoke in the face of this vision.

Categories: Film, Reviews

TV Quickshots #22

April 11, 2015 Leave a comment

Turn: Washington’s Spies (AMC; 2014-Present)

A couple of months ago, in considering History Channel’s technically impressive but historically propagandistic Sons of Liberty, I lamented the lack of compelling and challenging mainstream screen texts concerning the American Revolutionary War. Little did I know that on another cable network, the first season of a show that comes closer than almost anything else in American entertainment to moving beyond the myths around the nation’s founding conflict had aired.

Turn: Washington’s Spies commences in 1776 and is centred on Setauket, Long Island. A Loyalist town hosting a garrison of British Army regulars, Setauket nonetheless is a hotbed of political tensions and potential rebels. One such liberty-lover is Turn‘s protagonist, Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell). Despite his patriot leanings and long-running friendships with Continental Army officers Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) and Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall), Woodhull has toed the line of loyalty to the British Crown drawn by his father, a judge and local magistrate (Kevin R. McNally). Though Abe, educated in New York City, has taken up cabbage farming as a minor token of independence from his powerful father’s influence, he has dutifully married his dead brother’s betrothed (Meegan Warner) and they have an infant son. By all appearances, he also follows his father’s staunch but increasingly conflicted loyalty to Britain, as represented by garrison commander Major Hewlett (reliable weaver of villains Burn Gorman), who is billeted in Judge Woodhull’s home.

But Tallmadge and Brewster, not to mention the fetching local tavern matron Anna Strong (Heather Lind) to whom Abe was formerly betrothed, appeal to Abe’s deeper principles and get him half-reluctantly involved in the war effort on the American side. Abe begins to operate as a spy for the Continental Army, feeding information on British strategy and troop movements to Tallmadge via Brewster and Strong gleaned through his involvement in his father’s affairs with the colonial overseers. His position becomes increasingly difficult, especially with Crown operatives such as Tallmadge’s British intelligence counterpart John André (JJ Feild, Tom Hiddleston’s non-union Coloradan equivalent) and Scottish ranger Robert Rogers (Angus Macfayden) arrayed against him.

Turn is shot mostly in Virginia, and is scrupulously well-made per AMC’s usual technical standards (Rupert Wyatt, director of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, helms the pilot episode). It’s well-written (based on Alexander Rose’s history of the Culper spy ring maintained by the historical Woodhull, Tallmadge, Brewster and Strong) and well-acted as well, with Bell and McNally demonstrating a particular chemistry (McNally, Gibbs from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, has a tremendous knowing twinkle at nearly all times). But it’s perhaps most notable for the small but key steps it makes in distilling a perspective on the historical events of the Revolutionary War that disperses the fog of heroic myth that has obscured one of the most fascinating political and military conflicts in world history.

There is likely no way around casting the British as fundamental villains in an American depiction of the Revolution, and casting the skulking, snake-visaged Gorman as the main British military commander does not diminish that impression one bit. Still, Hewlett is not a mere caricature or petty tyrant; he’s sophisticated and relatively fair, obeying the rule of law and leaning heavily on Judge Woodhull to aid him in gaining the acquiescence of the local population for his garrison’s presence. When he does seek to extract telling obedience from the judge and the townspeople, he operates not with a cudgel but with a velvet glove, manipulating Setauketans into an act that proscribes their liberty and cultural memory in a deep-seated way. Much more conventionally antagonistic is Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), another British officer with a haughty manner, sharp tongue, and cruel tendencies who presents a much more direct obstacle to Woodhull and his spy ring.

More heartening from a historical perspective is Turn‘s canny application of economic issues to its picture of Revolutionary America. The Revolution was, of course, about trade and profit first and foremost, and the complexities of business transactions during a divisive, territorial civil conflict take precedence frequently in the plot. The division of loyalties inherent to the conflict is also well-portrayed. The Civil War is generally considered a more essential historical event in this context, the definitive brother-against-brother war in American history. But the Revolutionary War was no less effective in sundering families along the faultline of political principles, as the much-anticipated clash between the elder and younger Woodhull portends. It’s only that the Loyalists’ story has been erased from the grand, arching narrative of American liberty, seeing as most of them bolted for Canada, Britain, or other colonies after Washington and the Continentals defeated the British Expeditionary Force in 1783.

But their story is also a part of the story of the American Revolution. Turn provides as strong and as complex a telling of that story as can be reasonably expected from an American television treatment, while also suggesting more subtly that contemporary America’s vast secret state of espionage and intelligence has deeper roots in the nation’s birth pangs than has been generally appreciated.

Categories: History, Reviews, Television

Film Review: Filth

Filth (2013; Directed by Jon S. Baird)

Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) is a bad cop. Not just in the “bad egg” corruption sense, nor merely in the sense of not being terribly effective, though both descriptions most certainly apply. In the quest for a promotion in the Edinburgh Police Department that he feels will mend up his marriage to his wife Carole (Shauna Macdonald), which is on the rocks is an unspecified way, DS Robertson will do just about anything to set his rivals for the Detective Inspector spot against each other and to make himself the most obvious choice. At the same time, he’s also a hedonistic whirlwind of overindulgence, popping pills, swallowing whiskey by the bottle, frequenting prostitutes, pornography, and kinky sex with the wife of a colleague, and engaging in a shady blackmail con of a Mason lodge brother and mild-mannered accountant (Eddie Marsan). And he’ll do just about anything, inside but especially outside of the law, to solve the murder of a Japanese student and earn his promotion.

Filth is based on Irvine Welsh’s book of the same name, and Jon S. Baird’s screenplay sings with the depraved melodiousness of Scots English that the author of Trainspotting has such a singular handle on. McAvoy, generally typecast in more mainstream movies as a boyish idealist whose illusions of goodness are painfully torn from his breast, revels in Robertson’s roguish unlikability, though he also gives him an inner core of sympathetic suffering that grounds and motivates the dionysian excess. He’s great with Marsan, whose trusting Clifford Blades begins as a soft-bellied mark to Robertson but endears himself and, especially after a gonzo holiday in Hamburg, becomes the arrogant, misanthropic Robertson’s only real friend.

Not that Robertson deserves even this small token of human connection. History of emotionally traumatic loss or no, Brucie is a tremendous jackhole, to put it mildly. He engages in every conceivable act of abuse (personal and professional, of others and of himself) and antisocial indulgence until he’s a contender not for a DI position but for the loftier title of Most Debased Man in Scotland (which must put him in good stead for the position of Most Debased Worldwide, surely). His misbehaviour is sometimes amusing but more often off-putting and exhausting. He crosses the line from charismatic blackguard to unlikable shitheel in the first 10 minutes of Filth and then just continues to lap himself.

It’s impressive to watch McAvoy go off so fully cocked, but not terribly enjoyable, it must be said. This is too bad, because Baird is a clever visualist with an eye for striking, revealing images and production design (Blades’ home is awash with hilariously tacky but just expensive-enough safari trappings, including a roaring big-cat doorbell). Baird’s penchant for oddness becomes baroque and Gilliam-esque when it comes to Robertson’s crescendoing hallucinations, in which he fleetingly sees his rival colleagues donning various alarming creature masks.

Most involved of Robertson’s hallucinations are the deeply looped visions of his doctor, played by Jim Broadbent, lecturing him on his mistakes and misdeeds. Broadbent is a ridiculous riot in these scenes, his white hair wild and his forehead broad like a twisted lovechild of Albert Einstein and the aliens from This Island Earth. He exaggerates the doctor’s mild speech quirks into unstable challenges and details the nature of the tapeworm with a large, fanciful drawing of the parasite (he even briefly turns into one, from Robertson’s addled perspective, although the filthy copper himself is more the implied target of the comparison).

These flashing sequences give Filth an entertaining instability, an unpredictability that revives it after each flood of overwhelming adult content. But it is, on the whole, a bit too much, even if it never promises to be anything but. Additionally, the film’s supposedly shocking revelation of Robertson’s ultimate transgression of social mores is grounded in sexual and gender role intolerance and isn’t nearly as bad as dozens of other terrible things he does. There’s an uptight Presbyterian disapproval to this one deviant act evident in Baird’s film (and thus probably in Welsh’s novel as well) that is not extended to the rest of Robertson’s transgressions. It’s a bit weird, and not really to Filth‘s credit at all. It might seem incongruent to complain of an instance of moral approbation in the midst of a movie crying out for such expressions, but the tut-tutting simply seems misdirected and perhaps revealing. Filth revels so deeply in its filth that it loses its moral compass at a key moment, much as Bruce Robertson does, I suppose.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Life Itself

Life Itself (2014; Directed by Steve James)

Roger Ebert was a beloved film critic. The phrase itself smacks of the oxymoronic. What film critic, those smugly superior cineastes peering out from next to newspaper bylines or internet film sites and presuming to tell readers why they should or should not find a moviegoing experience worthwhile, can be described as “beloved”? Critics in general are reviled as “those who can’t do” sorts, judging the efforts and struggles of artists from an elevated pedestal of assumed authority that is built on wisps of institutional cloud, if even that. They do not create art but only excrete parasitic effluvia, like so many lampreys clinging to the skin of an elegant but deadly shark.

But Roger Ebert was beloved, his death after a protracted and publically open fight with cancer mourned with popular sadness like the exit of one of the movie stars or film directors who he watched, analyzed, interviewed, and sometimes befriended. One such director, the documentary filmmaker Steve James, owed Ebert a solid; Ebert’s praise and support of James’ film Hoop Dreams helped to establish him as one of America’s foremost documentary feature filmmakers. And so James documents both the highlights of Ebert’s rich and vivid life as well as the critic’s vulnerable slide towards death.

Life Itself is based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name, and includes voiceovers by Ebert reading excerpts of that book over archival photos and video and in concert with other interviews with people who knew him. The narrative of Ebert’s life is intercut with scenes of his convalescence filmed in hospital rooms, rehab clinics, and his home, with his wife Chaz ever at his side. Unable to speak with much of his throat and neck removed and only gradually regaining any capacity to walk, the avuncular, portly, passionate Midwestern film savant famous for his televised battles with critic rival (and eventual friend) Gene Siskel is transfigured but occasionally emerges. His facility with words remains constant through writing pads and computer speech technology, and his positivity through a harrowing experience is demonstrated through the famed thumbs up gesture that he and Siskel made into a cultural meme and imprimatur of cinematic quality.

Ebert’s last act, admirably playing out his health problems and physical degradation in the public eye while reviewing, blogging, and tweeting with twice the prolific energy many younger creatives can muster, contributed greatly to his legacy of popularity. But that legacy was well-established long before, as Ebert followed the populist instincts of his training in newspapers and applied it to film criticism. He lead above all with his love of the movies, and always assumed that his audience shared that love. He might try to direct the terms of that love (there was ego and control in the man, of that James leaves little doubt), and he might quibble or disagree with it. But it was an important foundation for Ebert and he never lost sight of it, which is perhaps why there is more public fondness for him than for many of his colleagues (including, it must be said, the late Gene Siskel, who died in 1999).

As New York Times film critic A.O. Scott points out, we lives in Roger Ebert’s world in terms of film fandom. The internet has democratized (or at least widely diffused) opinions on film in a way that Ebert was delighted by and very much embraced, and the ascendence of film geekdom in contemporary Hollywood follows from that process. Life Itself does not miss that influence, nor does it shy away from Ebert’s weaknesses: it details his youthful alcoholism, his occasional arrogance, and his testy professional relationship with Siskel (outtakes of their television program involve sniping must more tense and less staged than their broadcasted arguments about movies).

Some notable details from Ebert’s life and career are missing, in particular his infamous war of words with Vincent Gallo over The Brown Bunny following a controversial screening at the Cannes Film Festival or his blithe (but partially re-thought) dismissal of video games as art late in life. But James provides a generally complete (albeit just a bit cloyingly admiring) portrait of a film critic who became, in his own way, as much of a star as the people in the movies he reviewed.

Categories: Film, Reviews