Archive for December, 2015

Film Review: Ex Machina

December 29, 2015 1 comment

Ex Machina (2015; Directed by Alex Garland)

Ex Machina wastes next to no time diving into its premise. Programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) receives an email while working at his high-tech industry job, informing him that he’s won a coveted prize, and he sends and receives a series of celebratory text messages to his mobile phone. The experience is filtered entirely through digital technology, as are so many of our contemporary experiences. Debutant writer/director Alex Garland (screenwriter of 28 Days Later) registers this fundamental modern human/computer interfacing not merely as an inextricable part of our current reality but as something a bit more unnatural, a bit more sinister. This will prove important.

The company contest that Caleb has won carries an exciting but ambiguous prize: a week alone with his boss, CEO of Googlesque market-dominating search engine Blue Book (the name is a reference to philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s 1930s lectures on thought, language, and signs) and coding genius Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), at his remote, top-secret estate. Helicoptered in over spectacular landscapes and admitted into the compound via an automated keycard that opens some doors but not others, Caleb enters a mysterious, ominous sanctum like Jonathan Harker approaching Dracula’s castle, like an unwitting visitor to Victor Frankenstein’s lab. Both of these associations will prove important, especially the latter.

Caleb finds that Nathan is a fitness freak, heavy drinker, and treacherously intelligent, innovative and dominating personality. He also has a hidden agenda (maybe several, but only one that he will disclose, anyway) for bringing Caleb to visit: Nathan has been working on a top-secret project, mass-farming data through Blue Book to forge a functioning artificial intelligence. He tells Caleb that his task will be to administer a Turing Test on his humanoid AI robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), to determine how convincingly human-like her intelligence seems. But it doesn’t take the astute but solitary Caleb very long in the company of Nathan or Ava to begin suspecting that he is the one being tested somehow.

Ex Machina is built on a foundation of well-read references: Ancient Greek drama, Wittgenstein, Turing, Oppenheimer, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Jackson Pollock paintings. But its meanings are also erected by its masterful, unnerving visual design, its production design (by Mark Digby) and art direction (by Katrina Mackay and Denis Schnegg), visual effects, and cinematography (by Rob Hardy) all combining into a singular vision of chilled precision. Vikander is tremendous, but her CG-assisted appearance – soft, attractive human face, sexy-sleek mesh-clad upper torso and hips, intermittent transparent plexiglass windows into her inner circuitry – has an iconic, uncanny effect. Her sexualization is apparent, but Caleb struggles to grasp its significance and the intentions of her creator in granting it to her, even when given relatively straight answers on the subject by Nathan.

Nathan’s home/research facility resembles a labyrinthine lab rat maze (a comparison he acknowledges in the late stages), its opaque glass walls, modernist furniture, and occasional windows on the wilderness that surrounds it invoking a cold, isolated prison (the exteriors of forests, mountains, waterfalls, and glaciers were filmed in Norway). The preponderence of glass also leaves ample opportunity for shot compositions that emphasize reflections, duplications, and fragmentation, all resonant themes and symbols that peek above the surface of Garland’s rich (and ambiguous) film.

If the excellent Isaac’s Nathan is Dr. Frankenstein, creating his alluring monster not from discarded human remains but from a flood of digital detritus gleaned from the search results (the patterns of thought and desire) of Blue Book’s billions of users, then Gleeson, in one of multiple strong roles this year for him, is a more grounded and morally upright Igor, caught hopelessly in an experiment with the forging of life that is threatened by encroaching death. But Ex Machina does not merely model The Modern Prometheus for our contemporary modernity, it takes the implications of our revolution in information technology much more terribly seriously than we have ever thought to take them. What Alex Garland’s indelible film concludes is that our machines increasingly have a life of their own, and that life can be a danger to us, their creators, even as it might be a repository of potential transcedence and immortalityfor our finite lives, our temporary civilization, as well as entirely apart from it.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review – Avengers: Age of Ultron

December 27, 2015 4 comments

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015; Directed by Joss Whedon)

Three years ago, in considering the first Avengers film, I found myself stymied by the crushing, impossible grandiosity of this humongous force of cultural and commercial inertia that we chose to call a “movie”. Frustrated by its resistance to conventional criticism, I went for a sort of semantic fluidity of vague metaphorical description. In short, I used a lot of big words to say a lot of big things but not too many specific ones. The conclusion I danced around before mildly inclining my head towards is one that the second Avengers film, Age of Ultron, brings into clearer focus: these films are discursive thrown-down gauntlets of a sense of American exceptionalism that is now seemingly ever-poised on a knife’s-edge tipping-point towards an alarming new authoritarian order.

I’m not talking about Donald Trump’s self-aggrandizing brand of xenophobic, palingenetic ultranationalist, corporatized authoritarianism (“Is he a fascist?” Well, if you have to ask…). But this brand of authoritarianism might well reside in the same cookie-cutter gated-community suburb as that one. It’s fair to assume that they both attend the same neighbourhood watch meetings, and might have even been to each other’s man-caves to shared a craft brew along with their opinions on Islam, Obamacare, and a flat tax. What I’m driving at with this dubious, involved analogy is that American authoritarianism, when it finally arrives, will not necessarily resemble the Old World authoritarianism that claimed millions of lives in the next century and continues to haunt the new one. What will it look like? Increasingly, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially in its flagship Avengers entries.

Bullshit, I hear you muttering. What do expertly-crafted epic entertainments about imaginary heroes in silly costumes with impossible super-powers have to do with brutish, oppressive dictatorships headed by charismatic, cult-of-personality leaders? More by the day, it seems, if the Avengers are any indication. Alan Moore grasped the authoritarian dimension of the superhero comic genre, the deep danger lurking in heroic tales about conflicted but ultimately virtuous übermensches saving the world from existential threats as examples of might and greatness for the unwashed rabble to gaze upon like the distant, blinding sun. Moore conveyed his deep political discomfort with this dimension in his seminal comic Watchmen, which Zack Snyder adapted into a strong and faithful film without ever really understanding what it was Moore was saying (Snyder’s Man of Steel and, from early glimpses, also its sequel Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, make that failure of comprehension painfully evident).

The Avengers film cycle, encompassing the editions of that title as well as those focused on its key figures Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), are broadly about the nature, the limits, and the dangers of American global hegemony. As a superpower without super-powers, a dominant authority in a world that cannot simply be dominated, contemporary America is forever cracking its swelled head against a solid wall. Its lofty, idealist expectations meet with intractable realities at home and abroad, and it struggles with the limits that circumstances impose upon its power, as well as with the limits that its ideological heritage requires that it impose upon that power. Contemporary American discourse is always agonizing over whether its grand, unachievable mission can be better achieved by observing those limits or by divesting itself of them entirely.

This unresolved dilemma has played out in the Captain America and Iron Man films in particular, with The Winter Soldier most recently tackling the national security state while the former arms dealer Tony Stark experiences pangs of conscience through his bluff, sarcastic facade about his role as a chief player in the military-industrial complex. These anxieties burst to the surface in Age of Ultron, which features the titular peacekeeping artificial intelligence program (played by James Spader), adapted by Stark from experiments performed by crypto-Nazi evil cabal Hydra (represented here by Thomas Kretschmann’s monocled Baron Strucker). Ultron inherits a measure of Stark’s sense of ironic detachment, but applies it towards the entire human race with a psychopathic fondness for the concept of mass extinction. Stark’s desire for “peace in our time”, like the similar desire of CIA-like super-agency S.H.I.E.L.D., is perverted for ill and the tremendous power meant to ensure humanity’s salvation threatens to hasten its destruction. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, however, the fit reply to such malevolent might is not disavowal of equivalent might but rather the strenuous application of slightly less malevolent might. Avengers assemble!

As a director but especially as a writer, Joss Whedon is a strong match for this material and its hegemonic themes (and themes of hegemony). His relentlessly witty dialogue, which I have dubbed Whedonspeak, completely conquers every character and sequence like a phage of smug drollness. Whedon is constantly, demonstratively clever, whether or not the specific moment demands it or if the character speaking would benefit from it. His cleverness is his super-power, and like that of his godlike superhero Avenger characters, it separates him from us, elevates him above us mere mortals, glad to make a good joke once or twice a day rather than in every waking minute of the day. Whedonspeak, thus his super-power and his greatest weakness, has its delights in the breach but it’s not always the best choice for given characters at given times, especially when it’s so outside the norm when compared to the words they say in their own movies (penned by mere mortal crafters of dialogue as they are).

Whedon’s rep as a master scripter surely took a hit with Age of Ultron, however, especially in terms of writing good roles for women (his Buffy the Vampire Slayer show being a key genre trailblazer in that regard). In an age in which Hollywood blockbusters, even in the male-gaze-dominated superhero comics genre, are gradually embracing more progressive and nuanced roles for women (as in Marvel’s own Jessica Jones television series, which included a jibe at the world-saving posturing of the Avengers), the role of Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Age of Ultron comes across as distinctly backwards. This hard-boiled assassin/spy badass is suddenly a nurturing matronly figure to Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) monstrous green incarnation, Hulk-whispering him back to human form. They also become a romantic item, leading Romanoff to reveal a more tragic (but still uncharacteristic) aspect of her traditional-gender-role motherly instinct: she cannot have children, having been sterilized as part of her assassin training. As if this wasn’t enough, Romanoff also assumes the damsel-in-distress role as Ultron’s captive in the film’s pre-climax and even serves drinks in evening wear at a Stark Tower party early in the movie.

Otherwise, Age of Ultron is too busy introducing new characters and plot lines while advancing others and setting up still more for future movies to focus too closely on its own story or any potential meanings therein. Whatever each Marvel Studios effort labours to be of its own accord, it is inevitable partially consumed by its role as a cog in the Cinematic Universe machine. This might be the most fascist thing about Marvel films: their slavish, selfless renunciation of individual agency in favour of the interest of a larger collective identity. This is also the strived-for ideal of the Avengers team itself, and Whedon spends much of Age of Ultron embedding conflict between the Avengers before providing the predicted coming together for the common good in the embattled city of Sokovia in the film’s climax.

This is a closing vision of a specifically American authoritarianism: reluctant, back-against-the-wall collective efforts in response to existential threats; arrogant, self-involved, ego-driven factional individualism governing decisions the rest of the time; and all meaningful agency held in the hands of privileged elites and security-state government agencies. Whedon is certainly not a non-intellectual filmmaker, and Age of Ultron invokes broad philosophical themes concerning the godlike abilities wielded by the Avengers and Ultron alike and how it should be correctly utilized. But the terrible danger that the world-threatening power both held and inadvertently unleashed by the Avengers poses is dimly understood as being governable by the moral prudence and good intentions of paramilitaristic cabals with no checks or balances applicable to their actions whatsoever. The solution to the problems irresistibly caused by American power is, as always, more American power. Ought we to expect a sharp critique of this crippling feedback loop of global hegemony from a missive from the cultural hegemony like Avengers: Age of Ultron? Perhaps not. But we ought to withhold praise from a missive that seems hyper-aware of its every implication besides this one.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

December 21, 2015 1 comment

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015; Directed by J.J. Abrams)

The Force Awakens, the seventh film in the Star Wars franchise and the first to hit theatres in 10 years, is overtly concerned with delivering the sort of involving but fundamentally uncomplicated escapist entertainment experience that George Lucas’ epochal first Star Wars film did in 1977. This overriding mission, at once nostalgically conservative and hopefully progressive, has transgressed the previously non-permeable boundaries between a film’s marketing image-making and its cinematic text. The Force Awakens is hyper-aware of the expectations of its audience (and of its corporate sponsors) and the weight of its predetermining legacy, and director J.J. Abrams decides to make that awareness a key component of his film’s thematic undergrowth.

In a daring move (the most daring move of this sometimes over-familiar movie by far), the expectations and weight of that portentous legacy are injected into the film’s narrative and its characters, and it saves The Force Awakens from becoming a merely repetitious homage. In this generational saga (which Star Wars has always been), the younger characters are aware of the legendary exploits of the older characters just as the fans watching are. These new heroes and villains are fans too, or at least their relationship to the events of the Original Trilogy mirror our own. This shared vector to that beloved saga endears them to us almost instantly, grounds us in their fantasy reality in a way that Lucas’ overwrought political world-building in the reviled-by-fandom Prequel Trilogy failed to achieve (a world-building that this film barely bothers with). The Force Awakens heralds a new trilogy that may not be as, yes, fresh and unique as that infamous Prequel Trilogy, but it’s miles more likable. It’s miles more Star Wars in the classical sense, which might be the more vital point.

The Force Awakens goes ahead and Star Warses itself all over the screen, on a scale that is tremendous and intimate when it needs to be, really when you would want it to be. It’s got lightsaber fights and blaster shootouts and swooping space battles and planet-sized superweapons and weird alien beasties and painful losses and raging Oedipal psychodramas and clearly-drawn moral dichotomies and a cute little droid. It’s Star Wars, so it’s almost completely lacking in any sense of subtlety. There are many deeply satisfying or affecting or memorable moments in the film, and pretty much none of them cannot be seen coming 12 parsecs away. Somehow, this blatant telegraphing of the film’s big beats, nearly all of which are purposeful echoes of those from the reified Original Trilogy (and occasionally acknowledged as such with a post-modern meta-wink), does not make them any less satisfying. Miraculously, it doesn’t make them dull or predictable or shameless pandering either.

What’s the secret of this needle-threading success? A fondness for the material, certainly, for its engaging pulpy appeal, for its richly-earned cheap thrills. George Lucas has always been a little uncomfortable with his creation’s legacy, which was demonstrated by the Prequels and their rigid insistence on telling fans that what they thought Star Wars was, what they felt it was, was wrong. Only George Lucas knew what it was, only he had control. But now fans, in the proxy form of Abrams, have control, and they were going to show other fans what they both wanted to see: the fun stuff, the lightsabers and the blasters and the chases and all the rest.

But The Force Awakens accomplishes its mission in other ways, too. It enters a Hollywood marketing atmosphere characterized by nervous desperation and risk-aversion, where practically the entire plot of a movie is revealed in trailers lest any element blindside and alienate fragile moviegoers. The Force Awakens advertising withheld numerous key details of the movie while dribbling out teasing details with tantric discipline, which has ramped up interest while preserving surprise (which lessens pretty quickly within the film itself, honestly). It seems like a sideline point, but it demonstrates how key the selling of a movie can be to predetermining its meanings and emotional appeals. When was the last movie, no matter how massively marketed and breathlessly anticipated, for which spoiler warnings were considered so significant? Millions would have seen this movie anyway, but its revelations (which I had intended to delve into more deeply but whose unuttered state I have respected up to this point but not much further, I warn) undeniably have more impact for being revealed in the properly-weighted moment.

Another important factor in the film’s success is that it doesn’t make things too easy for its characters, young or old. The Prequels featured so many experienced and high-powered Jedi and Sith contending with each other on an often impressive but also sterile, lofty and impersonal level that its stakes were unreal, its drama inert and uninvolving. In The Force Awakens, like in the Original Trilogy, our heroes operate on a level of semi-skilled desperation in a grimy, rusty, rundown lived-in universe. Following the example of the casual improvisational rogue Han Solo (played again by Harrison Ford, who hasn’t been this lively for decades), newcomers Rey (the compelling Daisy Ridley) and Finn (Attack the Block‘s John Boyega) are thrust into unfamiliar and highly dangerous situations and draw on their narrow (but not shallow) experience reserves to get through them.

Rey is a self-sufficient scrap scavenger, prodigal tinkerer, and innately capable pilot who can handle herself in hand-to-hand combat (more than a little like a certain fair-haired boy from a Tatooine moisture farm, whose older self has a very brief cameo here), while Finn is a relentlessly drilled warrior stormtrooper who refuses to conform any longer with the brutality of his masters, the sinister post-Imperial First Order. These two ally-less drifters are thrust together and pursued by First Order forces on the desert planet of Jakku after a droid (the toy-ready soccerball roller BB8) carrying secret plans falls into their company (like I said, pretty familiar stuff). They escape by commandeering a pretty well-known ship, whose controls Rey can barely handle and whose guns Finn struggles to master, and run into Han and his sidekick Chewbacca, who are always up for wild, skin-of-their-teeth escapes. Even Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), an expert pilot for the anti-First Order Resistance led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher), finds himself fleeing in a TIE Fighter and being amazed at its jumpy speed.

This recurring motif of apprentices and novices thrown into adventures that they pull off with help, luck, and bursts of untutored skill and ability is applied not only to plucky heroes but also to the main villain. Kylo Ren (Adam firstorderDriver) is a fanatical devotee of Darth Vader, with whom he shares a close connection. Although he has been trained in the use of the Dark Side of the Force by the First Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke (a deformed creature on a distant throne, seen only in holographic form and mo-capped and voiced by Andy Serkis), Kylo is still quite young and rough around the edges. He wears all black and a mask over his face, though he doesn’t need it to breathe like Vader, so it’s all for show, a reverent game of dress-up, a costume of assumed identity.

When he doesn’t get his way or fails at something (which is fairly often), he throws a petulant tantrum, losing his temper and trashing rooms with his jaggedly glowing red lightsaber, cross-shaped like a crusader’s insignia. He’s overconfident in his still-developing abilities, and is thrice surprised by the emerging Force powers of Rey, who righteously kicks his black-clad butt in the film’s snowy forest climax with a lightsaber that she’s never held before (her acquisition of it is the pinnacle of those totally satisfying but completely telegraphed cheer moments mentioned earlier). Unlike his hero Vader, who is as strong as he ever will be at the start of Episode IV, Kylo is still undergoing growing pains as a Dark Side Force master; his embryonic state, like that of Rey and to a lesser extent Finn, makes him less imposing but more human, more relatable, and in some ways more dangerous.

But what really makes The Force Awakens a resurgence for the pure popcorn-movie crowd-pleasing dream of Star Wars is J.J. Abrams’ ambitious vision. Working from a script he co-wrote with Lawrence Kasdan (screenwriter of The Empire Strikes Back) and Michael Arndt, Abrams displays a skill with visual composition and awesome scope that seems to awaken like Rey’s Force prowess. From his opening shot – the triangular shadow of a First Order Star Destroyer falling over a planet – to his unforgettable last helicopter sweep, it’s clear that this is going to be a wonderfully-shot film full of indelible images. Abrams and his cinematographer Dan Mindel utilize the familiar visual vocabulary of this universe to hasten along the storytelling, to give it impact, verve, energy. The recognizable Imperial and Rebel crafts of war vanishing into the sands of Jakku as monolithic wrecks, for example, imbue Rey’s establishing scenes with a tremendous elegiac melancholy, the echoes of a turbulent past picked clean for subsistence scraps by the vulnerable mortals left in its wake. Images create meaning, buttress themes, deepen implications, suggest kinship with faded legacies.

Even when their hand is a touch too heavy, the result is galvanizing: witness General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, powerfully capping a year in which he stepped into the considerable shoes of his master character actor father, Brendan) delivering a pre-attack speech to assembled First Order armies with red-eyed fascistic fervour, both Hux’s rhetoric and the geometry of state power on display invoking Adolf Hitler’s Nazi propaganda rallies in a much more on-the-nose fashion than Lucas, whose Empire was inspired by war-movie Nazis, ever did.

The Force Awakens has its flaws, to be sure, but they are not flaws of inattention or lack of skill on the filmmakers’ part but usually down to slight excesses of the consistent approach and practices described already, which are far more frequently successful. References to the Original Trilogy can be just slightly too arch, repurposed plot or character elements too recognizable, key moments too telegraphed, wider political machinations and factional relationships left too vague. Boyega plays Finn as a fearful (yet brave) soldier more than a little out of his depth, and one might suspect that he’s embodying those characteristics so well because he is out of his depth (the American accent he has to use for some reason doesn’t do him any favours; Ridley can speak British English, why can’t he?). Driver, too, can be a bit off, and his Kylo sometimes suggests the pissy sullenness of Hayden Christensen’s young Anakin in Episodes II & III. It’s an underwhelming moment when he removes his helmet for Rey, although their weird sexual tension in her interrogation scene salvages it considerably.

reybb8Speaking of salvaging and Ridley, much more work would have been necessary in other quarters to make up for a movie without her. Her Rey goes beyond reductive quasi-feminist terms like spunk or “girl power”. She’s a fully-formed person, forged by isolation and survivalist needs into a tough, tech-savvy cookie but not without a certain sadness, a mournfulness for the parts of herself that she has had to lose in order to eke out a living, and a guilt at being abandoned by a family she does not know. She forges strong attachments quickly, as if she won’t get another chance at it, but will not be led by the nose or taken advantage (or care) of. She’s a glorious find and a new evolution of heroic woman protagonist at the centre of a massive Hollywood blockbuster, and this new trilogy will remain worth following with Daisy Ridley at its heart, no matter where it goes.

Where will it go? A two years’ wait stands between audiences and that discovery, but for the first time in decades, Star Wars fans will be glad at the anticipation. The Force Awakens was made by fans, for fans. It cannily textualizes its project of revivifying the franchise’s pulpy popular appeal after a fallow period and a divisive tangent. The Force that awakens in The Force Awakens is not merely the magical energy field that governs the universe in these films but the magical energy field that its audience can feel emanating from Star Wars at its best.

Is Abrams’ film embedding familiar and even repeated elements with regularity, rendering it more like a remake than a sequel? Maybe, but then so did the original film in 1977, with its potion of Kurosawa samurai and roguish pirates, Dune settings with archetypes and set-pieces out of war movies. Star Wars always carried in its recipe the borrowed flavours of its pulp-cinema antecedents, the serials and genre pictures of George Lucas’ youth. Now its newest iteration carries the flavours of its new creative team’s collective youth, which happens to be Star Wars itself. Originality is laudable in theory, but Star Wars has never been a rich soil for it. Its re-tilled earth offers prodigious growth opportunities for genre adventures of broad and sometimes even transcendent imagination, however. The Force Awakens is most certainly one of those, and keeps hope alive that more such escapist entertainments await us.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Star Wars: The Product/Text Saga of American Capitalist Fantasy

December 17, 2015 2 comments

Since there are no rocks left for anyone to hide under at this point, much of the world is surely aware by now that the seventh installment in the gobsmackingly popular space opera adventure saga of Star Wars, entitled The Force Awakens, opens this coming Friday. Like movie geeks across the globe, I’ll be seeing it and certainly reviewing it here. However, there is much to say by way of introduction about Star Wars and its place in our popular culture that may be useful to record prior to viewing and reviewing the film itself. This is partially to focus critical faculties more directly on the content of The Force Awakens as a film of its own, and partially to situate it in a prefatory manner as part of both a larger cinematic narrative saga as well as a prime product of American consumer capitalism.

Born a year after the release of The Empire Strikes Back, I was a smidgeon too young for the so-called Original Trilogy the first time around, and entirely too old and culturally-savvy for the tonally ambitious but ultimately highly flawed Prequel Trilogy upon its millenial release. I won’t pretend that Star Wars has given me much more than a handful of hours of entertainment throughout my lifetime. It certainly is not a cultural touchstone for me in the way that, say, The Lord of the Rings film trilogy was. But like a lot of popular cultural products of great popularity built on mythological foundations, there is much to write about when it comes to Star Wars.

Broadly a good vs. evil parable about a band of ragged freedom-fighting rebels struggling against a monolithic empire of oppressive SW-THE-FORCE-AWAKENSspace Nazis, George Lucas’ Original Trilogy evokes the defining mid-century struggle of World War II but is not built from direct references to it. Rather, Star Wars is a heady pastiche of USC film school nerd Lucas’ cinematic and literary influences, from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai warriors (the Jedi) and bickering travelling companions (the droids R2D2 and C-3PO) to the sci-fi desert planet and drug trade of Frank Herbert’s Dune (Tatooine and “spice” smuggler Han Solo) to the touchstones of WWII films that suffused the 1950s and ’60s (the Space Reich of the Empire, the final trench flight attack on the Deathstar, adapted from The Dam Busters).

Even with the mediated separation of this web of cinematic homages, a reasonably adult vision of a conflict marked by atrocities remains consistent throughout Lucas’ films. Mythic hero Luke Skywalker witnesses his poor hapless aunt and uncle, the only family he has ever known, reduced to gruesomely smoking skeletons by Imperial Stormtroopers, who also massacre Jawa scavengers; Princess Leia watches as her own adoptive planet, Alderaan, is vaporized by the Deathstar; Han is tortured in Empire, and Leia is enslaved as a sexualized object by the vile Jabba the Hutt in The Return of the Jedi. Droids are discriminated against in spaceport town bars, limbs are bloodily removed by lightsabers. For a supposed light, fun fantasy, Star Wars is full of horrors that mirror those of our world’s history.

But, in the Original Trilogy at least, this realism does not transfer to a nuanced depiction of good and evil. Star Wars is a cinematic text which provides broad hints of the nature of societies but does not ground the intergalactic conflict at its core in any forces endemic in those societies. Good and evil are not complete absolutes here; Luke’s Force training and vision-questing with Yoda on Dagobah involve him struggling with negative emotions that lead to the “dark side” of the Force that has ensnared Darth Vader, his erstwhile father whom he helps to redeem in the final struggle. But the struggle between good and evil is a matter of feelings, as is everything to do with the Force. “Trust your feelings”, Luke is told, a clear tell that the quasi-mysticism of the Jedi is reducible to little more than New Age, post-hippie feel-good self-help and improvement. As pulp playgrounds for Freudian psychoanalysis, the Star Wars movies may not have equals in our contemporary culture (Harry Potter, with its obsessiveness about phallic wands, comes close, mind you).

This high-flown mystical nonsense carries a great romantic pull for many in a secularized global culture disconnected from the processes of political power and domination of an elite that is equal parts Jedi and Empire but quite different from either, given capitalist greed’s intermittent hold on the motivations of the films’ characters. Whatever else might be said about it, Lucas’ much-maligned (but still commercially successful) Prequel Trilogy sought to widen and demystify the Star Wars Universe as well as to ground the titular wars of his first three films in something resembling a political reality.

In his clumsy, heavy-handed way, Lucas did impart a tale of good democratic intentions subverted by a sinister dictatorial coup and of an angry, confused but not heartless young man making the wrong choices and stumbling into darkness. It’s not a matter of much debate that he did not do any of this very well. But by introducing scientific proofs to the Force (the dreaded midi-chlorians) and depicting Darth Vader’s tragic fall in awkward and diminishing strokes (dislike of sand, “romantic” slaughter of Tuskens, “Noooo!!!”), Lucas shrank his creation’s scope instead of expanding it. The Force, like the Catholic faith, was revealed to rely on great reserve of ineffable mystery to keep it vital. The Prequel Trilogy, while it may have been a hit with children as Lucas claimed, was a disillusioning experience for the franchise’s original fans, and bands of apostates roamed internet discussion board and comments sections like medieval flagellants, denouncing the transgressions of their Holy Film Father. But as corporate entertainment giant Disney well understood, Star Wars, creatively bruised but still as lucrative and valuable a product as ever, was not a franchise to be left fallow. But a fresh vision, or perhaps a retro-fitted, remixed one, was needed.

There may be no better filmmaker in contemporary American cinema for this task than J.J. Abrams. A smart and effective narrative filmmaker with a developed sense of non-specific visual style and fannish bonafides, Abrams excels at reconstituting and re-combining recognizable and nostalgically appreciated elements of the genre films of his youth (the late 1970s and early 1980s) into viscerally and emotionally satisfying filmic mixtapes of sorts. Films like Super 8 or his Star Trek reboot are not terribly original per se, but run discernable tropes of, respectively, early star-wars-1-vaderSpielberg classics (Close Encounters of the Third Kind in particular) and, well, Star Wars itself through contemporaneously fashionable structure of sturdy humour, CG spectacle, and brusque action and suspense.

The latter instance of Star Trek is especially instructive. Even before it was announced that Disney had bought the Star Wars rights and was planning new films, Abrams was boldly treating its rival space franchise as an audition to take over the continuing adventures in a galaxy far, far away. I’ve written about what this interwoven choice of style, philosophy, and thematics has meant to Star Trek, as classically square as any socially-conscious sci-fi product in existence and wildly different from the breezy, quasi-mystical cool of Star Wars that Abrams, who has openly stated his preference of lightsabers to phasers set to stun, decided to evoke. Trek fans have, in some circles at least, openly revolted against Abrams’ take on their beloved fictional universe, his attempt (largely successful, for what it’s worth) at making it as hip and appealing to a mass audience as Star Wars.

It’s worth recalling the shape that the Star Trek property was in before Abrams took the reins for the new films, mind you. Its final, little-loved television iteration (Enterprise) was off the air, ending a near-two-decade run of consecutive programs, and the recent Next Generation films had petered out commercially and were judged to be creatively moribund. An injection of new ideas and energy was acknowledged to be necessary, but it’s more debatable whether Abrams’ “destroy the village in order to save it” approach was quite as necessary. Retconning away the entirety of the previously-established Trek canon with a time-travel paradox certainly freed up his films (and the forthcoming Star Trek Beyond, to be directed by Justin Lin in his stead) to blaze a different path, but not merely the storytelling content but the rhythms, motions, and themes of Abrams’ Star Trek took on a Jedi-esque character as well, quite contrary to the established flow of the series.

Whatever one might think of what Abrams did with Star Trek (or with its sequel Star Trek Into Darkness, a kind of elaborated cover version of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), the template suggests his approach to The Force Awakens, which many critics and preview audiences have already seen and some have noted mashes up key features and tropes of the beloved Original Trilogy in a contemporary actioned-up package (not that action sequences are out of the franchise norm; it is Star Wars, after all). This return to the familiar was always going to be welcome after the aforementioned 1999-2005 prequels, which strove for the unfamiliar but were overall poorly executed and often woefully out of touch with changing audience tastes (they also suffered badly in comparison with contemporary speculative franchises like The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, and Harry Potter, all of which stole their lunch money quite thoroughly).

One effect of the Prequel Trilogy on the new sequel trilogy was to simultaneously raise and lower expectations. Despite the mess of hype and cascade of corporate tie-ins, Abrams truly has only to make The Force Awakens a competent entertainment without obvious, glaring flaws to convince most that Star Wars is “back” (not that it ever really went away, despite a ten-year absence in the big-screen new release arena). Anything more than that will likely be greeted as a transcendent instant classic. Of course, enormous box office receipts are basically assured either way, and the only pecuniary disappointment will be if the film doesn’t break every grossing record on the books. Film buffs and fanboys/girls may have more stringent aesthetic expectations, parsing each character, narrative, and visual choice that Abrams makes for its implications in the wider lore and into political ramifications beyond.

This concurrent low-level artistic pressure and complete lack of commercial uncertainty in the case of The Force Awakens speaks to the curious and singular position occupied by Star Wars in our popular culture. Its ubiquity and general level of recognition seems hugely disproportionate to its aesthetic quality even while its groundbreaking commodification from its earliest days in the public sphere is precisely appropriate to our order of irresistible consumer capitalism. Star Wars, above all, draws ravenously from cultural texts across the spectrum (including, most cannibalistically, itself) in the crafting of a product ideally positioned to make maximal amounts of money. Star Wars is American capitalism writ largest, text as product, product as text. The Force will always be with us, as long as we’re willing to pay for it.

Categories: Culture, Film, History, Politics

Film Review: In the Heart of the Sea

December 13, 2015 1 comment

In the Heart of the Sea (2015; Directed by Ron Howard)

The wide-scope, fictionalized big-screen adaptation of the events surrounding the sinking of the American whaleship Essex in the Pacific Ocean in 1820 might have been either a greater film or a greater disaster in the hands of a director other than Ron Howard. Instead, it’s entirely competent but practically never transcendent, an uneven experience in quality and tone, and never anywhere near as grand, resonant, heroic, and deeply weird as the almost incredible events it relates. That it never approaches the philosophical depth and power of signification of the American literary classic that the sinking of the Essex inspired, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, should not be surprising. But for all of its furious motion and visual furor, In the Heart of the Sea is also neither as engaging or exciting on a visceral level as it simply ought to be, given its subject.

That subject begs at least a short synopsis (and some subsequent spoilers), for those among you not strongly versed in early 19th-century American maritime history. In 1820, hunting and harvesting whales for the bright-burning oil produced by boiling down their copious blubber (as well as for various other consumer by-products) was a lucrative worldwide industry, and in the United States, the island of Nantucket was the bustling capital of the trade. The Essex departed Nantucket that year under the command of Captain George Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker), the scion of a prominent Nantucket whaling family, with Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) as his first mate. The crew’s quest for the largest creatures on earth takes them south around the Horn of South America into the warm and remote South Pacific, thousands of miles from land. A fateful encounter with a white mottled sperm whale will doom their ship and set them on a desperate struggle for survival.

In true pop-postmodernist tradition, the tale of the Essex in In the Heart of the Sea is contained by the narrative device of its last living survivor, former cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland as a boy, Brendan Gleeson as an older man), relating the full, stunning story over the course of a long night to Melville (Ben Whishaw), who will use many of its elements in his famous novel. The conversation between Nickerson and Melville is returned to by Howard as the Essex narrative moves along, and might be the consistently best thing about the film. Two thespians of the calibre and subtlety of Whishaw and Gleeson, discussing the dread of memory in an atmospheric room surrounded by ships in bottles in a quasi-stage drama, their dual act occasionally triangulated by Michelle Fairley as Nickerson’s steely but not unsympathetic wife; it’s as good as it sounds, and I found myself wishing for more of it. Certainly, its core conceit is just that: Melville insists that he can only get the true account of the Essex affair from Nickerson, not mentioning the existence of Chase’s well-known published account (Nickerson’s own writings about it were only published in 1984, and In the Heart of the Sea draws from historian Nathaniel Philbrick’s book of the same name, based on both accounts). But these scenes do their job well, better than they strictly need to.

Which is more than can be said of the technically fine but often uninspired re-creation of the Essex‘s final voyage itself. Some of the shipboard sequences hum like a commonly-remembered shanty, especially the swift, deftly cut rigging business that the athletic Chase spearheads as the ship bears out of Nantucket early on. Howard and his screenwriter Charles Leavitt find time for a kinetic initial whale hunt as well as for the gory details of the processing of the whale carcass (the teenaged Nickerson is even sent into the sperm whale’s huge, putrid head to scoop out its highly valuable spermaceti). It’s only a taste of what you get from Melville, let alone from various non-fiction works, but as far as CGI-empowered big-budget Hollywood depictions of the golden age of American whaling go, In the Heart of the Sea is the best that we’re likely to get for some time (at least until Peter Jackson directs an expensive, five-hour new version of Moby-Dick with Andy Serkis playing the whale through motion-capture, that is).

But Leavitt’s script, and Howard’s direction of it, piles one Hollywood narrative convention after another onto a story that is anything but conventional. Chase leaves a pregnant wife (Charlotte Riley) at home, who gives him a metal token on a chain necklace to remember her by (she probably couldn’t afford a locket with her picture in it). Pollard and Chase are set up as contrasting rivals: Pollard is an inexperienced aristocratic dandy who gets the command over the more experienced Chase, to whom it was promised by the enterprise’s financiers, through his august family connections, which are held above Chase’s own modest “landsman” origins. The denouement concerning the backing company’s attempts to whitewash the inquiry into the tragedy of any reference to a destructive whale, which might discourage investors and drive sailors away from whaling, struck me as just a bit too rich, as well.

The sinking of the Essex by the great whale, meanwhile, is underwater CG murkiness, cracking timber and hurrying men, rushing water and bursting flame, a sequence both frantically overbusy and strangely inert. Howard cannot even meet halfway with the macabre horror of the cannibalism that the surviving whalers must resort to in order to survive two months stranded at sea in whaleboats, asking composer Roque Baños for standard-issue sad piano music on the score and having his characters steadfastly refer to their cannibalism as the unthinkable “abomination” (did they mean homosexual intercourse, I kept wondering?).

Chris Hemsworth, who is less an actor than a kind of human multi-bit screwdriver, is less the film’s star than its primary engine, to mix mechanical metaphors just a smidgeon. On the Essex or in its whaleboats, his Owen Chase is less a fully-formed person than a cog in its complex machine, impossible to separate from, say, the rigging in any meaningful way. To call him unreflective here is a tremendous understatement; indeed, besides scant moments of Holland’s shock and horror and some brief late work from Cillian Murphy as Chase’s longtime friend facing his certain end on a barren island, there is very little actorly recognition of the depth of the sailors’ predicament that sticks with you.

Ron Howard is not a reflective filmmaker, but he is technically proficient to such an extent that this proficiency becomes the point of his films, banishing any numinous aura that may threaten to linger. This was greatly to his advantage in his best film, Apollo 13, wherein technical proficiency was celebrated as a kind of determined low-key romantic heroism in front of the camera as well as behind it. The techniques of whaling receive this sort of burnished treatment in In the Heart of the Sea, but the deeper philosophical questions about human nature, about the difficulty of forgiving ourselves for what we do to survive not only the most terrible of ordeals but also each and every day, are given more cursory attention.

Whishaw’s Melville hints to Gleeson’s Nickerson that his fiction based on the Essex events would steer clear of invoking the acts of cannibalism but that the metaphorical thrust of the sailors’ ordeal would be preserved. Moby-Dick is about deep and dark human hungers, be they for violent revenge or for artificial light in the nightly darkness, but In the Heart of the Sea barely scratches the surface of these questions even as it suggests that it does more than that. It also clumsily inverts the obsessed pursuit of the white whale by Captain Ahab. The whale that sunk the Essex does not merely haunt the memory of the desperate survivors of its wreck (who, by the historical accounts, never again glimpsed it after it rammed the hull). It follows them for hundred of miles, seemingly merely to effect a staredown with Chase that gestures towards a cross-species commonality of suffering and feeling. It’s one of several attempt to dive deeper than the mere surface of the text in In the Heart of the Sea, and like much of the rest of the film is an intriguing but underfinished disappointment.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Capote

December 10, 2015 Leave a comment

Capote (2005; Directed by Bennett Miller)

Early in Bennett Miller’s masterfully composed, extremely haunting, but oddly unimaginative Capote, a juxtaposition of visual composition serves to establish a central binary opposition of American society. At a lonely farm house in rural Kansas in the 1950s, the four bodies of the Clutter family are found by a friend. Stark vistas of empty space open around the habitation, fields, sky, and horizon isolating the scene of a soon-to-be-infamous crime like the rural life isolates those who live it, imbuing their consciousness with a hermit ideology. But then Miller cuts to the cluttered skyline of New York City and into one of its squeezed buildings, where a crowded, noisy, smoky social gathering claustrophobically clusters around the bright intellectual light of Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), his wit like a flame to these fluttering urban moths. It’s the hoary old country vs. city motif of social identity, but neither pole can anticipate how the events in that farmhouse will draw them together.

Capote – mannered, effete, cosmopolitan, and homosexual – is drawn, compelled almost, to the bloody story of the Clutter murders in Holcomb, Kansas when he comes across it in The New York Times, and asks his editor at The New Yorker magazine (Bob Balaban) to let him cover it. So the metropolis comes to the heartland, as Capote travels to Kansas with childhood friend, research assistant, and literary hopeful Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) along for the ride (her first novel is accepted by a publisher while working with Capote in 1959, something about killing birds). In Kansas, Capote spars with distrustful locals, including the main investigator Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), but gradually scares up one of the most fascinating and indelible true crimes tales in the history of American letters, later published as a bestselling “non-fiction novel”, In Cold Blood.

Truman Capote would ride the fame of In Cold Blood until his death, never completing another book. Capote (Dan Futterman is the screenwriter, based on Gerald Clarke’s book of the same name) has a too-simple psychological explanation for this creative drying-up: the author of In Cold Blood was so emotionally traumatized and morally compromised by the process of researching and writing the book that he retreated into drink, drugs, and moody depression and was thus incapable of following up on it with more work of equivalent quality. Although Capote did destroy his liver with intoxicants before his death in 1984 at the age of 59, his absorption in the international jet set likely had more to do with this than any lingering guilt over the events behind In Cold Blood.

For the purposes of the film, however, Miller and Futterman cannot allow the openly gay libertine writer, self-involved Blue State enclave partisan that he is, to go unaffected by the heartland horrors that he delved into, and especially do not let him off the hook for his role in the oft-delayed execution of the murderers, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.) and Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino). Although Capote obtained good lawyers for their appeals, he was publically accused of doing “less than he might have” to save them from the noose by British critic Kenneth Tynan. Tynan’s acerbic accusation that Capote let them die to give his book an ending is here put into the mouth of his friend Harper Lee, whose own success he fails to acknowledge or celebrate at the premiere of the classic Gregory Peck-headed film based on her bestselling novel.

Capote is especially damning in its assessment of Capote’s perceived betrayal of Smith, the more intelligent and subtly-minded of the two convicted killers. The friendship between Capote and Smith, cultivated over years of jailhouse visits and telephone conversations, becomes the focus of the film, a connection that achieves some depth and affection despite the poisoned terms of its initiation. Hoffman’s mannered, ironically detached Capote is shown shedding his casually ironic sophistication in order to sincerely connect with his interview subjects in Kansas and get the information that he requires, and this is especially evident with Smith (Collins, a journeyman in minor roles, shines here opposite an acknowledged great).

Capote, who was abandoned by his mother and escaped rural Southern poverty to gain his beach-head of literary success, sees a sliver of himself in Smith, an alternate path that he is lucky not to have followed. But he also requires a eyewitness account of the Clutter murders that only Smith can give him for his book (Hickock is a bit of a dimwitted thug and of little use, at least in this film). Capote doesn’t precisely ask what a writer owes his subject in a non-fiction case such as this, or if Smith went to the gallows with Capote still in his debt. But Hoffman’s Capote is consumed and tormented by his subject’s fate anyway, and the late giant of the American acting craft compellingly embodies that consumption and torment as well as Capote’s physical mannerisms and distinctive vocal timbre (hence the Best Actor Oscar, though more likely it was just the guy’s turn to win, as is usually the case).

Capote is so scrupulously well-made and well-acted that it implicitly begs viewers to overlook the very broad and judgemental view it takes towards Truman Capote and how he put together his best-known work. It follows the accepted conventions of the artistic biopic, amplifying the indissoluble bonds between the writer’s self and his work. The idea of separation between artist and art, the vital distance through which most creators manage the fraught landscape of the creative process, is unfathomable. In Cold Blood was at once so hugely successful and its subject matter so far outside of Truman Capote’s milieu and experience of Manhattan cocktail parties and literary soirées, the film posits, that he could not but be deeply affected, and indeed deeply compromised, by it. Capote sells his soul at a Kansas crossroads, per Bennett Miller’s film, in exchange for a book of unquestioned greatness. For a film made with such haunting subtlety, this is far too pat a conclusion, and it diminishes Capote in a manner that technical or aesthetic missteps could not have.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Television Review: The Sopranos – Seasons 1, 2 & 3

December 7, 2015 2 comments

The Sopranos – Seasons 1, 2 & 3 (HBO; 1999-2001)

To a great extent, television as we know it now, at least in its multi-character, interwoven-storylines, serial narrative prestige drama iteration, is the responsibility of The Sopranos. David Chase’s sprawling, intermittently memorable, location-specific New Jersey mafioso saga won nearly every award there was to win (Emmys, Golden Globes, even a pair of Peabodys), ravished every television critics from Newark to the moon, and was a touchstone of American popular culture throughout the first decade of the new century. Its television children include closely-connected creative offshoots (key series writer Terence Winter’s Prohibition-era gangster series Boardwalk Empire and his fellow scripter Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, the heir to The Sopranos‘ zeitgeist-defining crown, are the most obvious ones) and subsequent adult-oriented sagas approximating and expanding its aesthetic and thematic reach (Breaking Bad comes immediately to mind, but every HBO, AMC, and Netflix drama of the past 15 years owes it a debt, at least).

So much was written about The Sopranos, not merely in traditional entertainment media outlets but online, where it was appointment television for an expanding internet critical community, that one might strain to find something of value to say about it at this late juncture. Like its contemporaneous HBO counterpart series The Wire, The Sopranos took a well-established American genre (cop shows for the former, gangster movies for the latter) and the sopranosambitiously expanded its aesthetic, thematic, and metaphorical reach. Centred on New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano (the late, great James Gandolfini) and his web of  family members, “legitimate” and otherwise, The Sopranos does not (at least not in its first three seasons) possess The Wire‘s trenchant liberal sociological conscience. What it does have is one of the most wicked senses of humour in American television history. Spurious labelling as a “drama” aside (what truly defines that classification, beyond the tyranny of running time?), The Sopranos is one of the great comedies of social manners in the history of American entertainment, and its vision coalesces considerably when seen as a satire. This grand comedy just happens to be about criminals who make money from illegal activity and frequently murder people over it.

Consider The Sopranos‘ clearest and most influential precedent: Martin Scorsese’s classic 1990 mobster movie Goodfellas. Not only does The Sopranos share no fewer than 27 cast members with Goodfellas (most prominently Lorraine Bracco, who plays Tony’s astute psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi), it is cut from a similiar aesthetic cloth. Both focus on the mafia in America, yes, but both sing with the rough melody of Italian-American slang and culture, employ soundtrack music to craft meaning both sincere and ironic (the wall of classic rock in Goodfellas vs. the curated selections of The Sopranos, including the witty Henry Mancini/”Every Breath You Take” mash up at the start of Season Three), and are in constant conversation with film history and contemporary social mores. The mobsters in The Sopranos and Goodfellas have seen lots of gangster movies, debate their favourite scenes and moments, and sprinkle their speech with knowing references to the classics of the genre. In the first three seasons of the show at least, this meta element is rarely front and centre; even the second-season arc concerning Tony’s protégé Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) pursuing an interest in screenwriting, a potential gold-mine for meta-commentary on the gangster genre, is utilized primarily for character development and advancement.

What The Sopranos is much more concerned with is contrasting the cutthroat underworld of the mafia, with its codes of conduct, tribute, and violence, with the mundane reality of contemporary American society and culture (which can sometimes be just as cutthroat, let’s not forget). This tension is rife with potential humour, pathos, and deeper import. It is most evident in the series’ anchoring dichotomy between the opposing poles of Tony Soprano’s life: his comfortable, respectable suburban home with his wife Carmela (Edie Falco) and children Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and A.J. (Robert Iler), and the complicated and often dangerous world of mob business that pays for that life. Gandolfini’s Tony is a proud alpha male reared in a vanished time who leads a complex double life that both he and the show’s audience constantly prod and interrogate, seeking to establish which side is a fantasy construction. All of the Sopranos-influenced television dramas mentioned before feature similar protagonists in similar intractable conundrums, from Nucky Thompson to Walter White to Donald Draper.

Where these men tend to flee one half of their double life while disavowing the other half, Tony Soprano is forever made to face up to both. This reluctant self-reflection is catalyzed by his recurring therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi, aimed at penetrating his mental state as he suffers occasional debilitating panic attacks. Melfi is especially interested in Tony’s relationship with his mother (Nancy Marchand), a miserable and manipulative old battle-axe who gives her son no end of headaches (up to and including engineering a hit on him), and his memories of his father, in whose footsteps Tony follows. By the end of the third season, the doctor-patient relationship has migrated through sexual tension, mortal danger, and angry hiatus to reach a sort of wary mutual respect, if not always full and healthy disclosure.

The mobster-in-therapy angle was done in Analyze This, released the same year as The Sopranos premiered (the film is referenced directly by another therapist that Tony sees after breaking off his treatment with Dr. Melfi). Although Tony and Robert De Niro’s mob boss have similar reactions of repulsion to Freudian Oedipal theory, there the similarity between the two texts’ approach to their psychology ends. Both Tony and Dr. Melfi experience dream sequences that delve symbolically into their psyches and the plot turns that face them, from the talking fish that sopranoscemeteryexpress Tony’s guilt and self-loathing over his murder of long-time friend and associate “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero (Vincent Pastore), who had turned government informant, to a fearful symbolist nightmare addressing Dr. Melfi’s rape in a parking garage stairwell (a lurid, soon-forgotten sequence that is not among the show’s proudest moments).

Alongside these psychological delvings, The Sopranos contrasts the mafia realm of illegal clubs and racketeering, sit-downs and hits, made men and capos, with the “straight” world of shopping malls and nursing homes (sorry, “retirement communities”), parent-teacher meetings and football practice, tennis instructors and lawyers. But The Sopranos‘ subterranean satire of American society lies in how the show repeatedly implies that there is not so much difference between organized crime and square life. David Chase hinted at this blurred line between gangsters and the legitimate elite in his 2007 Best Drama Emmy acceptance speech, and it’s gestured towards at various points in the show itself. In a session with Dr. Melfi, Tony verbalizes his contempt for the assumed difference between how he makes his living and how legal capitalism exploits and chews up its consumers and the world they live in. The underhanded quid pro quo of mob business is only a slightly exaggerated version of the inside trading that characterizes the American elite that holds itself above Tony and his ilk, which the mob boss registers while golfing with his doctor neighbour and his country club buddies. This irony is registered in dozens of moments throughout the first three seasons of The Sopranos, notably when Meadow’s acceptance to Columbia University is greased by Carmela’s $50,000 donation towards the construction of a new building on campus. “Morningside Heights gangsters,” mutters Tony, recognizing familiar extortion tactics all too well.

All this talk of social satire, dichotomies, and psychological symbolism short-sells The Sopranos as an engine of pure entertainment, however, which it excels at delivering. Like Mad Men, which likewise had its weaknesses and wrong turns along the way, the writing of The Sopranos is fantastic, witty, and frequently hilarious from line to line, and this is the impression that lingers from watching it. Its actors may be not uniformly strong, but they are given showcase moments and often grab them for themselves (I must have rewound and rewatched Falco’s tremendous reaction to Tony’s weighted hint about the fate of his sister’s fiancee Richie Aprile five times at least).

Even in the midst of saggy stretches of the run, such as in the middle of the third season, the creative team can unleash wonderful left-turn classics like “Pine Barrens”, which intercuts the breakdown of Tony’s and Meadow’s separate current romantic entanglements with Christopher and Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) getting lost in the titular snowy woods where they planned to kill and dump a Russian who owes them money (bonus trivia: the episode was directed by Steve Buscemi, who borrows some of the frigid snow-drifted noir atmosphere of Fargo, which gave him his most famous role). The violence is persistent but not repetitive and (usually) deployed for narrative or character arc purposes above all.

This particular critic won’t have much more to say about The Sopranos‘ legacy for television at this time, as he pauses to consider at the halfway mark of the series. We’ll save that for the conclusion of the six-season run. But much is already clear about this unique and excellent television classic even with 50% of it in the bag, and how its themes and ideas will continue to be expertly drawn out is a matter of anticipation even if it is a fait accompli for much of the rest of the viewing audience.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: Beasts of No Nation

December 3, 2015 3 comments

Beasts of No Nation (2015; Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga)

What are we resolved to make of Beasts of No Nation? Directed and personally shot by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre, True Detective), adapted by Fukunaga from Harvard-educated Nigerian-American writer Uzodinma Iweala’s novel of the same name (which borrows its title from an album by Nigerian musical legend Fela Kuti), Beasts of No Nation is, in most ways, a remarkable film. The story of a West African boy named Agu (Abraham Attah) who is captured by and pressed into the ranks of a rebel army full of child soldiers and led by a charismatic but manipulative Commandant (Idris Elba), it’s frequently visually astonishing, wonderfully acted, and challenging, wrenching, and painfully sad. But it’s also emotionally cynical and sociopolitically sensationalist, bartering away its considerable aesthetic heft more often than it should in exchange for its target audience’s complicity in collaboratively experiencing an “authentic” cinematic expression of the apparently hopeless plight of modern Africa.

Like Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, I can’t shake the echoes of Joseph Conrad’s deeply problematic but nonetheless vital monument of Western literature about Africa in particular and colonialism in general, Heart of Darkness, that resonate through the chambers of Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation. Agu’s journey in the Commandant’s retinue is a shadow of Marlow’s upriver penetration into the horror of the Belgian Congo, and Elba plays the Commandant as an African heir to the brutal feudal lord that Marlow finds there, the colonial boss gone horribly wrong (or insidiously right), Kurtz. But thematically and narratively, this reflection of Europe’s dominant literary model of the African paradigm implies a century-long discursive stasis that the rapid and unpredictable changes in the real-world African continent has lapped many times over. And yet, Africa’s footsteps continue to be haunted by the ghost of Conrad’s work and its profound but disturbing (and limiting) implications.

O’Hehir offers numerous examples of alternate films that present contemporary African life (and even Fukunaga’s specific subject of child soldiers) with a greater breadth and depth of insight, and the recommendations are worth pursuing. But those films are not streaming on Netflix like Beasts of No Nation, and do not feature a rapidly-rising Afro-Briton star like Elba prowling like a shrewd big cat and intoning mantras of twisted militarized collectivism to his pubescent legion. This is an African story that will be noticed, that will be consumed and considered and whose assumptions will be recognized and internalized by a mostly white audience in the industrialized, democratic-capitalist West.

What are those assumptions? The deflating permanence of brutal violence and organized disorder, the exploitation of weakness and desire, the impotence of decency and kindness, and the hegemony of fear, superstition, and predatory plunder. They are Conrad’s assumptions, too, arranged into a penetrative quest narrative construction that is also inescapably a descent into madness and darkness and savagery. Beasts of No Nation doesn’t begin that way. It commences with a sunny prelude of Agu’s innocent bliss in the midst of general poverty that is both a stereotype and the closest thing to a true expression of quotidian African life that Fukunaga has to offer. Agu and his friends run around with the wooden frame of a television set (we see the electronic components standing naked in his family’s home later on), offering to sell this dream machine and then re-enacting scenes from popular entertainment genres for the observer staring through the open space in the frame. It’s a simple but resonant device for expressing an idea of a culture whose dream-fulfillment is its own responsibility but has been left with only remnants of its former colonial hegemon’s expansive cultural and industrial infrastructure to work with.

Agu’s joy is encroached upon and his family is divided into inaccessible refugees and corpses by a brutal civil war, and he is swallowed by the jungle into which he flees, where he falls in with Commandant’s cult-like batallion of irregulars. The Native Defense Force, as they are called, initiates Agu into its ranks via propagandistic discourses, call-and-answer chants, and a tribal spiritual ceremony of mystical bloodthirst (the initiates pass under an arch crowned with human skulls to undergo the liminal ceremony, the clearest nod to Conrad in the film). He also must kill a man by burying a machete in his skull, an image both provocatively true of certain chaotic segments of Africa and purely, off-puttingly lurid. Fukunaga lingers on the scene with portent, daring us to parse the differences. Commandant also keeps his troops in line with buttered words and queasy abuses, including hallucinogenic narcotics. The latter memorably affect Agu’s perception during a vicious assault on an unfriendly village, as the foliage shifts to a sickly crimson tinge as the bloodshed commences (an uncredited borrowing of Irish artist Richard Mosse’s striking tinted photography of African combatants).

Without spoiling too much, Agu emerges from this ordeal intact but deeply changed (although the amazing and naturalistic Attah doesn’t play this landing on a safe shore as any species of redemption), like, one might extrapolate, Africa did from colonialism. But has Africa emerged from colonialism at all? Perhaps in some places, at some times, but then reducing a whole continent of over a billion people to the same determinist set of historical experiences and sociopolitical obstacles is just another form of the discriminatory constructions and damaging stereotypes that justified Europe’s sustained pillaging of Africa in the first place (and perhaps still does). Are cultural texts like Beasts of No Nation, as aesthetically powerful and vaguely well-intentioned as they are, small-scale catalysts in the drawn-out and difficult process of aiding Africans in dispelling the spectres of colonial brutality that continue to haunt them, or are they a contiguous portion of those persistent assumptions? Does a film like this serve to overcome, or does it need to be overcome itself?

For Joseph Conrad at the end of the 19th Century, the answers to these sorts of questions did not present themselves readily in the Africa of the moment. For Cary Joji Fukunaga in the early years of the 21st Century, they still do not. Is this a failure of these artists’ imagination or a statement of their subject’s ineffable complexity and inscrutable obscurity? Maybe a bit of both, although Conrad’s text at least grasps the gnawing anxiety of the unknown and unknowable and enfolds that feeling of philosophical emptiness into the nastier pits of despair and malignancy lurking deep in the Congolese jungle.

In both Heart of Darkness and Beasts of No Nation, brutality survives and thrives where deprivation strangles hope, and organized violence and plunder (the colonial legacy to trump all others) grow like trees watered by blood. The dark metaphorical revelation for a reader of Conrad’s time was that while Marlow expected to discover that Africa’s black core had perverted the trader Kurtz, what he finds is that Kurtz and his ilk brought a greater share of the darkness to those lands themselves. This history is distant but not unglimpsed in Beasts of No Nation, a film more concerned with the delayed aftershocks of that history on the identity and psychology of modern Africans than how the politics and society of modern Africa was shaped by it.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews