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TV Quickshots #26

February 29, 2016 Leave a comment

American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson (FX; 2016)

There’s a certain argument to be made that the protracted mass cultural obsession that was the murder trial of former football star, commercial endorser, and actor Orenthal James Simpson for the killings of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman from late 1994 into 1995 in Los Angeles was the extended birth pangs of the current America. Media sensationalism around crime, overheated celebrity culture, race relations and the police, violence against women, wealth and fame perverting the justice system; all of these societal features and more, while certainly active and apparent prior to this very public case study in their effects, built to a fever pitch during the Simpson trial and have not really waned since.

The O.J. saga is the focus of the first season of FX’s new true crime anthology series American Crime Story, developed by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and given the familiar imprimatur of executive producer and multiple-episode director Ryan Murphy’s acclaimed horror anthology series for the network, American Horror Story. The series begins with the brutal crime and accrues its dramatis personae from there, dramatizing the breathlessly covered major events from early press conferences to the infamous White Bronco chase to the trial itself (which was right on the cusp of commencing at the end of the fourth episode, which aired this past week).

The racial dimension of the trial, taking place in a city still recovering from the riots that followed the Rodney King verdict clearing the LAPD officers who beat the African-American man on camera on the side of a freeway, is not lost and indeed receives a fair airing. But its billing is roughly equal with The People v. O.J. Simpson‘s soft-ironic treatment of the O.J. media circus’ role in foregrounding the rise of reality-show fame machine of the Kardashian clan, the now-deceased patriarch of which, Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer), rose to prominence as O.J.’s friend and lawyer.

Schwimmer’s decent but mildly foolish Kardashian is one of several notable performances among the sprawling cast. The television vet Sarah Paulson (a regular on American Horror Story) is dynamite as the righteous state prosecutor Marcia Clark, who battles valiantly to keep Simpson’s spousal abuse of Nicole front and centre but sees the case repeatedly undermined by media leaks and runaway public perceptions. Paulson has a surprising chemistry with fellow prosecutor Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), who is warned away from the case by members of the African-American community but is brought onto the prosecution team partly to counter the racial discrimination angle favoured by Simpson’s defence team.

That star defence team, clustering around Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s dim and ambiguous “Juice”, is increasingly a source of loopy entertainment value. It’s a perpetual clash of strong personalities and egos: Simpson, Kardashian, the publicity-loving Robert Shapiro (a bizarre, ominous, plastic-faced John Travolta), courtroom veteran in search of redemption F. Lee Bailey (an inconspicuously excellent Nathan Lane), famous defender to the elite Alan Dershowitz (Evan Handler), and civil rights litigator Johnnie Cochran, whose rhetorical style was caricatured frequently during the trial but in Courtney B. Vance’s thoughtful and nuanced performance emerges as an honourable and thorough legal mind, both in tune with and rising above the din of the media circus. But that din remains two decades later, more deafening than it was during O.J.’s “trial of the century” and much more ingrained and normalized because of it.

The Great Train Robbery (BBC; 2013)

In the UK, the crime of the century may not have been quite so sensational but was just as quintessential of a cultural moment. In 1963, a gang of fifteen men held up and robbed a Royal Mail train running between Glasgow and London, divesting it of £2.6 million in cash and melting into the Buckinghamshire countryside. Media and police attention was intense, however, and the robbers’ carefully-laid plans to hide out at a nearby farm until the heat died down had to be hastily abandoned, leading eventually to their capture. Most of the perpetrators of what became known as the Great Train Robbery served long jail sentences for the audacious theft, although some evaded the law for years or even decades.

This true crime story from Britain’s past is told over the course of two 90-minute television films. The first, A Robber’s Tale, details the planning, execution, and precipitous aftermath of the robbery from the point of view of the men who carried it out, with Luke Evans as the ringleader, Bruce Reynolds. The second, A Copper’s Tale, focuses on the police investigation, arrest, and sentencing of the conspirators, with Jim Broadbent as the dogged lead detective Tommy Butler. There’s less of an active contrast in style and signification between these two parts than a continuous narrative, with the police effort practically picking up right where the robbery leaves off.

The robbery portion has the additional frisson of intrigue of a fine caper, opening with a sharp geometrically-composed earlier theft by some members of the gang before building up to the train robbery in meticulous yet breezy detail. Evans, an actor of crisp physical elegance and precision without much emotional nuance, is a fine match for such material, and watching the assuredness drain from his body as the post-theft evasion plans go awry is an eloquent expression of the gang’s predicament. Broadbent, meanwhile, is all determined rigidity of purpose in pursuit of justice for the robbers. He’s certainly capable of it, but it’s not the most effective or compelling segment of his not inconsiderable range. A Copper’s Tale is also shot with a certain incongruity considering its lead: there are multiple slow-motion shots of Broadbent’s Butler and his fellow officers strolling purposefully towards the camera that are supposed to be iconic but end up being a touch laughable.

Since the Great Train Robbery happened in Britain in the early ‘60s, it was invested with generational tensions, at least retroactively in this BBC television film version. These are made explicit by Reynolds on several occasions, as he claims that the robbery was, to his mind, more about the younger generation thumbing its nose at the Establishment than mere greed or lust for wealth. In the climactic meeting between Reynolds and Butler, the cop is dismissive of this line of argument, considering it a specious justification of a serious crime.

Whatever one may think of that, it’s hard to quibble with Reynolds’ outrage at the stiff 30-year sentences for his collaborators. More stringent than even a murder conviction, the sentences for the Great Train Robbers were part of a long British tradition of harsh penalties for property crime, seemed at least partly vindictive on the part of British institutions whose pride was wounded by the blow of the theft, and were not terribly effective as either punishment for the perpetrators or deterrent for potential ones. The Great Train Robbery illustrates the distance between cops and robbers, but also depicts a certain kinship between them that might surprise both parties.

Categories: History, Reviews, Television

Film Review: Hail, Caesar!

February 23, 2016 Leave a comment

Hail, Caesar! (2016; Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)

The surprisingly wonderful new comedy from the Coen Brothers is a triumph of referential subtext over surface text, over rounded characters, over even narrative itself. A deceptively light but truthfully rich and thoughtful position-taking on the symbolic and spiritual function of Hollywood cinema, it compares and contrasts the sparkly bauble of Studio Era film product to the totalizing ideologies of Communism and Catholicism and, with a peculiar twist idiomatic of Joel and Ethan Coen, finds it much more analogous to the latter. The ideological angle is so overt as to nearly transcend the subtextual, but it doesn’t prevent Hail, Caesar! from indulging in masterful sequences of craft and entertainment that are homages to the skilled delights that Old Hollywood deployed with such regularity.

Hail, Caesar! is the title of the both the movie and a movie-within-a-movie here (or one of several), an epic prestige picture of Ancient Rome and Jesus Christ being produced by (the fictional) Capitol Pictures. Its star is classic leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who is kidnapped in the midst of filming by a mysterious group who call themselves The Future, later revealed to be a Communist cell of disaffected film writers and frustrated academics, including Frankfurt School grandee Herbert Marcuse (John Bluthal), and a 220px-hail2c_caesar21_postersurprising benefactor and ringleader (I’ll have to spoil a few things to discuss the film properly and indeed already have, but I’ll leave this twist alone).

As The Future fills Baird’s largely-empty head with Marxist notions, the studio’s head of production and legendary “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) attempts to find his star before the picture is imperiled and, more importantly, before the press, represented by gossip journalist twins Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), makes a story of the absence. The harrassed Mannix is also managing other potential crises, including the scandalous pregnancy of the unwed synchronized swimming actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) and the extremely awkward studio-mandated image change of singing cowboy hayseed Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), while also considering a lucrative corporate headhunting offer from Lockheed for his services as well as his own intense Catholic guilt, which warrants daily confessions to an increasingly exasperated priest.

The kidnapping and ransom plot of Hail, Caesar! is threadbare and a little rote, a return to a favoured well by the Coens that could be criticized as lazy writing or understood as self-aware (and self-effacing) meta-commentary of Hollywood’s own habitual recourse to conventional tropes. Considering the ideas that the film is otherwise playing with, I favour the latter reading. Anne Helen Petersen wrote insightfully for Buzzfeed about what the film has to say about Hollywood’s construction of images and of meaning through them, while Jeet Heer shared a series of Twitter thoughts about its suggestions about cinema, religion, and politics. I may trespass on their interpretive territory, but have no interest in simply regurgitated their arguments, so check those pieces out. But there’s little doubt that Hail, Caesar! sees the dream-factory of 1950s Hollywood as the spiritual heir of the Roman Catholic Church, engaged in an image-centric neo-Counter-Reformation against both modern secular cynicism and totalizing (and anti-religious) political theories like Marxism.

Don’t believe me? Consider the text’s own evidence. Mannix (a sympathetic and scrubbed-up version of the much nastier real-life studio fixer of the same name) is a devout Catholic, as mentioned, and once his belief is established, the Coens and master cinematographer Roger Deakins set about melding his faith in God with his faith in movies. One beautiful shot sees Mannix silhouetted next to the three crucifixes of Calvary on a soundstage, his faith and his work in composed harmony despite his questioning in confession if they are not incongruous. The priest tells Mannix that God wants us to do what is right, and Mannix, despite all the attendant wrong and sin in the movie business, believes it not only to be good but to be, in a practical sense, God himself. No wonder that he is hesitant about the Lockheed offer, as the headhunter shows him a photo of the hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll, a more terrifying example of man playing God.

In one early scene, Mannix brings together Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Jewish leaders, ostensibly to obtain their approval of the script for Whitlock’s Rome/Christ movie, to ensure that it does not offend any of them. Some theological bickering ensues, with the rabbi in particular dismissive of the non-divine “Nazarene”, but Mannix obtains the shrugged assent of all denominations in the end. The great Judeo-Christian faiths are here subordinate to Hollywood’s image-making, to their graven icon of the Christ, and are summoned to rubber-stamp it. The joke (because this is Coens, there is always a joke) is that Mannix promises them that the film-within-a-film’s depiction of Christ is tasteful, indeed he’s barely shown in it; he’s also barely shown in Hail, Caesar! and we never see his face, an approach reminiscent of the Islamic prohibition on representing the Prophet Muhammad. The vague absence of the deity comes up again as Mannix watches dailies of the biblical epic and Saul of Tarsus is struck down by the power and glory of God, but that glory is represented only by a droll plate reading: “Divine presence yet to be shot”.

Hollywood’s religious but ungodly dimension is made explicit near the film’s end, as Whitlock returns to the set of “Hail, Caesar!” to deliver his Roman general character’s speech of revelation and conversion to the monotheistic faith of the crucified Christ. The cadences of Clooney’s voice build, Carter Burwell’s score swells with inspirational fervour, and crew members glance up from their mundane behind-the-scenes tasks with shining eyes. Whitlock’s character is coming to Jesus, but the common faith of the studio production team is the movies themselves. But this is the Coens, so at the emotional pinnacle of the speech Whitlock forgets the final, key line: “faith”.

This happens time and again in Hail, Caesar!, as impeccable and wondrous productions on the Capitol lot summon transcendent imagery for our astonished eyes before dissolving into frustrated cuts at the last moment. The magical watery Bubsy Berkeley geometric patterns of Moran’s mermaid musical break down when the grumbling pregnant starlet is pulled out of her uncomfortable costume. Doyle’s incredible horseback stunt work (he later casually shows off from fancy rope tricks, too) is cut short as he is rushed off to star in a sophisticated black-and-white drawing-room comedy of manners of the Ernst Lubitsch sort directed by the urbane Englishman Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) to which he (and his western range accent) is comically ill-suited. Even the spectacular highlight sequence, the giddy “No Dames” sequence from a dancing sailor musical starring the Gene Kelly-esque Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), peters out after over-the-top awesomeness.

And yet these scenes, like Whitlock’s speech about the movies as religious faith, express deeper hopes and desires with blazing images: for Moran, a fantasy of feminine harmony; for Doyle, the grace and joy of the rural cowboy contrasted with the alienated discomfort of urban life (although he finds a good balance between the two during an endearing date with a Carmen Miranda-like Latina actress, played by Veronica Osorio and winkingly named Carlotta Valdez); and for Gurney and his fellow dancing sailors, a long-suspected homosexual subtext bursting unmissably into view (although Gurney’s own guarded secret, revealed by a hilarious and ironic visual homage to Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, is quite different).

The opposing view to the glowing (but problematized) assessment of Hollywood’s role as a beacon of faith to America’s unfaithful masses is The Future’s Marxist-Leninist interpretive paradigm. Leaning heavily on the Frankfurt School of Marcuse and their conception of mass entertainment as manipulative propaganda for the entrenched capitalist order, The Future are a club of disaffected leftist screenwriters who seek to embed Marxist ideas in the movies and believe a high-profile convert like Baird Whitlock will legitimize their cause. They meet in a toney Malibu beachside mansion to discuss their treasured theories with a certain comedic lack of awareness (“We’re not talking about money, we’re talking about economics!”), eat finger sandwiches, and have overt ties to the Stalinist Soviet Union. If these self-important, traitorous buffoons are the best and brightest of the Hollywood Left, the Coens seem to be saying (with tongues at least partially in cheeks), then the McCarthyist blacklist can’t come soon enough.

When Whitlock returns to the Capitol studio lot, he repeats the conspiratorial theories of The Future to Mannix, casting aspersion on the exploitative owners of the means of production at the head of the studio and implying that his days as a good soldier are over. Mannix replies by beating the objections out of his star (his clearest instance of resemblance to his historic namesake) and cowing him into finishing the film: “Hail, Caesar! A Story of the Christ”. The ironic title of the film-within-a-film emphasizes Hollywood’s conquest and secularization of Judeo-Christian belief-systems for its own ends, be those ends capitalist profit, ideological indoctrination, or as much of both as can safely coexist. In Hail, Caesar!, Hollywood movies may retain a certain religiously-derived function of imagistic storytelling, but it never questions that the studio system, in its classic era and even today, renders unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Seven Five

February 20, 2016 Leave a comment

The Seven Five (2014; Directed by Tiller Russell)

The Seven Five is a particularized and spirited document of police corruption in Brooklyn, New York in the 1980s and early ’90s. Imbued with the prosaic, bruised eloquence of the Eastern Seaboard white working class, it relates the remarkable tale of a cop who became a serial gangster. Michael Dowd, a police officer of the NYPD’s 75th Precinct during the cocaine-trade crime wave of the ’80s, starting breaking the law he had sworn and was paid to uphold, and found it not only lucrative but thrilling.

Working with a growing “crew” of corrupt cops, most consistently his longtime partner Ken Eurell, Dowd embarked on his criminality with relatively modest thefts of drug money from dealers and users that he busted (victimless, unreportable crimes, he felt them to be, considering that those he robbed were “perps” themselves). Soon enough, though, Dowd and Eurell became enmeshed with the operation of rising Dominican drug dealer Adam Diaz, collecting regular payments to protect his cash runs, bust his competitors, and pass along information of planned Narcotics and DEA raids and other police activity. They even began to deal drugs themselves through an intermediary on Long Island, and Dowd especially engaged in a freewheeling, indulgent lifestyle of gambling, fast cars, drug addiction, and alcohol abuse.

Dowd’s testimony in front of the investigating commission that finally saw him brought to justice alternates with interviews with the principals and archival photographs and subtle re-enactments. Dowd, Eurell, and especially the dapper, brash Diaz are candid about and maybe even a little proud of their exploits (two of the three did time for them; I won’t spoil which two). What emerges is a true crime narrative both unbelievably and perfectly believable, at once extraordinary and, given the nature of the institution of the police and its prevailing codes, practically inevitable. Much of the questioning during Dowd’s testimony concerns what makes a cop “good” or “bad”, and the repeated message that comes through is that the meanings of those terms are often blurry in the police context, if not entirely inverted.

But the other police that the film encounters are never as reflective and philosophical about these indistinct lines as Dowd has come to be. One federal officer (a “good” cop, at least in relative terms) whose path crossed Dowd’s claims that he made him as a “perp” rather than a fellow cop. He says it with confidence (not at all inflated by hindsight, I’m sure), as if this is a distinction that can be observed with the naked, trained eye and as if our collective safety ought to be entrusted to men who fervently believe that it can be and that they are the ones to make that judgement. It’s a troubling moment that’s as much about thought-position of the officer talking about it than Dowd, the man the judgement is applied to.

Even while breaking countless laws and running interference for murderous drug dealers, Dowd felt a deep sense of commitment and brotherhood towards his fellow officers, and is shaken while sharing the story of the death of a transit cop that he rushed to the hospital after being shot. Other police question his right of access to that fellow-feeling, given his abuses, but never the wagon-circling habits that make holding police to account for misconduct so fiendishly difficult (and that protected Dowd despite his poor reputation in the precinct for years).

Although it’s a story from a very different and much more dangerous time in New York City, The Seven Five‘s focus on the mentality of America’s police and the codes of behaviour that govern them provides insight into the current moment of Black Lives Matter and heightened awareness of and pushback against abuses of power in the nation’s law enforcement. Michael Dowd was a predatory monster, but he was a monster of a corrupt and skewed system’s making. That same system, and the general indoctrination of police officers that it perpetuates and indeed relies upon in order to function and survive, left needlessly dead bodies in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, Toronto, and New York City itself. Subtly but firmly, The Seven Five reminds us that the us vs. them mentality of American policing is a moral sinkhole. Dowd dove in gladly, Eurell less so, but both were vulnerable to this quagmire, as ordinary citizens are vulnerable to the police who cannot escape it.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: The Fifth Estate

February 17, 2016 1 comment

The Fifth Estate (2013; Directed by Bill Condon)

For its brief, blazing moment of iconoclastic, order-shaking maximum influence, WikiLeaks might have been the defining force of our age. An uncompromising news site specializing in publishing top-secret information leaked by anonymous sources whose identities its sophisticated platform protected, WikiLeaks is inextricably identified with its founder, the zealously anti-establishmentarian Australian activist hacker Julian Assange; indeed, WikiLeaks has always been understood as an extension of Assange’s rebelliously extreme free-speech ideology, as a version of himself coded, linked, and hosted for all the world to either admire, hate, or both at once. Assange and WikiLeaks accessed a deep undercurrent of antipathy towards the prevailing neoliberal democratic capitalist order, a distrust of its promises of prosperity, a pained suspicion that the shimmering surfaces of the West’s easy confidence and visible luxury was a living fantasy made possible only by a concealed reservoir of suffering and exploitation. Conspiracy theorists, no small constituency in our multifarious mass culture, found much to interest them there as well.

Assange’s WikiLeaks tapped into the revolutionary potential of the internet unlike any other force ever has, marshalling it to violently pull back the curtain and insist that the world pay closer attention to the man behind it. The system that governs our lives runs on secrets, and WikiLeaks let us see those secrets in all of their voluminous detail, warts and all. That system pushed back after Assange and WikiLeaks masterminded a series of bombshell releases through 2010, exposing first American military activity and practice in Iraq and Afghanistan and then the inside workings of its diplomatic network with the aid and patina of mainstream legitimacy of media giants the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel. Charged with sexual assault in Sweden and weakened by public relations miscalculations, the increasingly paranoid and fabulist Assange was forced to hide out in the Ecuadorean embassy in London (where he remains to this day), his friends and collaborators alienated from him, and his grand cause and mission gravely wounded.

This is a majestic, complex, deeply resonant saga with tragic contours and vital lessons about the issues and struggles of the increasingly untenable contemporary political, social, and moral condition, the complacency and dangerous acceptance of which Assange hoped to disrupt and challenge in the finest moments of WikiLeaks. The Fifth Estate, Bill Condon’s fictionalized cinematic account of Assange’s rise and WikiLeaks’ moonshot whistleblow, almost completely blows its chance to tell this story of our age as a film for the ages. It fritters away an utterly uncanny Assange impersonation from Benedict Cumberbatch that is miraculously both sympathetically observed and absolutely damning. But more than anything, Condon’s film is adrift from the milieu of high-tech, leading-edge information advocacy in which it is based. There’s something awkwardly, laughably touristic about The Fifth Estate that it never overcomes, no matter what approach it decides to take.

The Fifth Estate is nominally a technological thriller, but really it’s a species of buddy road movie. Cumberbatch’s Assange meets and begins to work with a German programmer, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl), on the fledgling WikiLeaks, exposing corruption around the world from centrally-manipulated Kenyan elections to tax-dodging Swiss banks. Despite Assange’s eccentric, misanthropic, and often rude manner (“I’ve heard people say I dangle on the autistic spectrum”, he admits in one of his occasional open, honest moments) and the disapproval of his girlfriend Anke (Alicia Vikander), Domscheit-Berg believes in the WikiLeaks mission, working hard to spread its gospel and convert new apostles to its church of the Truth. They meet and plan and leak information and self-promote in a series of coffee shops, artists’ communes, and insufferable tech conventions and thought-leaders symposiums across the Continent. The thread of the plot is woven by the friendship between these two men, Cumberbatch as the Aspergers-ish asshole genius (a stretch for him, I know) and the likable Brühl grounding their revolutionary enterprise with an avuncular manner and the EU’s most pinchable cheeks. WikiLeaks’ ultimate Icarus-like fall from great neo-journalistic heights is couched in this film as a consequence of their fractured partnership. The end of a revolution as the end of a bromance.

Pale and sibilant, smug and languid, driven and passionate, compelling and repelling, Cumberbatch’s Assange is the key feature of The Fifth Estate, and he’s written and played as a sort of unreliable trickster hero-villain. Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight is an unexpected point of reference, with Assange accounting for his distinctive bone-white locks with various explanations – some serious, some not, none of them true – much as the Joker gave his leering grin of a facial scar different origin stories at different times. He’s difficult and charming in fits and starts, prone to wild swings of poor behaviour at the slightest provocation: invited to dinner at Daniel’s parents’ house, Assange veers into monstrous rudeness and walks out once he learns that his friend’s activist nom de guerre alias (Schmitt) came from the family cat. His own youthful hacker handle, Mendax, stems pretentiously from the Roman poet Horace, of course. His juvenile betrayal at the hands of his hacking confrères has instilled in him a deep distrust of others, and it’s firmly suggested that his childhood with his mother in an Aussie cult known as the Family led to an unorthodox socialization and emotional formation, to put it mildly. Cumberbatch weaves all of this psychological detail into Assange’s glances and pauses, an impeccable tapestry of raging, colliding neuroses.

It’s a shame that Condon’s film is consistently unworthy of such a nuanced and troubling depiction of a major public figure. It’s evident early on that the cascade of digital information and complexity of a worldwide network will be portrayed with a heavy, stultifying touch: Matrix-style scrolling columns of binary zip by, programming efforts get conventional montages, and WikiLeaks’ networked submissions platform is visualized as an infinite office floor of desk stations open to the sky; when **SPOILER** Domscheit-Berg takes it down near the film’s end, he smashes overhead lightning and flips desks in slow motion. It’s moronically cornpone, and far too much of the movie is as well.

The Fifth Estate also casts too wide a net, tacking on a subplot focusing on U.S. State Department officials (Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci), a White House spokesman (Anthony Mackie), and a Libyan informer (Alexander Siddig) dealing with the fallout of WikiLeaks’ release of the war logs and diplomatic cables, the latter of which slipped out in unredacted form (as Assange always insisted upon: “We do not edit”) and exposed secret sources around the globe. These releases allowed WikiLeaks’ critics in the American defence establishment and political and media elite to discredit Assange’s authority by accusing him of having “blood on his hands”, and when combined with the Swedish charges and his embassy confinement (which are dealt with only briefly in the denouement), this constituted a serious body-blow to his larger cause. While The Fifth Estate does not show Siddig’s Dr. Haliseh or any other such source meeting an untimely end because of the leaks, it treats the danger they faced with utter conviction.

The message is clear: despite his righteous intent, Assange went too far when he went after the government of the United States of America and its allies. Not that any concerted, conspiratorial collusions by the powers that be against Assange and his project are ever shown; the film is not as paranoid as its subject. The Fifth Estate does a pantomime of Assange’s principled iconoclastic activism but subscribes to conventional wisdom about the inevitable self-destructive tendency of the erectors of barricades throughout history, be they actual or digital. The film musters outrage only at individual, human-sized atrocities that WikiLeaks exposes: the shocking video of a deadly 2007 Baghdad airstrike with audio from glib and heartless American gunners, the murder of Assange’s Kenyan co-activists. Assange sees a wider panorama of corruption and insidious secrecy and seeks above all to drag it kicking and screaming into the light of day, but The Fifth Estate finally resolves to clutch its pearls and decide that some things are best kept hidden. This story of a man who sought to shake the establishment shores up that threatened superstructure and defends its imperatives, both political and aesthetic, in the end. And it’s a definite disappointment.

Categories: Film, Reviews

TV Quickshots #25

February 14, 2016 Leave a comment

War and Peace (BBC; 2016)

The BBC’s new serialized adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s sprawling epic novel of aristocratic love and suffering in the time of Russia’s war against Napoleon was a massive critical and popular hit in Britain and has also aired on this side of the Atlantic on A&E, Lifetime, and the History Channel. And for good reason: cannily scripted by Andrew Davies (best known for penning the widely-beloved Jennifer Ehle-Colin Firth Pride & Prejudice for the Beeb in the mid-1990s) and directed ably by Tom Harper, this was lavish, spectacular, wondrously acted and tremendously well-conceived television that did fine credit to what may be the greatest novel ever written.

At six-and-a-half hours, this War and Peace took less than half of the time to tell its panoramic decade-long story as the BBC’s last kick at this particular Russian literary can back in 1972. Indeed, in running time, approach, sensibility, and aesthetic swirl, the 2016 BBC War and Peace is closest to Sergei Bondarchuk’s seminal Soviet-era film version, although it focuses its emotional surges for more shameless impact than the 1967 seven-plus-hour multi-part movie did, invested with a certain chilly Communist calculation as it was. Of course, seeing as war-and-peaceBondarchuk’s marathon production spanned six years, allowed characters to age noticeably as they would have over a 10 years of the novel’s events, and had more extensive access to Russian historic sites and heritage props than did the new BBC version (not to mention the virtually unlimited funding of a national propaganda system), its authenticity cannot really be challenged. Bondarchuk also allowed both the narrative of Napoleon’s attack on Russia in 1812 and the central romantic triangle between Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (played here by James Norton), Count Pierre Bezukhov (Paul Dano), and Natasha Rostova (Lily James) more room to breathe and develop (at the expense of the novel’s other rich subplots, it must be said). If this new War and Peace has a weakness, it lies in the rapid, seemingly coincidental stacking-up of dramatic incident resulting from the otherwise laudable decision to include as much of the book material as possible. Things happen at a pace that can seem almost frantic at times, and emotional heft can sometimes be a casualty of this arrangement.

If this is a weakness of the Davies/Harper War and Peace, it has very few others. Magnificently shot and designed on the basis of art history, suffused with telling detail and a certain Anglicized version of Russian robustness, with an utterly fantastic score full of resonant Eastern Orthodox choral music, War and Peace is a technically handsome production that rises into transcendence at moments both expected and unexpected. It includes and nicely stages more of the novel than I would have thought possible, including a higher percentage of the subplot of Nikolai Rostov (Jack Lowden), Marya Bolkonskaya (Jessie Buckley), and her father the old Prince Bolkonsky (Jim Broadbent) than any adaptation of similar length has yet managed to allocate space for. Broadbent, who has never been anything less than enjoyable onscreen, is an inspired choice to embody the old Prince’s peevish cruelty and strained levity, but Buckley is truly remarkable, finding the glowing soul inside Marya’s sadness and piety that the boyish Nikolai falls for (Lowden is overwhelmed by his hairdo and hussar’s wardrobe). The wrenching but idiosyncratic moment between Marya and her dying father, maybe my favourite single episode in the book, even makes the cut, though its affect falls prey to the rushed pace of the plot.

Still, War and Peace is about the central romance and its harsh contrast with the destructive war, and this BBC serial is stronger with the former than the latter. With a CG assist, the battles have a convincing scope, though they aren’t a scratch on Bondarchuk’s breathtaking sweep (not that the Beeb could muster the Red Army for their cameras, mind you). Norton, Dano, and James are all excellent, and their key moments, their hopes, joys, pains, and epiphanies, are sympathetically and movingly rendered. The climax of the triangle receives the pause of beautiful reflection that much of the series lacks and begs for, and along with the series’ closing scene comes closest to visually approximating Tolstoy’s fair-minded philosophy of big-hearted humanism.

What this War and Peace gets most vitally correct about Tolstoy’s classic is the flip-side of its greatest weakness. The enforced haste of its compression also gives this century-and-a-half-old story a verve and dramatic momentum that no filmed adaptation has quite managed to capture. Despite its 1,200-page sprawl and frequent digressions into amateurish historical theorizing, what strikes the reader about War and Peace is its surprising vitality and vividness. Dialogue crackles with wit and emotional intensity, hunts and sleigh rides are interludes of exhilaration, battle sequences as are frightening and adrenaline-fueled as Hollywood action movies. The BBC pares down War and Peace to its essentials (plus a little more), and the result is not only lavish and spectacular but potently real and enervated. A new high bar has been set for historical-literary drama on television, and it’s an effort not to be missed.

Scott & Bailey (ITV; 2011-Present)

Scott & Bailey is a sturdy police procedural made of superficially similarly feminist materiel as the much more gripping and challenging The Fall. The series runs the travails of the contemporary British woman through a cop-shop setting and the populist mainstream melodrama milieu of Northern England, specifically Manchester in this case.

As such, it stars a former Coronation Street mainstay, Suranne Jones, as Detective Constable Rachel Bailey, who investigates cases for the Major Incident Team of the Manchester Metropolitan Police (a force which does not exist) alongside sister-in-arms DC Janet Scott (Lesley Sharp) under the command of DCI Gill Murray (Amelia Bullmore). Jones as Bailey seems to have transplanted a set of soap opera personal problems to this more straight copper drama, struggling to keep her police work on track between an unhealthy relationship with a duplicitous solicitor (Rupert Graves) in Series 1, a troubled brother in Series 2, and a lower-class mother in Series 3. Scott, meanwhile, tries to balance work and raising her kids while enduring her maddening husband and fending off persistent advances from office colleague Andy Roper (Nicholas Gleaves). And, of course, there are always murders to solve, too.

Scott & Bailey may telegraph its murder mysteries and indeed most of its plot turns, but the appeal of these television packages tends to lie in the chemistry of their leads (which is reasonably ample) and the crackle of its writing (which is snappy enough). Scott and Bailey, and Murray as well, encounter any number of patriarchal and misogynistic obstacles and irritations, from the criminals they investigate as well as from the men they work with, date, marry, are related to, or befriend. They parry and sometimes painfully absorb these blows with a particular strength of character and thick skin that England’s popular culture has long associated with the grey industrial North, yes. But Scott and Bailey build up a collective defence from each other’s support and competence as well. Like the stockaded early medieval castle that their combined names in the show’s title puns upon, this female detective team fortifies itself against external threats and nuisances.

Categories: Literature, Reviews, Television

Film Review: Deadpool

February 11, 2016 1 comment

Deadpool (2016; Directed by Tim Miller)

Deadpool might never be better than in its opening credits sequence, and the scene tells you all that you really need to know about this raunchy, irreverent, hyper-self-aware new Marvel Studios/20th Century Fox superhero film. Backed by a soundtrack of ironic, retro AM radio pop, director Tim Miller runs a CG-assisted slow-motion pan of a scene of mayhem and violence, as the titular red-and-black-suited wisecracking antihero (played by Ryan Reynolds, whose People Magazine Sexiest Man Alive cover floats jokingly past) athletically beats down and/or humiliates a few thugs in a SUV in mid-air freeway flip-over (one shot lingers on his gloved hand, gripping his enemy’s briefs for an action wedgie). Meanwhile, the onscreen credits snarkily acknowledge the collection of genre archetypes that make up the cast (“The Hot Chick”; “A British Villain”; “Comic Relief”) and insult the top-line production crew (“Produced by Asshats”; “Directed by An Overpaid Tool”).

The superhero blockbuster genre is a terribly overinflated balloon in terms of creative self-importance, mythic grandeur, and commercial hegemony at the moment, ripe for puncturing. Deadpool doesn’t so much take a pin to this balloon as a Bowie knife, redolent of its surfeit of hard-R violence. Its raucous humour, mostly of the crude (yet not necessarily unfunny) adult sort common to American big-screen comedy, also tips over into meta-commentary and in-joke referentiality, mostly at the expense of superhero franchises (especially Fox’s X-Men series, of which Deadpool is ostensibly a tangential part) and frequently at its own expense, too. But its satire flutters and jabs at the surface only, slapping a “Kick Me” sign on the back of the genre rather than dissecting it and deconstructing its prevailing tropes and assumptions, which it generally reproduces and relies upon to move itself forward.

This is not to say that Deadpool is not appealing or even innovative with its South Park-ification of the superhero movie (its pitch-perfect marketing campaign certainly has been). Quite often hilarious in its mock-everything approach, Miller’s film is structured for its first half around the aforementioned SUV rollover fight, part of a larger action sequence on an elevated freeway into which flashbacks detailing the backstory of Deadpool are intercut. Before the superpowers and the suit, Wade Wilson was a snide mercenary for hire with a sneaky heart of gold operating out of a shady underworld bar operated by his buddy Weasel (T.J. Miller). There he meets Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), as edgy and wild as he. The whirlwind romance between these misfits appears headed for a happily-ever-after ending until a terminal cancer diagnosis drives Wade to accept a mysterious offer to cure him and save his life, but at a great cost. After a torturous extended round of experimentation at the hands of that British villain, Ajax, a.k.a. Francis (Ed Skrein), Wade becomes Deadpool, superfast and superstrong and able to heal from nearly any wound but also horribly disfigured and cut off from the woman he loves. Hence the freeway pursuit: the climax of a long vendetta of vengeance against Francis, whose abilities mirror his own.

What’s clear right away from this brief synopsis is that for all of its self-convinced unconventionality and aggressive impertinence about the genre, Deadpool still dutifully checks the major boxes of the superhero origin movie and runs on highly conventional narrative engines: love and revenge. It’s too invested in the very tropes that it points knowingly at in the brilliant credits jokes to really subvert them when it might have mattered, but Deadpool‘s relentless irony in the face of those very predictable tropes invests it with a verve and energy that superhero flicks rarely muster in their ponderous decadent stage.

Ryan Reynolds, an acquired taste that I’ve never really acquired, is the buzzing electron here, a real sharp-tongued firecracker. Reynolds nails the very quick and difficult comedic timing of the character, his mix of dark-cloud cynicism and silver-lining romantic righteousness, and his frequent pop-culture references and fourth-wall breakings, including a breaking of the fourth wall inside another breaking of the fourth wall that is a bit of cleverness that the movie can’t help patting itself on the back over (to the detriment of the moment). He’s been nipping around the superhero genre for awhile, as DC’s failed Green Lantern in 2011 and as a much-altered version of Deadpool in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine (both characters are on the receiving end of punchy jokes here), but he appears to have found his solid gig.

That gig will clearly overlap with the continuing X-Men franchise in this more haphazardly-built side of the Marvel cinematic shared universe, whose trappings suffuse Deadpool and even provide it with a couple of settings and characters, namely Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, Deadpool’s rigidly metallic and sincere Russian foil Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and sullen but powerful teenaged mutant Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), seemingly chosen for inclusion in the film simply so that Deadpool can make fun of her hero name. The protagonist’s ceaseless wisecracking often falls hard on the X-Men movies with meta-dimensions: there are jibes about Wolverine actor Hugh Jackman’s Australian accent, and when Colossus vows to drag Wade back to the X-Mansion to see the Professor, he asks, “Stewart or McAvoy?”

This is all to say that while Deadpool considers itself to be a merciless ginsu knife of satire, carving up the superhero movie with irreverent acumen, it leaves its supposed target not only intact but leaner and more effective as a mechanism of weaponized entertainment. Deadpool can’t deconstruct the genre without fundamentally resigning its own unquestionable membership in the club, which it cannot really do while staying true to its comic book source (Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, a fine piece of work in many ways, had the same basic issue). Hilarious, imbued with momentum, and efficiently fun, Deadpool nonetheless leans heavily on genre conventions in a way that is vaguely disingenuous. It presents itself as a brash new breed of superhero movie, but what it really does is whittle away many of the growing pretentions of the genre through mockery. I certainly didn’t love Deadpool, but this movie will do brisk business that I haven’t much real cause to begrudge it. Added bonus: Wade Wilson and I own the exact same bathrobe. Critical hair-splitting aside, that must count for something.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Big Game

February 7, 2016 Leave a comment

Big Game (2014; Directed by Jalmari Helander)

An appreciative pastiche of the sort of dimwitted, morally unambiguous action movies that Hollywood churned out with arrogant imperialist panache in the 1980s and 1990s, Big Game transposes a fistfighting President, devious, well-armed terrorists, and concerned national security officials in secret Pentagon control rooms to the vast mountainous forests of northern Finland. There, a 13-year old boy must protect the President of the United States from those threatening his life while also hunting down and killing a wild animal to prove to his father and fellow hunters that he is now a man.

Big Game sounds like it should be completely nuts, but it oddly isn’t. It also sounds rather ambitious, but is in fact fairly low-budget and reasonably brisk without exactly being limited in scope (though its action sequences are a bit proscribed). Directed by Finnish filmmaker Jalmari Helander and co-written by Helander and Petri Jokaranta, Big Game doesn’t have a whole lot on its mind, ultimately, but it does muster both some vestigial admiration for the masculine rituals of rural hunting culture as well as simultaneous comedic derision for the smug, thoughtless manner that American power is applied globally. In this overheated fantasy telling at least, the hegemony of the world’s dominant superpower is so fragile that the only thing safeguarding it from disaster is a Finnish teenager who can barely release an arrow from a bow.

That teenager is Oskari (Onni Tommila), scion of a Lapland clan of formidable hunters who has ventured alone into the remote forest on a proud rite of masculine passage. On his heels follows the encouragement of his father (played by Tommila’s real-life father, Jorma) and the doubts of the other hunters in his prowess. Oskari is set on a (very literal) collision course with the AWOL POTUS, William Alan Moore (Samuel L. Jackson), whose survives the downing of Air Force One by surface-to-air missiles fired by the motiveless (apparent) terrorist Hazar (Mehmet Kurtulus) with the collusion of Moore’s embittered Secret Service agent, Morris (Ray Stevenson). Oskari isn’t terribly impressed by Moore’s Yankee posturing (he claims the boy’s ATV as American property in order to transport him) and won’t take him to civilization until he becomes a man (ie. kills himself a deer). The mismatched pair bond by the campfire before engaging in a high-stakes escape from Morris and Hazar, while the Vice-President (Victor Garber), a canny old CIA hand (Jim Broadbent), and Army grandees watch the drama, agape, via satellite uplink from “the Pentagon Headquarters” (there are a few such endearing outsider’s inaccuracies, and it’s not entirely certain that they aren’t intentional).

Helander recombines bombastic, ideologically regressive American blockbusters like Air Force One, Die Hard, Red Dawn, and many more of that ilk into a film that is both a homage to the dumb, violent jingoism of the genre (indeed, often a mere parroting) and an almost imperceptibly subversive parody of it. Jackson’s President Moore is characterized as hapless and soft, a radar echo of the right-wing funhouse-mirror caricature of Barack Obama. Hapless though he may be, he proves hardy and hard to find (with Oskari’s help), to the continuous frustration of the brass back in Washington. It is repeatedly said, emphasized and underlined, that the whole missing President debacle is embarrassing (what, then, was Iraq?, one is tempted to ask), and perspiring generals are mortified that the Navy SEALs are forever 30 minutes away from saving the day.

To a great extent, Big Game is a standard populist cultural response to the almost ungraspable dimensions of American power and influence: all of these pompous, self-important people who run things don’t know as much as regular folk! This has been such a common trope in American popular culture (much of which is at least funded if not purposely crafted by the very elites that it purports to lampoon) that it has been taken seriously enough by enough people to form the form the basis for an insurgent movement in one of the nation’s two dominant political parties.

That Helander’s perspective is that of a foreigner – from dreaded social-democratic Scandinavia, no less – contextualizes the nose-thumbing opposition differently, especially given the way Big Game contrasts the traditional grassroots tribal wisdom of Laplanders with the brash technocratic expertise of high American officials. Big Game invests more value and infinitely more pride in the former than the latter, and Jackson’s sheltered President Moore only earns the sort of mythic cinematic framing that follows Oskari throughout the film by sharing in his liminal journey of maturation through the Finnish wilderness. Big Game is not precisely conservative in its scope and viewpoint, but it is at least traditionalist in its sympathies and distrust of the imperatives of neoliberal democratic capitalism and makes its point with efficiency and humour. Not bad for a ridiculous Finnish action b-movie.

Categories: Film, Reviews