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Film Review: The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

April 27, 2016 Leave a comment

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015; Directed by Guy Ritchie)

Sheer style and pure flash, Guy Ritchie’s slick and likable blockbuster take on the popular 1960s TV show about Cold War espionage rapprochement between American and Soviet agents is a maximal superficial delight. Liberated from the nagging canonical expectations that hobbled his energetic, actioned-up Sherlock Holmes films, Ritchie lets rip with his purest, smoothest entertainment since Snatch.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. kicks off in the dour but lustrous darkness of divided 1960s Berlin (Ritchie and cinematographer John Mathieson make this suffering frontier of Cold War politics shimmer with romance). G.I.-turned-art-thief-turned-intelligence-agent Napoleon Solo (the improbably handsome Henry Cavill) strides into East Berlin, his confidence as finely-tailored as his sharp suit (the clothes in this film are chosen and shot with the attention of an Old Master to delicate fabrics). He tracks down Gabriella Teller (Alicia Vikander) at work in an auto body shop, and offers to spirit her away from imminent danger from the Soviet KGB agent closing in, intent on using her to get to her Nazi-connected Uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) and the nuclear research of her presumably late father. She doesn’t feel like she needs saving, but is convinced to be extracted nonetheless.

The Soviet agent is the mammoth Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), who earns dry quips of appreciation from Solo (Cavill is practically bleached bones in the desert in terms of dryness here, a sly delight compared to his dull, fretting Superman) as he tirelessly and skillfully pursues him and Gabriella through the night streets. The westerners escape, but the trio are thrown together for a special mission at the behest of their superiors, represented at first by the crusty Saunders (Jared Harris) and later by the suavely ironic Alexander Waverly (Hugh Grant). Uncle Rudi is evidently in the employ of the slinky, wealthy Italian industrialist Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) and might be passing along Dr. Teller’s nuclear secrets to her and her radical right-wing connections. Off to fashionable Rome and its sun-kissed Italian environs, then, for Solo, Kuryakin, and Gabriella, to thwart a dangerous world-threatening plot by Italian neo-fascists and Nazi dead-enders.

With the pieces thus set, they move, with a feline-like motion befitting a mid-century glamour usually understood to be irrevocably faded. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. shines with a swinging sheen. Ritchie is in his element in a way that he hasn’t been since the sturdily stylish and witty British gangster pictures that made his name, and the result is uniformly enjoyable without ever being demanding or meaningful in any sustained way. Cavill, Vikander, and Debicki are all well at home with the snappy dialogue and crisp action, although Hammer, hampered by Kuryakin’s more laconic nature and heavy cartoon-Russian accent, does better with the latter than the former. If he is never Cavill’s equal as a quip-slinger, he surpasses him as an onscreen action figure, especially in Ritchie’s crackling hand-to-hand combat sequences, a visceral specialty.

Expert as entertainment, indeed almost peerless in Hollywood’s superhero-clogged blockbuster field, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. has less to offer ideologically. The original television partnership of Solo and Kuryakin was a fictional fantasy resolution of Cold War tensions that seemed at that point permanent and intractable, while this period screen version gazes back with knowing nostalgia on those conditions in the rearview mirror of history. The time-capsule nature of the film, though it makes for a magnificent showcase of retro style, neutralizes the political dimension.

For a narrative concept predicated in politics, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is curious devoid of them. This is common enough practice for contemporary Hollywood spy films, which like other studio product scrupulously avoid alienating any demographic whose moviegoing dollars they might acquire. It’s the genre’s misfortune to be so essentially steeped in high-stakes political intrigue that creative decisions to lower those stakes in ideological terms stand out more prominently and unflatteringly. Thus unwilling to take sides in the Cold War superpower binary, the screenplay by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram reaches for the tried and true formula of villainy in recent espionage pictures: make the baddies nasty secret Nazis with nukes. There’s some clearly researched detail to this choice: Rudi is revealed to be a torturer and cruel medical experimenter of the Joseph Mengele type (his fate is a wry bit of very black humour), while Vinciguerra, in addition to literally translating from the Italian as “to win the war”, is also the name of an infamous neo-fascist terrorist.

Would a contemporary setting have been more pregnant with a more challenging form of political possibility (it’s not like the U.S. and Russia are without tensions at the moment)? Would it have even been possible, given the cultural profile of this given property? If The Man from U.N.C.L.E. isn’t terribly interested in finding out and much more invested in providing a skillfull, shiny good time, however, can anyone really blame it? I won’t.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Master

April 24, 2016 Leave a comment

The Master (2012; Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are consistently master-classes in composition, visual metaphors, shaded performances, and complex, interwoven themes that present as arthouse prestige pictures but are subtly daring in a whole host of explicit and implicit ways. The Master is no exception, except that it is an exceptional instance in Anderson’s work, less flashy and eventful than There Will Be Blood or Magnolia and more gradual and thoughtful in its pacing than Boogie Nights or Punchdrunk Love. It becomes a more remarkable film as it goes along, riding a trio of outstanding central performances from three of the finest American screen actors of the era.

The Master is not only an exceptional study of character and theme, a superb blend of image and meaning, however. It has an understated frisson of dangerous agitation swirling around its (only slightly) fictionalized historical subject: author, speaker, and Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. In a Citizen Kane species of conceit, the Hubbard-like “Master” in question is the fictional Lancaster Dodd, played with exquisite, bearish, charismatic inscrutability by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. The Master and his “Cause” closely resemble Hubbard’s early proto-Scientology movement and practices. Indeed, the resemblance is often so close as to be distinctly unflattering, even sharply critical, of the beliefs, practices, and methods of “the Cause” and personalities of its core early figures, which the notoriously thin-skinned and litigious Church of Scientology, with their deep penetration into Hollywood’s elite (most famously with previous P.T. Anderson collaborator Tom Cruise), can’t have been too thrilled about.

But The Master isn’t only, or even primarily, about a shadow critique of Hubbard’s modern religion/pyramid scheme. It’s really about a man, and all men. This man is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a sort of masculine singularity who represents a mid-century male type embroiled in crisis. Demobbed from the Navy after World War II (the opening sequence depicting Quell’s naval experiences – homosocial, horny, alone in a crowd – recalls Daniel Plainview’s isolated toil in the establishing moments of There Will Be Blood, with a brilliantly oblique score by Jonny Greenwood), the aggressive, volatile, and essentially simple-minded Freddie struggles to settle into a productive and rewarding role in peacetime American society. He takes photographic portraits at a department store for a time, his clumsy libidinous urges channeled into a fling with a store model and the consumption of alcohol (these combine in a diminishing single shot of an attempted dinner date, Freddie passed out next to the frustrated and embarrassed woman). He flames out of this job in a confrontation with a plump bourgeois managerial type, the portrait of the kind of respectable masculine success that he cannot himself embody but only observe and capture fleetingly through his camera. He is chased from a fieldhand job after a batch of his home-mixed booze gets an immigrant working sick, slipping towards a drifter’s existence.

He figuratively washes up on the deck of one of Dodd’s Cause indoctrination cruises, which doubles as a seaborne wedding for Dodd’s daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) to Clark (Rami Malek). Dodd enjoys Freddie’s paint-thinner-based alcoholic concoctions and invites him to the wedding; Dodd does not seem to have a history of naval service as Hubbard did, but that may be read into the text as a further point of connection between the men. Above all, Dodd sees something in Freddie, something broken that he can redeem or draw out or perhaps cure, or more to the point something that he can exploit for the furtherance of the Cause. Freddie becomes inculcated into the activities of the Cause, despite the sharp doubts of Dodd’s steel-spined wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and Freddie’s own crippling lack of self-reflection and abiding interest in bedding the Cause’s many young female disciples: one of them dismissively taps her headphones when he asks her forthrightly for a fuck, more interested in Dodd’s garbled self-improvement mystical effluvium than the offer of sexual pleasure.

The charlatanism of Dodd’s movement and the beliefs underlying it are frequently challenged, most memorably by another solidly respectable and well-spoken male type at a Manhattan soirée. This doubter, and later disillusioned attendees at a Cause convention in Phoenix, meet with abusive outbursts from Dodd and even physical assault from Freddie, whose aggression serves a purpose to Dodd as long as he disavows any awareness of it (Scientology’s frequent recourse to abuse to maintain orders in its ranks and its public position is thus sketched out). The Cause uses Freddie, but it becomes increasingly clear, and not just to Peggy, that Freddie is not making use of the Cause. The core therapeutic practice of the Cause, known as processing and based on Scientology’s auditing, consists of an examiner asking a subject insistent and sometimes repetitive questions about their past (and past lives) to encourage the unburdening of secrets. Freddie opens up through this process after initially stonewalling Dodd, but there always seems to be a limit to the man’s capacity for self-examination and productive change.

There is a core of ambiguity to Anderson’s parodic Scientology in The Master, an almost excessively fair insistence on seeing the purported cult from all facets. It presents several firm criticisms as well as an even more damning ugliness revealed in the responses to those criticisms by Dodd and his disciples. But Anderson also suggests that the Cause, for all of its dubious basis, pop-Freudian and sci-fi mumbo-jumbo, and manipulative leadership, is ultimately a force for good, or at least for stability and course correction, in the life of Freddie Quell. Hoffman and Adams are both excellent, but what makes Joaquin Phoenix’s performance the best of the triumvirate is how he carefully constructs a portrait of a simple man banging his head against the wall of a world whose complexities frustrate him and being dragged, with simmering reluctance, into a recognition and/or an acceptance that his brusque, awkward facade has been self-erected to obscure his own complexities, or at least to transmute his desires into intelligible form.

Phoenix gives Freddie a unique physical dimension: hunched forward with a jutting jaw, a loping gait, a palsied half-smirk of a smile, eyes squinting distrustfully at a world that he cannot quite fathom. He’s out of touch with every emotion inside or around him besides his most primal (primate?) needs and urges: drinking, fucking, violence. But this primal man does want something more, something that the Cause adjusts his trajectory towards but cannot provide in and of itself. The Master throws plenty of shade on New Age self-help therapies and faiths such as the Cause/Scientology, but it understands and empathetically depicts the appeal that such belief-systems may hold to those disconnected from whichever conception of happiness claims the greater share of their veiled psyche.

What is Freddie’s conception of happiness? In the opening sequence of Freddie’s Navy days, Anderson shows sailors sculpting an amply-bosomed female figure into the sand of a Pacific beach. For the gawping approval of the homosocial crowd, Freddie performs a pantomime of sexual desire and prowess, humping the crude sand-woman to the hoots and hollers of his crewmates. But later, alone with the sculpture, Freddie lays his weary head on her chest and rests peacefully in the sun, an expression of boyish yearning for a mother’s comfort and affection. The shot is repeated at the film’s conclusion, Anderson’s suggestion that the gruff and often unpleasant Freddie has met with a species of transfered Oedipal contentment at long last, though only after firm rejection by the Master and the Cause via a quivering rendition of “Slow Boat to China” by a pained Dodd.

The Master also returns frequently to images of transition, the tail-end of motion, especially wakes behind the boats that carry Freddie in the war, into the embrace of the Cause, to England to finalize his break with the Master. The Master and the Cause do not “save” Freddie, do not cure him of his silent agonies, his disease of identity and formation. But perhaps they help to provide him with the tools to cope with those anxieties, to leave them dwindling behind him like a foaming wake. Cult or not, that is no small gift for any man to receive.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Not a Mirror But a Window: The Unfamiliar 14th Century

April 21, 2016 Leave a comment

It’s a common enough approach to contemporary history writing to focus, at least for framing purposes, on the similarities, echoes, and lessons that the events of the past provide in relation to our current social, cultural, and political reality. There is an emphasis on what history can tell us about how we live now, and about how we may live in the near future. But though the past never leaves us, it is also its own creature. The core contexts, perspectives, base assumptions, and fundamental realities of life in other eras as documented and imparted in historical non-fiction and fiction are not simple mirrors on our own modern world, however distant. History is a window that looks upon a landscape of human civilization that is often unfathomably alien to our own experience, and gazing through that frame has intellectual value beyond application to current conditions.

This effect is discernable in both a seminal novel and a sweeping one-volume history of 14th Century Europe: Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Both texts may seem like square peg examples to slot into the round hole of an argument about the bedrock unfamiliarity of history. Eco’s debut novel, his best-known and later adapted for the screen with Sean Connery and Christian Slater, transposes the quintessentially 20th-century literary genre of the detective story to a 14th Century Benedictine monastery in the Italian Alps, drawing liberally on contemporary academic theory and semiotics as well as on sensationalist subject matter. Tuchman’s magisterial history, which utilizes French nobleman Enguerrand VII de Coucy as a central figure at once representative of his time and place and oddly exceptional, draws an implicit titular comparison between the horrors of the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War, and the Battle of Nicopolis and the mass disasters of the 20th Century.

But both books are, in their own peculiar ways, about the notable peculiarity of the 14th Century, about its fundamental alterity in comparison with our own time. Stacked around Eco’s murder mystery, and indeed intimately related to it, are detailed descriptions of fanciful nameoftherosemedieval art depictions of the Apocalypse, accounts of countercultural quasi-monastic dissent movements, digressions into theological debates about the nature of good and evil and faith and doubt, as well as more esoteric clerical matters. The Name of the Rose is invested at least partly in the demystification of the Middle Ages, but any text with historical accuracy in mind will dispel the ren faire mist of chivalry and noble romance with a strong, stiff breeze. The cloistered monastic world of Eco’s story and characters, not insular exactly but certainly encircled and communal and intensely scholarly, is of a different sort of milieu than the fantasy of swordplay and courtly love anyway.

Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror takes up the banner of demolishing the chivalric myth, however, and does its job thoroughly. The France of Enguerrand VII de Coucy (who lived from 1340 to 1397) was denuded by roving, foraging, pillaging armies and, during the frequent truces between the French and the English, by military companies of the discharged soldiers, who operated as brigands or mercenaries, depending on the profit opportunities offered by each option at any given time. In the absence of a standing national army or effective security or police force, the protection of the land and the populace fell to the nobility. Indeed, war and defence (along with diplomacy) were their only serious useful functions in society, and the basis of their privileges of land ownership, influence with the crown, and exemption from taxation.

But again and again in this period, the nobility of France had proven either unwilling or unable (or both) to fulfill their duty in protecting the people, and the people rose in mass revolt on both sides of the channel (in France, the Jacquerie; in England, the Peasant’s Revolt) at least partly in protest of this broken covenant. The denuding of the countryside by war, brigandage, plague, and excessive taxation did not stop the King and his nobles from engaging in lavish pageantry, aristocratic pursuits like falconry and the tournaments that were the era’s prime sporting spectacles. Neither did the Church, also exempt from taxation and increasingly absorbed in the buying and selling of ecclesiastical services and even salvation itself that would lead directly to the permanent schism of the Protestant Reformation, offer sufficient succour or comfort.

Tuchman recognizes that it is the poor who always suffer most in times of turmoil, and that the failure of society’s institutions holds dire consequences for society’s most vulnerable. These are deep-seated truths applicable to many adistantmirrorperiods in history, our own included, but the weight of their primacy is not an impossible burden to the lives of those people. Tuchman summons kaleidoscopic detail of quotidian life and belief, women’s experiences, fashions, theatrical innovations, military systems, engineering practices, religious dogma and practice, and of course the large-scale political developments that fill the chronicles that are her primary sources. But the peasants and poorer classes did not simply live admirably amidst great suffering. They lashed out at those weaker than they were in terrible pogroms against the Jews in their communities, persecutions often encouraged by the clerical and lay authorities that wished to redirect ire from their own heads but not against the grain of popular sentiment. As Eco’s Sherlock Holmes-esque monastic detective Brother William puts it at one point in The Name of the Rose, “When your true enemies are too strong, you have to choose weaker enemies.”

It’s probably most accurate to state that The Name of the Rose and A Distant Mirror paint particular but robust portraits of 14th Century life in Europe while also respecting and mainting the distance and alterity of that era of history relative to our own. The monks of Eco’s novel see their scholarly achievements burn away to nothing, kindled by their intellectual pride and rational certainty. The French knights of Tuchman’s popular history see their glory and prestige dashed against the rocks of an ill-conceived conflict with little-understood Muslims from the Middle East. These texts contain lessons for both sides of our contemporary political spectrum, but the worlds they spring from and the forces both great and small that catalyzed them stand on their own, apart from our experience and perhaps our understanding. Great texts can balance these seemingly contradictory implications, and The Name of the Rose and A Distant Mirror achieve that balance beautifully.

Categories: History, Literature, Religion

Film Review – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2

April 16, 2016 Leave a comment

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 (2015; Directed by Francis Lawrence)

The concluding chapter of the four-film screen version of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, like the subsequent three films, is at once telegraphed and unpredictable in its narrative movements, simultaneously rote and shifting in its themes, metaphors, and ideological implications. It brings the twin struggles of its heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), to closure: her single-minded quest to overthrow and perhaps kill her nation of Panem’s debonair but cruel President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his savvily oppressive regime, and her relationship dilemma between the stalwart man of action Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and the sensitive, PTSD-afflicted fellow veteran of the titular Games Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). These struggles may seem separate but the concluding part of Mockingjay suggests that they are subtly entwined.

Mockingjay, Part 2 picks up almost exactly where Part 1 left off, with Peeta quarantined by the rebels with a nasty case of anti-Katniss brainwashing following his recapture from confinement by Snow’s forces in the Capitol. The rebels, led by putative President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and contemplative strategist Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died before the completion of filming, necessitating some subtle finessing of his character’s role in the story’s closing developments), continue their hard-fought but inexorable advance on the Capitol and continue to deploy Katniss as the Mockingjay, a potent propaganda symbol of the defiant resistance to the Snow World Order. Coin reconsiders the value of the Mockingjay’s increasing proximity to the dangers of the front when Katniss is shot after delivering a rousing off-the-cuff anti-Snow speech to his captured partisans, but the irrepressible Katniss serves no master and smuggles herself onto a ship into the bombed-out Capitol to pursue her anti-Snow vendetta.

But Coin pushes back in the contest to control the Mockingjay, sending in a “Star Squad” of Games Victors and other war heroes to wrangle Katniss and follow the advance through the streets of the Capitol at a safe distance, filming those ever-popular propos to inspire the masses. Gale is there, as is the trident-wielding Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and, for reasons that are never adequately explained in the film at least, the shell-shocked and unpredictable Peeta. Their movements are only so “safe”, though, since the city is blanketed in deadly booby-traps which only get thicker closer to the presidential palace, Snow’s location and Katniss’ personal target. Despite experienced officers as escorts and a device that displays the locations of all of the traps (that the rebels know of, at least), the challenge carries a definite resemblance to a certain popular televised violent competition that Katniss is all too familiar with, and Finnick for one cannot allow the resemblance to pass without very literal comment.

Predictably, this over-elaborate shoot on location goes terribly awry at basically the first sign of danger. With the squad shrinking and enemies from Peacekeepers to zombie-like “mutts” hot on their trail, Katniss races to her own assassination mission against all odds, struggling with her shifting feelings for Gale and Peeta as she goes. As the rebels’ tactics in defeating the Capitol become as brutal as those of the forces they are rebelling against, a gestating choice between Snow and Coin comes into focus for Katniss, mirroring in many ways that between Gale and Peeta. Neither dialectic can be resolved without great sacrifice, and although it’s no great spoiler to state that both are resolved pretty much as any astute viewer would predict, genuine spoilers are necessary to unpack their implications, such as they are. If somehow anyone has escaped the conclusion of this generational text and is interested enough to still be reading about it, they should read no further if they wish to stay green to the final developments of the narrative.

Katniss’ closing choices of The Hunger Games are as follows: she kills the increasingly dictatorial Coin, who has just stated her intention of continuing to run the Games which are both the symbolic and real engine of the Capitol’s oppression of the Districts, instead of the due-to-be-executed Snow, whom she allows to be torn apart by an angry mob; and she rejects Gale, who is steadily climbing the military order of the new regime and may have had a hand in some of its galvanizing horrors, to retire from public life to her home in District 12 and start a family in an idyllic rural setting with Peeta.

Certainly, these choices are linked, reflecting Katniss’ desire not to be controlled, not to be a pawn in a larger game of power and death as she has valiantly resisted being since volunteering for the Games. I wrote in my review of the first film about how the iron-fisted government of Snow is a synthesis of various real-world authoritarian states and image-centric, celebrity-obsessed capitalist mass media, deployed by Collins as an introductory primer for her teenaged audience that likewise feeds into their personal resentments against the domestic and quotidian authorities controlling their lives until (and perhaps into) adulthood. Surely, somewhere in America, a sullen teen has shouted, “You’re worse than Coriolanus Snow!” at the parent telling them that they cannot meet their friends at the mall until they finish their homework. That parent may have been confused at the connection.

But the personal and the political are tightly linked in The Hunger Games, especially for its revolutionary heroine. Katniss Everdeen is only interested in the wider politics of Panem insofar as they threaten her safety and the safety of those she cares for. There are many minor casting miracles in these films (Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Hoffman and Sutherland, even Lenny freakin’ Kravitz) but the greatest, Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, focuses her character’s personal investments like a laser beam. Her image is manipulated repeatedly by both Snow and Coin for their own ends, but she is always turning those manipulations to her advantage, using them to achieve her goals. Herein lies her truly revolutionary nature, in the manner by which institutions try to direct her identity and she allows them to feel that they are while quietly employing her appearances as a public figure to set their trajectory on her preferred path. Katniss’ thought process as she makes her fateful choices is ever-discernible in Lawrence’s face, the mark of a fine actor.

Ultimately, Katniss acts politically towards personal ends, aiding the effort to overthrow Snow’s fascists but also cutting off Coin’s potential fascism before it can take hold so that her own humble denouement dream of a peaceful family life is protected. Likewise, Gale’s strength in the heat of battle inures him to the empathy that drives Katniss and thus makes him complicit in atrocities, while the weakness and sensitivity of Peeta, who is no warrior and often a burden in dangerous situations, is precisely what recommends him to Katniss as an ideal life partner. Thus, Katniss does not make two choices in the final act of Mockingjay, Part 2. She makes one.

The ideological valences of Collins’ books and the uniformly solid and occasionally stylish movies that have resulted from them have been hotly debated, with partisans right and left claiming that The Hunger Games buttresses their political edifice at the expense of that of their opposite. But Collins’ thesis is not spectrumized and holds no party membership. In a contemporary America where politics are invariably and often destructively personal, where strength and power are consistently and unproblematically considered to be two sides of the same (Alma) Coin, Collins suggests that we try to take a Katniss Everdeen approach and allow an inspired empathy to direct the machinations of the powerful. A quiet revolution of feeling. Righteous sensitivity. The Hunger Games is often extremely heavy-handed in its themes, but this one infuses the films with a sunny glow that suffuses its final moments with a saturating warmth. America may not be able to return to a peaceful paradise as Katniss and Peeta do, but their oasis of empathy can surely lend a lost, fragmented union an ember or two to warm its cold hands.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Pawn Sacrifice

April 13, 2016 Leave a comment

Pawn Sacrifice (2015; Directed by Edward Zwick)

Affecting elements of the symbolic surface distortions of the psychological thriller in an attempt to express the mindset of its paranoid and moody protagonist, Edward Zwick’s fictionalized depiction of the American chess master Bobby Fischer’s talismanic Cold War summit match with Soviet champion Boris Spassky incongruously leans into the inspirational cliches of the sports movie instead. The cinematic result can be modestly enjoyable but is mostly inconsistent in tone and shallow in insight.

Though the 1972 World Chess Championship, one of the most singular and bizarre global television phenomenons of the medium’s history, takes up the lion’s share of the later stages of Pawn Sacrifice, the film also details the rise of the brilliant but troubled American chess prodigy, played by Tobey Maguire. Breaking from his radical leftist mother (Robin Weigert), whom Fischer considers a distraction from his mastery of chess, the Brooklyn kid begins a meteoric rise through the ranks of chess players in New York City, the United States, and eventually the world. Undoubtedly brilliant and talented but also arrogant and increasingly paranoid, Fischer bristles at the global chess dominance of well-trained and organized players from the Soviet Union and is soon set against them, a plucky underdog Yank standing athwart an Evil Empire.

This Cold War narrative (a self-serving one for both Fischer and the superpower U.S.) becomes magnified tenfold as the 1972 championship match with Spassky (Liev Schreiber, alternating tight-lipped inscrutability and rock-star glamour) in remote (but neutral) Iceland approaches. Fischer’s inner circle throughout his rise to unlikely popular culture superstardom – his scraping, suffering lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his chess consiglieri William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) – find him increasingly unpredictable, intractable and impossible to control, putting his very appearance at the World Championship, let alone the possibility of his winning, in serious doubt.

Much of the story of Fischer calibrated by Pawn Sacrifice is imparted with more potent nuance in the documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World. The documentary film also has a more thematically compelling argument at its core, contending with a vague sense of disequilibrium that the destructive paranoia that turned Fischer into a ranting recluse was exactly the mental factor that served him so well on the chess board. Hollywood is comfortable enough with thematic suggestions that madness and genius are strange but close bedfellows, or with narratives of special ability overcoming obstacles, including those of one’s own making, to accomplish great things. But the idea that the qualities that can lead to greatness are also those that inevitably undo it and bring it crashing down into reclusive insanity? Not only is this a threat to Hollywood convention, it is anathema to essentialist American self-conceptions.

Pawn Sacrifice clearly recognizes Fischer’s descent into paralyzing suspicion and his embrace of toxic fringe ideologies (conspiratorial anti-establishmentarianism, anti-Semitism, White Power, etc.). It also operates on some fundamental level of critical awareness of the political image-wrangling around not only Fischer but also Spassky and other Soviet chessmasters; Zwick has explained its title, somewhat simplistically, as an acknowledgement that Fischer and Spassky were playing pieces in a larger geopolitical chess game between rival superpowers. But Zwick simply cannot help himself in the face of Fischer’s globally-televised triumph at the highest level of this intellectual game. He embraces the simplistic propanganda narrative of the plucky, confident kid from Brooklyn vanquishing the vast resources of the U.S.S.R. and goes all-in with a climactic swelling-score victory sequences, cutting to celebratory spectator reactions to prompt the audience to cheer along. There’s even a Slow Clap started by his defeated but admiring opponent, although that detail is surprisingly historically accurate.

Bobby Fischer emerges as a genius who is also a monster in Pawn Sacrifice. Maguire’s performance never wavers from this core truth, refusing to sugar-coat his galloping paranoia and anti-social unpleasantness, for which he deserve credit (one can only imagine how an actor like Benedict Cumberbatch, a specialist in these sorts of characters, might have gone much broader and grander and most probably missed the mark). But the film is ultimately too conventional in its orientation to effectively grapple with the troubling dimensions of Fischer’s mental disquiet and the destabilizing implication that it drives his chess acumen. It needs Fischer to be a hero, flawed but not powerfully enough to preclude identification and empathy. There lurks a vein of danger in Bobby Fischer’s story, a danger that is posed on the symbolic plane to some of the most cherished tropes of American identity. Pawn Sacrifice, made with some skill and acted with not insignificant insight, scrupulously evades facing up to that danger in any real way. Unlike Fischer, it does not go for the win but settles for the draw.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

April 10, 2016 3 comments

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016; Directed by Zack Snyder)

“You know the oldest lie in America?” posits Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) to antagonistic Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter). “It’s that power can be innocent.” Welcome to the DC Extended Universe, where people go around saying things like that and really meaning them, with the weight of flashy thematic symbolism backing up their words. Luthor’s truism might even describe an accurate condition, in DC’s inflated comic-book version of America or even our own real-world version, which seems to resemble a comic book a little more every day. In the America of Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, power cannot be innocent, and the ideal of doing good without a dark-cloud lining of inadvertent evil resulting from the effort is brushed brusquely aside.

At another point in the film, an aging, hardened Batman (Ben Affleck, alternating between unconvincingly splenetic and faintly ashamed) growls a similar epigram at Superman (Henry Cavill), the superhero personification of the faded dream of the benevolence of American power: “The world only makes sense if you force it to.” If only, comes the waggish reply from the back row of the cinema, someone had forced this movie to make sense. In its critical first act in particular, Batman v Superman is a sequence of only tenuously-connected scenes that operate on their own strong internal logic but never build towards anything resembling a coherent whole. It isn’t terrible, exactly, but it’s badly constipated in creative (and narrative, and ideological) terms, which might almost be worse.

Batman v Superman has a story, technically. It draws in both of the suit-and-cape types as well as Supes’ news reporter colleague and girlfriend Lois Lane (Amy Adams), the skeptical, checks-and-balances committee of Senator Finch, Eisenberg’s irritating hip-corporate CEO Luthor (his performance improves just slightly if you assume that it’s an implied sequel continuation of his spin on Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network), and current events totems from 9/11 to drones to terrorism to cable news debates to shady arms dealing to public memorial monuments. There’s flashes of violent African warlords, struggling newspapers, human trafficking, and at least a couple of MacGuffins: a mysterious bullet, a chunk of kryptonite. The script, by Chris Terrio and David Goyer, means to be complex but misses that mark and winds up being complicated instead.

But it’s all an elaborate pantomime for the promised gladiatorial contest in the final act. Here, Batman v Superman submerges the dominant tone of the rest of the movie, a mélange of the brooding undergrad seminar in moral philosophy of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the Christ figure-cum-Nietzschean übermensch visual associations of Snyder’s prior Superman film, Man of Steel, and desperate approximations of the thematic interrogation of American power which rose much more organically from Marvel’s big-screen Avengers cycle. All of that is set aside for an extended riff on Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns (whose influence on the Caped Crusader in particular over the past three decades has been major and perhaps also lamentable), in which an over-the-hill Batman dons an advanced exosuit to beat down the smugly superior Kryptonian. This battle pivots into a larger cooperative dust-up with a deformed megacreature of the motivationally mercurial Luthor’s making, which also involves the powerful Amazonian warrior Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, who looks like a more tan and statuesque Israeli Taylor Swift) and nuclear weapons.

Snyder and his screenwriters do not borrow Miller’s quasi-fascistic anti-crime mania from The Dark Knight Returns, but the book’s take on Batman and Superman migrates formats nearly enough. Affleck’s Bruce Wayne presses the formative memory of his parents’ murder by a mugger (Snyder is mightily impressed by his slo-mo close-ups of Wayne’s mother’s pearl necklace wrapping around the murderer’s gun, then snapping and scattering the pearls when it goes off) to the fore and allows it to colour his every decision and choice. Before you know it, he’s quoting Dick Cheney’s infamous 1% Doctrine in reference to Superman to Alfred Pennyworth, his butler and generally his proxy conscience but here, in the hands of the ever-severe Jeremy Irons, a willing if bemused enabler of his master’s creeping strongman tendencies.

Superman, meanwhile, might not be the all-American corn-fed embodiment of Reaganite government authority that Miller caricatured him as in his graphic novel, but he could be understood to represent a liberal spirit of conscientious civic engagement and decency that is being gradually bullied out of existence in the contemporary world. Clark Kent reifies the lessons in goodness passed on to him by his adoptive Midwest farmer human father Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), but the elder Kent appears in a Fortress of Solitude-like vision to tell him a parable about the inevitability of good intentions carrying bad consequences.

Clark toils thanklessly in the decaying print media, a once-proud bastion of progressive crusading now dwindling out of existence (maybe he should polish up the ol’ resume and apply to Buzzfeed). He dutifully shows up for the Senate Subcommittee meeting on limiting Superman’s actions, and has only a resigned reaction to roiling media debate about those limits. Snyder’s film may not “get” many things about Superman (Wayne has a nightmare sequence visualizing a vengeful Supes killing with his laser eyes, proving that Snyder can’t let that one controversial violation of the comics rulebook go), but the image of Clark Kent in a button-up sweater fretfully watching PBS is as spot-on as its depiction of the superhero’s personality has ever been.

But these personified male power fantasies carry similar burdens of their own brooding, Byronic making. Bruce Wayne has abandoned the neo-gothic Wayne Manor and stages his ambush attack on Superman in a ruined neo-classical pile in Gotham’s decrepit port. These crumbling architectural remnants of a previous age were, even in their glorious prime, themselves aesthetic attempts to recapture the finery of past ages, and a hero carrying ghosts of the past forever with him, and playing dress-up to exorcise them, haunts them like an unsatisfied spectre. The moment when the titular superheroes’ antagonism turns to wary alliance may strike some observers as contrived, but their divergently wounded masculinity finds common cause at that juncture and it should not be surprising at all that the cause is Oedipal. These tempermental little boys, after all, just want a mother to love them.

Internet fandom and criticism in general ripped this movie to such minute shreds that it was a pleasant surprise upon finally seeing it that it is not wholly incompetent. It’s an unholy mess, a serving-many-masters creative-by-committee hash all the way down from its clunky title, at once invoking marketing focus-group buzzwords for “excitement” and a contentious court case (now that would be a mould-breaking superhero movie; someone second that motion). But it isn’t dull. Sometimes, it’s even fleetingly enjoyable, like when Gadot’s Wonder Woman lets rip in the closing battle. She has the single best hero moment of the film, an all-too-brief beat that gives no small amount of hope for her solo period film due out next year.

Still, Batman v Superman sees Snyder, who is nothing if not a talented and significant visualist, degenerating as a filmmaker, compromising to both his own worst instincts and those of the Warner execs whose shadows seem to loom over every narrative decision, losing the fundamental coherence of his action sequences, and mistaking a busy density of political and cultural allusions for a unified thematic message. His use of slow-motion, so sturdily witty in the opening titles of Watchmen, for example, has become a matter of laughable excess. Even his film history references do not serve his cause as effectively as they once did: a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Excalibur shout-out in the opening scene (check the marquee of the theatre that the Waynes are leaving) is paid off at the climax, but of what import is it, ultimately?

That last question – what’s this all for? – haunts Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice like parental ghosts haunt its protagonists. Marvel’s Avengers cycle – broad, silly, and ideologically irresponsible as those films can be – are more effective at applying superheroes as metaphors for questioning the moral dimensions of America’s superpower status, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were stronger as both philosophical test cases and action spectacles. Zack Snyder’s muddy pastiche of similar and superior texts on these same themes tries to force its world to make sense. As Batman himself realizes in good time, that simply isn’t advisable or even possible, and the effort soon turns you rotten.

Categories: Film, Reviews

A Sojourn in Anatolia: Thoughts on Cappadocia and Ephesus

Outside of the bustling metropolis of Istanbul, over 60 million Turkish citizens make their lives everyday in a land of fertility, antiquity, and variability. Anatolia, the vast land bridge between Eastern Europe’s southern fringe and the Middle East, has been a key crossroads (and stronghold) of civilizations for thousands of years, leaving a heritage deeper than almost any other place on earth. The modern Turkish people are simply the latest in a long line of stewards of this land, and their connection to its past can be visualized in the ancient site of Ephesus in the west and in the photogenic, spiritual fairy chimneys of Cappadocia in Central Turkey.

Ephesus was one of the largest, richest, and grandest cities of all of the Greco-Roman world, a wealthy port with over half a million inhabitants at its peak. It was home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (now scattered ruins in a swamp), and a major centre of the goddess’ IMG_4760religious cult. The import of faith to the city, or perhaps merely its importance and relative remoteness from both Rome and Jerusalem, attracted early Christian figures. St. Paul preached in Ephesus’ great theatre (whose acoustics are still remarkable today) and wrote letters to its citizens urging conversion to Christ, while St. John the Evangelist is said to have fled the Holy Land with the Virgin Mary after the Crucifixion. Legend has it that both of them lived and died in and around Ephesus, and in the Byzantine era great churches were built there in their honour. There are vistas above and outside of the modest modern town of Selçuk in which the ruined Temple of Artemis and St. John Basilica can be viewed in a direct line with the historic and still-used Isa Bey Mosque, a continuity of edifices of faith over centuries of time.

The ruins of Ephesus themselves are not so ruined. Decades of painstaking reconstruction, much of it funded and performed by Austrians, have left Turkey with one of the best extant physical expressions of ancient civilization anywhere in the world. Columns, walls, sarcophagi, avenues, market squares, forums, statues, fountains, latrines, mosaics, terraced residences, even suspected brothels are laid out in exquisite wrecks, a sketched civic plan on an epic scale. Nagging qualms about the historical ethics of such large-scale restoration and reconstruction might rise to the surface at the sight of modern bricks and mortar, but the overall effect is so staggering, so evocative of a vanished way of living, that it is impossible not to be converted to the value of the exercise.

No such reconstructions are needed to emphasize the fascinating singularity of the beauty of Cappadocia. A landscape of arid canyons, wind-carved high buttes, and towering rock pinnacles known as fairy chimneys, Cappadocia attracts tourists today (well-served by its scattered small towns, particularly Göreme, with its Wild West IMG_4966by way of Anatolia feel), but it has drawn visitors for centuries, many of them more humble and fearful for the future than European or East Asian vacationers.

A remote and inviting refuge for early Christians fleeing bursts of Roman imperial persecution, Cappadocia was widely inhabited and carries the distinctive signs of that habitation. The soft volcanic rock of the region, which rain and wind has gouged into the mysterious hoodoos of the fairy chimneys, is also easily dug into by human tools. Its caves maintained a cool temperature year-round, and housed entire underground cities, as well as less subterranean residences, storehouses, artisans’ shops, monasteries, and churches. The latter, painted with often spectacularly colourful Byzantine Christian frescoes dating back as far as the 10th Century, can still be seen today, a series of UNESCO-protected testaments to an isolated but tight-knit troglodytal existence.

The landscape of Cappadocia is almost a metaphor for Turkey in living rock. Initially appearing samey and undistinguished, formed by forces beyond the human, the variety and multitude of Cappadocia’s geological forms reveals itself with longer acquaintance. Individual pinnacles, valleys, and canyon walls have been eroded into objects of particular beauty by the forces of nature, and the fairy chimneys shaped by human hands into a more intentional art of no less aesthetic force. Like the Cappadocian landscape, Turkey has been eroded by the forces of history, and continues to be. But that erosion and purposeful efforts by Anatolia’s successive generations to carve a society and culture distinct and reflective of their milieu and experiences has given modern Turkey a uniquely appealing form to face the world.