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Film Review: Chuck Norris vs Communism

Chuck Norris vs Communism (2015; Directed by Ilinca Calugareanu)

This film’s title is both misleading and weirdly, belatedly appropriate. Chuck Norris vs Communism examines a fascinating underground cultural phenomenon in hyper-repressive 1980s Communist Romania: the smuggling into the country of bootleg VHS copies of Hollywood movies, which were clandestinely overdubbed with Romanian dialogue by a rogue state chucknorrisvscommunismcensorship board translator and then distributed and screened illegally by citizens desperate for even the slightest glimpse of life in the capitalist West.

This documentary tracks the undercover Cold War spy story of the translation dubber, Irina Nistor, as well as the shadowy colonel who ran (and grew wealthy) the black market distribution network. It also features interviews with ordinary Romanians, many of them part of Romania’s creative class in the post-Ceauçescu order of capitalist freedom, who fondly recall the Hollywood fantasies unveiled to their otherwise sheltered eyes in the clandestine screening parties held in nocturnal apartments. They also reminisce about the distinctive dubbing skills of Nistor, who would add inflection, emotion, and performance to translate the dialogue for her countryfolk. Her censor’s instincts would even win through when it came to cursing, which she would endearingly tone down.

If Chuck Norris vs Communism is to be taken at face value, it might be believed that bootleg Hollywood movies (often very bad ones) brought down at least one segment of the Iron Curtain. Although the film might overstate the political and historical importance of Romania’s VHS movie black market, it recognizes the central importance of cultural products in contemporary identity formation. Romania’s authoritarian state, nightmarish in many of its other oppressive policies, recognized this as well, hence the bans and the censorship when it came to entertainment product from the West (and sometimes even from the Soviet Union and other satellites). But it miscalculated the depth of the void in its citizens’ minds and aspirations that even the shlockiest of American B-movies would rush to fill.

This brings us to the title and its surprising paradigm of hope. Among the films that slipped into Romania were the low-budget Cannon Films action productions starring the hyper-manly bearded martial artist Chuck Norris. Now a literal punchline and a figure of ironic ridicule even in the 1980s, Norris represented something else entirely to some of director Ilinca Calugareanu’s interview subjects when they came across bootleg VHS tapes of his violent and putrid movies. They recount watching Norris absorb superhuman amounts of abuse and walk away, turn the tables on his torturers and tormentors when any reasonable man would have simply given up and expired. Outlandish as his triumphs of endurance seem to credulous audiences now (and likely even then), to Romanian watchers they represented a dream of resistance to inhuman oppression. Norris’ enemies bury him alive in his car, but he drives out of the hole to fight on. It’s B-movie shock shlock as a metaphor for outlasting tyranny, and it imbues the intriguing tale of the Cold War Romanian bootleg movie trade with added resonance.

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Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Endure the Wonder of Survival: A Legacy of Gord Downie

May 24, 2016 1 comment

It feels wrong, ghoulish even, to eulogize a man while he is still alive. Still, the painful news that Gord Downie, the singer and lyricist of venerable Canadian rock veterans the Tragically Hip, has been diagnosed with terminal, incurable brain cancer is already being greeted in the Canadian media and across the country’s internet social platforms in much the same way as the recent deaths of much more famous and internationally successful musical figures such as David Bowie and Prince. Although the band announced a final tour this summer and has a new (perhaps final?) album, the rhythmic, ruminative Kevin Drew-produced Man Machine Poem, due out on June 17, the announcement of Downie’s cancer has struck a defined segment of a generation of Canadians with the heavy blow of a final passing.

For these Canadians, and most definitely for me, Gordon Edgar Downie was our Bowie, our Prince. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to speak to what Downie’s words and the Hip’s music means to its fans, devoted and casual alike, although swellings of emotion at expressions of national sentiment and the poetic language of his lyrics certainly recur (check out The Tragically Hip in Bobcaygeon for the best official documenting of fan sentiment). It’s less difficult, though still far from simple, to summarize what Downie’s words and the Hip’s music means to me. But, to quote Downie, there’s no simple explanation for anything important any of us do.

Like a lot of Canadians coming of age in smaller communities in the 1990s, the Tragically Hip were a notable cultural force where I grew up, an inescapable part of the musical landscape whether or not you liked them. I did like them, though, their muscular but melodically surprising bluesy rock melding with Downie’s enigmatic, sophisticated lyrical imagery woven around national touchstones. The Hip were an important shared interest in my group of friends, and a common reference point for most young people that I grew up with. Albums new and old (the brilliant Phantom Power was and remains a particular favourite), videos and appearances on MuchMusic, and gorddownieconcerts built up a collective mythos around the band, and Downie, as singer, primary songwriter, unpredictable onstage live-wire, and utterer of gnomic observations, was the focal point of that mythos.

The meaning of the art that Downie produced shifted for me over time, taking on different associations at different points in my life. But on balance, Downie’s songs with the Tragically Hip (and to a lesser extent his solo records) are, alongside the golden years of The Simpsons, the single most important artistic influence on my perspective, my writing, and the way I understand the world around me. This is what I mean by saying that he was my David Bowie: just as Bowie represented a unique, offbeat, edgy, or ambiguous ideal for many shaggy outcasts from square society, Downie arose out of and commanded the admiration and fondness of Canada’s earthbound, essentially conservative rural and suburban middle class but also transcends it and sees the best in it, injecting erudition, empathy, and inclusive fellow-feeling into a subculture that could bend towards illiberal tendencies. But he also respects the salt-of-the-earth commitment and care of this class, and does not sneer or talk down to it, even while rubbing elbows with the urban indie elite of the Canadian music scene.

Beyond matters of class and subculture, that interminable shell game of identity formation and position-taking known as “being cool”, Downie was a preternaturally skilled and frequently astounding user of words. It was in this way that he was most inspiring, in his poetic turns of phrase, his indelible imagery, and in the resonant stories he told. The incredible breadth and scope that he could evoke in the space of a 4 or 5-minute rock song could be breathtaking, but he could also move you with intimate snapshots (“You can leave your jewellery in a bowl beside the bed”) and deploy a killer joke with expert timing. He could not only write remarkable words, but sing them, give them to us, with just the right inflection, the tenderly balanced delivery. When his wordcraft combined with his passion for performance, the result could be very special indeed.

Eulogizing Gord Downie now, when he may have years left to leave a mark on the world outside of the rock n’ roll stage, might not feel so incongruous considering how often and how curiously he probed the frightening, tantalizing mysteries of death. Not just in, say, “The Inevitability of Death” (a title chosen, by Downie’s half-ironic admission, to confound the forced cheer of radio DJs) or “Nautical Disaster” (which is more about the haunting spectres of past trauma), but personally, painfully, honestly in ballads like “Fiddler’s Green” (about the death of Downie’s young nephew from a heart ailment) and, a vastly underappreciated favourite of mine, “Toronto #4”. An aching poem written as a tribute to Downie’s dying grandmother set to a drum machine beat, elegiac guitar, and tinkling piano, it’s a song about the sensations and rituals of death, the quiet enormity of our finite lives, and the comfort that the mortal end robs of those left behind. Gord Downie will be with us for some time yet, but he has left us with many stirring epitaphs, none so perfectly poised as this.

Film Review: Moonwalkers

Moonwalkers (2015; Directed by Antoine Bardou-Jacquet)

Moonwalkers is a tantalizing concept with next to no effective execution. Adapting persistent conspiracy theories about the Apollo 11 moon landing into a wannabe-loopy psychedelic period action-comedy, the debut film by Antoine Bardou-Jacquet fails to even do those imaginative monuments to paranoid anti-establishment fantasy proper justice. A macho crime subplot and splattery sub-Tarantino closing shootout are tacked awkwardly onto a visually-askew spoof of the dissolution of the hippie counterculture and a mild satire of movie production like a pitbull sown back-to-back with a pigeon. Even if any of those constituent parts work for a scene, a line, or a shot, the whole is so tonally amateurish and painfully unfunny (anti-funny, even) that any ground gained is quickly lost.

The core moon landing conspiracy theory that underscores Moonwalkers (the screenplay is by Dean Craig) proposes that NASA was seriously concerned about the PR problems should the 1969 Apollo 11 mission either fail to land on the moon or land and fail to transmit compelling images for television viewers back on Earth. As a failsafe for either of these eventualities, NASA is purported to have approached the renowned director Stanley Kubrick, fresh from his buzzy, technically impressive science-fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, to produce convincing studio-shot moonwalking footage for use in proving to the world that American astronauts had stepped on the lunar surface.

This is one of the more open and generous of the fake moon landing theories. It allows for every potentiality from Kubrick’s footage being a mere unused backup when the mission and broadcast proved successful (Moonwalkers opts for this least-radical option) to the film being substituted for an aesthetically unpleasing landing (this, as far as it’s possible to tell, is the theory advanced by Jay Weidner in Room 237, in which he details his reading of The Shining as Kubrick’s coded confession of his role in the hoax) to the video standing in for a landing (or indeed for a manned flight to the moon) that never actually happened. Whichever potentiality ones chooses, the theory is rich material for a fictional film, bringing together space exploration, movie-geek ephemera, U.S. government cover-ups, and the late 1960s social and cultural milieu into a conceivably fascinating hybrid.

Moonwalkers is not that fascinating hybird film. Indeed, it barely bothers to try and keep you watching. It casts Ron Perlman as Kidman, a CIA agent haunted by nightmare visions from his time in the Vietnam War who is tasked by his superiors to travel to England and speak to Kubrick’s agent about a lucrative offer to produce the fake moon landing footage on a very tight deadline. Kidman, posing as a Hollywood producer, does not meet that agent, the pompous, fashionable, coke-snorting Derek Kaye (Stephen Campbell Moore), but Jonny (Rupert Grint), a perpetually hapless small-time band manager who is begging Kaye for a reference or for some money at the time of Kidman’s appointment and half-unintentionally passes himself off as Kubrick’s representation when the American flashes a suitcase full of cash by way of compensation for the great director’s hoax-crafting efforts.

The arrogant Kaye is one in an overlong line of supporting characters that Bardou-Jacquet and Craig believe to be hilarious but tend to be, above all, obnoxious and irritating. Another is Jonny’s perma-stoned flatmate Leon (Robert Sheehan), whom he casts as a faux-Kubrick to meet with Kidman and pretend to accept the job for just long enough to relieve him of his case of money. Miraculously, it works, but Jonny and his mates unwisely splash the cash at a Swinging London club and draw the attention of the most dangerous of his creditors, a criminal underworld kingpin known as the Ironmonger whose underlings relieve Jonny of the CIA man’s valuable briefcase. Kidman also discovers Jonny and Leon’s ruse (mostly by beating up leather-glad biker Nazis in a pub bathroom, as you do) and, with pressure from the States and a tight deadline looming, forces them to help him make the moon film anyway. The mismatched allies decamp to the sprawling, half-abandoned manor house of Jonny’s acquaintance Renatus (Tom Audenaert), a buffoonish avant-garde film artist and generalized hippie grotesque, who will be their Kubrick substitute, while Kidman confronts the Ironmonger and his army of thugs to effect the return of his bosses’ cash.

This movie may sound like it would be a freewheeling, edgy genre-mixing romp, like Guy Ritchie meets Terry Gilliam with some Coen Brothers quirkiness along for the ride. But it isn’t. Dear me, how it isn’t. As soon as its magnificent yet derivative Yellow Submarine parody opening animated credits sequence ends, Moonwalkers begins striking wrong notes. Craig and Bardou-Jacquet are unerring in their shared conviction about the inherent comedic strength of foul language, drug use, and brutal violence. It’s quite simply funny to them (or at the very least cool) when someone swears or snorts coke or beats up another person, an assessment divorced entirely from the vital specifics of context, timing, and delivery. When the climactic fake lunar film shoot is threatened by an armed assault by the Ironmonger and his gang, the ensuing bloodbath clashes unproductively with Jonny and Leon’s goofily inept attempt to portray astronauts for the camera.

Of course, the effectiveness of the climax is greatly reduced by the ineptitude on display up to that point. Rupert Grint is the least successful of the Harry Potter movies’ central trio of young actors for a lot of reasons, but Jonny is enough of a honorary Weasley that he ought to be able to get a grip on this good-natured loser of a character. But Grint is a lost boy here, his panicked exasperation seemingly directed increasingly not at the movie-within-a-movie but the larger movie itself. Perlman – a grizzled vet of every kind of genre B-movie, many surely much worse than this one – does better, embodying the threatening hard man with his granite-block bulk and injecting some much-needed if brief levity in the midst of a psychedelic acid trip. Audenaert has some mildly amusing moments as the perpetually shirtless, pot-bellied Renatus (his previous film, a black-and-white slow-motion loop of himself bouncing on a trampoline wearing only underwear which he claims took him years to make, is a good joke that is pushed too hard), but mostly the supposed colourful supporting characters are merely grating (especially the preening, ridiculous lead singer of the band Jonny manages, played with excessive broadness by Eric Lampaert).

Bardou-Jacquet is not incapable of brief gasps of visual interest, and loving attention is given to the rambling countercultural detritus of the production design of Jonny’s shitty flat and Renatus’ tumble-down great mansion and hippie burn-out flophouse. Indeed, as a winking goof on those damned dirty hippies and their narcotics-fueled creative crud-piles, Moonwalkers manages near-miss moments of wit and inspiration. But these are mere flashes amid the confused, unsightly mess, which can be laid at the feet of Craig’s problematic hash of a screenplay first but might have been cleaned up by a director of more experience and confidence (and, frankly, of some semblance of driving vision) than Bardou-Jacquet.

The inconsistency of overall vision is laid bare in the film’s conclusion, an incongruously reverent and celebratory montage of archival footage of the national (indeed, global) awe and appreciation that greeted the news and the televised footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Scored by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s fiery protest anthem “Fortunate Son”, this sequence is profoundly mixed-up in its intention and in its relationship to all that has come before it. Moonwalkers depicts a wasteful, secretive, and personally deplorable military-intelligence cabal (Kidman’s superior, the crude order-barking Colonel Dickford, played by Jay Benedict, is likely a tribute to General Jack D. Ripper from Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove) willing to deceive its own citizens and the entire world for the sake of a Cold War PR triumph, indulges paranoid anti-government conspiracy theories in a quasi-comedic fashion, but then busts out the pom-poms for this boomer culture landmark anyway? Or is the chosen licensed song, a blazing broadside against the greedy wars of unaccountable elites, supposed to be ironic, undermining the tone of triumphal achievement around the lunar missions? Either Bardou-Jacquet doesn’t know, can’t decide, or is insufficient to the task of conveying his thoughts clearly through sound and image. Moonwalkers could have been fun, hilarious, and transgressive, but it is also insufficient to its task.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review – Captain America: Civil War

May 17, 2016 1 comment

Captain America: Civil War (2016; Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo)

The confluence of the release dates of Captain America: Civil War and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice has created a contrast between the year’s tentpole films of the duelling Marvel and DC cinematic universes that might not otherwise have been quite as stark (har!). But it’s difficult not to notice that both films are aiming to achieve the same kinds of things: throwing iconic protagonists into mortal conflict with one another, staging battles on an enormous scale, seeding future sequels in the rival comics corporations’ sprawling big-screen extended realities (they also both make this viewer, at least, anticipate one such subsequent film that much more breathlessly: Wonder Woman in one case, Black Panther in the other). They even fundamentally share the exact same core political metaphor about the prudence of government oversight over the power of superheroes (read: of superpowers), or the existential dangers of limiting their freedom, depending on whose side you’re on.

One cannot hit the nail on the head too squarely in stating that this is not a comparison which reflects at all well on DC’s efforts. Marvel has built to the central dialectical conflict of Civil War over twelve films, and has done so with patience and intelligence while adhering to an overriding house style that has discouraged some distinct film artists from playing in their creative sandbox (Edgar Wright, Patty Jenkins and Ava DuVernay come immediately to mind) but has allowed the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s interweaving series of films to maintain tonal and narrative consistency, if not always a strictly high level of quality. DC rushed all of that painstaking world-building work into two Superman-centred films (and really mostly into one), entrusting its vision to a single director, Zack Snyder, with considerable visual gifts but equally considerable weaknesses of perspective, imagination, and empathy. Perhaps DC will course-correct yet, though it may take a genuine box office flop to convince them of the error of their frantic catch-up-playing ways (summer contender Suicide Squad may yet be happy to oblige). But for the moment, Marvel stands ascendant, and Civil War, though not without flaws of its own, is its victory lap.

It’s galvanizing proof of Marvel’s growing expertise that the film runs that lap at full speed and capability. In the steady but energetic hands of Anthony and Joe Russo, directors of the last Captain America adventure The Winter Soldier (whose political implications I criticized after seeing it but were perhaps part of a richer tapestry than I appreciated at the time), Civil War renders the core disagreement between the titular Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) in terms more personal than ideological. For Stark, the wiseacre zillionaire playboy with the powerful red-and-gold battle exo-suit, dormant, disavowed guilt over an arms-dealing past, the death of his parents, and the collateral damage of recent Avengers missions is given a face by a grieving mother (Alfre Woodard in a small, indelible role) whose son was killed in the disaster at Sokovia in Age of Ultron. Even the Cap must entertain some doubts about the essential rightness of the Avengers’ activities after a mission to stop a biological weapon theft in Lagos, Nigeria ends in multiple civilian casualties.

Convinced that the Avengers’ actions need to be put in check, Stark backs the UN’s proposed Sokovia Accords that would make their intervention in any situation contingent on the approval of a UN panel. Rogers is not without a measure of sympathy, but with the stinging betrayal of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s recently-exposed infiltration and exploitation by Hydra in The Winter Soldier as well as Stark’s world-policing ambitions gone badly wrong in the form of Ultron, he can’t bring himself to trust monolithic institutions or the brilliant elites that run them over his own moral and strategic compass. Civil War, its script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, manifests their disagreement as the core dilemma of American power: neoliberal institutional control of judiciously-applied military might vs. libertarian distrust of government and fundamental belief in righteous exceptionalism. There’s a bit more to it than that, and that bit more is grounded in personal motivations first and political ideology a distant, almost invisible, second. But that’s the essence of the conflict in broad strokes.

The Avengers cleave into factions behind the two opposed alpha males and their stubborn worldviews. Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) remains loyal to his brother-in-arms Rogers, and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) gravitates towards them as well, haunted by her role in the Lagos tragedy but chafing at her friendly but firm house arrest enforced by a sweater-wearing Vision (Paul Bettany). Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) surprises her longtime close ally Rogers by siding with Stark and the Accords, along with Vision and James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle). The Accords are due to be ratified in Vienna against Rogers’ objections, with King T’Chaka (John Kani) of Wakanda as its public face (humanitarian workers from his isolationist but highly advanced African nation were among the victims of the Lagos explosion). But another bombing interrupts the ceremony and claims more lives, including that of T’Chaka, and blame for the attack is very quickly (too quickly?) laid at the feet of Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), the Hydra-brainwashed Winter Soldier and Rogers’ childhood best friend.

Protecting Bucky puts Rogers and his allies in violation of the Accords, especially after the meddling Sokovian terrorist Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) activates the Winter Soldier’s programming and creates a highly public and highly destructive incident in Vienna. Deeply involved in this incident is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the son of the slain Wakandan King and the country’s new ruler, who also happens to be Black Panther, a hyper-athletic superhero with a black vibranium-weave suit and sharp vibranium claws (also the material from which Captain America’s shield is made, vibranium is mined in Wakanda). When Rogers and Wilson escape with Barnes in tow, T’Challa finds common cause with Stark’s side, which enables the exacting of vengeance against the man whom he believes to be his father’s killer.

Anticipating a head-to-head confrontation, Rogers, Wilson, Barnes, and Wanda Maximoff shake Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) out of retirement and also add the peculiar talents of Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) to their squad. Intercepted at Leipzig’s airport by Stark, Romanoff, T’Challa, Rhodes, Vision, and a lippy teenager in a spider suit (Tom Holland), an epic tilt ensues, all the wonky debates about the limits of power and contending political philosophies literalized into a spectacular heroes-on-heroes intersquad battle that is followed by a much more personal fistfight in a secret Siberian base with great meaning to Bucky’s past, and to Tony Stark’s as well.

If this sounds like an overstuffed movie already, the surface has barely been scratched. There’s a funeral for a Marvel movie/TV heroine (appropriate timing given the cancellation of her showcase program by ABC), a micro-romance between Cap and her niece and heir to badass secret agent-dom (Emily VanCamp), small no-nonsense government functionary roles for William Hurt and Martin Freeman, and one or two exhiliratingly-staged action sequences that I haven’t even found occasion to touch on. If the Russo brothers are not the best directors of fight sequences working in Hollywood today, then they are at least my favourites (if they cannot claim the best directors of action title, then that’s because the prodigious Brad Bird still draws breath). They can maintain clarity and pace in the fray, and their beats and gags twinkle with wit and invention.

Civil War also features two separate franchise launches: Black Panther, a character given pride, intelligence, and moral gravity by Boseman and due to go solo onscreen in 2018; and Spider-man, a character given his third movie origin story in the past decade and a half, this one a model of economy unfolding in a single scene in teenaged Peter Parker’s bedroom (the latest Spidey reboot drops next year). This is a lot to do in a single 147-minute film that also has its own story to tell, but the strain doesn’t show as it undoubtedly did in Batman v. Superman. For such a busy movie, Civil War is lean, efficient, and above all entertaining.

Juggling as many balls as it does without so much as breaking a sweat, Captain America: Civil War nonetheless squirms out of resolving its central political dilemma in predictable fashion. Invested in presenting both Steve Rogers and Tony Stark as inherently good men with justified convictions, the Russos can’t bring themselves to make either come across as more right than the other, nor can they make them both seem resonantly, tragically wrong, as in the comics. Civil War raises the spectre of the fundamental dichotomy between freedom and security that absorbs the ongoing political debate in America concerning both its place in the world and its citizens’ rights in relation to the maintenance of that place. But for its own purposes, it can only conceive of that debate as opening a chink in the national armour to be exploited by malevolent exterior threats, a disagreement that exposes weakness rather than reinforcing strength. Captain America: Civil War is strong blockbuster entertainment product, but it pulls its political punches, unwilling to land too devastating a blow.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

TV Quickshots #27

Better Call Saul: Season 2 (AMC; 2016)

Narrowing its craft to laser precision in its second season, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad spinoff prequel Better Call Saul grew into a full-fledged heir to his perennial Emmy juggernaut. It became more morally complex and ambiguous as the continuing attempts by Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) to become successful practicing law his way are increasingly and actively opposed by his disapproving elder brother and big-firm partner Chuck McGill (Michael McKean).

On a certain level, the sibling rivalry is simple: Jimmy frequently cuts corners and behaves in an underhanded, unprofessional, even illegal manner to achieve his goals as an attorney, and Chuck would rather that his little brother work his way up like he did, with concentrated labour, intelligence, and above all ethics and, you know, without flagrantly, repeatedly breaking the law. Better Call Saul is very careful not to make Chuck a wet blanket for holding Jimmy to account, however. Indeed, he’s more of a reflective blanket of the sort that he frequently dons as protection from the electromagnetic waves that he hypersensitively imagines are “bombarding” him at every moment. Chuck’s affliction (doctors think it’s all in his head, but he vehemently disagrees) makes him dependent on others, and Jimmy does make an effort to care for him despite their continued hostility over legal and career matters (late in the first season, it is revealed that Chuck was the insisting force behind his firm’s refusal to hire Jimmy after he brings them a considerable class-action suit against a chain of retirement communities). But another thread begins to be woven into their relationship as well: people just like Jimmy more than Chuck, even people Chuck imagines himself very close to.

Around the McGill brothers, connected characters struggle with moral questions that reflect, contrast with, and provide shading to their dialectic. Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn, the show’s secret weapon), Jimmy’s girlfriend and fellow lawyer, is incrementally presented with more and more evidence of Jimmy’s reprehensible practices and must reconcile her feelings for him with her growing distaste for how he practices law by disregarding it, even while participating in sideline con artist schemes and incorporating their sleights-of-hand into her own gradually bending straight-arrow law practices. Meanwhile, former cop and future Saul Goodman associate Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) becomes embroiled in a deepening cold war with the Salamanca drug gang, where he finds his determination to punish them for crimes against himself and others running inexorably against his own moral codes and his inability to jettison them as thoroughly as the cartel members do.

But even as other characters share more of the stage in its second season, Better Call Saul is still about Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill. A prodigious talker, a born persuader, but with a hangdog conscience that is a hindrance slightly more often than an advantage, Jimmy McGill tries to cut it on the straight and narrow but finds himself not merely ill-suited to it but insufficiently enervated by playing by the rules. Better Call Saul will presumably leave off where James Morgan McGill becomes Saul Goodman, and it gives every indication that this transformation will be both a compromise and a triumph, a victory and a defeat.

The Last Kingdom (BBC2/BBC America; 2015)

A broad, pulpy, gory historical adventure “drama” set in the Saxon England of the late 9th Century, The Last Kingdom is adapted from Bernard Cornwell’s novel series. Its protagonist, Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon), is son to a Saxon-English nobleman who is killed in battle by Danes, then raised by those Danes until they too are killed. A brash, bold, but tactically brilliant young warrior, Uhtred cuts a swath of violence and romance through the titular Kingdom of Wessex, which under the command of the savvy, piously Christian King Alfred (David Dawson) stands alone against the Viking hordes overrunning England.

Uhtred is an almost laughably old-fashioned pulp-fiction hero figure, and Dreymon gives him exactly zero nuance, shading, or depth. He wins every battle, beds every comely lass from fellow Saxon hostage (Emily Cox) to devout arranged noble wife (Amy Wren) to Cornish pagan mystic queen (Charlie Murphy), and overcomes even his considerable lapses of morality or judgement with breezy ease. He’s a mere device, of course, first for Cornwell and then for The Last Kingdom‘s showrunners to tell half-legendary historical events from one of the most pivotal moments of pre-Norman Conquest Britain with excitement and verve. This show has a bit of that, but as a post-Game of Thrones television take on medieval history, it boasts impressive historical authenticity but also weaker narrative interest and infinitely less fascinating moral implications. Is it vaguely oxymoronic to say that a historical drama set twelve centuries ago is a touch too old-fashioned? Maybe, but also, in this case, accurate enough.

Categories: History, Reviews, Television

Film Review: The Big Short

The Big Short (2015; Directed by Adam McKay)

It’s now evident, if it wasn’t years ago, that the United States of America has not fully come to terms with happened to its economy and to its society in 2008-2009, during the vaunted worldwide financial crisis. It did not, of course, just “happen”, but was caused by nigh-on criminal irresponsibility and/or fraud from the high levels of Wall Street investment banks to the lower levels of ratings agencies, predatory lenders, real estate agents, and smaller investors. Prosecutions of the crooked (or incompetent) exploiters of the industry’s under-regulated trading were lacking and necessary reforms to the larger structures of the financial world fell well short of its critics’ expectations, and popular sentiment has not turned wholly against the high-finance perpetrators (Bernie Sanders’ most zealously anti-corporate supporters notwithstanding). The sort of wheeling-and-dealing free market capitalism that underlies the crisis’ causes is too central to self-conceptions of American identity to be challenged in the collective consciousness (this is one factor in Donald Trump’s political success on the right), no matter the costs to ordinary Americans or the inherent illegality of the conduct that lay behind it.

The Big Short is at once a product of the ambiguity that characterizes America’s feeling about the roots of the crisis, a reaction to it, and a symbol of the unlikelihood of resolving its core dilemmas. This film is deeply offended about the outrageous swindle perpetrator on Americans by Wall Street swashbucklers and mildly ambivalent about who to blame, and whether blame is even fully deserved, given the highly perverted context and the fundamental incentives of the system. Despite its often caustic dark humour on the conduct of the figures it chooses to focus on and the deep problems of the system they took advantage of, Adam McKay’s breezy and entertaining examination of the financial types who saw the subprime mortgage crash coming and chose to cash in on it rather than stop it can’t help but make heroes (or at least vaguely sympathetic anti-heroes, which in current entertainment narratives is about the same thing) of them.

The Big Short unearths a certain piratical romanticism in the intelligence, foresight, and cynical lack of moral scruples displayed by these men. They are constructed (mostly) as the best and brightest among a greedy class of the worst and brightest, exemplars of acquisitive acumen if not ethical decision. There is Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), the narrator and most recognizable Wall Street animal: arrogant, crude, and cynical with a bronzed exterior, a silver tongue and a golden disdain for anyone he perceives as not as slick, smart, or savvy as himself. He gets good news while working out and high-fives all of the other attractive, prosperous gym rats. A mid-level bond sales cog at Deustche Bank, Vennett gets wise to the coming collapse of the housing market second-hand, overhearing that an obscure Bay Area hedge fund manager named Michael Burry (Christian Bale) claims to have crunched many years’ worth of projection numbers and predicted that the housing market was in fact a vastly over-inflated bubble due to pop.

Burry – a former physician and certified obsessive workaholic eccentric who airs drums to Metallica, reads Terry Brooks’ Shannara books, and evinces strong anti-social tendencies – has invested his clients’ money in bets that the housing market will fail: the infamous credit default swaps. While Burry’s early call strains the patience and funds of his investors, Vennett shops similar investments around Wall Street. About the only firm that doesn’t laugh him out of their conference room is the hedge fund of Mark Baum (Steve Carell), and he and his team (Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong) only hear about his idea through a misplaced phone call.

Baum is a suspicious and notoriously exacting sort of trader who takes a dim view of the whole financial system and makes a particular effort to call out its bullshit and rip-offs. Baum’s team stress-tests Burry’s prediction strenuously, even travelling to mortgage broker conferences and to Florida, the Foreclosure State, where they find tattooed working stiffs living in McMansions, strippers with multiple homes, and dimwitted frat-boy real estate agents chortling all the way to the bank. Lower down the scale, Colorado-based start-up investment traders Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) are denied an expensive but lucrative ISDA Master Agreement which would allow them to buy and sell with the big boys on Wall Street. With the help of retired trading guru Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), however, they package much lower-rated credit default swaps, the dreaded “toxic assets” of sure-to-default housing loans, and despite entering late in the game, still score a huge payout at the expense of the most vulnerable citizens in the whole toppling pyramid.

All of these characters cope with the moral dimension of what they’re doing, and who they’re screwing in doing it, differently. Vennett, cossetted in a relatively middling position with a huge bank, sees the deals as a way to measure himself against his similarly hyper-masculine competition on Wall Street and come out on top, and is just brashly confident enough to be beyond caring who gets hurt in the process. Burry, cloistered in his Aspergerian isolation, views the millions of people who will lose homes and savings in the coming crash in the detached, unemotional abstract; they’re only so many numbers, after all, indistinguishable from the columns upon columns of digits that he plows through on a daily basis. Baum has a grimly exasperated righteous indignation to his manipulation of the situation, horrified on a deep moral level by what is going on but rationalizing his profiting off of it as an epic flip-off to the corrupt system that he views with such withering and unmitigated disdain. Geller and Shipley, neophytes that they are, celebrate their pecuniary triumph like victorious rookie punters at the track, for which they are chided by the long-disillusioned Rickert with a weary eye on the broken lives they leave in their wake.

The Big Short alternates breezy wit with such concerned weariness as a matter of course. It revels in the sharp buzz-saw snaps and ripostes of slick Manhattan power brokers while recognizing that those saws often rend the humble flesh of little people somewhere offstage. The saws are more the point in McKay’s vision, though. Like one of its subjects, The Big Short is damned clever, and damn, does it know it. In addition to the characters explaining the various complex, convolutedly-named financial products and concepts, cutaways to Anthony Bourdain in a restaurant kitchen, Selena Gomez and a Harvard economic professor in a casino, and Margot Robbie in a bubble bath detail seemingly dry and non-transparent industry ideas (and note that their apparent dullness is calculated to obscure their nefarious purpose).

McKay, who co-wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay with Charles Randolph based on Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book of the same name, does a more effective job of translating financialese for the masses than, say, a documentary like Inside Job, but it’s there that The Big Short‘s depth of sympathy for the little guy ends. Like Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, a much more acerbic satire of capitalist excess masquerading as a celebration of it, The Big Short so filters its dominant perspective through the financial predators and their ideology of rapacious acquisitiveness that expressions of concern for the lowly peasants broken under the yoke of their transactions feel rote. As is the case in many such portrayals of Wall Street sharks, that concern has a tendency to manifest as pity for rube-ish suckers, taken in by fast-talking con-men who are morally suspect but also kind of roguishly romantic, like twisted reverse Robin Hoods.

Is this result a mere corollary of the identification impulse of cinematic protagonist point of view? Or can we trace it to a collective American reluctance to contemplate the possibility that the romantic appeal of unchecked capitalism disguises not only darker consequences for its vulnerable victims but the seeds of a more catastrophic social collapse? Either way, The Big Short, for all of its crackling wit and stabs of righteousness, can’t entirely overcome the impression that it tacitly approves of the massive financial fraud it purports to condemn and skewer.

Categories: Current Affairs, Film, Reviews