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Film Review: The Martian

The Martian (2015; Directed by Ridley Scott)

The Martian is a fantasy Apollo 13 scenario of dire space peril addressed by practical scientific ingenuity that makes Ron Howard’s 1995 film appear quaint and old-fashioned in comparison. Now, little to no labour is required on anyone’s part to make Ron Howard movies look old-fashioned, and if that was the only accomplishment of Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, then it would be a slight work indeed. As it happens, The Martian is a bit more than slight but not by much. This is expertly-crafted mass entertainment, Scott’s most solidly populist and blissfully unproblematic film in years. But it’s not merely unproblematic but insubstantial, a movie invoking Hollywood’s recent revival of space program nostalgia but little else besides.

As the internet meme wags were glad to point out, The Martian is another epic about a questionably expensive effort to rescue Matt Damon. It may be worth asking what it is about Damon that makes him suited to such a role, again. Capable, intelligent, but still oddly boyish in his 40s, Damon is just likable and vulnerable enough to activate latent protective instincts but not so emotional open and bare to make his predicament of danger seem uncomfortable or overly difficult (nobody would lift a finger to save demonstrably better actors like Christian Bale or Daniel Day-Lewis in the same situation, for example). The predicament of danger for Damon’s character Mark Watney, an astronaut and botanist on a manned NASA Ares III mission on Mars, is that he has been stranded alone on the Red Planet when a massive dust storm forces his fellow crew members, commanded by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), to ditch the planetary surface and launch into orbit. As Ares III begins a multi-year journey home, NASA, believing Watney dead, commemorates him as a fallen hero as a form of PR damage control.

Watney, however, actually survived being struck by debris during the storm and begins to MacGyver his way towards long-term endurance on the inhospitable Martian surface. He farms potatoes inside the oxygenated habitat base left behind, extracting water from the hydrogen in rocket fuel (a trial and error process, with an explosion along the way); he modifies the rover vehicle to trek to his only likely rescue site, the landing spot for the next Mars mission; he unearths and activates the Pathfinder probe in an effort to communicate with Earth, which has, by this point, realized that he is still alive (though the Ares crew is not immediately told); and he makes an effort to stay sane, recording a wry video log, cussing freely, and playing pop music in the habitat, although his choice of the latter is frustratingly limited to Lewis’ collection of disco hits, giving the film its pop soundtrack (you know that “I Will Survive” will show up at some point, although at least Scott resists using “Staying Alive” as well). He survives not merely by ingeniously providing himself with the physical essentials of life, but by channeling sympathy (of his scientific comrades on the Ares and at home, of the population of Earth, of the movie’s audience) in his direction.

Beyond the dogged, alternately wisecracking and philosophic Damon, Scott applies his large ensemble cast in an artistic manner like figures in a history painting, achieving specific effects from each one. Jeff Daniels, as the Director of NASA, holds court with withering stares (who would have thought, two decades after Dumb and Dumber, that he would have proved a more reliable and respected screen performer than Jim Carrey?); Kristen Wiig’s media relations guru is a useful source of reactions that establish how terrible the entire situation is for media relations; Benedict Wong becomes almost imperceptibly weary with the increasing work volume thrown on his rescue supply build team at the Jet Propulson Laboratory; Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor are allowed to show more emotional loyalty towards their imperiled astronauts, who are all likable if more prone to witticisms than real NASA types probably are (what else are you going to do with Michael Peña, though?). Most enjoyable is an extended cameo by Community‘s Donald Glover as an astrodynamicist at JPL, a socially gauche math nerd who explains a fiendishly complex flightplan allowing the Ares III to return to Mars to rescue Watney with pens and a stapler.

Even if you are always kind of vaguely certain that Watney will make it back to Earth (what would the point be, otherwise?), The Martian‘s obsessive focus on the minutiae of Watney’s odyssey of survival builds up a simmering tension and a fundamental human engagement, all while flattering the audience for keeping up with all of the streamlined scientific detail on display. It pleases and engages, but rarely challenges. Like another recent CGI age exploration and celebration of American space travel (Interstellar), The Martian finds essential heroism and humane sincerity in questing beyond our planet’s comforting orbit.

Unlike Christopher Nolan, however, Ridley Scott does not engage with the existential dimensions of moving out into space and the dwarfing of our self-conceptions that comes with it. This seems oddly uncharacteristic for this specific filmmaker, who instead crafts The Martian into a less feverishly intense, more inherently light and comical angle on the themes of Gravity, wherein we are asked to identify with a fragile but capable human being escaping the terrifying, negating fatality of outer space. Like Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Matt Damon is running away from space’s deadly potential for erasure towards the safe haven of Earth, instead of penetrating into its unsettling quantum mysteries as in a film like Interstellar (or like the model for all Hollywood space epics, 2001: A Space Odyssey). The Martian is undeniably an entertaining crowd-pleaser to its core, and as a result it doesn’t press that crowd with larger, more destabilizing questions about what it might mean to be alone in outer space, as one man on Mars or as one species in the universe.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

Game of Thrones, The Thirty Years War and Violent Force in the Vacuum of Authority

June 23, 2016 1 comment

It is a consistent axiom of human civilization that authority is both relied upon and mistrusted, that its breakdown is wished for and feared in practically equal measure. Political movements, waves of protest, and cultural voices criticize the status quo, call for its dismantling, and puncture the elite’s ever-inflated balloon even as political party structures, entrenched bureaucracies, and stability-obsessed chambers of commerce emphasize a stay-the-course trajectory.

All of these superficially opposing but subtly reinforcing elements are baldly visible in the current American presidential election, for instance: on the Democratic Party side, Bernie Sanders appeals to more militant progressives who seek to topple the beknighted neoliberal consensus of slippery Wall Street financiers and national security hawks represented by Hillary Clinton, while amongst Republicans Donald Trump’s crude nationalistic nativism and seasoned property grifter’s self-aggrandizement has set the party’s rabidly white nationalist base against its cynical plutocratic leadership structure. Both Sanders and Trump have made serious hay with activist-minded voters on either extreme of the political spectrum by promising an overthrow of an unjust and broken system, but their exertions are unlikely to produce any more immediate result than the election of another neoliberal dynast to the White House.

Neither Trump nor Sanders would seriously deliver the sort of revolution that they intermittently pledge to instigate in their campaign rhetoric, but what might a shattering of the established order of power as we know it in the democratic capitalist West look like, and what sort of order (temporary or permanent) would fill the void? Both recorded history and historically-inflected genre entertainment suggest an alternative authority: organized violence.

HBO’s pop culture phenomenon Game of Thrones wraps up its sixth season this weekend, and its vision of a fracturing medievalist power structure on the continents of Westeros and Essos, of traditional norms of legitimacy of authority failing, is characterized by that order’s incipient successor, the application of force. In Westeros, the centralized feudal authority of the crown based on the enforced fealty of cowed vassals (symbolized by the Iron Throne, forged from the captured swords of defeated lords) is weakened by the increasingly openly-questioned legitimacy of the Baratheon line of kings (the past two of which have been incestually-produced pure-blood Lannisters, a powerful noble house but not yet a royal one). This weakness is leveraged to the advantage of a savvy GOT1religious leader and political operator, Jonathan Pryce’s High Sparrow, backed by a literal army of armed zealots known as the Faith Militant.

But outside of the capital city of King’s Landing, the contentious intrigues between church and state have little positive effect on wider social stability. Prosperous feudal estates (like Horn Hill, Samwell Tarly’s family seat) and fortified bastions (like the Eyrie, the stronghold of the Vale) maintain a measure of calm, but elsewhere might makes right. The Riverlands, unsettled since House Frey’s coup against the ruling House Tully in the infamous Red Wedding, have been recaptured by a Tully army and troubled by the guerrilla activities of the independent fighting band, the Brotherhood Without Banners, whose members sometimes branch out into pillaging and massacres of the defenseless.

In the North, meanwhile, insurgent Stark-led forces (captained by Sophie Turner’s increasingly subtle Sansa Stark and Kit Harrington’s heroic but blindly honourable Jon Snow, whose dim uprightness has already got him killed once) do battle with the Boltons who succeeded the wolf-headed clan as Wardens of the North, whose openly cruel reign of terror across the North is personified by the sociopathic Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). The pitched medieval battle between the two sides left a literal pile of bodies in its wake in the most recent episode, a visceral, graphic expression of the recourse to violence and death in an unsettled power vacuum.

All of the Westeros-based players on Game of Thrones are, in their own ways, struggling to establish themselves within a power structure whose long-held assumptions are stumbling. Further east and north, however, lie even greater forces marshalling violence with the intention of apocalyptic overthrow. Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) has brought the centuries-old slaveowning order of Slaver’s Bay in Essos to heel with loyal armies and burnt its remnants to ashes with dragonfire, but intends this military conquest and sociopolitical transformation to be a mere prelude to “breaking the wheel” of the successive dynastic rule of noble houses in Westeros. In the frozen far north, the White Walkers and their army of zombiefied wights is incrementally proceeding south towards the inhabited southern reaches of Westeros, bringing a winter of discontent that threatens not merely the political order of a certain historical context but all life itself.

If Game of Thrones is a fictional exploration of how violent force and those who wield it most effectively can displace the political traditions and diplomatic compromises of an atrophied system of authority, then the complex, dispiriting arc of the Thirty Years’ War shows how the interwoven tapestry of those elements can predestine a social and humanitarian disaster. As detailed with concise but complicated power by historian C.V. Wedgwood in her seminal one-volume 1938 book, this legendarily destructive and protracted conflict in 17th-century Central Europethirtyyearswar (which might have claimed up to 8 million casualties) had causes in the then-century-old conflict between Catholics and Protestants and the dynastic rivalry between the Bourbons who ruled France and the Habsburgs who reigned in Spain and the shrinking Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (which the war morphed into the state that would become the Austro-Hungarian Empire that would only fall in World War I). But its horrible results were the tragic consequence of the reduction of existing nodes of authority within Germany and the normalization of plundering men-at-arms extracting their wages and rations (indeed, their very survival) from the largely defenseless civilian populations of the territories they marched through. Hence the Latin phrase associated with the practices of army support during the war, bellum se ipsum alet: “the war will feed itself.”

Continental Europe’s strongest centralized states of France and Spain fought proxy battles in Germany through allies and satellite states; the conflict might have had animating religious dimensions initially, but the Thirty Years’ War increasing became a hot flare-up of a long-running cold war between Bourbon and Habsburg. From the early days of the war in 1618 until its conclusion with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the most powerful players in the saga were those who could raise, support, and command armies: soldiers of fortune like Ernst von Mansfeld and Ottavio Piccolomini, quasi-feudal warlords like Albrecht von Wallenstein and Bernard of Saxe-Weimar, even an energetic, warlike monarch like Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. Their importance as military commanders overrode diplomatic influence or aristocratic privilege, and they became so practically untouchable and necessary to any success in the field that any excess of control by them or plunder and rapine on their armies’ part, while not precisely forgiven, could not be punished or held to account by any secular or ecclesiastical authority not superior to them in arms (and basically none of them were).

The ground-level results of this tyranny of force in the Germany of this time, chronicled with frequent hyperbole sprinkled with grains of truth, were of a severity and horror that echoed the fancifully shocking miseries of Game of Thrones. Theft and pillage, rape and murder, torture, sieges, massacres, starvation, plagues, ruined crops and slaughtered livestock, and occasional battlefield abattoirs (all of these are more were depicted in an infamous series of etchings by Jacques Callot). In short, human suffering. Whether explored as thematic entertainment on television or recorded as narrative history, this is the end result of upheavals that diminish established authority. Revolutions are ever attractive in the ideological abstract but the overthrow of existing power structures that does not empower those most willing to wield ruthless force has not yet been performed. Both Game of Thrones and the Thirty Years’ War provide a dire case study of human nature in the absence of moderating social and political forces to discourage violent pillage and exploitation of weakness.

Anything That Systematic Would Get You Hated: Ranking the Discography of the Tragically Hip

Following Canadian rock veterans the Tragically Hip’s announcement last month that lead singer and lyricist Gord Downie had contracted terminal brain cancer and that their tour this summer would be their last, the band’s new album Man Machine Poem (also presumed to be their last) was released on Friday, June 17th. Assuming that their recording career will end in step with their live performance career, this album release will complete a musical oeuvre that is among the most impressive in the history of Canadian popular music. This makes Man Machine Poem’s release an apt moment to engage in a critical evaluation and definitive (in one longtime listener’s view, at least) ranking of each album in the Tragically Hip’s 30-year career.

1. Phantom Power (1998)

Phantom PowerThe timing of this album’s release may bias me in its favour: it was the first new studio record by the band to come out after I joined the ranks of their devotees. But Phantom Power (the title is a bit of stage lingo referring to a lingering electric charge after unplugging equipment, but describes the album’s feel and spectral thematic thrust beautifully as well) is also tremendous, lyrically complex, touched by massive melodies and rich textures. Its tone modulates and builds up to its two affecting closers, “Escape is at Hand for the Travellin’ Man” and “Emperor Penguin”, but its early stretch includes two of the band’s greatest anthems of ambivalent national seeking, the Cold War/hockey/marriage history micro-novel “Fireworks” and the ethereal “Bobcaygeon”, which captivated a wider audience beyond their usual core. An earlier generation of Hip fans swear by Fully Completely, but for me, it is Phantom Power above all.

Firework: “Bobcaygeon”. Everyone’s Favourite Tragically Hip Song.

Unplucked Gem: “Save the Planet”. Enervating and unnerving rock distillation of millennial social and political malaise, with flute solo.

2. Day For Night (1994)

Day For NightA serious and purposely uncommercial shift in style and subject matter at the height of their popularity, Day For Night demonstrated that the Tragically Hip would not be your run-of-the-mill stadium rock band. A shadowy statement of dark intent, the record is haunted by the creeping penumbra of totalitarianism, infused with suggestions of human cruelty and death. Downie’s lyrics are fixated on shipwrecks, blood, film noir, Nazi art looting, and tense, intimate negotiations. Densely allusive, the lyrics encompass art, philosophy and history, as well as exquisite tableaux of the mundane sparkling with black humour. Day For Night set the model for the subsequent twenty years of Hip albums, but few of its ancestors can approach its powerful, textured darkness.

Firework: “Nautical Disaster”. A vivid nightmarescape of soul-shaking seaborne trauma without chorus or rhyming scheme. One of Downie’s most blazing vocal performances. And who’s this Susan?

Unplucked Gem: “Titanic Terrarium”. A collection of Downie’s best wry jokes (“Growing up in a biosphere / With no respect for bad weather”) over a subtly magnificent soundscape.

3. Music@Work (2000)

Music @ WorkIt may only be my opinion that Phantom Power was the band’s creative peak, but it was unquestionably their commercial height. It’s wrong, however, to see its 2000 follow-up Music@Work as the commencement of any species of decline. It is, without a doubt, their most sonically textured work, the clearest evidence of the influence of the then-exploding Canadian (specifically Toronto-based) indie rock scene on Downie’s writing and the band’s still-evolving sound, of a piece with the singer’s first two solo records. It has more moments of roughly polished beauty than anything else the Hip have done, and its impact has only grown with acquaintance over the years.

Firework: “Lake Fever”. Deeply Ontarian but rousingly universal, this slow-waxing magic-hour anthem of cottage country tranquility and shaken assumptions, complete with Paul Langlois’ usual froggish backing vocals straining into mightiness, must have a place in the Hip’s top ten singles.

Unplucked Gem: “Toronto #4”. Elegant poetic expression of family loss. Possibly the Hip’s most ravishing, affecting three minutes.

4. Road Apples (1991)

Road ApplesThe apogee of the band’s initial blues-rock phase, Road Apples was always preferable for me to its much more successful follow-up. It’s little wonder that the Hip expanded the boundaries of their music from this point on, as the record makes it clear that they had exploited the form for more than all it was worth. From the killer opener “Little Bones” on, this is a relentless rock record dipped in Shakespeare and Canadiana, with slow-burn interludes like “Long Time Running” and the wrenching “Fiddler’s Green”. They branched out and got better, but Road Apples is pure, raw, nearly flawless rock n’ roll.

Firework: “Cordelia”. So many of Road Apples’ rockers spit hot fire, but it’s hard to top this one, with its loud-quiet transitions and central King Lear metaphor. Cracks your spine like a whip.

Unplucked Gems: “The Last of the Unplucked Gems”. A bit of an obvious choice, but a great bassline from Gord Sinclair and zen simplicity from Gord Downie: “I’m kind of dumb / But so are you”.

5. Fully Completely (1992)

Fully CompletelyThe seminal Tragically Hip album, with multiple hit singles establishing the loyalty of a generation of Canadian rock fans. It’s certainly quite good (I love the sound of Johnny Fay’s drums in particular) but just below the upper echelon of the band’s work, to my mind. There’s some filler but there’s also some greatness, namely “Courage” (Downie’s tribute to hard-drinking, bar-fighting writers and the pitfalls of masculine identity), “Locked in the Trunk of a Car” (cruising, paranoid northern rural noir), “Fifty Mission Cap” (hockey death mystery and cultural commodification) and “Wheat Kings” (an acoustic ballad on prairie society and the David Milgaard case). If the Tragically Hip are to be remembered by posterity for one album only, it’s difficult to argue for any candidate other than Fully Completely.

Firework: “Courage (For Hugh Maclennan)”. Whiplash tick-tock riffing rhythm and Downie’s canny instinct for the mot juste and the anthemic melody make this not just an album but a full discographic highlight. Wonderful, profound lyrics in the bridge as well.

Unplucked Gem: “Wheat Kings”. Far from hidden, but a late-album cut with a complexity of cultural imagery and detail that far outstrips anything they had done prior to it.

6. In Between Evolution (2004)

In Between EvolutionAlthough the Tragically Hip’s recordings from the second half of their thirty-year run always have something worthwhile to offer, you’ll notice them crowding towards the bottom of this list. The mid-2000s were a relatively solid period for the band, however, and this album in particular included some sharp meathooks. It blows through the doors with the breathless opening salvo of “Heaven is a Better Place Today” (another dead hockey player song, this one about Dan Snyder, and the twinned euphemisms common to both sports and death) and “Summer’s Killing Us” before acquiring a more strident political dimension redolent of the midpoint of the George W. Bush Administration: “Gus the Polar Bear from Central Park” figures a depressed zoo-bound super-predator as a stealth metaphor for belligerent American interventionist power, “It Can’t Be Nashville Every Night” obliquely criticizes flag-waving warmongering musicians like country star Toby Keith, and “If New Orleans is Beat” anticipates the denuding of the great historic city on the Mississippi (with which the band shared a long history) in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Another record that has only grown in my estimation over time.

Firework: “Summer’s Killing Us”. Maintains such a breathless see-saw riff-rhythm that Downie’s emphatic “whoo!” comes out as an exhausted “whew!”

Unplucked Gem: “Goodnight Josephine”. An album without ballads ends with this lovely tune about paintings and teenage daughters with one of lead guitarist Rob Baker’s most nicely-attuned run-off solos.

7. Up to Here (1989)

Up To HereThe reputation and importance in terms of breaking the Tragically Hip gives this smart, skilled but fundamentally basic blues-rock album a bit of a boost in this list. There are some superb examples of the genre on Up to Here, the singles “Blow at High Dough” and “New Orleans is Sinking” obviously but also the woody stomper “Boots or Hearts” and “38 Years Old”, a storytelling ballad that approximates later, greater such narrative songs like “Wheat Kings” in embryonic form. Up to Here is hypercompetent at the gutpunching bluesy modern rock that made the band’s name (indeed, this is the album that made that name) but it suffers just a bit compared to the exploratory ambition of their later work.

Firework: “New Orleans is Sinking”. The Tragically Hip’s “She Loves You” breakthrough, and an indelible, serpentine Southern gothic kick-up. SWIM!

Unplucked Gem: “Boots or Hearts”. You can’t dance to much Hip, but you can dance to this. Shuffle and handclaps perfection.

8. World Container (2006)

World ContainerProduced by mainstream shiny-rock maven Bob Rock, World Container was a modest commercial comeback for the Hip, who had faded from their position of prominence in the changing youth music market in Canada since the end of the 1990s. It’s certainly the Hip album most at ease with the stadium-rock milieu that was always their dominant métier, and purpose-builds big, broad songs like “In View”, “Yer Not the Ocean”, and the title track for that setting. Enjoyable as it can be for the band to embrace their concert identity on a studio album (“Family Band” is a hugely likable literalization of this identity), this embrace comes with a cost to their art. Bob Rock encouraged Downie to move away from the renowned literary obscurity of his lyrics into more intelligible expressions. This results in some of Downie’s most direct and personal songs (“The Lonely End of the Rink” reminisces on his youth as a top hockey goalie prospect and his memories of a distant father) but doesn’t so much open his creative possibilities as narrowly channel them. In opposition to many other efforts from the 2000s, World Container struck me as strong at first and then faded in my estimation with the passage of time.

Firework: “The Lonely End of the Rink”. A bit too direct? Sure. But the core metaphor of the natural solitude and isolation of the goaltender on the ice reflecting a similar cold distance with his father is beyond solid. Some great guitar work from Baker, too.

Unplucked Gem: “Family Band”. The embrace of old-fashioned riff rock bears juicy fruit late in the album. It repeats the stop-and-powerfully-restart trick from “Little Bones” to maximum effect, and Fay’s timekeeping is merciless. Plus: “One day I’ll make some honest rock n’ roll / Full of handclaps and gang vocals”. A worthy goal.

9. Man Machine Poem (2016)

Man Machine PoemLoose, adventurous, and wonderfully unfamiliar, Man Machine Poem doesn’t pummel the listener with stadium anthems but beguiles them with melodic surprises. The influence of producer and Broken Social Scene supremo Kevin Drew is writ large on what is likely to be the Tragically Hip’s last record (and confirms the reverse influence of the Canadian rock giants on the Pitchfork-approved indie collective’s music which was always a matter of no small suspicion on my part). Like many an indie rock record, and like much of the Hip’s better post-millenial output as well, Man Machine Poem feels like a musical work that will reveal itself more fully and truly only over time. How painful it will be not to receive more gifts like this from the band, but how glad we are to be given one more.

Firework: “In Sarnia”. Canadian place-name in the title. Check. Low-end noodling exploding into moving grandeur. This is a song I’ll love for years, that much is clear.

Unplucked Gem: “Here, In the Dark”. The most Hipesque track on an album that often seems to purposely eschew anything overly Hipesque, with a great arhythmic chorus with Downie wordspilling compellingly. Complex, menacing final minute as well.

10. Trouble at the Henhouse (1996)

Trouble At The HenhouseSharing Day For Night’s dusky textures, Trouble at the Henhouse is hardly as distinguished a release, a valley between the late ‘90s peaks that top this list. It does, however, feature two dynamite anthemic singles, the grand “Gift Shop” and the sublime “Ahead by a Century”, as well as the excellent “Springtime in Vienna” and the spookily epic “Don’t Wake Daddy”. It’s the rare Hip record that peters out into relative insignificance, however; usually the band sequence in a strong deep cut or two in their albums’ latter halves, and certainly nearly always end on an up note. But not here, where the murky dirge “Put It Off” plods off into the distance.

Firework: “Ahead by a Century”. One of the eternals, this coming-of-age ballad could be made the new Canadian national anthem without facing serious opposition.

Unplucked Gem: “Flamenco”. Doggedly down-tempo, this is nonetheless a sneaky melodic charmer, with one of Downie’s sharpest digs: “Maybe a prostitute / Could teach you / How to take a compliment”.

11. In Violet Light (2002)

In Violet LightFor some time my personal selection as the weakest Tragically Hip release since their debut, the Purple Heron Album has revealed its peculiar delights over time and risen in the rankings as mixed-bag late-period releases piled up behind it. “’It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken’” is a good, if not all-time great, single, although “Silver Jet” might be the worst thing the band ever put out to radio and Hugh Padgham’s production is weirdly thin, tinny, and generally unworthy of the artistry on display (the dull commercial font on the cover is the visual match to those sonics). The sheer quality of Downie’s writing and the increasing adventurousness of his vocals reveal themselves with deeper acquaintance, and the top-notch pair of “Dark” songs are both for the annals. Even this far removed from their best, the Hip are still very good.

Firework: “The Darkest One”. A breezy cruiser with a slick riff, it’s the best of the record’s three singles. Plus the music video is a Canadiana classic, featuring the two Gords helping the Trailer Park Boys steal an engine out of a pickup truck, who then tussle with Don Cherry when he shows up to deliver fried chicken.

Unplucked Gem: “The Dark Canuck”. A six-minute-long, beats-to-the-floor modest rock epic in three movements, this is among the Hip’s most arresting album-closers.

12. We Are the Same (2009)

We Are The SameThe band’s second collaboration with Bob Rock also represented the end of the creative relationship. Although it’s more likely that this had more to do with the Hip’s desire for continued variety in collaborators, perhaps they saw that Rock’s emphasis on straight-ahead clarity in music and words wasn’t doing their output as many favours as they might have thought. We Are the Same is hardly a failure. There are several fine songs, at least one classic tableau of detailed empathy (“Coffee Girl”), and some ambitious turns. But this band has honestly been much better than this, and not only earlier in their career, either. Half-assed album cover, too.

Firework: “Coffee Girl”. There’s a touch of creepy middle-aged man watching young women in public to this, but it’s an infectious and beautifully observed portrait of a type outside of Downie’s personal experience, with Beck and Cat Power shout-outs.

Unplucked Gem: “The Depression Suite”. Bob Rock may have over-polished the Hip’s sound, but he did oversee this spectacular, rambling, rousing, ambitious, strings-assisted suite. Downie pulls disparate strands from Farley Mowat’s books, the isolation of urban capitalism, and the corporatized transformation of New Orleans for tourist profit into one of his most comprehensive pictures of modern malaise and the vital comfort of fellow-feeling. A great musical moment, and maybe their last on record.

13. Now For Plan A (2012)

Now For Plan AMade with prominent Canadian rock producer Gavin Brown, Now For Plan A makes very little impression of any kind, it pains me to say. Maybe it will grow with long-term acquaintance, and some of it is kind of nice (“About This Map” and the title track are low-key efforts with unsounded depths, I feel). But with this album coming after the similarly middling (by the band’s high standards) We Are the Same, a long-running loyalty to the Tragically Hip’s continued release of new material was tested. Cheeky album cover, mind you.

Firework: “Man Machine Poem”. A title track for the album that follows this one (how eccentric!), it’s lyrically minimalist but massively sung by Downie and full of productive tension.

Unplucked Gem: “Goodnight Attawapiskat”. That reliable Hip standby, the killer album closer. Also a classic slice of Hip Canadiana, with Downie delighting in squeezing the remote northern indigenous community’s mouthful of a name into a rock lyric, although just mentioning the place, with its crippling and largely disavowed social problems, is a laudable act of social justice.

14. The Tragically Hip (EP) (1987)

The Tragically HipThis EP debut really barely represents the Tragically Hip as we came to know them at all. Downie is listed as co-writer on only half of the songs, with Sinclair and Baker sharing credit in a three-composer triumvurate. Canada’s future rock poet is vocalist only on both of the EP’s singles, including its best song, “Last American Exit”. Sinclair’s misbegotten “Evelyn” may be the biggest mistake they every committed to tape, and the EP concludes with a couple of jokey semi-novelty songs. Only the unremarkable “Highway Girl” made it onto the fan-voted 2005 Yer Favourites compilation from this EP, and even that was only due to the legendary “Double Suicide” live version. It’s generally unaccomplished, but then they were pretty young at the time. Only hints of what is to come can be discerned here, but it can be safely enough dismissed as simple juvenilia.

Firework: “Last American Exit”. Road trip blues-rock with a soaring chorus and an undercurrent of classically Canadian knee-jerk anti-Americanism. Nicely done, Other Gord.

Unplucked Gem: “I’m A Werewolf, Baby”. A silly tune, fairly terrible but still a definite oddity in the band’s oeuvre. Pretty fun, even if it’s an extended joke, and you’ve got to love Downie’s improv reply to Langlois’ repetition of the title phrase: “Not you too!”

Side releases worthy of mention: Live Between Us, the much-bootlegged band’s only official live album, recorded on the Trouble at the Henhouse tour in Detroit; Gord Downie’s brilliant, pure indie solo records, especially Coke Machine Glow and his energetic collaboration with the Sadies, And the Conquering Sun; “The New Maybe”, one of their most achingly gorgeous songs ever, from the Yer Favourites best-of album.

Categories: Music, Reviews

Film Review: Warcraft

June 15, 2016 1 comment

Warcraft (2016; Directed by Duncan Jones)

Warcraft has much to recommend it and much to dissuade against it. It’s a film of humongous scope and impressive scale, but also of stunted storytelling, plot consistency, emotion, and character depth and motivation. It feels simultaneously too big and unwieldy and not nearly wide-reaching enough. Its laudable imagination and ambition both prove frustratingly stunted at repeated inopportune moments. It’s not nearly as bad as you’ve heard, but it’s no underrated gem either. Its director, Duncan Jones, has unquestionable vision but perhaps not the experience with a paint kit with this many colours to put it into properly exciting motion. It’s a miss, but a tantalizing and not altogether unadmirable one.

Blizzard Entertainment’s popular MMORPG (or massively multiplayer online role-playing game) World of Warcraft might seem to be a curious video game property to adapt for the big screen, despite its pop-culture phenom status. MMORPGs are known for the immersive detail of their simulated worlds rather than for involving linear narratives or compelling characters, the backbone of cinematic storytelling. The open-ended nature of MMORPGs makes them not only non-cinematic but non-narrative; continuous play is their gaming goal, and stories, by their very nature, must end.

But Warcraft‘s screenplay, by Jones and Charles Leavitt, reaches into the game series’ first trilogy of real-time strategy games for its story. Its narrative landscape of a varied high fantasy world ruled by humans contending with an invading Horde of marauding warrior-culture orcs has roots in Warcraft: Orcs & Humans and Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness. I was an avid gamer of the latter in my mispent youth, and well remember the worldbuilding ambition hinted at in the game and further drawn out in the manual (yes, after the controls instructions), which detailed the history and nature of Azeroth, its races, its leaders, its cultures and beliefs, as well as the orc clans, their rituals, and their rivalries. Blizzard’s creative team envisioned a remarkably complex fictional universe ready to expand exponentially in the Warcraft series, which it did in the megahit WoW.

The Warcraft film can be seen as a logical extension of that expansive sword-and-sorcery universe, with a firm emphasis on seen. Jones, his design team, and ILM’s computer imagery experts craft a frequently stunning visual setting in Azeroth: the rambling human capital city of Stormwind, the vertiginous magical pinnacle of Karazhan, the rough, sandy camps of the orcs, the mountain forges of the dwarves, a floating city in the sky. Even if Jones had not made the double-edged decision to dive into his setting and story without much in the way of exposition, a location of such scope and variation as Azeroth must necessarily have been glimpsed in fascinating but fleeting snatches. Azeroth flies past when we’d rather it slowed down so that we can savour it, but Jones has a story to tell and can’t quite balance the narrative impetus with onscreen world creation nearly as well as the contemporary standard set by Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (the literary source material of which are also a key source for Warcraft‘s universe).

Warcraft‘s story has considerable potential, a dogged moral equanimity, and political implications both historical and contemporary (and a whopper of a biblical/film history homage near its conclusion), but fritters much of that away with nagging derivative choices and predictable turns. It boldly begins with a focus on the orcs, enormous, ripplingly-muscled roving war clans fleeing from a dying world. Derived (of course) from J.R.R. Tolkien‘s inhuman monster antagonists from Rings but resembling the proud, honour-bound, hypermasculine warrior culture of the Klingons in later Star Trek series, the orcs of Warcraft are miles more empathetic and honour-bound than the growling evil grotesques that pursued hobbits through six Middle Earth movies.

The focal point of that empathy is Durotan (played through digital motion-capture by Toby Kebbell), the chieftain of the noble Frostwolf clan and, when we first glimpse him in a patient, meticulously-detailed, surprisingly moving close-up shot, about to become a father. Durotan and his Frostwolves, which include his mate Draka (Anna Galvin) and his second-in-command Orgrim Doomhammer (Robert Kazinsky), are among a vanguard warband sent through a magical dimensional portal by the warlock Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) to establish a beachhead on Azeroth for the eventual en masse emigration of the orcish Horde. The portal is opened through the use of the fel, a sickly green glowing magic with the corrupting power of the One Ring that sucks up the lifeforce of beings, and Durotan distrusts Gul’dan’s reliance on it and its dangerous effects, side and otherwise.

Despite Durotan’s principled misgivings, the orcs ravage Azerothian villages and kidnap peasants to feed Gul’dan’s fel magic and open the portal to the Horde. These actions threaten the longstanding peace of Azeroth, and King Llane (Dominic Cooper) plans a military response. His army is commanded by Sir Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), a prodigious fighter and strategist whose only son (Burkely Duffield) is in harm’s way among the overmatched ranks. His comrades in the fightback against the orcs include the realm’s chief mage Guardian Medivh (an absurdly committed Ben Foster), the renegade apprentice spellcaster Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), and a half-human, half-orc captive named Garona (the charismatic Paula Patton) who mediates the two opposing poles of this equally desperate conflict.

Jones’ Warcraft film adapts a core element of the franchise’s gameplay – the player can choose to play as humans or orcs, thus making either party’s interests and cause their own within the scope of the game – into a novel tone of moral, or at least motivational, equivalence. No character is altogether good or evil in terms of the Manichean absolutes so central to high fantasy: Lothar is duty-bound to his king and country, but can be arrogant and quick to anger, and his relationship with his son is a mess of regrets (it’s also the source of much of the film’s worst writing and acting, to be honest); Durotan’s honourable nature and dedication to protecting his family, his clan, and his people’s traditions leads him towards betrayal; Medivh, like a true shaggy-fringed academic, allows his isolated intellectual curiosity to turn him from his duty to safeguard the realm with his magic; and Garona can’t make a choice of any kind without betraying either the orcs that are her natural community or the humans who have treated with much greater kindness and respect. Even Gul’dan, a twisted, grimacing sub-Voldemort type with something of the radical imam or splinter Christian cult leader about him, a creature consumed by dark magic and the closest thing Warcraft has to a straight-up villain, is also the unquestionable saviour of the orcish people (although their world may have also been consumed by his dark magic, so they shouldn’t be too quick to thank him).

Indeed, by virtue of both the sturdier orc-related writing and character arcs and the impressively emotionally subtle mo-cap acting work, the orcs (or at least Durotan and his circle) are in many ways the more sympathetic figures in the film. This is despite their structural role in the plot as monstrous, violent refugee invaders (a literal Horde) with an unfamiliar culture swarming over a peaceable and vaguely multiracial nation and literally siphoning its lifeforce. There’s a nasty Trumpian xenophobic fantasy about the dangers of immigration lurking not very far beneath the surface of Warcraft, making it this summer’s second blockbuster based on a video game to venture into such waters.

To its credit, Warcraft doesn’t indulge these nativist undertones, largely through the qualms that sympathetic orcs like Durotan and Garona have about Gul’dan’s plans and the corrupting fel. But like the game, the film relies on and thrives on the conflict between man and orc (Jones’ battle sequences are often spectacular, though sometimes numinously staged) and entertains no serious possibility of resolution of the impasse by any means but arms. Jones can be meticulous and careful about some details (many of them of a technical or design nature), but his hand is less steady on the tiller of moral, political, or thematic matters, not to mention the numerous plot holes large enough to walk a hulking orc through.

Despite the intractable differences and the natural conflict pre-determined by the core scenario put in place in game and movie, orcs and humans work their way towards similar end points by the film’s conclusion. Both sides in what we are told in the opening moments to be an interminable war celebrate the sacrifices of selfless heroes that galvanize their respective peoples in the defence of their cultural traditions with the persuasive force of compelling propaganda. Like the games, Warcraft the film requires humans and orcs to be at odds indefinitely in order to function, and this first film of what is clearly hoped to be a screen franchise maintains a course towards continuity of conflict. Still, Warcraft merits praise and criticism, admiration and ridicule in differing facets and very nearly in equal measure. Its allegiances to well-crafted epic adventure and B-level pulp fantasy tropes mirror those that it intends its audience to hold towards its warring but intelligibly motivated races. The balance is never perfect, but Duncan Jones’ flawed but involving sword-and-sorcery blockbuster experiment suggests that balance isn’t always everything.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review – X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016; Directed by Bryan Singer)

Bryan Singer’s complexly compromised new X-Men film includes a nod and a wink at the precarity of its perceived position as well as to the history of the franchise. The film, the third in the reboot trilogy begun by Matthew Vaughn in 2011, is set in 1983, and one scene features students from Professor Charles Xavier’s Westchester-based School for Gifted Youngsters playing hooky to watch Return of the Jedi at a nearby movie theatre. Exiting the screening, Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) offers a generic teenager appraisal of the Star Wars trilogy: Empire is the best, it’s darker, etc. Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), already established as having insight beyond her tender years due to her powerful psychic abilities, opines that, after all, everyone knows that the third film in a trilogy always sucks.

This is not merely a self-reflexive, self-effacing joke. Singer, along with screenwriter Simon Kinberg, understands the difficulty of satisfyingly completing a blockbuster trilogy, the dangerous potential of deflated expectations and disproven narrative extrapolations. The original X-Men three-parter of the 2000s began strong with Singer’s first two entries – entertaining, sincerely acted, politically resonant, and so important to the establishment of the Marvel superhero hegemony in Hollywood – before landing its third-film conclusion with a splat after the hackish Brett Ratner took the reins on the disappointing The Last Stand (Singer was off making Superman Returns, another of the superhero genre’s many semi-disavowed disappointments that fans may feel nostalgic for given the recent galloping fiasco for the Man of Steel). Singer knows that X-Men: Apocalypse is a landing that he must stick, and Jean Grey’s referential line signals that self-knowledge.

If Apocalypse stumbles on its dismount and receives judges’ marks below those of its two X-predecessors, the pressure and enforced level of ambition resulting from Singer’s self-knowledge, once one of his strengths as a filmmaker but here a hindrance, might be blamed. Apocalypse has so much inherently going for it, so many things it knows that it must do right and indeed works extremely hard to do right. And, truly, much of it works, of its own accord, in ideal isolation. But Singer struggles to lash its diverse plot elements, characters, emotional arcs, and metaphors together, and messiness rules the day. He knows that he has so much to do to craft a satisfying third act that, in the end, he does too much.

The ambition and scope at the director’s disposal is put to grand use in the film’s opening sequence, a prologue in Ancient Egypt of gilded mysterious grandeur that introduces Apocalypse‘s titular antagonist, a mega-powerful, practically immortal mutant (the first in human history, legend has it) also called En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac). Living for millennia by transfering his consciousness from one body to another in an elaborate ritual ceremony and gaining the powers of the mutants of the new bodies he occupies, En Sabah Nur is buried beneath a collapsing great pyramid amidst an ingenious coup attempt and passes from memory. Centuries later, in 1983, he is unearthed and awakened, and quickly forms an intention to cleanse a planet that he considers to be ruled by the weak and the inferior.

Oblivious to the coming oblivion, the scattered remnants of the putative X-Men lick the wounds suffered ten years before in the incident in Washington, D.C. witnessed by the whole world. Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) pour their efforts into the growing school at the X-Mansion, with Xavier mentoring the promising Jean Grey, whose mind powers resemble but far outstrip his own, in particular. Xavier also pines after his CIA agent love interest Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), whose memory of him and their mutual attraction to each other he wiped out at the end of First Class, and who has made an intriguing discovery beneath Cairo, Egypt.

Raven/Mystique (a stiff, stifled Jennifer Lawrence), famous for her intervention of a decade ago to save the President and worshipped as a hero by young mutants of the next generation, has forsaken her true blue form and her old friend Xavier. She trawls an East Berlin underground fighting club to rescue another azure-skinned mutant, the demon-like teleporter Kurt Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee), whom she decides will only be safe at Xavier’s institute.

Most compellingly, the terroristic villain of the 1973 incident that concluded Days of Future Past has gone off the grid into hiding. Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) has left Magneto behind, retreating to Eastern Bloc Poland to toil anonymously at a steel foundry and enjoy an idyllic cottage life with a beloved wife and daughter. But this attempt to live a simple life with his metal-manipulating powers concealed is doomed to end in a tragedy that galvanizes Lehnsherr on the path of Magneto.

Meanwhile, the ancient mutant as terribly powerful as he is frightfully boring (Isaac, who oozes personality in every other role he’s tackled, can’t summon a whiff of it for this stultifying demigod) portal-jumps across the planet, assembling his Four Horsemen followers in a subplot that plays like the getting-the-team-together rising-action plot of an unconventional heist movie of the sort that Singer should probably be making instead. He comes across a young Ororo Munroe, the future Storm (Alexandra Shipp, better in the role even in a limited dose than Halle Berry was over three-plus films), robbing market stalls in Cairo, then recruits purple-psych-energy-wielding Psylocke (Olivia Munn, saddled with a horridly objectifying skintight dominatrix costume) from her position as enforcer to black-market dealer and mutant-tracker Caliban (Tómas Lemarquis) before being led by her to Angel (Ben Hardy), who we first see battling Wagner in the East Berlin fight pit.

The Fourth Horseman is the re-emerged Magneto, prepared to channel his anguish at once again losing loved ones into Apocalypse’s plan for global annihilation. En Sabah Nur converts Lehnsherr to his cause/leather fetish club by marshalling his lineage of rage with the subtlety of a hammerstroke: he takes him to Auschwitz, confronts him with the Nazi murder of his parents and millions more, and goads him into disintegrating the historic camp of genocidal horrors from the ground up. Lehnsherr’s arc in Apocalypse dwindles away from there, but the heavy-acting Fassbender imbues his character’s quasi-chamber piece with a sincerity and emotional realism that sets it apart from the rest of the overworked superhero epic around it. Magneto’s destruction of the death camp is provocatively subversive as well. In a blockbuster milieu increasingly obsessed with destroying global landmarks, trust Singer (with his established and fruitful interest in the historical and psychological dimensions of Nazism) to turn this tendency inside-out by vaporizing the sobering surviving testament to the monstrous inhumanity lurking inside of political ideology in the midst of a comic-book popcorn movie. In a franchise once bursting with potent political metaphors, Lehnsherr literally reducing this brick-and-metal embodiment of arrogant genocidal evil to dust as he chooses to participate in a recurrence of that very evil is the strongest on offer in Apocalypse.

Indeed, besides another witty, bravado time-slowing sequence featuring super-fast Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters), there’s very little of sustaining interest to Apocalypse beyond Fassbender’s Polish steelworker melodrama and its Holocaust-evoking climax. All of the above-mentioned X-characters are given at least limited arcs, and it’s difficult to pinpoint wrong notes for anyone: the characterizations are all reasonable enough. There are just so many of them. Too many. Singer frequently resorts to knocking certain characters unconscious, simply so he can focus on other ones, if only for a moment. But with so much thrown at the wall, not nearly enough sticks (I haven’t even mentioned the lengthy mid-film digression that is a visit to a secret Rocky Mountain base and research facility – apparently within helicopter range of upstate New York – that presents as a set-up for a tangential film for a character who otherwise plays no important role in this film at all). Even if each micro-narrative is internally consistent and thematically well-conceived, they never cohere into a whole, never form a team or a family as the X-Men manage to do by the film’s sequel-teasing end.

X-Men: Apocalypse is never as appallingly wrong-headed as Batman v. Superman managed to be, and is more competent in practically every way. Bryan Singer is an incomparably more interesting filmmaker than Zack Snyder, or even than the Russo brothers, whose Captain America: Civil War was the summer’s other character-stuffed superhero blockbuster (and a much better one than Singer or Snyder managed to produce). Still, Singer is so often working at cross-purposes with both his own strengths and those of the material that his peculiarities and skills are swallowed in the grandiosity, quite literally lost in the plot. In the process, Jean Grey’s in-joke becomes less an anticipated staving-off of an ignominious fate and more a proscribed self-fulfilling prophecy. Apocalypse never really narrows in on what it wants, or needs, to be, and thus settles into the discomfiting position as the least of its three-film cycle.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Documentary Quickshots #2

My Kid Could Paint That (2007; Directed by Amir Bar-Lev)

What is the Truth? Is there such a thing? What does it mean to us if there is, and what does it mean to us if there isn’t? And can storytelling, be it painting or documentary film, brings us closer to it, or simply make it more distant, more obscure?

Amir Bar-Lev’s My Kid Could Paint That asks all of these questions, openly or obliquely, and doesn’t really answer any of them. It also asks, in much the same manner though not nearly as pointedly as Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, if contemporary art isn’t inherently a scam to separate pretentiously naive rich people from the money they don’t really deserve to have in the first place. The subject through which these big, unresolved interrogatories are filtered is Marla Olmstead, a 4-year-old girl from Binghampton, New York who became a global celebrity in the early 2000s when her abstract paintings began selling for thousands, and eventually hundreds of thousands, of dollars. Almost as soon as her fame exploded via an eager American media, skepticism reared its head, the focal point of which was a 60 Minutes II report that documented and speculated about whether Marla made the paintings entirely herself, or if she had secret polishing help from her publicity-hungry father Mark, whose interest in painting apparently sparked her own.

Bar-Lev had unprecedented access to the Olmsteads during Marla’s notoreity, which Marla’s parents seem to have given him primarily because they believed that his film would be favourable to their daughter’s practically impossible story. There’s certainly never a hint that the Olmstead household is anything but a happy one, whether or not it’s ground zero for a serious art fraud operation. Bar-Lev’s doubts become open by the film’s conclusion, which show a painful admission of his skepticism of Marla’s sole artistship to her parents, as well as Marla specifically asking for her father’s help in painting her latest work. Treated as a smoking gun of Mark’s guilt in stage-managing his small daughter’s career, it is far from definitive, though the father’s desperately insistent attempt to minimize its meaning on a phone call afterwards gives immediate pause.

But Bar-Lev more subtly and effectively mines My Kid Could Paint That with notes of creeping suspicion prior to that point. There’s the 60 Minutes II exposé, yes, but also Marla’s inability to explain her artistic choices when asked (I mean, she is 4 years old, but a Mozart-esque child prodigy would be able to express some idea, no?), the frustrating lack of definitive filmed proof of her painting a work start to finish (at least that wasn’t produced as marketing material by her family), and her art dealer’s brazen meta-admission of his opinion that modern art is an obtuse scam that he, as a semi-successful photorealist painter and outsider, was glad to exploit to the advantage of his finances and reputation. The film leads you skillfully to its agnostic conclusions before it lays them out openly (and, honestly, a bit clumsily).

One idea My Kid Could Paint That circles around but doesn’t key in on is how the story of Marla the 4-year-old painting prodigy preconditions reactions to her art, as well as sets its value. Exit Through the Gift Shop posited that the art world was so wrapped up in narrative and image, so disconnected from basic considerations of aesthetic quality or creative process, so awash in the irresponsibly-spent money of wealthy collectors with little clue about what makes art art, that a satirical ironist could lay bare its acquisitive hypocrisy by not only faking great art but indeed by faking the artist himself. My Kid Could Paint That posits something more profound and challenging, namely that it is not possible to tell real from fake in art, or even to begin to quantify or fathom what such a distinction might mean. Are the paintings of Marla Olmstead (now 16 years old!) great or interesting or valuable simply because they are painted by a preschooler, or despite of that (disputed) fact? How can we begin to answer either question, let alone sort one answer from the other?

Harmontown (2014; Directed by Neil Berkeley)

Far removed from the visual arts in practice, process, reception, and prestige, television comedy writing nonetheless has accrued a claim to direct access to Truth of serious, if not equivalent, dimensions. Dan Harmon, head writer and showrunner of the cult NBC sitcom Community and later co-creator of Adult Swim cult cartoon Rick and Morty, has received particular praise for not only his shows’ sharp, conceptually complex humour but also their beating heart, their use of laughter to forge a tentative but unifying sense of belonging among misfits. harmontown

Still, the praise given to a writer of a TV show with a cult following (and the middling ratings and perennial threats of cancellation that go with that double-edge term of endearment) may not be entirely satisfying to the ravenous ego of a comedy genius. So it seems to be with Harmon, who was fired from Community after its third season due to conflicts, both creative and personal, with executives, fellow creative staff, and most infamously with one of the show’s stars, Chevy Chase. Although Harmon returned to shepherd the show through the end of its run of six seasons (and, as one of the show’s cherished catchphrases predicted, apparently a movie as well), the firing (although not his first; he was also canned by Sarah Silverman from his key position with her eponymous show, despite her admiration of his work) seems to have sparked an existential crisis for Harmon.

Harmontown depicts how he chose to work through those issues: first, with a weekly cult comedy podcast, and second, by taking that podcast on tour across the U.S. in the dead of winter. Harmontown doesn’t sugar-coat its subject or depict him as any sort of brilliant or exceptional artist: Harmon procrastinates dangerously in delivering (unmade) pilot scripts to the CBS and Fox networks, drinks too much and is viciously critical of his live performances, and listens as his girlfriend discusses his rude behaviour. He’s even consistently outshone onstage by the deadpan unpredictability of Spencer Crittenden, an anti-social fan who was worked into Harmontown as Dungeon Master to the Dungeons & Dragons games that end each episode/performance.

But the film is often hilarious and even moving when showing moments from his shows and meetings with fans afterwards. Like the NBC sitcom that never had enough viewers and seemed to kind of like it that way, the Harmontown podcast and tour offers a feeling of community to people who don’t fit into the monolithic mainstream culture. In an American popular culture more niche-driven than ever before, Harmon has built for himself an intensely loyal niche audience, and Harmontown is a document of how he reaches out and touches that audience as well as how it recharges his creative batteries. This symbiosis – embodied by Spencer, the shy, solitary fan brought into Harmon’s modest spotlight – is good for both parties, and aims for some modest form of the Truth.

Categories: Art, Film, Hilarity, Reviews

Film Review – Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015; Directed by Matthew Vaughn)

Simultaneously transgressive and reactionary, Matthew Vaughn’s Britside spy action romp is a heck of a good time but leaves one feeling more than slightly troubled as well as entertained. For a film that quite purposely sneers at the snobbish Toryist classism that underscores the James Bond movies which have dominated the mainstream of the British espionage genre for decades, Kingsman: The Secret Service cannot resist the stylish glamour and the soothing appeal of those same underlying tropes. It also cannot help but sneer likewise at the scrappy commoners that it purports to valorize in the form of its hero, Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton).

This putative hero lives in a London council estate with his mum Michelle (Samantha Womack) and stepdad Dean (Geoff Bell), an asshole two-bit crimelord whose gang of toughs the principled but undisciplined young Eggsy clashes with. He’s sprung from police custody after nicking and crashing a car belonging to one of the thugs, calling in a mysterious, long-owed favour related to his dead father. We see daddy’s valourous end in the opening scene, a tense standoff following an unsettlingly glamourized aerial assault on a Middle Eastern fortress set to Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” in which the debris from detonating payloads bounces whimsically to form the onscreen credits. It’s a sophomorically clever throwaway visual gag, but it gives a strong indication of the lightly ironic manner in which Vaughn will approach violence in Kingsman.

Anyway, the life of one Harry Hart (Colin Firth) was saved by Eggsy’s dad, and so the nattily-attired apparent tailor not only gets the kid out of jail free, he also balletically reduces Dean’s threat-spewing gang to a bloody pulp in a pub. No mere tailor, he. Hart then asks Eggsy, conveniently an Olympic-level gymnast and Royal Marine dropout, to become a candidate for a position in the super-secret, distinctly gentlemanly, quasi-Arthurian independent intelligence agency which Hart as well as Unwin, Sr. belong to: Kingsman (no, not Kingsmen, but singular and monarchically unconnected; precisely the sort of grammatical irregularity that British aristocratic wags relish in naming their fraternal organizations).

From here, Kingsman begins to shoehorn a bit too much into a single universe-introducing movie, balancing Eggsy’s Kingsman training alongside various Oxbridge upper-cruster rivals at a palatial country manor with the devious planet-controlling plotting of a lisping, eccentric tech zillionaire named Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who is protected by the sinister and acrobatic Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), whose prosthetic legs are surgically-sharp bladed weapons. Still, Vaughn keeps all of his juggling balls deftly in the air while unleashing several fight sequences of glibly amoral elegant slaughter. A generally misanthropic tone predominates and renders these scenes that much more inventive in their application of inhuman violence. Kingsman has the forebearance to look askance at the crude, abusive yobs of Dean’s gang as well as at the privileged elitists who think they know what’s best for the entire human race, be they charismatic new-economy faux-populists like Valentine or hereditary aristocratic snobs like head Kingsman Chester King (Michael Caine).

There’s a touch of the equal-opportunity offender to Vaughn’s film, which he co-wrote with Jane Goldman, adpating the comics by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons. It carries through spectacularly with its distaste for upper-crust superiority, literally exploding the heads of every single hand-picked number of the privileged elite, Valentine’s select few collaborators in his new world order, in a multichromatic choreographed sequence of overtly subversive glee. But it also includes a brutal, magnificently-arranged battle royale between Harry Hart and a church full of fanatically hateful religious nuts in Kentucky. The massacre that unfolds therein is orchestrated by Valentine and is proof of his unscrupulous villainy, but it’s also scurillously pre-justified by the backwoods parishioners’ embrace of the genocidal fantasies of their hateful preacher (and by the veritable arsenal that the mob has brought to the service, which Hart must contend with when they go berserk).

Sifting through the violent anti-social mindset of Kingsman, it is possible to hone in on certain inalienable values and standards of conduct and bearing that it finds to be a fixed port in the moral storm of modern life. These core values, Kingsman’s core values, are the old-fashioned ideals of the English gentleman. The values of the patriarchy, one might say (one of Eggsy’s fellow recruits is a young woman, but she bends to the agency’s identity formation, not the other way around), and by extension the aristocratic order and the continuity of class conformity fundamental to the Tory conception of Great Britain. Eggsy, prole though he is by dint of circumstances, can access the privilege of the gentleman via an interrupted paternal pedigree but also by training his body, his mind, his manner, and his dress to conform to the criteria of the ruling class.

Kingsman makes broadly intertextual references to the conventions of James Bond movies and the Bond-esque spy genre in general, self-servingly setting itself up as a subversive antidote to such formulas. But in much the way that a self-styled satire of comic superheroes like Deadpool can only doodle furiously on the surface of its genre, never daring to destabilize its central tenets, this is a film with Bond-esque spy movies so deep in its DNA that nagging resemblances are much more evident than the divergences that it thrusts into the audience’s face.

Those resemblances, and the patriarchal ideals that they uphold, handcuff Kingsman‘s transgressive flourishes at every turn. Are those flourishes often giddily thrilling, composed with skill and imparted with panache by a cast of performers clearly having a grand time in a film willing to let loose in modest immodesty? Yes, indeed. But Matthew Vaughn’s enjoyable genre twist also suggests that a fine bespoke suit and a supercilious indirectness impart an unimpeachable moral superiority. It pushes away snobbish elitism away with one hand while drawing it closer with the other. Not so transgressive, after all.

Categories: Film, Reviews