Archive for December, 2016

Decalogue: Top 10 Films of 2016

December 30, 2016 Leave a comment

2016 is in the process of closing at last, like the lid of a vampiric coffin. A calendar year that was being characterized in the discourse of progressive-leaning media and socio-cultural discourse as a nightmare march well before its now-imminent end, 2016 certainly had its share of tragedies, horrors, and collective agonies.

There has been a swelling tide of political darkness: Brexit, President-Elect Donald Trump, a rising tide of white nationalist authoritarianism on both sides of the Atlantic, the wrenching, destructive Syrian War and its attendant refugee crisis, which has been met with increasing, disheartening xenophobia in the West. As if a consequence of this rapid slide towards dangerous outcomes as well as a grim reminder of shared ephemeral fragility, a relentless litany of cultural icons has departed this mortal coil, many of whom were understood as representing symbolic or actual resistance to oppressive forces of rigidity and backwardness that appeared ascendant. Losses included David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, George Martin, Alan Rickman, Gordie Howe, George Michael, and most recently Carrie Fisher (followed, heartbreakingly, a day later by her mother Debbie Reynolds). Death was not the only way to wound the world, either: Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer (although he decisively took that sad song and made it better) and Monty Python’s Terry Jones was revealed to be suffering from dementia.

Still, 2016 was a fine year for film. This year’s cinematic highlights sought bruised solace in simple, connective communication, plumbed the darkened depths of the American character, lightly riffed on religion, politics, and pop culture, considered loneliness and gendered pride, and challenged the arrogance of power and the injustice of prejudice. Above all, they left us with indelible moments and images, and alternately comforted and challenged us in fraught times. Here are ten highlights that rose above all others. Picks for last year’s top films can be found here.

1. Arrival (Directed by Denis Villeneuve)

Arrival is not only a resonant philosophical work but a keenly-felt tear-jerker, and it summons general political subtexts in the best provocative science fiction tradition. In a modern age of alienation and mass miscommunication, it employs aliens to emphasize the value of mass communication, of cooperation, of striving for understanding and empathy rather than settling for the easy escape hatches of inchoate resentment and hateful force. […] Arrival recognizes that language is both a tool and a weapon and fervently hopes that it can be used for good rather than ill. It also handsomely demonstrates that cinema as a language is both a tool and a weapon, and shows how it can serve the good in the human world.”

Review – 16 December 2016

2. The Witch (Directed by Robert Eggers)

” [The Witch] is both a practically flawless chamber horror film and a deep and true approximation of the scripture-fed superstitions and unstable social conditions that made the English colonies on the Eastern Seaboard such a hotbed for witch hysteria. If The Witch was only those things, it would be a genre film triumph. But Eggers’ film cuts deeper than that, functioning as both an excavation into the anthropological mists of the American nation and a compelling exploration of the conflict between the hedonistic pull of personal liberty and the fetters of dogmatic, accusatory religion.”

Review – 24 September 2016

3. Hail, Caesar! (Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)

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

Review – 23 February 2016

4. Rams (Directed by Grímur Hákonarson)

Rams is no mere critique of tenacious male drives, but an empathetic, affecting depiction of those egoistic but deeply-held tendencies being worn steadily away, leaving raw nerves and fundamental, tenuous human connections. […] Hákonarson’s beautiful and wry film might sometimes incline in the direction of a comedy so deadpan as to require life support, granted. But it feels its key movements with a poignancy as deep as the vistas of the Icelandic landscape are wide, and that steady sincerity is its saving grace.”

Review – 12 October 2016

5. Zootopia (Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore)

“For a lovable animated feature film about talking anthropomorphized animals and the human-like civilization they inhabit, Zootopia feels as urgent and politically timely as a year’s worth of Frontline documentaries. It’s a subtly forceful allegory of warning against the destructive consequences of prejudice and racial profiling […] that only gains resonance in the face of the election of a U.S. President who cynically utilized those forces for his benefit. […] When it’s said that popular discourse would ideally avow responsibility for past wrongs and work intelligently and openly to forge a better path, Zootopia is what that process looks like.”

Review – 9 December 2016

6. Midnight Special (Directed by Jeff Nichols)

“For all of the ways that Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special is inherently Spielbergian – in its essentials, the film is E.T. except that the boy and the alien are one and the same – it manifests a vision all its own. It represents a speculative metaphor for multiple facets of the American condition, but presents its sci-fi premise with such clear-eyed conviction that it’s worth questioning if it’s a metaphor at all. What it is, unquestionably, is quietly, subtly indelible.”

Review – 11 August 2016

7. The Lobster (Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)

The Lobster is a parched satire on the social pressures that buttress romantic love, even if the valences of its critique of such pressures are often missed in the (admittedly hilarious) deadpan tone of the whole piece. […] The Lobster is all a metaphor for the mechanisms of social control, but it’s also a pretty direct depiction of them in all of their stark absurdity. It’s an obvious dark fantasy that can, at times, feel all too awkwardly real. It shimmers with the patina of subtle brilliance; it suggests some form of spectrum-placed genius to sincerely curate and maintain such an exquisitely mannered tone that is, in and of itself, also the target for such biting satire.”

Review – 6 December 2016

8. Amanda Knox (Directed by Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn)

“A fascinating, absorbing documentary account of a sordid and troubling saga of murder, sex, and miscarried justice that captivating the tabloidized media for years, Amanda Knox is a series of bursts of outrage between sober details and thoughtful analysis of an odd episode in true crime. […] Amanda Knox develops into a kind of juxtaposed character study. It alternates Knox herself, pained by her ordeal but bitingly self-aware and trenchant about the flawed institutions and assumptions that hurt her, with the smug [Italian prosecutor Giuliano] Mignini, cocooned in his Catholic-derived certainty of righteousness and purpose and self-justifying his overwrought quasi-Holmesian deductions.”

Review – 2 October 2016

9. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Directed by David Yates)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, despite some awkward passages and pacing hiccups along the way, is a fairly pure joy[…]. Leapfrogging into an entirely distinct era and location in her wizarding world with only the most tenuous connection to her established characters […] in a lavish new franchise launch was a not-inconsiderable risk for J.K. Rowling, but she and Yates generally pull it off. This is a sophisticated and rich light entertainment with contemporary sociopolitical resonances that give it weight without dragging down its natural, good-humoured buoyancy and witty imagination.”

Review – 22 December 2016

10. Captain America: Civil War (Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo)

“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 […] but has allowed the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s interweaving series of films to maintain tonal and narrative consistency […]. It’s galvanizing proof of Marvel’s growing expertise that the film runs [a victory] lap at full speed and capability.”

Review – 17 May 2016

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

December 22, 2016 Leave a comment

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016; Directed by David Yates)

In our age of formerly niche geek culture gone massive mainstream, with genre subculture products raking in blockbuster profits on screens large and small, green shoots of new material in lucrative franchise properties can spring from the most ephemeral of sources and expand into huge productions and releases. For evidence, examine a few of the highest-grossing movies of the last quarter of the year alone. Doctor Strange is based on a second-tier psychedelic/orientalist Marvel comics title; the latest Star Wars installment Rogue One is a sequel-less “anthology” release based on a couple of lines of backstory dialogue in the series’ original film almost forty years ago. And our current case is a prequel of the hugely successful Harry Potter films spun off from one of the titular boy wizard’s textbooks.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, to its credit, doesn’t feel like a sideline to the Potter saga but a preliminary and tantalizing exploration of a separate corner of author J.K. Rowling’s potentially expansive wizarding world. With a screenplay penned by Rowling herself, narratively expanding her own creation with her particular mélange of delights, quirks, and flaws, there can certainly be no concern over deviations in tone or trangressions of faithfulness. Rowling’s screenwriting debut is aided immeasurably by the steady behind-the-camera hand of David Yates, who became Warner’s house director for the final four Potter saga films and balanced their mix of comic playfulness, whimsical wonder, and waxing adult themes with a high level of competence, if only with intermittent artistry. Having the rules of her wizarding world well-established by a series of films that nearly everyone who will see Fantastic Beasts has also seen doesn’t hurt; imagine if Rowling and Yates would have had to explain anew wands and Latinate spells or the magic world’s secretive nature and governing structure. What an expository slog that would be.

As it is, Fantastic Beasts expends most of its expository energies (and since this is straight from Rowling’s pen, those are ample almost beyond reason) detailing the unique sociopolitical circumstances of the wizard community in the United States in the film’s setting year of 1926. While a formidable dark wizard named Gellert Grindelwald (who appears at the film’s end in a Scooby Doo twist and with stunt casting I won’t divulge) wreaks havoc in Europe, America’s magical and non-magical citizens (the latter are dubbed “No-Maj” by the former, the Yank equivalent to the British term “Muggle”) struggle to coexist in a tense situation. The restrictive moral policing of Prohibition America is suspiciously extended to mostly-hidden wizards and witches by a harshly spartan religious temperance organization based in Manhattan called the New Salem Philanthropic Society, headed by the severe Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and supported by her brooding adopted son Creedence (Ezra Miller). Did you miss Rowling’s florid Dickensian naming practices and unsettling habit of associating sallow, angsty youths with dangerous darkness and violence? If so, Fantastic Beasts will be a godsend for you.

In response to such No-Maj distrust and hostility, the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) led by President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) closely regulates and restricts all magical activity and interaction with No-Majs (marriage is outlawed, even) under the purview of Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell, incongruously channeling Marlon Brando more than usual), believing their safety from all-out conflict with the non-wand-wielding world lies in total secrecy. Some magical civil servants chafe at this tendency to hide in the shadows, especially Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who is demoted out of an investigative position for assaulting Barebone in righteous frustration at her anti-witch fulminations. Yet the tendency persists, applied not only to human magical practitioners but to magical creatures as well, which are strictly regulated in the country and often destroyed.

This latter prohibition will find itself challenged quite strenuously when an awkward British wizard named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) alights from a steamship in New York City. He carries a battered suitcase which is magically packed with the titular fantastic beasts on whose subject he fancies himself an outlaw expert and an awareness-raising guerrilla conservationist. The creatures begin to slip out and cause varying degrees of mayhem across the city. Aided by Tina, who is trying to get back in her bosses’ favour, Tina’s mind-reading flapper sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and an aspiring No-Maj baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who witnesses much magic and whom Newt fails to efficiently mind-wipe (“obliviate” is the wizarding term), Scamander must recapture his loose creatures, the most mysterious of which is already causing plentiful death and destruction across the city.

This most dangerous “creature” is called an Obscurus, and is explained by Newt as an extremely dark and powerful accidental manifestation of a young magical person’s powers in cases when those powers are forcibly concealed due to fear, prejudice, or persecution. Visualized as a twisting, electrically-sparking shroud of a black fog uncontrollable by its youthful wielder (which becomes a noisy special effect in the film’s climax), the Obscurus is a classic Rowling magical metaphor, critiquing the negative consequences of abusive psychological repression of children who manifest any hint of difference. This unhealthy repression is implied to extend to (indeed, to be another facet of) MACUSA’s obsessive focus on security through restrictiveness, itself a clear social comment on contemporary security-state attitudes and policies in the U.S.

If this fantastic beast carries the burden of the film’s thematic dimension, then many of its entertaining sequences are organized around Scamander’s other escaped creatures. One of them is the Niffler, a chubby little platypus with a relentless yearning for gold and jewels. It’s the first creature to slip out of Newt’s case in the Big Apple, and its obsession with hoarding bling drives two delightful scenes of incremental comic disaster: it gets loose in a bank, snatching coins willy-nilly and bringing together Newt and Kowalski (who is there to obtain a loan for his bakery with delicious goods but no collateral), and later runs rampant in a jewelry store, with Newt’s bull-in-a-china-shop pursuit becoming steadily more comically calamitous.

Two of the film’s showpiece effects sequences are also focused on magical animal capture: Newt and Kowalski chase down (and avoid being chased down by) a bulbous, glowing-nosed female rhino-like creature in heat at Central Park Zoo, and with the aid of the Goldstein sisters, they attempt to corral a blue shrinking/expanding serpent called an occamy in the storerooms of Macy’s department store using only a cockroach and a teapot. It’s worth noting and praising just how whimsically odd both of these scenes in this major genre blockbuster really are. Yates and Rowling indulge in swellingly-scored scenes of wonderment in relation to the magical beasts as well, initially beguiling us through the neophyte Kowalski’s first view inside of Scamander’s magically-expanded suitcase, which contains temporary habitats for his many creatures, and then releasing a thunderbird named Frank above the city after the action climax.

The first Potterverse entry focused mainly on adult witches and wizards, Fantastic Beasts casts well enough but gets few performances of distinction. Farrell is glowering and suspicious as he ought to be, Morton and Miller both a bit too broad as the supporting villains, and Jon Voight shows up as a prominent newspaper publisher with a pair of sons who collectively represent the city’s No-Maj establishment at odds with its magical community (this whole subplot never really lands and would not be missed). Redmayne, an actor of cleverness, observance, and vulnerability, overdials Newt Scamander a bit, making him a muttering, eyes-averting loner who is clearly on the spectrum (though neither the wizarding or non-wizarding world of the 1920s would recognize such a classification) and who only really feels confident and happy in the company of magical creatures. Sudol is fun as Queenie, but I didn’t care as much for Waterston. Her entire bearing, appearance, and performing toolset positively shouts “model/actress” and Rowling loads Tina Goldstein down with too many inclinations, motivations, and concerns for her to sift through. Fogler, however, might be the film’s purest joy, a gloriously expressive humble shlub with equivalently wonderful gazes of awe and dumbfoundedness and a hilarious laugh, judiciously deployed.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, despite some awkward passages and pacing hiccups along the way, is a fairly pure joy as well. Leapfrogging into an entirely distinct era and location in her wizarding world with only the most tenuous connection to her established characters (a couple of familiar names crop up in dialogue, which dedicated Potterheads will catch with glee) in a lavish new franchise launch was a not-inconsiderable risk for J.K. Rowling, but she and Yates generally pull it off. This is a sophisticated and rich light entertainment with contemporary sociopolitical resonances that give it weight without dragging down its natural, good-humoured buoyancy and witty imagination. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did, nor to look forward to further big-screen explorations of Rowling’s growing world with quite this level of eagerness.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

December 20, 2016 1 comment

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016; Directed by Gareth Edwards)

The much-anticipated Rogue One: A Star Wars Story kicks off Disney’s ambitious (or ambitious because it’s less ambitious) plan for the Star Wars anthology films, which will alternate with their main Skywalker Saga features over at least a six-year period. If Rogue One is any indication, the anthology films will vary the tone and thematic muscle (if not necessarily the general thematic direction) of the fictional universe. This is a grim, fatalistic war film whose only fleeting notes of hope are shuffled forward/backward to the Original Trilogy kick-off, Episode IV: A New Hope, translating the referential (and reverential) nostalgia impulse that characterized The Force Awakens into a weirdly potent sense of narrative closure and righteous sacrifice.

Rogue One has got some enormous, inescapable flaws, but this story of how the Rebel Alliance acquired the secret plans to the Death Star, the evil Empire’s planet-destroying superweapon to which Luke Skywalker deals a fatal blow at the climax of A New Hope, is beautifully shot, impressively scaled, and crackles with gritty energy and a peculiar punch. It returns for influence to the World War II films which George Lucas strip-mined for his first Star Wars film (thrilled by the climactic assault on the Death Star through the metallic canyon? Watch Dambusters some time). Its spectacular, exhausting 45-minutes climactic battle on a tropical planet invokes the slaughter in paradise of the war’s Pacific theatre. It also employs a pair of orientalist supporting characters serving as tributes to Lucas’ considerable debt to Akira Kurosawa.

Even Rogue One is at pains to present itself as a space-opera Sam Peckinpah conflict meat-grinder (The Dirty Half-Dozen?), it remains a Star Wars movie, and is therefore at its soul a family saga (spoilers, such as they are, to follow). That family is the Ersos, supposedly humble farmers introduced in the opening scene. Patriarch Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) meets tersely on the black volcanic rockscape outside his home with Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), a high-ranking weapons officer with the Galactic Empire who urges him to rejoin the major project they worked on together. The presence of an armed escort and Krennic’s reassurances-as-threats make Galen’s decision to send his daughter Jyn (played as a young girl by Dolly Gadsdon) into hiding before the confrontation look like a good one, especially when Krennic’s squad shoots down her defiant mother Lyra (Valene Kane) and whisks Galen away against his will.

Moving forward a clutch of years, the adult Jyn (now played by Felicity Jones, preserving the chipmunk-toothed, deceptively steely English lead actress template for the Disney/Lucasfilm reboots set down by Daisy Ridley in The Force Awakens) has fallen into a bandit’s existence amidst the wreckage of her familial unit, landing her in an Imperial prison camp. She’s sprung by a Rebel Alliance squad and hustled off to Alliance headquarters on Yavin 4, where the leadership of the rebellion – including Original Trilogy player Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) – tasks her to seek out the grizzled extremist Clone War hero Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a reclusive, uncompromising, barely-hinged, artificial-limbed, oxygen-huffing warlord who also happened to have been her tough-love guardian after Krennic effectively orphaned her.

Gerrera and his followers are holed up in a stone cave-fortress on the barren sand-and-rock planet of Jedha, which is occupied by the Empire. Its agents are extracting the Afghanistanesque world’s mineral wealth of khyber crystals. Once used as the power source for Jedi lightsabers, the potent crystals are now powering the Empire’s close-to-completion superweapon; the transition between political orders is thus marked in resource extraction and manufacture, a smart grace note about the imperatives of imperialist economics. Travelling to this tense outpost with Jyn are Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a skilled intelligence officer, and his reprogrammed ex-Imperial droid sidekick K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), whose blunt assessments of the likelihood of their demise pass as droidly comic relief in this more bloody-minded Star Wars. Jyn is expected to provide a safe-ish introduction to the unpredictable Saw, whose forces hold captive an Imperial cargo pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) who has defected to the Rebels in order to deliver a secret message from Galen Erso about the rumoured Death Star.

Searching for Cassian’s contact in the Arabesque Jedha City, matters take a violent turn when he and Jyn are caught in the middle of a guerrilla ambush on an Imperial Stormtrooper patrol. They find unlooked-for battle allies in Chirrut (Donnie Yen), a Force-trusting blind warrior and former guardian of Jedha’s now-closed Jedi temple, and his friend Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), a walking arsenal of a mercenary fighter. Captured by Saw’s men, Jyn views her father’s holographic message, which assures her that he is not collaborating willingly with the Empire and has indeed designed a hidden flaw into the Death Star which will allow it to be destroyed, if only the weapon platform’s digital schematics can be retrieved from the Imperial archives on the planet of Scarif.

Barely escaping an atrocity of a Death Star test on Jedha City, Jyn, Cassian, K-2SO, Bodhi, Chirrut, and Baze (Saw stares down the destructive abyss and is swallowed by it) debate and bicker over their next move. Cassian follows orders to Eadu, where Galen Erso and his team are located, with a covert assassination mission that he dares not divulge to his target’s daughter. This incursion also goes awry, with an appearance by Krennic and a Rebel bombing assault, leaving Galen dead (“I have so much to tell you,” he says to Jyn, then expires, one of many such resonantly unsatisfying, unglamorous deaths in the film) and launching this motley crew and a cadre of like-minded Rebel fighters (belatedly supported by the lion’s share of the might of the Rebel fleet) on a desperate, likely suicide mission to smash and grab the Death Star plans from Scarif.

The Scarif sequence sees director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) bring together his ragged-edged but geographically clear battle scenes with his skill for executing perfectly-scaled wide-canvas cinematic images of aesthetic note. Just as Godzilla and his monstrous rivals left the dwarfed humans around them huddled and humbled at their magnitude, so the massive, destructive Death Star (which looms across one planet’s horizon before raining down death, like a facelessly sneering industrial sun) renders diminished mortals and their hopes insignificant and fearful. There’s also a tremendous amount of action, plot, and character work happening in Rogue One‘s final push, but Edwards, his cinematographer Greig Fraser, and his editing team of John Gilroy (Nightcrawler), Jabez Olssen (The Lord of the Rings) and Colin Goudie weave it together remarkably well without sacrificing a relentless, punishing pace. It wrings and punishes not only its audience but its characters as well: the Rogue One team is decimated in the course of their mission, which ends in a success they do not fully see and that does not save them. This closing note of heroic sacrifice, for all of the film’s notes of moral ambiguity and fractured allegiances, ultimately aligns Rogue One most closely with the World War II films of not only the post-war era but also more contemporary takes like Saving Private Ryan and Inglourious Basterds.

The potency of these thematic notes and the humbling scope of Edward’s composition gives Rogue One the feel of a film much more coherent, well-constructed, and internally consistent than what the onscreen product manages to rogueonebe. The script, by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (editor John’s elder brother), is hardly so even and sensible, and the final released cut shows its warts and gaps too prominently, the well-publicized reshoots and recutting (evidently to make Jyn less spiky and more sympathetic) as visible as cracks in a foundation. Although Rogue One can, at its best, maintain a driving, enervating pace, it also seems eternally pressed for time, with never enough of a chance to pause, breathe, and tell us who are heroes really are and why we should care about them.

Jyn’s motivations begin as naked self-preservation, shift to a desire for familial reunion, and then transmute into idealistic dedication to the Rebel cause. The pieces are in place for this arc to complete itself but the key steps between them are fuzzy or missing altogether, and the final dodgy transition to belief in the cause is smoothed over with a series of rousing speeches prior to the final battle on Scarif. This is generally the case with the other characters as well: Cassian Andor is haunted by dirty deeds done for the Alliance but we never find out what they are, Bodhi undertakes his dangerous defection out of seeming loyalty to Galen, Saw Gerrera never gets the necessary backstory to explain his paranoia and extremist sectarian splitting (the Clone Wars cartoons in which he is a recurring player may provide that, however), and Chirrut and Baze simply tag along with their new, vague allies, willing to risk their lives for a lack of anything else to do with themselves. Perhaps as a result, none of the actors (even the putative star Jones, who has a good cry at her father’s holographic message) really stand out, although Luna summons some passionate readings of his functional dialogue and Ahmed could play these kind of nervy motormouth sidekick characters for the rest of his career without serious exertion.

Mendelsohn’s Krennic, too, seems split between three incentives for his villainous actions, which shift freely whenever the film requires one more than another: part general ideological authoritarianism, part personal animus against the betrayal of Galen Erso, part prideful self-interested careerism. The latter reason is most interesting, if only due to its relative distinctiveness in the Star Wars universe. It would prove a decent match to the dirt-under-the-fingernails practicality of Rogue One’s Rebel heroes to have an Imperial antagonist hell-bent on a promotion with little stomach for totalitarian power, like a Wehrmacht general more invested in adding a title than in achieving racial purity. But like many character elements in Rogue One, he is not consistent in any direction, and the usually captivating Mendelsohn (so good at projecting a looser sense of menace on a show like Bloodline) suffers some as a result.

If the human faces of Rogue One labour their way through the material, then the human-like faces do little better. I don’t mean the bitterly droll K-2SO, and I certainly don’t mean Darth Vader, who enjoys a frightening renaissance in his cameo appearance, toying with Krennic like he’s a minor gnat of an officer (which doesn’t help the Director’s villainous profile much) and viciously cutting through Rebel soldiers in pursuit of the coveted plans. No,I mean the way that Rogue One ghoulishly resurrects the late, great Peter Cushing (who has been dead for over 20 years) as Grand Moff Tarkin through the use of computer effects. It’s an unsettling and distracting choice (pioneered, to some extent, by Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow using technology to cast the late Sir Laurence Olivier as its villain a decade or so ago) and hardly seamless: miniscule but definitely visible jerks in Tarkin’s movements betray the often uncanny illusion. Even worse, technically speaking, is a late CG-ified cameo of a young Princess Leia, a brief but seemingly rushed and unconvincing effect that surely sparked a few caustic Carrie Fisher zingers at its expense that are unlikely to ever be allowed to see the light of day.

Such flaws aside, Rogue One accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish more than reasonably well. But it’s worth asking whether it genuinely needed to be accomplished in the first place. Rogue One is premised on answering a question from the Star Wars canon that arguably didn’t need answering, on parsing the origins of what is, in its original occurence, little more than a textbook McGuffin. Maybe this would be less piquing if Weitz and Gilroy didn’t take their program of background exposition a step further and address the generations of pedants who picked at the most nagging nit of the Death Star plot.

This practically unstoppable world-exploding battle station had a single catastrophic weakness, Rogue One informs us with the unearned confidence of a Reddit commenter, because one of its key designers was a man of conscience who placed this Achilles’ heel at the Death Star’s core to redeem his own weakness in collaborating with the masters of evil and allow his nefariously powerful creation to be destroyed. Jyn Erso redeems her father’s mistakes but also completes his master scheme in a tragic father-daughter cooperation in a manner reminiscent of Vader sacrificing himself to help Luke defeat the Emperor at a critical moment in Return of the Jedi, and these new Star Wars films do thrive on such thematic echoes (sometimes to their detriment, true).

But is it so difficult to buy into the idea that the Galactic Empire, drunk on its ruthless draught of tyranny, overlooked a vital detail with disastrous consequences? Like the Third Reich it’s based on, the Empire is felled at least partly by its own arrogant hubris, the Death Star an “unsinkable” Titanic of a superweapon with an exploitable flaw that seems obvious in retrospect but was easily overlooked by the space fascists whose heads were swimming with the barbiturates of raw power. I always read the Death Star’s keyhole of a fatal weakness as a stealth Tolkien borrowing by Lucas, the Empire’s totalitarian contempt for the plucky sharpshooting underdog mirroring how The Hobbit‘s dragon villain Smaug’s sneering sense of genocidal superiority was mortally punctured by a feathered informant and an archer whose aim is true.

Rogue One does not wholly undermine such a reading, but it does set down an official version of the Rebel Alliance’s acquisition of the Death Star plans. It eliminates the ellipses and places a period (an exclamation mark, even) at the end of the sentence. For all of its not-inconsiderable beauty and excitement, Rogue One, like all Star Wars films since the original trio 30-odd years ago, is closing off audience readings without opening up the potential for nearly enough (positive) new ones. For a fan community that sustained itself by spinning its own creative webs of interpretation and extrapolation for decades, these films provide lavish new fantasies while choking off previously-spun dreams, and are thus a decidedly mixed blessing.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Arrival

December 16, 2016 3 comments

Arrival (2016; Directed by Denis Villeneuve)

A key signaling scene in Denis Villeneuve’s compelling sci-fi film Arrival involves two characters discussing a linguistics theory which posits that the structure of the language a person learns vitally shapes their perception of the world. This is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or the principle of linguistic relativity, and I won’t even pretend that I can tell you anything more about it than what can be learned from the Wikipedia article. But the concept is central to the conception of initial human contact with extraterrestrials in Arrival, which is surely one of the finest films of the year.

Arrival is so fine not merely because of its high level of visual distinction or the superb central performance from its star, Amy Adams, who plays a linguistics professor brought in by the U.S. government to attempt to communicate with inscrutable aliens. What makes Arrival so very good (borderline great, even) is how Villeneuve exquisitely and movingly melds its provocative intellectual depth with an irresistible (borderline manipulative, even) swell of emotional heft. These elements, so often simplistically understood as separate and indeed oppositional, combine and reinforce each other in Arrival in a symbiotic feedback loop that builds to a significant impact by the narrative’s conclusion.

That conclusion, in concert with the film’s circular ideas, imagery, and iconography, is the same as its beginning. Or rather, the same with a critical difference of perspective; a reflective mirror image whose meaning and emotional affect shifts considerably with the intervening accumulation of knowledge and experience (the Coens did something similar in Inside Llewyn Davis, but with cosmically ironic distance and nothing resembling Arrival’s passionate punch). If that description sounds like a metaphor for our progress through life, our present course haunted by memories of the past and hopes for the future in equal and diverting measure, Arrival can be tentatively summarized as such a metaphor as well.

It’s more than metaphor in the opening and closing sequences. Aurally accompanied by Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” (a.k.a The Saddest Music Ever Made), Villeneuve liberally plucks heartstrings with a rending montage of tender memories (if, at risk of spoiling too much, they are memories) of Adams’ Louise Banks’ time with her beloved daughter Hannah (continuing the circularity, her name is a palindrome), who dies in her teens of a rare, fatal disease. The opening montage is devastating enough (it packs much of the tone-setting emotive clout of the life-and-loss prologue of Pixar’s Up, to make a perhaps-surprising comparison), but the closing one, given the information revealed in between the two, has an even greater impact.

Flashes of Louise’s life with her daughter trouble (and sometimes subtly direct) her efforts as part of a team of American specialists attempting to establish communication with the mysterious visiting beings. Their towering black pod ships resembling smooth, oval-shaped obsidian stones settle and levitate in 12 seemingly random locations distributed across the globe, including in Montana where Louise and her team are working. A portal at the base of the craft opens every 18 hours, allowing human visitors to enter (the Montana team employs scissor lifts to access the opening fifty feet from the ground, one of Villeneuve’s many details of grounded realism) and parlay with the octopus-like creatures, dubbed Heptapods, suspended in a misty haze behind glass.

Louise is aided by Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a theoretical physicist, and supervised by U.S. Army Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker) and a CIA agent (Michael Stuhlbarg), and the Montana team shares information with the other 11 teams around the globe. Some of these teams, namely the Chinese as spearheaded by General Shang (Tzi Ma) and the Russians, are more mistrustful of the Heptapods’ intentions, and are more inclined towards shows of force towards the visitors and towards uncooperative info-hoarding in relation to their fellow human communicators. In addition, the constant stream of television news in the film reveals a world in distress and upheaval at this ambiguous contact with beings from beyond our world, full of demonstrations and doubts and paranoia and incitements to violence (some of which penetrate the Montana team). Villeneuve’s use of ubiquitous media screens does tangibly approximate our modern cultural experience and how the broadcast media simultaneously disseminates and fosters mass discontent, but if Arrival has a flaw, it’s that it relies too heavily and too clunkily on expositional media broadcasts to advance the global dimension of its story (the script, adapted by Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life”, is otherwise uncommonly excellent).

Arrival holds this worldwide scope mostly in the background, although Villeneuve does unleash some epic shots on his relatively modest budget: the sustained airborne pan of our protagonists’ helicopter arrival at the Montana site is a ravishing stunner. The focus is on Louise and those around her, straining to comprehend the Heptapods’ guttural utterances and, more importantly, their “written” language. This orthography takes the form of black inky circles (there’s that shape again) projected from their tentacular appendages, with splotchy markings along the circumference differentiating the characters one from another (they more than mildly resemble the orbital-view outline of the Manicouagan Reservoir, an annular lake created by a meteor impact crater in the north of Villeneuve’s native province of Quebec that may have provided visual inspiration).

Louise and her collaborators work out that these are not letters but complete concepts, ideas, or statements not directly connected to spoken phoenetic language, closer to Chinese characters than the Latin alphabet but even more distinct, more complexly expressive, and unmoored from not merely tense but from linear conceptions of time. Ian describes the Heptapod “letters” as being akin to writing a sentence with both hands at once, all while knowing precisely the space required between the fragments to complete it. This description suggests not only the communicative and temporal sophistication of Heptapodese, but the structure of Arrival itself. It also points in the direction of the aliens’ intent on earth, and the particular perception of time that comprehending their language confers upon a living being; in this peculiar case, Louise.

Tempting though it is to discuss the plot particulars and implications of Louise’s cracking of the Heptapod code, Arrival is good enough to merit restraint and to deserve individual revelation (though enough hints and details may have already been dropped to make it obvious to the perceptive reader). Villeneuve’s filmmaking is restrained and greatly suspenseful, and although Heisserer’s screenplay crescendoes with a mind-bending twist, it’s made to feel not merely natural but uncannily inevitable.

Tremendous credit is due to Amy Adams for selling the emotional insinuations in concert with the intellectual fascinations. When I write that the focus is on Louise throughout, I mean it very literally: Villeneuve’s camera maintains a proximity to Adams’ face in numerous moments, key and otherwise, that is intimate to the verge of discomfort. But his star never disappoints in these close-ups, imparting a depth of not only thinking but feeling that firmly but gently prevents even Arrival‘s biggest reaches from presenting as pretentious mind-puzzles or feeling like maudlin manipulation. Adams has long been a prodigious actress who is frequently cossetted by stock supporting roles (watching her paw through the wreckage of Batman v. Superman looking for a core of truth from which to build her Lois Lane was one of that film’s myriad tragedies). To make a horribly reductive pun, in Arrival, she arrives as a movie star.

Denis Villeneuve, too, arrives as a top-tier director with this film. In the nick of time, really, what with a high-profile Blade Runner sequel coming with him at the helm. Arrival is not only a resonant philosophical work but a keenly-felt tear-jerker, and it summons general political subtexts in the best provocative science fiction tradition. In a modern age of alienation and mass miscommunication, it employs aliens to emphasize the value of mass communication, of cooperation, of striving for understanding and empathy rather than settling for the easy escape hatches of inchoate resentment and hateful force. Louise Banks urges caution and consideration to Colonel Weber at a key juncture, reasonably positing that the Heptapods may not be able to distinguish in their language between the word-concepts “weapon” and “tool”. Arrival recognizes that language is both a tool and a weapon and fervently hopes that it can be used for good rather than ill. It also handsomely demonstrates that cinema as a language is both a tool and a weapon, and shows how it can serve the good in the human world.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Jungle Book (2016)

December 13, 2016 Leave a comment

The Jungle Book (2016; Directed by Jon Favreau)

The live-action/CGI remake of Disney’s 1967 animated sort-of-classic The Jungle Book was one of the quartet of films from the House of Mouse (Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, and Zootopia being the others) that grossed above or near a billion dollars at the worldwide box office in 2016, topping all other blockbusters (with a Star Wars movie still yet to be released before year’s end, the studio may make it five). Although Zootopia’s runaway success was a mild surprise, The Jungle Book’s megahit status frankly stands out as a bit of a puzzlement.

A nicely crafted all-ages entertainment with computer-generated talking animals ranging from the solidly-executed to the nearly-transcendent, director Jon Favreau’s movie has some strong, dynamic sequences but can also be distinctly torpid and dull. The performance of his Mowgli (Neel Sethi) ranges from naïfishly competent to inelastic and irritating, and with the exception of brief, stiff echoes of Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling’s duty-bound, well-ordered British imperialism being applied to the wild Indian jungle, the film is entirely devoid of the sort of rich subtext and thematic depth that has characterized many of the aforementioned studio efforts (Zootopia in particular).

Mowgli the man-cub is the original orphan boy raised by wolves, specifically she-wolf Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o), under the pack leadership of Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). In a kinetic opening chase through the jungle employing Steadicam shots, quick-cut editing, computer effects work, and John Debney’s score to create a compelling verve of motion, Mowgli can’t keep pace with the wolf pack or with his adoptive mentor, a wise black panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). It’s a metaphor for the primary theme of this Jungle Book: as Mowgli grows up, he does not fit in with the animals of the jungle, but likewise would not do well in the settlements of man. And as a boy in the jungle, he is always in danger.

The primary danger comes in the form of an imposing, scarred Bengal tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba). He lopes into the picture during a Water Truce, during which all animals suspend natural food-chain hostilities to drink in harmony from the same water hole. It’s the sort of device that exposes the inherent paradox of all talking animal stories: children love cute animals, but animals kill and eat each other to survive, which children wouldn’t love quite as much. But enough teleological digression, back to the tiger burning bright, in the forests of the night (Shere Khan first appears from out of the glare of a setting sun, perhaps a poetic reference): he’s nursing a simmering anger at the wolves for harbouring the man-cub despite the danger posed to all jungle denizens by man and his most destructive weapon, the Red Flower (ie. fire). He insists, for the safety of all, that Mowgli be given to him to dispose of as he will, and his will is for the man-cub’s death. The wolves and Bagheera decide on a compromised path, and the venerable panther agrees to lead Mowgli back to his human village. Whether Shere Khan will accept this half-measure solution, however, is not wholly considered.

Away from the secure predictability of the pack with their square truisms about strength in unity and togetherness (Kipling never could help his imperialist tendencies, though Favreau and his screenwriter Justin Marks mostly manage to), Mowgli evades Shere Khan, is separated from Bagheera, and survives a water buffalo stampede and a rainy season landslide. Now on his own, he proceeds through a series of episodic adventures, gaining allies, antagonists, and self-knowledge along the way. Mowgli is hypnotized by the seductive python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), whose eye becomes a Mirror of Galadriel into his own past (its reptilian socket becomes a torchlit cave in a neat, seamless transition). He falls into the company of Baloo, a laissez-faire sloth bear who uses the man-cub’s tool-making ingenuity to score major honey reserves and imparts a philosophy of good-natured, Falstaffian, lazy, simplistic pleasure along the way (Bill Murray voices the bear because of course he does). He’s abducted by monkeys and parleys in their simian enclave temple ruin with the Gigantopithecus ape-lord King Louie (Christopher Walken, delightfully odd because of course he is). And, ultimately, Mowgli must decide if preserving the life he knows in the jungle is worth endangering those of the animals that he loves.

The Jungle Book should be reasonably involving and it is, I suppose, but in fits and starts more than not. While the CGI never shows any cracks, it’s employed so thoroughly as to lend a sense of unreality to the proceedings; children’s fantasy or not, we have to believe it and we don’t always. For all the skill and expense plainly visible onscreen, it has a tendency to grow stale and allow boredom to sneak in. This is a very old-fashioned jungle adventure at its core, respecting its in-house source material above all and laying off the political resonances and topical themes that are ever-more prevalent in contemporary feature animation. This leads to a streamlined entertainment product that won’t offend any political sensibilities (even anti-imperialists inclined to skepticism of Kipling’s discursive settlement of the wilds of India won’t find much to chafe at here) but also feels slight upon arrival.

Any hint of heft comes via the rounded and sometimes even nuanced character work of the voice cast. Elba goes for stentorian menace as Shere Khan, choosing pitiless, zero-sum rationality over dangerously distinguished villainy (listen for the latter from Benedict Cumberbatch, who is voicing and motion-capturing the tiger in the Andy Serkis-directed Jungle Book due out in 2018). If we boo and hiss at his proposal of a violent remedy to the dangers presented by the man-cub, his point of view is at least intelligible: man poses a threat to all of the creatures of the jungle and maybe it’s safest to remove Mowgli from their midst. The tiger’s scenes of quiet malevolence – his entrance at the watering hole, his tense chat with Akela after Mowgli’s departure, his insidious indoctrination of Raksha’s cubs – go much further than his vicious out-and-out violence, especially during the climax. It doesn’t hurt his general case, either, that Sethi is cursory at best and annoying at worst as his opponent Mowgli; good child actors are now so common in contemporary film and television, it’s especially noticeable and disappointing (jarring, even) to be confronted with a mediocre one in such a central role in a picture.

Other voice actors are solid, too, if hardly working out of their comfort zones (in addition to Nyong’o, Kingsley, Murray, Esposito, and Johansson, the late Garry Shandling provides the voice of a nickering porcupine in a fittingly left-field final role). Walken is most successful at making a peculiarly potent impression in a supporting role. In a rare burst of cineaste sophistication, Favreau channels the first appearance of Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now for King Louie’s introduction (shrouded in shadow in the stone temple, rubbing his head ambivalently), but Walken simply skims past the temptation of homage or impersonation. His pitch to Mowgli is no less seductive than Kaa’s, but it’s couched in humour and casual appeals to common ground, as well as screwball song (“I Wanna Be Like You” is one of only two songs from the 1967 film to find their way into this one – three if you count Johansson cooing “Trust in Me” over the credits – with a “Bare Necessities” duet between Murray and Sethi a surefire inclusion as well). Given this, it’s mildly disappointing when the Bandar-log scene degenerates into another white-knuckle pursuit.

Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book could use more Walken-esque oddness and, frankly, less of Mowgli, finding his place in the animal world that is forever foreign to him. Perhaps my skepticism of this core theme of the film serves to explain why so much of the rest of it came across as featureless and unengaging. Mowgli is a boy who will one day be a man, and despite the mutual affection between himself and his animal friends, he doesn’t ultimately belong with them, and we don’t need an ominous tiger to tell us so, thus irrevocably poisoning the idea. Forsaking deeper thematic explorations requires Favreau’s film to embrace Mowgli’s man-cub identity for its own sake, rather than thinking through why it matters that he remain in the jungle and making that evident to the audience. For all of its attractive features, this might be the flaw that drags down The Jungle Book above all others.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Zootopia

December 9, 2016 Leave a comment

Zootopia (2016; Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore)

For a lovable animated feature film about talking anthropomorphized animals and the human-like civilization they inhabit, Zootopia feels as urgent and politically timely as a year’s worth of Frontline documentaries. It’s a subtly forceful allegory of warning against the destructive consequences of prejudice and racial profiling (even if it often wants to have its ethno-cultural stereotype cake and eat it too) that only gains resonance in the face of the election of a U.S. President who cynically utilized those forces for his benefit. It mouths the words of conventional “anything is possible” American Dream messaging while actually feeding off the social justice currency of the Ferguson, Missouri protests and Black Lives Matter, as well as rising resistance against sexism and the divisive, fear- and power-driven political cleavages of a polarized America.

Since Zootopia is a movie of that polarized America, its perspective on its richly-imagined setting – an urbanized neoliberal technocratic capitalist society of human-like animals – is necessarily filtered through the culture’s preferred (though hardly uncontroversially so) heroes: the police. Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) is a rabbit from a rural town who is unwilling to continue in the family carrot-farming business with her hundreds of siblings. Judy is blessed/cursed with a grand sense of idealism, and her overriding dream and ambition is to move to the great animal metropolis of Zootopia, which she envisions as a shining city on a hill of opportunity, openness and interspecies tolerance, and help to make that city a better place as a police officer. She would be the first bunny cop, and everyone from her parents to bullying local school peers to academy trainers tells her she is not cut out for it and would be foolish to even try.

But Judy is smart, capable, determined, and greatly motivated, especially by the follow-your-dreams pop anthem “Try Anything” by superstar singer Gazelle (Shakira). She overcomes all of the doubt and obstacles to graduate at the top of her class and win an assignment to the Zootopia Police Department’s central precinct. What she finds there doesn’t accord with either her twice-as-good work ethic nor her lofty visions of altruism: she’s immediately busted to meter maid duty by the gruff, cynical water buffalo Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), confronted with the disdain of her fellow officers (many of whom feel her a token PR hire to the force) and citizens, and worn down by the loneliness of life in a new, big city. Even when she busts a flower bulb thief after a frenetic chase, she is not rewarded but is rather threatened with dismissal for overstepping her bounds, and only saves her job by striking a bargain with Chief Bogo to solve a missing mammal case that the ZPD brass seems to want no part of (the depiction of the internal department operations is far less realistic than, say, on The Wire, but this is ultimately a talking animal kiddie cartoon, after all).

With 48 hours to find a missing otter or else turn in her cherished ZPD badge, Judy leans on a two-bit con-hustling fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) to help her scare up some leads. His snide dismissal and reluctance compelled aside by evidence of his tax evasion, Wilde aids Judy in gradually uncovering a shadow conspiracy to activate the savage killer instincts of Zootopia’s predator minority as part of a dastardly grasp for power.

Their investigation leans on buddy-cop movie clichés and other genre conventions, but it also provides a wide-scope view of the world of Zootopia. The fantasy animal city is cleverly and spectacularly rendered and quite detailed, but also feels proscribed in its realization and the film’s exploration of the environment. Different ecosystems are represented in different neighbourhoods: Sahara Square is a parched desert, the Rainforest District all vines and towering jungles foliage, Tundratown an arctic waste, and small rodents live in their own bustling urban miniature enclave. Animals drive cars, use computers and cell phones, and wear clothing (with the exception of a commune of freaky-hippie nudists, whose lack of garments shocks Judy when she and Nick follow a lead there), but Zootopia frequently skims the creative surface with the real distinctions between human civilization and this anthropomorphic animal one, taking many of its features as simply assumed from the audience’s recognition of their own modern life experience.

If the gleaming city-of-the-future design of Zootopia’s material reality can feel a bit underdeveloped, then its version of the unsettled set of social and racial relations of contemporary America is unnervingly tangible and topically relevant. Although the animal world’s primal divisions of predators and prey have, in Zootopia, been submerged under the lapping tides of capitalist democracy, consumer culture, and liberal tolerance, they simmer still beneath the surface. Judy’s parents distrust the city and what they perceive to be the dangerous predators who dwell there, and a not-insignificant portion of their fear transfers to their daughter. This fear stirs instinctually within prey animals in the city as well, despite constituting the vast majority of the population. So when a minority within the minority of meat-eaters begin to revert to their savage predatory state (raising the unanswered question about what they eat the rest of the time), widespread public panic amongst prey citizens, as well as hurt and resentment among zootopiathe predators accused of returning to their repressed biological urges, is quick to manifest itself across the metropolis.

This plot and its themes contain resonant echoes of America’s common currency of fear, paranoia, and racial prejudices and tensions. White Americans’ enduring bigoted stereotypes of African-Americans as dangerous predatory criminals are clearly being invoked, for certain (as are more recent blanket associations of all Muslims with extremist terrorism). The prey animals’ majority in the city is clearly stated at 90%, leaving the predator animals at 10%, conspicuously close to African-Americans’ 12% share of the U.S. population (though also reflective of the predator-prey distribution in the animal kingdom of our own world). Recognizable incidences of fraught racial prejudice are played for light-ish comic effect: when the chubby cheetah desk cop Clawhauser (Nate Torrence) coos that Judy is a “cute bunny”, she tentatively explains that other bunnies can call each other cute, but it’s problematic when other species say it; Judy and Nick first meet when the latter is running a con on an elephant sweets shop that attempts to refuse service to smaller species like foxes or rabbits.

Judy Hopps is confronted with much of the casual discrimination and swimming-upstream difficulty that women and people of colour face in the workplace (especially in white-male-dominated fields like law enforcement), but it’s couched as being predicated on her species more than her gender. Less a glass ceiling than a grass ceiling, then. Her fellow cops are mostly larger, stronger herbivores: elephants, rhinos, and hippos, even a wolf on the undercover squad (you can guess what animal’s clothing he’s disguised in, I’m sure, but the joke is better-executed than you might expect). Nick Wilde, drummed into cynicism by a traumatic childhood experience of species-specific discrimination, likewise stereotypes Judy. He is stereotyped by her in turn, despite her best efforts at tolerance. Even if his slippery, untrustworthy fox identity hews close to the supposed archetype, Zootopia intelligently argues that he slips into a shifty existence as a defeated fulfillment of his peers’ insistence on labelling him as such. It isn’t surprising, given all of this thematic material, that Rich Moore is a co-director: he helmed Disney’s recent stand-out Wreck-It Ralph, another metaphorically sophisticated animated film about labelling and stereotypes and their relationship to the wielding of social and political power (the economic valence goes unsounded in both films; perhaps it’s a bit too much for kids, or even most adults).

It’s well worth noting that Zootopia is far from pure and righteous in its critical stance towards the application and diffusion of ethnic, cultural, and racial stereotypes. It deploys some broad Italian-American stereotypes of its own when Judy and Nick meet Tundratown’s feared crime boss Mr. Big (Maurice LaMarche), who mutters like Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone and whose daughter sports a Jersey Shore artificial tan and a Snooki bump-it hairdo. It also needs saying, and has been said by other critics, that despite Zootopia‘s characters aghast reactions at the idea of predators being biologically or instinctually inclined to kill and eat prey animals, well… they are. For all of the liberties that the film’s cartoon animals allow its phalanx of writers to cleverly comment on prejudice and discrimination, the metaphor ultimately has its limitations as well.

It’s also well worth noting, given all of these racially-toned themes, Zootopia‘s place in Disney Animation history. Or, more precisely, its place as a ritual of atonement for that history. Disney’s use of cartoon animals to self-consciously argue against racial stereotyping in Zootopia can only strike one as a purposeful if belated effort to apologize for, mitigate, or even invert the studio’s historical use of cartoon animals to insensitively spread racial stereotyping. The infamous rosy-glasses view of Reconstruction and minstrel show characterizations of Song of the South (whose perceived racism has kept it locked in Disney’s vaults to this day) are the best-known indiscretions in the studio’s history, but Dumbo‘s jive-talking crows and even the more contemporary Aladdin‘s clumsy Arabic bigotry must be acknowledged in the litany of shame. Zootopia has its own issues in this vein, as noted, but it’s both a stab at forgiveness for past errors of prejudiced judgement and a heartening attempt to move forward into a more conscious representational future. When it’s said that popular discourse would ideally avow responsibility for past wrongs and work intelligently and openly to forge a better path, Zootopia is what that process looks like, and for that it deserves no small measure of credit.

While I obviously can’t speak to how Zootopia would play to children (seeing as I am not one, appearances aside), it plays like gangbusters for adults who will recognize the cornucopia of social, political, cultural and professional gags and references it unleashes with cheery humour. Indeed, the movie pushes the standard contemporary animated feature film undercurrent of witty, sophisticated jokes and adult-oriented hat-tips about as far as it can go. Zootopia is definitely the only PG–rated Disney animated feature that has ever included a scene in what is essentially a meth lab (and with an overt Breaking Bad reference to cinch the association), or to craft a painstaking visual homage to The Godfather, or to create a hilarious sequence combining persistent jokes about the sloth’s pace of DMV bureaucracy (staffed, in Zootopia, by actual sloths, natch) with a classic 1950s comedy routine. This, in addition to the aforementioned spectrum of sociopolitical and racial issues it nimbly raises and addresses as well as the delightful craft and glee with which it was made, makes Zootopia a strong highlight in a year of strong highlights for the House of Mouse.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: The Lobster

December 6, 2016 Leave a comment

The Lobster (2015; Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)

A woman drives alone through the rain. We see her in profile, mute, impassive but alert. She stops the car and walks into a field, approaching a donkey and shooting it dead before returning to her car. This is the opening scene of The Lobster, and unlike its salient absurdist/satirical/menacing premise, it is not further explained or elucidated at all, at any point in the film. But the scene fits reasonably into the unsettling deadpan dystopia crafted by Greek writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos, a society where conformity in coupling is enforced through excessively decorous courteousness undergirded by pitiless violence and the threat of forcible animalistic transmogrification.

Lanthimos’ skewed vision unfolds before the eyes of his protagonist, David (Colin Farrell). Confronted by the revelation that his wife doesn’t love him and has left him for another man (according to an initially unidentified female narrator), he loads onto a van with his dog Bob and is conveyed to a country hotel-resort. Odd clues trickle out during an intake session, but the full truth of the purpose of his hotel stay is laid out with awkward forthrightness (an oxymoronic description that is nonetheless apt for the tone strictly adhered to by Lanthimos) by the hotel manager (Olivia Colman).

Now that he is single, David will be given 43 days to find a new companion from among the other hotel guests. He has a daily opportunity to add time to his stay by participating in a hunt of “loners”, single people who wear rain ponchos and live in the woods; for each loner shot with a tranquilizer gun, a guest adds a day to his or her stay, effectively extending their life as a human. Should he not find a suitable match by the time his hourglass runs out, he will be turned into an animal of his choice. He has chosen a lobster, due to their long life (they live up to 100 years, if they don’t wind up in a pot of boiling water first) and his own affinity for the sea.

These are the general details of this polite nightmare (if the dystopian intent wasn’t already agonizing clear, it is signaled by David’s room number, 101, an obvious reference to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four), but the specifics are simultaneously unnerving and absurd (Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinocerous, with a similar premise and themes of well-mannered observance of social conventions allowing authoritarian oppression to spread and thrive, is another obvious literary touchstone for Lanthimos). All guests wear the same clothing, bland normcore ensembles of button-up shirts and slacks for men, floral dresses with modest shawls for women. Masturbation is prohibited, and we see David’s lisping friend (John C. Reilly) punished at communal breakfast for his onanist indiscretion by having the offending hand burned in a toaster. Guests are sexually stimulated by the dry, joyless grinding of a maid (Ariane Labed), the tantric arousal supposed to aid their quotidian quest for companionship. In addition to the ritual of the hunt, the guests are made to attend excruciatingly awkward dances, complete with stiff romantic crooning by the hotel manager and her husband. She also runs propagandistic pantomimes illustrating the many benefits of couplehood, her staff acting out couples saving each other from solo perils such as choking on food and rape.

Faced with the impending sentence of becoming a beast (most people choose dogs, as did David’s brother Bob) and the unlikelihood of true heart-sparks occurring in such artificial, tinder-free conditions, the guests will engage in subterfuges to find a companion (if they don’t simply commit suicide, as one woman does by throwing herself out a window). The most usual method (indeed, the only method anyone can seem to think of) is to note a fellow guest’s physical or personality quirks or ailments and pretend to be afflicted with same in order to build a relationship from common ground. It’s a glib comic reduction of the complexities of human affection, but then you could say the same thing about online dating. At any rate, David’s other friend John (Ben Whishaw) shared a limp with his late wife (he acquired it via an attack by wolves when he tried to hug his mother, who had assumed lupine form), and fakes nosebleeds (sometimes quite painfully) to secure commonality with a woman (Jessica Barden) who experiences natural ones frequently. His ruse is at least provisionally successful, but David’s attempt to replicate that kind of success with a heartless misanthrope (Angeliki Papoulia) leads to tragedy and then an escape into the woods.

There, David joins the society of the loners and finds a makeshift society whose strictures are the inverted image of those of the hotel. Masturbation is allowed, even encouraged, but any sort of romantic contact is strictly forbidden and harshly punished by the loners’ implacable leader (Léa Seydoux), who insists with a threatening air that all loners prepare their own graves. The loners are not mere passive prey for the hunts, as they pose as professional couples and sally forth into the city to shop for supplies and visit the leader’s guitar-strumming parents, as well as engage in a guerrilla raid disrupting the relationships of the settled couples at the hotel. David meets a woman (Rachel Weisz) in the woods, the Julia to his Winston Smith, and their mutual near-sightedness prefaces a romance that challenges the rigid terms of loner society.

The Lobster is a parched satire on the social pressures that buttress romantic love, even if the valences of its critique of such pressures are often missed in the (admittedly hilarious) deadpan tone of the whole piece. It’s also a critique of social control and creeping totalitarianism, with the aforementioned echoes of Orwell and Ionesco but also of magic realism (Saramago comes to mind, in particular with the metaphorical focus on eye afflictions and gradations of blindness). The animal transformation element is shrouded in some mystery, though, and never becomes magical or fantastical in nature or execution; John speculates on the gruesome physical process involved in becoming an animal, but nothing more is known or seen of it than the door to the room where it happens.

It’s not really useful to speak about the film’s performances, as all of the performances are essentially rendered indistinguishable by Lanthimos’ straight-faced tone, save those of Farrell and Weisz (and arguably Labed in a more limited way as the irreverent maid), who are allowed some limited range of emotion. Lanthimos’ dialogue and visual sense is similarly detached yet scrupulous, clear-eyed and careful never to sink into empathy or sentimentality. What is subsumed by this approach, but what comes across anyway, is the all-too-recognizable sad desperation of these people not to lose their humanity (itself a species of the sublimated desire not to die alone) and their credulous incredulity at and their unaccepting acceptance of the ludicrous mechanisms and procedures they must navigate through in order to keep their personhood.

The Lobster is all a metaphor for the mechanisms of social control, but it’s also a pretty direct depiction of them in all of their stark absurdity. It’s an obvious dark fantasy that can, at times, feel all too awkwardly real. It shimmers with the patina of subtle brilliance; it suggests some form of spectrum-placed genius to sincerely curate and maintain such an exquisitely mannered tone that is, in and of itself, also the target for such biting satire. The Lobster‘s enduring impression is very like that of its opening scene with the driving woman and the donkey shooting: ambivalent, ambiguous, impassively cruel, discomfitingly amusing, it summarizes modern life in human society as rarely if ever escaping (let alone transcending) the invisible prison for which these impressions serve as firm bars.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Music and Images of Special Magnificence: Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring In Concert

December 3, 2016 2 comments

First performed in 2008, the live symphony orchestra performance of Howard Shore’s Oscar-winning musical score for the first film of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogyThe Fellowship of the Ring, has come to the composer’s hometown of Toronto for the first time. The score is performed live by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, two full choirs, and soloists, and is conducted by Ludwig Wicki, whose Switzerland-based 21st Century Symphony Orchestra was the first to play Shore’s classic score live in concert with the projected film and who has toured the world in the years since conducting globally-renowned orchestras. Working closely with Shore (as he has with many other major film composers on similar projects), Wicki has trained himself to conduct his musicians and singers to the film’s cues themselves, presenting a seemless aural and visual experience in top-notch orchestral halls around the globe.

I haven’t the trained music-writing expertise to comment knowledgeably on Shore’s compositions or the specific performance of them by the TSO itself. Music writer Doug Adams does have that expertise, and has demonstrated it in his book The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films (excerpts from which can be read in the TSO’s program for the concerts, downloadable from their website). For a more easily digestable analysis of Howard Shore’s use of themes or fellowshipinconcertleitmotifs in his Rings scores, check out this excellent video essay by the “Nerdwriter”, Evan Puschak.

I can only scratch at the surface of their superior analyses, but scratch I will. The Fellowship of the Ring is my favourite film of Jackson’s trilogy, and really, my favourite film period; I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it, but the TSO viewing was probably somewhere in the twenties. There is much to love about it, from the masterful cinematic storytelling to the committed performances (Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, of course, but also Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn, Sean Bean’s doomed Boromir, and Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd as the poised clownish hobbits, Merry and Pippin) to the impressive totality of its visual design and execution. But as time has passed and initial passion has turned to enduring appreciation, it has become more evident that Howard Shore’s music might be the best thing about Fellowship as well as its sequels.

Shore’s music is remarkable varied and often rousing and magnificent in its own right, but the way it melds with Jackson’s filmic images, supplementing and amplifying the moods, tones, and meanings onscreen, is what makes it special. In live concert performance alongside those images, the score’s great transcendent success in this role is particular emphasized, granting a symphonic grandeur and flow to Jackson’s film in collaboration with its composition, camera movement and motion inside frame, colour, and editing.

The effect was always evident in Fellowship‘s highlight sequences. Look at Arwen’s flight to the Ford of Bruinen, astride a galloping white horse, safeguarding a mortally wounded Frodo from the black-clad and black-steeded Ringwraiths in pursuit of the One Ring that he carries: shot and edited with pulse-pounding exhiliration, Shore’s music drives and expands the pace of perhaps the most exciting riding sequence in film history. Or the Bridge of Khazad-dûm sequence, the relentless deep rhythms and staccato male choir Dwarvish chants soundtracking a desperate chase through the carved caverns of Moria and portending Gandalf’s fall into shadow, which is gorgeously lamented by a boy soprano solo.

This contrast of deep and harsh with high and ethereal, a hallmark theme and tone of Jackson’s film, is perhaps most memorably imparted in Fellowship‘s most resonant visual metaphor: a craning wide shot from above of the grim industrialized pits of Saruman’s stronghold of Isengard scored by a cruel mechanical march, suddenly interrupted by the delicate naturalistic hope of a fluttering moth scored by an elegiac, angelic vocal solo. Even seemingly incidental sequences of narrative advancement become streams of artistry when Jackson’s imagery and Score’s music work effortlessly together: witness the intercutting of the Fellowship travelling down the River Anduin out of Lothlorien with Saruman’s Uruk-Hai strike force thundering through the woods after them.

Shore and Jackson even reach into film music history to heighten the effect of the trilogy’s battle scenes. Watch and listen to the lead-up to the battle in Balin’s Tomb in Moria. Notice how Shore’s music picks up pace and timbre as the Fellowship are confronted with signs of impending attack and prepare to fight for their lives, building to a crescendo as the two forces collide and then dropping away entirely to be replaced by the brutal cacophony of clashing steel and battle cries, the symphony of hand-to-hand death? This is a direct borrowing from/homage to the Battle on the Ice from Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 epic Alexander Nevsky, with music by Sergei Prokofiev likewise climaxing and then dropping away at the moment of joined battle. Jackson liked the effect so much that he repeated it in The Two Towers (the Warg attack sequence) and The Return of the King (the Rohirrim charging the Haradrim’s war oliphaunts at the Battle of Pelennor Fields).

Howard Shore mixed diverse influences from centuries of music (from Romantic opera like Wagner to the abstract dissonance of 20th-century composition) to create a memorable score for a memorable film, and witnessing his music in live performance with the movie further entrenches both score and film as impressive and moving modern works of art of vision and grandeur.

Categories: Culture, Film, Music