Archive for June, 2017

Film Review: Moana

Moana (2016; Directed by Ron Clements & John Musker)

Moana is an astonishingly gorgeous animated film that achieves a fine balance between the predominant themes and identity politics (and the related demographic marketing targets thereof) of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ recent feature releases and the mythology and cultural traditions of indigenous Polynesian peoples. It’s a more compelling text when leaning towards the latter, though in either case it’s frequently entertaining on all observable levels. Moana’s reliance on the conventions of its form, however, has a tendency to dampen down its magic and direct its grand voyage of adventure onto a path more proscribed and predictable.

But let’s talk about the beauty first. Set in and around a mythic pre-European-contact mid-Pacific Ocean archipelago, Moana’s visual tapestry will be familiar to any visitor to the Hawaiian islands: the rich colour palette of vibrant greens in foliage and the deep, varied blues of the endless Pacific, the vivacious rainbow of underwater coral ecosystems, the clean black of volcanic rock and the primal magma glow of eruptions, the rounded yet dramatic topographical slopes of the islands and their sheltering, fertile valleys. Moana bursts with these wonders for the eye and many more besides: wayfaring ocean-bound camakau boats cutting silkily through the waves, exquisite illustrations of mythical monsters and heroic exploits on tapa and tattooed skin, a towering volcanic fire-demon named Te Ka who figures prominently in the grand climax.

That climax is the culmination of the cross-ocean quest of the titular heroine (voiced with spunk and honesty by Hawaiian native Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) of the fictional isle of Montunui. Forbidden by her father to venture beyond the island’s barrier reef due to the dangers of the open waters, Moana’s adventurous nature, abetted by her eccentric grandmother Tala (Rachel House) and supported by the discovery of her tribe’s ocean-going fleet hidden in a cave, encourages her to defy him. Tui’s strict boundary-setting and Moana’s strong-willed transgressions are, of course, clear metaphors for the restrictions of patriarchal fatherhood (which here are very much well-meaning and protective, if misguided, but can also represent a more troubling and even violent dominion in other cases) and for teenaged girls growing to womanhood and striking out independently into an unforgiving world. When a mysterious wasting sickness threatens Montunui’s crops and fishing stock, however, Moana’s defiance gains the urgency of necessity.

On the basis of Tala’s spun tales, Moana becomes convinced that the only way to cure the shadowy phage is to seek out the great mythic trickster demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and have him return the greenstone heart which he stole from the benevolent island goddess Te Fiti, which will end Te Ka’s fire-spewing darkness and restore Montunui to fertility. Although Moana has evidently been chosen by the ocean itself (anthropomorphized as gesturing water swells at once reminiscent of the ocean-floor being in The Abyss and Aladdin’s magic carpet) for this quest, she doesn’t really know how to sail or navigate on the ocean. Accompanied by only a decidedly developmentally-delayed rooster named Heihei (“voiced” by Disney Animation regular Alan Tudyk and basically the best part of the movie), Moana survives a storm at sea and is washed up on a small island where she finds Maui.

Of course, the mismatched duo become reluctant allies and eventually fond and respectful friends through their ocean adventures (though nothing romantic develops, hearteningly). Of course, the selfish, glory-hungry Maui learns the value of friendship and humility, while Moana is indoctrinated by the demigod into the wondrous wayfinding navigational methods that her stationary people had forgotten. Moana is a young woman with integrity and agency, and screenwriter Jared Bush (the sole credited writer out of many who worked on the script, beginning with half-Maori New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi) smartly resolves the film’s central conflict not through the application of force but via empathetic fellow-feeling between female characters (much like recent Disney megahit Frozen did). Moana firmly rejects the arrogantly hypermasculine Maui’s attempt to label her a princess, a pejorative often levelled at prior central female characters in Disney films: she’s about action, about seizing her destiny, not waiting in a tower for it to come for her.

In the course of their voyage, Moana and Maui face a pair of memorably bizarre episodic obstacles common to animated features that, when described with sober distance, would seem to resemble nothing more or less than Surrealist art. First comes a run-in with restless-native sentient coconut pirates called the Kakamora, whose splintery, Rube Goldberg device ships and marauding nature are intentional homages to Mad Max: Fury Road. After they escape the Kakamora, Maui convinces Moana to help him retrieve the magical fishhook which grants him his shapeshifting powers. This leads to a desultory sequence in Lalotai, the Realm of Monsters, wherein they confront the fishhook’s keeper, Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), a gigantic crab with a treasure-encrusted carapace, bioluminescent linings, British teeth, and a glam-ish singing style heavily reminiscent of David Bowie. The Kakamora sequence has little bearing on the story and the Lalotai scene only a bit, but these moments in Moana are precisely what continues to recommend big-budget animated features over their live-action counterparts, in most cases: they are crafted with much greater care and imagination, and are often full of totally weird shit.

Clement’s resurrection of his Bowie impersonation from Flight of the Conchords reminds me, belatedly, that Moana is a semi-musical as well. Perhaps there should be more said about that, but the English-language songs – by Hamilton composer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, the hottest item anywhere near the Broadway musical genre for a generation – don’t rise much beyond standard sub-Broadway fare. Apart from a mild hip-hop-esque verse in Maui’s brash chest-beating tune (“You’re Welcome”), Miranda’s work here is pretty paint-by-the-numbers stuff, melodically and lyrically; there’s even a shameless, big-ballad “Let It Go” retread, “How Far I’ll Go”. I liked Opetaia Foa’i’s Samoan-language songs and their indigenous rhythms a little more, but can admit that none of it is really within the sphere of my interests (or tolerance) and that I therefore can’t write authoritatively about it.

What is my style and what I do often try to write authoritatively about is the political subtext of purportedly child-targeted animated films. Moana, however, slips through my fingers like sand at the beach in this regard. This might strike my regular readers as surprising, considering my past exploits in this vein, finding echoes of Thomas Hobbes and the War on Terror in a video-game-focused feature, delving into the oppressor-oppressed dichotomy evident in a stop-motion horror homage, and considering the implications of racial profiling in a city of animals. I suppose one could locate in Montunui’s harvest-threatening blight faint echoes of the epochal, culture-shaking colonialism of European exploration and expansion into Polynesia and perhaps even the potentially catastrophic developments related to climate change. But that would be a stretch even for this critic, with his recurring tendency for interpretive stretches.

Moana is not an unpolitical film. Its heroine’s willful strength and trailblazing courage buttresses the contemporary pop-feminism of Disney’s alt-princess figures, often couched as a recent thematic/marketing phenomenon for the studio but really discernable as far back as Mulan at least. Its story and visual motifs are drawn from Polynesian mythological narrative traditions, and there’s a deep respect and even reverence displayed for the seafaring culture of these remarkable indigenous peoples that Disney, despite its best intentions, has not always been able to muster. Politically woke as it may be, however, Moana can tend to be telegraphed in storytelling and thematic terms. It’s enjoyable but rarely delightful or exciting. Beautiful in visual terms, Moana is generally just fine otherwise. Compared to the Polynesian wayfinders that it celebrates, it will only go so far.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Speed Racer

Speed Racer (2008; Directed by the Wachowski Brothers)

On its face, the Wachowskis’ furious, candy-coloured CG-powered film adaptation of the retro-hip 1960s Japanese manga/anime series about fantastical auto racing is entirely absurd. Since there doesn’t initially appear to be much to Speed Racer beyond this surface, it’s tempting to dismiss it purely on the basis of this absurdity. This would be unfortunate, however. Speed Racer is a shiny trifle rendered as a rainbow-spectrumed Pop Art motion masterpiece, crafted with care, imagination, and humour, written and acted with surprising eloquence and integrity. It’s far better than it strictly needs to be, which might explain its failure to catch fire with audiences or critics upon its release (though it has gained a cult following subsequently).

Another explanation for its cool initial reception might lie in its overly-complex plot, which carries some consistent themes along for the full ride but can stop and start less like a revving race car than a sputtering old jalopy. Titular racer (and Racer) Speed (Emile Hirsch) drives fast race cars as a hereditary inheritance, but also in pursuit of family redemption. His elder brother Rex (Scott Porter) was also a top racer in the World Racing League (WRL) and inculcates Speed into a love of cars and of the sport, somewhat against the protective instincts of their parents (John Goodman as Pops and Susan Sarandon as Mom). But Rex purportedly died in a fiery crash during a notoriously dangerous rally race while also trying to clean up the dirtier corners of the high-stakes sport. His loss is an unhealed wound in the Racer family, but it also drives Speed to match or even surpass Rex’s accomplishments, all while resisting and even defeating the forces of corruption that brought low the elder brother and are arrayed now against the younger.

The representatives of these forces are numerous: antagonistic drivers august and respected to sneering and underhanded, mobster-esque race-fixers and their armed goons, even black-clad ninja assassins. Paramount among them is the patrician E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam, an ascoted Christopher Hitchens lookalike), CEO of the massive corporate conglomerate Royalton Industries who courts Speed as a potential recruit for the well-funded Royalton racing team in the WRL. Speed’s decision about Royalton’s offer will have far-reaching consequences for himself and his family, and sets up Speed Racer‘s central thematic dichotomy between win-at-all-costs hegemonic corporatism and plucky family-driven small enterprise. The Wachowskis visually contrast this dichotomy during a montage of big-race preparations: servants place overflowing plates of decadent hors d’oeuvres on refreshment tables in the Royalton offices while Mom hands out homemade sandwiches to her hard-working mechanic clan in the family garage.

The corporate corruption angle gains a whole other subplot facet that swallows the whole second act, as well. White-collar crime investigator Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann) convinces Speed to join forces with rookie Japanese racer Taejo Togokahn (Rain) and the mysterious masked Racer X (Matthew Fox) to win the Casa Cristo 5000, the notorious rally race that claimed Rex Racer’s life. A victory for Taejo will convince the golden boy, whose father is a corporate rival of Royalton’s, to hand over vital evidence of Royalton malfeasance to the Inspector that could result in an indictment and save the Racers from the racing business titan’s vengeful fury.

Amidst all of this narrative dumpery, I haven’t even found time to mention the other half of the Racer family unit: Speed’s live-in girlfriend and sometimes fellow driver Trixie (Christina Ricci), his friend and mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry), and his junk-food-addicted younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt). The puckish Spritle also has a pet chimpanzee named Chim Chim, and they do many very silly things.

This may seem like too much plot exposition, too many characters, too many substories, just too much. But you’ll honestly only barely notice how much information is attempting to weigh down Speed Racer. The Wachowskis bathe in the generalize excess: their bright, cartoonish colour palette, manga-influenced compositions, montages, and transitions, and the breathless anime homages of their fight and race sequences keep the movie humming at such a clip that expository sag never really sets in. If there is a complaint to be made about Speed Racer‘s structuring, it’s that the detour into the Taejo/Racer X mission turns the lengthy, multi-part Casa Cristo rally race sequence (which begins in a neon-hued Istanbul-like Eastern metropolis, moves through desert dunes, mountainous hairpins, and ice caves, and includes two separate hand-to-hand confrontations with ninjas and gangsters, respectively) into a more significant-seeming racing scene showcase than the much-teased climax in the more prestigious WRL Grand Prix. That Speed’s Rex-related baggage is a more active thematic element in Casa Cristo (the race which spelled the elder Racer brother’s end) lends it greater weight and importance as well.

The Grand Prix is still the movie’s rousing, thrilling climax, though, and features an explosive, triumphal, near-psychedelic finish-line moment that can only be described as quite literally orgasmic. The Wachowskis (writers as well as directors) seed the Grand Prix with personal meanings for Speed connected to his parents, rather than Casa Cristo’s fraternal associations. Speed watching a famously close Grand Prix finish with Pops after Rex’s passing mends their bond and retrenches their shared dedication to auto racing, while Mom expresses her awe, pride, and appreciation of Speed’s masterful artistry on the racetrack, of which his performance in the Prix is the defining display. No matter the goofy candy-striped kid-friendly blockbuster they find themselves in, Goodman and Sarandon bring as much of their thespianic abilities as are needed to sell these moments alongside Hirsch. They lend the closing race a tone of unanticipated heft, as a result.

This emotional integrity, this baseline thematic strength, is interesting in terms of Speed Racer‘s overt Pop Art stylistic choices. Pop Art borrowed (stole, frankly) and repurposed commercial imagery, the visual language of corporate production and advertising, as a self-aware, ironic artistic commentary on saturation-level American capitalist consumerism. There is nothing ironic about the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer. Its Pop Art visual trappings are deployed for their pure sugar-high pleasure rush, and function to give a sparkling gloss and sheen to a simple but surprisingly potent narrative of family love and the sheer joy of sport. Hegemonic corporatism takes its deserved lumps in Speed Racer, but never is it allowed to annex excitement, colour, or happiness for ulterior motives. Maybe, then, this movie isn’t quite so superficial or absurd after all.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Television Review – Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return

Mystery Science Theater 3000 – Season 11 (Netflix; 2017)

The revival season of cult geek-comedy television classic Mystery Science Theater 3000, available since mid-April on Netflix, seems fortuitously timed. Its core concept – mad scientists imprison a jumpsuited factory grunt on an orbital satellite and attempt to pickle his brain with awful movies, to which the average Joe(l) (or Mike, or Jonah) responds by endearingly mocking the bad films with the help of two snarky robots to avoid losing his mind – could be considered a metaphor for cultural survivalism in the post-capitalist news-cycle madness of 2017. There’s an ongoing debate as to whether left-leaning political and cultural snark on television and the internet is an effective form of resistance to the reactionary ideology represented by Donald Trump. Whatever effect (or lack thereof) mockery has had on his election campaign and presidency, laughing at Trump, despite its ease, is undeniably cathartic for those who disagree with him and all that he represents.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3K to its Silent Majority of dedicated acolytes, known as MSTies) is just such an outlet for comforting catharsis. Laughing at sincerely terrible movies might seem like punching down, but the MST3K model has always carried a measure of disrespect for authority and more than a faint shadow of anti-capitalist sentiment. The concept punctures the faux-mystique around cinema by violating its holiest commandment: Thou Shalt Not Talk in the Theatre. From the breaking of this cultural taboo follow small rebellions against the regard for filmmakers and actors, the suspension of disbelief at hackneyed premises and unconvincing special effects, the acceptance of nonsensical plotting and stilted dialogue; in short, against the very spurious claims to authority undergirding the producers-consumers compact that is the foundation of commercial capitalism. This is the bedrock of MST3K‘s trademarked “riffs”, which frequently spiral off into obscure references, topical jokes, and timeless observational humour in an unpredictable, often giddy manner. But it is also the bedrock for a generalized MST3K philosophy: the world is a mad place and it’s out to chew you up and rob you blind, and the only way to make sense of it is to laugh at it.

MST3K originally aired between 1988 and 1999, beginning on public access television in Minneapolis, Minnesota, moving to an embryonic Comedy Central (then known as the Comedy Channel), shifting to the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy), and even finding its way to the very movie theatres it treated with such good-natured disrespect with a feature film in 1996 (which was my own inculcation to the franchise and still, for my money, one of the funniest movies ever made). The brainchild of comedian Joel Hodgson, who also starred as its first host/human experimental subject, the low-budget show’s core scenes took place in a simulated cinema through an effect known as “Shadowrama”, with black silhouettes of the host, the robots, and a row of theatre seats superimposed at the base of the “projected” movie (inspired by an image in the liner notes of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album). This allowed for not only the flood of verbal riffs but also elements of performance and even visual gags in “interaction” with the movie. To break up this central motif, various sketches would be interspersed around the commercial breaks, featuring the host and the robots, as well as the so-called “Mads” via videolink.

Hodgson left the show after its fifth season, replaced thereafter as host by head writer Mike Nelson, who also headlined MST3K: The Movie. The voices of the robots, the gumball-machine-like mock-sophisticate Tom Servo and gold-clad Groucho Marx-esque Crow T. Robot, also changed during the decade-long run, as did the actors playing the Mads. A certain Joel vs. Mike schism has thus developed in the fan and critical reception of the show, with some fans preferring Joel’s laid-back, ironical style and preference for prop-based humour and others going to bat for Mike’s more aggressive zingers.

This split has likewise transfered into similarly-pitched post-MST3K projects headed by Hodgson and Nelson and featuring former cast members. Nelson produces and sells online-distributed audio-only comedic commentaries to accompany legal copies of movies (B-movie, Hollywood blockbuster, and otherwise) known as RiffTrax with longtime Tom Servo voice actor Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, who played Crow near the end of the show’s run. Hodgson, meanwhile, started a (now discontinued) live movie-riffing tour with accompanying DVDs, which he called Cinematic Titanic, with Trace Beaulieu (a core cast member who played head Mad Dr. Clayton Forrester and voiced Crow up until the final three Sci-Fi Channel seasons), Frank Conniff (Forrester’s sidekick, TV’s Frank), Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl Forrester, Clayton’s mad-scientist mother), and J. Elvis Weinstein (the first Tom Servo).

With this in mind, the new season of MST3K, largely funded via public donations on Kickstarter (over $5.7 million was raised, a record for the service’s Film & Video section) and distributed by Netflix, is most certainly a Joel Hodgson production. Hodgson directs all 14 episodes of the new season, is on the writing staff (along with head writer Elliott Kalan, Jon Stewart’s former head writer on The Daily Show), makes disguised on-camera appearances, and his sensibility lurks behind the return of the prop-heavy Invention Exchange sketches and other practical effects. Pehl, Corbett, and Murphy also have cameos, but other than that, The Return is marked by a near-total turnover of on-camera talent. The new human subject is Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray), with new voice actors for Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn), Crow (Hampton Yount), and female robot Gypsy (Rebecca Hanson). The Mads have also turned over, with Felicia Day as Kinga, the new scion of the Forrester mad-scientist clan, and Patton Oswalt as Max (a.k.a. TV’s Son of TV’s Frank). Jonah’s prison home, the Satellite of Love, now orbits Kinga’s lunar base, Moon 13, which features a house band, the Skeleton Crew, that doubles as Kinga’s minions.

Hodgson and his team filmed the new season in Los Angeles rather than the prior 10 seasons’ production base of Minneapolis, and have a far more generous budget to work with. The sci-fi accoutrements of the filmed sketch segments retain a low-budget aesthetic nonetheless, but technical advances are more evident in the theatre: Tom Servo is now able to fly, opening up any number of new visual gags with his hovering silhouette on the movie screen; Crow has visible legs, and moves around the theatre more as well; and even Gypsy, her robotic head suspended at the end of a thick cable, pops into the theatre with a zinger or two each episode (she had previously only riffed along for a brief time in a 4th season episode). The intermission segments, though no longer strictly required on commercial-free Netflix, are retained as respites, often featuring high-wattage guest star spots (by Mark Hamill, Jerry Seinfeld, Joel McHale and Neil Patrick Harris), limited long-form storytelling (Kinga decides late in the season to grab at bigger ratings by marrying Jonah), and striking faux-cardboard cut-out comedy sequences. These segments even provided MST3K‘s first real meme of the viral video internet era, a hilarious rap rundown of international mythic monsters:

But Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is, has, and always will be defined by its riffing along to terrible movies, and it’s the lion’s share of each episode’s running time inside the Mystery Science Theatre (its actual name, revealed in a faux-ad-break bumper) that defines its relative quality. The Return summons some real stinkburgers, and generally speaking, the riffs on these films performed by Ray, Vaughn, and Yount live up to the show’s august geek legacy while adapting tone and material for a contemporary cultural setting that, thanks largely to the internet and the digitally-empowered discourse therein, has moved closer to MST3K‘s barrage of snarky comments than Hodgson must have thought possible back in the still-analog 1980s. For easier consumption, some point-form highlights follow:

  • Episode 1 – “Reptilicus”: The source episode of “Every Country Has a Monster”, this awkwardly-pitched Danish monster rampage flick functions quite ably as a 90-minute assurance to fans that despite the space of years and near-total creative talent turnover, all will be well with MST3K. Featuring super-broad and eminently mockable comedy relief from Danish comic Dirch Passer, “Reptilicus” truly kicks into high cruddy-movie gear as the titular reptilian beast (shoddily executed as a model-scale rubber puppet) runs amok through the Danish countryside and finally in the centre of Copenhagen. The riffs ratchet up during this climax, too, and for me reach a comedic height that the rest of season struggles to match. One fancifully mock-informative behind-the-scenes detail riff from Servo (suggesting that model trees were made from sprigs of rosemary) had me on the floor.
  • Episode 2 – “Cry Wilderness”: Greeted by many viewers as a new MST3K classic, I found this movie’s riffs funny enough but not always up to the genuine loopiness of the film itself. Focusing on a young boy with some sort of psychic link with Bigfoot (who quite enjoys Coke), Cry Wilderness also features repeated forced faux-jocularity laughter and two scenes with a Native-American mystic and his menagerie of animal familiars that looks and feels like something out of Jodorowsky.
  • Episode 4 – “Avalanche”: For me, the revival season’s funniest episode. In this 1970s disaster flick, Rock Hudson (whose besweatered heftiness inspires a litany of jokes about a fondness for lunch buffets) stars as the owner and developer of a ski resort, with Mia Farrow as his ex-wife who visits just prior to the catastrophic titular snowslide. Dialogue-light scenes of furious action are always fine fodder for riffs, and the avalanche sequence in this episode might be the funniest sustained riff run of the season. Bonus points for holding off on the Woody Allen references re: Farrow until a fine extended joke in the final minutes, thus achieving maximum effect. Additionally, Neil Patrick Harris sings a song about online dating with Day (the two co-starred in Joss Whedon’s cult series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog) during one intermission but I didn’t much like it.
  • Episode 5 – “The Beast of Hollow Mountain”: With the titular stop-motion beast held offscreen until late in the closing act, this 1956 Western set in Mexico is ribbed mercilessly for its blatant racial stereotypes and insensitive humourous treatment of alcoholism. MST3K at its most woke.
  • Episode 6 – “Starcrash”: An illogical, glacially-paced American-Italian space opera starring frizzy-haired former evangelical preacher Marjoe Gortner, buxom B-movie queen Caroline Munro, David Hasselhoff, and Christopher Plummer as the Emperor as the Universe, Starcrash has long been a hoped-for target of MST3K riffing among fans. Though the result generally doesn’t disappoint, the riffing can’t quite do the film’s awful weirdness full justice. It does feature the season’s non-kaiju-rap musical comedy high point, a Beach Boys parody called “Come Along Baby In My UFO”, as well as a vaguely baffled Jerry Seinfeld cameo.
  • Episode 7 – “The Land That Time Forgot”: One of two Edgar Rice Burroughs spec-fic adaptations starring Doug McClure (the slightly-puffy B-movie star who was the primary model for the classic Simpsons character Troy McClure) this season, this nutty movie about a WWI German U-Boat taken over by Allied sailors that alights on a hidden prehistoric island edges out the season-ending “At The Earth’s Core”, despite the latter’s eccentric English gentleman sidekick role for Peter Cushing.
  • Episode 9 – “Yongary: Monster from the Deep”: A Korean kaiju movie from the 1960s, “Yongary” features an annoying kid who dances with the rampaging monster shortly before the beast’s climactic death throes, which are disturbingly, uncomfortably drawn out. Jonah and the bots’ discomfort at Yongary’s convincing, squirming agony summoned by the puppeteers pushes through the usual ironic detachment with just the right force.
  • Episodes 10 & 11 – “Wizards of the Lost Kingdom I & II”: Amateurish, filmed-in-the-woods sword-and-sorcery non-epics, each with different annoying kids, different vamping villains, and with low-budget kings Bo Svenson and David Carradine as different but equally-diffident legendary swordsmen who can barely be bothered to unsheath their blades. The first is better than the second, for MST3K purposes at least.
  • Episode 12 – “Carnival Magic”: A carnival-set sorta-drama starring a chimpanzee. Some funny stuff, but not enough good riff material to justify such a limp, incorrigibly incoherent movie choice. Good Mark Hamill cameo, though.

Overall, the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 revival is a welcome development, and sidles in alongside the revered previous seasons of the show with a reasonable claim to living up to its name. It’s a snarky but generally good-natured comedic balm for political, social, and cultural times that are particularly discouraging for the species of insouciant subcultural smart-asses for whom the show is a shared talisman.

Categories: Film, Hilarity, Reviews, Television

Kathy Griffin and Caravaggio: Decapitation and Atonement

It’s hardly difficult, amidst the bewildering swirl of news, rumours, disinformation and perpetual scandal and outrage that has been the still-young presidency of Donald J. Trump, to lose track of specific details of note, for occurrences of interest to be buried in avalanches of drama and rhetoric. One such instance fired outrage machines for an extended news cycle and is already sinking from view, but deserves to be held up for a measure of visual analysis before we lose complete sight of it.

In late May, comedian, actress, television personality, and sometimes political commentator Kathy Griffin posted a photo of herself on Instagram and Twitter holding up what was meant to appear to be the blood-soaked severed head of Donald Trump. Whatever satirical commentary Griffin and collaborating photographer Tyler Shields intended to make with the visual statement, the image sparked a firestorm of protest from online conservatives, Trump supporters, and liberals, too. Basically nobody liked it and most agreed that it crossed the line (wherever that line is considered to be located in the era of an admitted serial sexual-harasser President of the United States). Trump himself, as well as one of his idiot sons, even stoked the outrage on Twitter by claiming that the President’s 11-year-old son Barron saw the photo, thought it was real and believed that Daddy (who loves him nearly as much as he loves golf) was dead.

Griffin’s carefully-curated personal celebrity brand as an under-talented D-list semi-famous personality suffered definite consequences from the furour over the stunt, losing endorsements, appearances, and a high-profile New Year’s Eve CNN hosting gig due to the negative response to the photo. Rightly or wrongly, her image and career faces a serious setback for a decision that, whatever else might be said about it, was creative in nature. Stripping that creative decision of as much media hype and outrage culture baggage as we can, can we judge Griffin’s photo as an aesthetic image, as an artistic statement? If so, what can we learn from it?

My feeling in critiquing the image (above on the left) is that it leans into the tempting frisson of shock and partisan dark-wish-fulfillment when it might have endeavoured to foster more nuanced associations and implications. A productive point of comparison, and one which Griffin and Shields’ work falls well short of, might be to a superficially similar image by the Italian Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath (seen to the right in the superior of two versions the artist produced, from the Galleria Borghese in Rome). It’s not inconceivable that in composing the photo of Griffin holding up the head of “Trump” almost as a grotesque offering to the viewer, Tyler Shields had in his mind’s eye Caravaggio’s image of the Israelite boy king holding up the viscera-dripping head of the vanquished Philistine giant. Placed side by side, they might constitute a diptych of strange symmetry, Griffin gripping her foe’s skull with her right hand while David grips his foe’s skull with his left.

Homage-drenched referentiality aside, the weaknesses of Griffin and Shields’ image-making are laid bare by such a contrast. Three stark differences are immediately obvious: the colour of the bare background, the expression on the face of the figure holding the decapitated head, and the head of the hated, defeated enemy himself.

Caravaggio’s famed tenebrism, an extreme take on chiaroscuro shading which drastically contrasts light and dark and lends dramatic three-dimensional illusions to modeled forms, is on full display. A dark background contrasts with the central focus of light, David’s half-bare torso, muscles taut but skin boyishly soft. The shadows appear to be half-devouring his sword arm, like the penumbra of plague. Griffin, meanwhile, stands out harshly, glaring and almost unreal, against a white backdrop that is every bit a self-identifying trapping of a photographic studio. The red of her hair and the lapis lazuli blue of her outfit combine with the field of white to form the blatant American tricolour, couching her implied revolutionary violence in terms of patriotic defence of the republic. She might as well have a flag pin on her lapel.

And look at Griffin’s face, with its fixed mannequinesque impassiveness. What does she think or feel about what it’s implied she’s done to the leader of the free world, removing his head from his body, ending his life of lies and swindles and the bumbling tyranny of his rule? It’s hard to say that she’s telling us that she thinks or feels anything; her tightened neck, seemingly in mid-hard-swallow, is the most communicative feature of the weight of her act. She seems to be aiming for an expression of defiance (and some of that dwells in her blue eyes), but instead looks mildly aghast. Stunned. It is not a mask of righteous resistance, as it most likely ought to be.

Consider, alternately, David’s expression in the Caravaggio painting. He’s pensive, mournful, lamenting what he’s done. He’s remorseful about what’s happened to Goliath at his hand, and perhaps faintly ashamed at what his opponent’s fate has revealed about his own character. Goliath’s face, too, is rich in expression, evincing the slack-jawed, helpless final agony of his moment of death. But what is Griffin’s “Trump” but a paint-smeared dummy’s head with stage hair, communicating nothing of import and actually barely even resembling the President? Griffin might as well have defended herself from her detractors by claiming it wasn’t Trump after all. Were he not currently the most famous person in the world, would we even recognize that it was supposed to be him? Griffin might as well be holding a pineapple.

Is it absurd to compare an Old Master, an all-time great painter who constructs his images with painstaking skill and conscious, informed deliberation, to a modern provocateur photographer and second-rate comedienne, grasping at easy gasps? Caravaggio is lent a key edge by his aesthetic medium, which allows him complete freedom of creation and representation, while Shields can but capture what he places before his camera lens. This serves to explain, to some extent, the clumsy amateurishness of the “Trump head”, but not the gaping gulf of comparative empathy between the images.

This lack of empathy in the image of Griffin, I think, gets at the almost-uniform negative reaction to it. There’s a detached ugliness to it, an ironic lack of irony. Kathy Griffin, for all her political outspokenness, has no compelling visual relationship to Trump in this image. It’s flat as a postcard, with the grim self-righteousness of propaganda.

Caravaggio’s painting is less superficially shocking but more psychologically unsettling. This is not only because he includes the instrument of decapitation, the cold, groin-pointing phallic steel of David’s sword (how did Griffin remove “Trump”‘s head? Pruning shears?). More fundamentally, there is roiling emotion (often read as homoerotic tension) between David and Goliath. Art historical insight tells us that this emotion was, to a not-insignificant extent, internal to the artist: it has often been pointed out (by Simon Schama in his Power of Art BBC documentary on the painting, but by other scholars as well) that the head of Goliath is a self-portrait of Caravaggio near the end of his tumultuous life, on the run from the law for his part in a back-alley murder and thus fallen from his status as the golden boy of Italian Counter-Reformation painting; but the boy king David, with his sympathetic but disappointed ambivalence to his later self, is likely also a self-portrait of a younger Caravaggio.

This implied, emotionally complex self-criticism might be the key missing characteristic of the image of Kathy Griffin and “Trump”, and by extension American discourse both in favour and against the controversial President. The young David/Caravaggio offers the severed head of the older Goliath/Caravaggio as atonement for his sins, a brutal penance for his moral conduct falling short of the pious (but psychologically realistic) ideals represented in his religious art. Both Kathy Griffin and Donald Trump have benefitted from American privilege and plenty to rise beyond their merit. Some recognition of their spiritual kinship might have improved this image, as well as some measure of desired atonement for sin and moral shortcomings: Personal? Collective? National? Something would do. Anything that would make it mean much more, as art and as satire.

Film Review: Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman (2017; Directed by Patty Jenkins)

An important recent theoretical framework in the academic world, of which I am no longer a part but which I remember with tempered fondness, is intersectionality. Rougly defined (at least by Wikipedia), the term refers to overlapping social identities and their related discourses and systems of oppression, domination, and/or discrimination. In considering intersecting identities rather than single, monolithic identity markers, a fuller, more nuanced, multidimensional picture of all facets of a subject’s identity is possible, and indeed preferable to considering such markers in isolation. Thus, considering someone as a queer-identifying lower-income African-American woman gives a fuller impression of the challenges of their identity and its related structures of marginalization than pinpointing any of those specific identities on their own to determine understanding.

Intersectionality feels germane to thinking about Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. That is, at least a version of intersectionality adapted to the set of market and fan expectations, generic conventions, narrative and thematic assumptions, intertextual interaction with similar films within (and without) its wider comics superhero franchise universe, and politics of representation and projection, rather than personal identity elements. It’s only so instructive and useful to discuss Wonder Woman simply as a feminist film (though it certainly is one, intelligently and robustly so) because it features a female lead when literally every other superhero blockbuster (and practically every Hollywood action blockbuster period, although The Hunger Games and recent Star Wars movies have seriously cracked that resilient glass ceiling) has a male lead.

That’s true, yes, and it’s especially true in the DC Extended Universe. But the underlying politics of films centred on DC’s male heroes (and anti-heroes) have proceeded from masculinity’s representational hegemony in the genre to its logical, terrible ideological conclusions: toxic assumptions about the uses of fascistic authoritarian power, retrograde embraces of Nietzschean übermensch beliefs, and nihilistically cynical arguments for the perverse necessity of exercising zero-tolerance oppressive state authority. Add to this the decidedly mixed representations of women in DC films (and in superhero films in general) and the knee-jerk negative reactions of a despised but not-inconsiderable portion of MRA-leaning online fanboys to any geek-inclined blockbuster release in which a woman is allowed to be anything other than eye candy or emotional support to a male protagonist, and there is even more to consider (even without the controversy over women-only screenings in Texas and elsewhere). Even star Gal Gadot’s nationality has factored into the complicated politics of Wonder Woman‘s reception: she’s an Israeli citizen who performed mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Force, a fact which got the film banned in Lebanon.

It is mostly (if not completely) accurate to say that Wonder Woman strides confidently into this particular intersection and utterly undoes, overcomes, and redeems all of this messy, noisome baggage with refreshing moral clarity and a tendency for blazing, iconic imagery. Jenkins – an experienced and skilled veteran director who has worked on television since her last feature film, 2003’s Monster, won Charlize Theron an Academy Award for Best Actress – displays both of these laudable directorial qualities in spades, and Wonder Woman is a dynamite entertainment with surprising thematic and emotional heft. If praise must be tempered at all, it’s because the narrative runs through some familiar generic avenues, develops a predictable love interest angle, and arrives at a CG-heavy, massively destructive final battle of godly proportions set at night, like seemingly every DCEU movie must.

But vitally, Jenkins ends our heroine’s climactic dark night of doubt, struggle, and deep loss with a sunrise suffused with hope and goodness. And Wonder Woman, despite its sops to genre convention and big-budget compromise, not only succeeds but thrives and delights because it holds that sunrise in its heart. There’s an earnest joy and desire to protect goodness and improve situations of injustice at this movie’s core that sets it irrevocably apart from its incoherent, ugly, and smug DCEU predecessors, especially the movie that introduced us to this version of Diana Prince, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Those films doubted that goodness was even possible, let alone worth protecting. Wonder Woman has ideals, and it thunderously upholds them.

Gadot’s Diana begins her transformative journey out of her edenic Amazons-only island home of Themyscira as a starry-eyed idealist with a head full of pure notions of justice, but her disillusionment only deepens her empathy for humanity with experience, and stiffens her commitment to protecting the better angels of their natures. This earned, worldly empathy is redolent of a woman’s perspective; it’s vital to this character, and it’s what DC Films and Warner Bros. got when they hired Patty Jenkins to direct. The odd, moving power of this point of view in Wonder Woman is a welcome and redemptive addition to a superhero genre (and a comics-derived cinematic Extended Universe) greatly in need of it.

Gal Gadot’s performance, also infused with an odd power, deserves to share credit for summoning up this resurgent verve with Jenkins’ direction and Allan Heinberg’s screenplay (based on a story by Heinberg, Jason Fuchs, and DCEU overseer Zack Snyder). Her ability to effectively emote and communicate frames of mind during furious, epically-scaled action sequences was established in her cameo appearance in Batman v. Superman, where she practically stole the movie out from under the noses of the hyper-masculine Oedipal titular superheroes with a single-beat grin. But more than that, Gadot’s Diana recognizes – and helps us recognize, as if for the first time – a fundamental thematic message of the superhero genre that has been casually discarded by DC Films’ self-satisfied, morally-ambiguous realpolitik understanding of good and evil (and even the cannier Marvel films, to an extent, although their source material was always built on more sociopolitically complex foundations). She does good not because it makes her feel good or because it is just marginally better than doing bad, but because doing good is how a better world is built.

Diana believes in the overarching mission of the Amazons – to defend mankind from the threat of the all-corrupting god of war Ares (manifested in this comic-ized Hellenic myth as a species of concealed Satan) and one day utilize their “godkiller” weapon to destroy him entirely, a backstory gorgeously exposited by a sequence of no-fooling slow-motion-animated Classicist paintings – enough to defy her mother and queen, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), and convince top Amazon General Antiope (Robin Wright) to train her in the ways of her people’s combat. Both those combat skills and that belief in the ideals of justice will be needed when a stray biplane flown by U.S. Army Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes into the crystal-blue waters off her home island. She saves him from drowning, he saves her from the pursuing German soldiers who attack Themyscira, and he informs her and the Amazons of the conditions outside their bubble of concealment. It’s 1918, the War to End All Wars has left 25 million dead, and his mission as a spy for British intelligence is to stop the production and deployment of a devastating and potentially conflict-extending toxic gas developed in Ottoman Turkey by Dr. Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya) for the implacable German military commander General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston).

Firm in her belief in the Amazons’ mission of protection and justice and furthermore convinced that not only the lethal gas but the entirety of the Great War is the secret work of her sworn enemy Ares, Diana accompanies Trevor back to London and the British War Cabinet, where he is to show his superiors (including a peace supporter named Sir Patrick Morgan, played by David Thewlis) Dr. Maru’s encoded notebook and convince them to fund a mission to destroy the super-gas factory behind enemy lines, as well as to delay the planned armistice long enough to allow it to be completed.

Diana and Trevor’s travels to and around London and eventually to the front lines in Belgium are marked by multiple instances of productive tension and exposure of unfair hypocrisy in the status, treatment, and expectations of women in that time and place. Trevor is the first man Diana has ever met, and she thinks nothing of asking him if his penis is of representative size (“Above average,” he wrily claims) or bluntly telling him that although men are needed for procreation, they are “unnecessary” for female sexual pleasure. In conservative, patriarchal England, she tries on period clothes (her metallic bustier is judged insufficient in the coverage department for the staid city streets) and wonders how women can fight in voluminous skirts, is introduced surreptitiously as Trevor’s secretary (his actual secretary, Etta Candy, is a good comic-relief part for BBC’s The Office alum Lucy Davis), and pushes through the condescending disregard of arrogant statesmen to demonstrate her mastery of over 60 languages and witheringly condemn their cowardly decision-making with regards to the lives of thousands of soldiers and civilians. These jabs at sexism and patriarchy never really feel like soapbox-ascending moments predominantly because, from Diana’s perspective, discrimination against women is not only absurd but unnecessary (even the villainous but talented Dr. Maru receives appreciation for her abilities from Trevor and a moment of solidarity from Diana). There is nothing of importance men can do that she cannot, and they certainly cannot tell her what to do.

Diana struggles with a sense of nagging dissatisfaction with the inequity of these imposed limitations on her, and with Trevor’s repeated insistences that she not intervene in the flood of small refugee tragedies witnessed as they approach the Front with his diverse strike squad (Sameer, a chatty failed-actor-turned-secret-agent played by Saïd Taghmaoui; Charlie, a shell-shocked Scottish marksman played by Ewen Bremner; Chief, a nationless Native American smuggler played by Eugene Brave Rock). All of this catalyzes Wonder Woman‘s greatest scene, and one of the most iconic moments in the (admittedly brief and patchy) history of superhero movies: Diana defies Trevor’s constant goalpost-moving pragmatism and strides over the top of the trenches into No Man’s Land (but she is no man!), fully unveiling herself as the titular heroine for the first time under a hail of a volley from German rifles, shells, and machine guns. It’s an image for all time, the Wonder Woman mythos (and, indirectly, the long struggle for women’s rights) distilled into pure, lightning-written form as she stands against the awful, grinding inhumanity of a destructive and misbegotten war and leads weary troops on to a great victory. The action direction in No Man’s Land and in a shell-shocked Belgian village afterwards is superb and exciting (and clearly influenced by Snyder’s style), but Wonder Woman’s emergence from the trenches (revealed though it was by the film’s trailers) is utterly glorious cinema.

There’s a very deliberate sense to this moment, and to Diana’s later choice to fight on for justice and righteousness despite both personal anguish and the deconstruction of the simplistic, Hellenic-myth-derived terms of her idealism, that Wonder Woman stands not only against a proximal foe with deadly arms, but against all oppression and discrimination, everywhere, against everyone. Moreover, the choice to set this origin film for the character during World War I (reminiscent of the World War II era of Captain America: The First Avenger but even more successful, I would argue) recontextualizes a war generally characterized as either wholly pointless, tragically absurd, or carelessly imperial in character, or at the very least sparked by interlocking-alliance over-reactions to a curious and above all local assassination on the margins of Europe’s power centres.

Heinberg’s script runs a bit of a bait and switch with Diana’s assumption that Ares is the puppetmaster behind the Great War, as well as with her reading that Ludendorff is Ares in disguise (added kudos for pulling Ludendorff from the history books to serve as a skulking villain; he’s one of the 20th Century’s underappreciated reactionary bastards and a genuine John the Baptist figure to the exponentially more monstrous Adolf Hitler). But just as Diana realizes that messy, complicated, morally compromised humanity is tragically in charge of its own ever-threatened future, we are nudged by this unwaveringly earnest superhero film towards understanding this war, and all such mass suffering events callously engineered by powerful men to extend or preserve their ever-tenuous power, as the offspring of intersectional forces of oppression, domination, and discrimination.

The corsetting of women in literal and figurative terms that Diana witnesses in London is of a same piece with the massacre that she witnesses at the Front, a harsh contrast to the twinkling, snow-flecked, beer-tinged revelry she witnesses after the liberation of the Belgian town. It’s a corsetting of the marginalized that takes in Sameer’s exclusion from stage acting due to the colour of his skin, Charlie’s debilitating PTSD, and the historical dispossession of Chief’s people by Steve Trevor’s people. The violence of power, ever a blunt tool of control, lies behind all such subjugations just as it lies behind the four-year global human meat-grinder of the Great War (or the even more destructive six-year war that it presaged). Wonder Woman seeks to throw down this god of war not through the use of its own genocidal weapons, as her counterparts in previous recent DCEU films have done. She wields a shield, gauntlets, the innate power of protective love, and her own just and empathetic will (also a badass sword and a goofy golden lasso, but I digress from my point).

In our troubled, uncertain, and hate-tinged times, Patty Jenkins has iconically elevated a heroine who is proud to derive her power from a varied intersection of love and mutual respect rather than from single-minded fear and hate. Diana’s post-battle glimpse of dawn, expanded into a splash-page pose in the film’s final shot, ought to be ours as well. It’s this inner glow, this bright beam of innate justice, that casts Wonder Woman in a better light than so many other superhero movies that it superficially resembles in structural terms. A wonder, indeed.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Mud

Mud (2012; Directed by Jeff Nichols)

Jeff Nichols is the indie-film auteur of the New Dirty South, which is evident in a weaker effort such as Mud just as clearly as in more indelible, fantastically-tinged statements such as Take Shelter and Midnight Special. Nichols’ camera takes in the stubborn decay of the American South with an austere and intimate realism, but injects bursts of the wondrous, the implausible, the merest thumbnail sketch of tantalizing escapism that, when pursued, leads inevitably back into haunting metaphors for the American condition of the moment. In Take Shelter, this took the form of Michael Shannon’s besieged provider’s horrifying visions, which in an unforgettable concluding scene become terrifyingly real. In Midnight Special, the mysterious light-beam powers of a young boy bring a futuristic imagining of human utopia to the run-down strips of the Gulf Coast.

In Mud, this flash of the sublime manifests as a boat wedged into the upper branches of a tree on an isolated island in the Mississippi River. This suspended boat, this image of rural folk-art magical realism, is found by two teenaged boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who speculate that it was deposited after a recent flood. However it gained its arboreal perch, the boat becomes a playground for their adolescent fantasies, even after it turns out to have an adult squatter tenant. This man, who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey), asks them to bring him food, then gradually inculcates the boys into his ever-widening plans for concealment and eventual escape, which burrow deeper into lies even as they inch towards the truth.

Mud claims to be waiting for his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), to meet him on the island, at which point they will escape the family of bounty hunters pursuing him (Joe Don Baker and Paul Sparks are the main father-son duo) and make a new life together. The romantic bent of Mud’s tale to the boys is well-calculated to appeal to Ellis, budding into puberty more actively than Neckbone and roughing up high school seniors in order to appeal to pretty, older local girl May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). His own coming-of-age disillusionment and painful realizations about the tough complexities of relationships with the opposite sex is mirrored by his growing awareness that Mud and Juniper may not be the ideal star-crossed lovers that he’s been led to believe they are.

Set in the vicinity of DeWitt, Arkansas, Mud may be Little Rock native Nichols’ most geographically personal film, suffused with an unvarnished fondness for the tattered pride of a river-bound way of life that he also notes is atrophying and vanishing. It’s also the closest he’s ventured to the southern gothic genre, with haunted, solitary men, bruised but tantalizing women, sinister crime-underworld demons, and a climactic burst of gunplay. Like southern gothic texts, it’s mostly concerned with damaged white Southerners scrabbling for an ever-shrinking piece of the pie, diminishing themselves and their society in the process. Unlike southern gothic texts, it fails to trace contemporary Southern society’s wasting disease back to the original sin of the slaveholding antebellum civilization and the blood-spattered white supremacist Confederacy erected (and posthumously preserved) to shield Southerners from a reckoning atonement. Race was conspicuously absent as a subtext in Nichols’ films, at least until he made Loving last year, which is overtly concerned with a key instance of civil rights progress.

Jeff Nichols customarily employs genre elements nimbly and cleverly, as mechanisms to expand his storytelling and symbolism rather than to fence them in with conventions. Mud‘s weakness is that the genre elements, namely those of the coming-of-age tale and the slow-burn crime thriller, begin to take over, becoming the defacto raison d’être instead of a tool to suggest truer meanings. McConaughey should take over this movie that bears his character’s name, and had it come a little later in the resurgent period of his career known as the McConaissance, perhaps he would have. But he seems tentative and a little unsure as Mud, unwilling or unable to summon the rogue energy that this backwoods fugitive charmer seems to demand, the masculine flame that attracts the boys and Ellis in particular (Sheridan shows particular promise here, which he has yet to really fulfill as he grows into adulthood).

Sam Shephard – as Ellis’ cross-river neighbour, a mysterious former Marine sniper and father figure to Mud – does more of that lifting, straining imperceptively to bestow the film’s putative anti-hero with an attractive badass aura (his mere presence seems to be more than half the point, intertextually connecting Nichols’ work by associative suggestion to Shephard’s acclaimed playwriting and its influential depiction of a constricting rural America). On the female side of the acting ledger, Witherspoon, mostly holed up and threatened in a motel room, isn’t given enough to do, nor is the generally superb Sarah Paulson as Ellis’ mom, who is separating from his father (Ray McKinnon). Michael Shannon, who has been in all of Nichols’ films, plays Neckbone’s scavenger-diver uncle and guardian, spends half of his scenes with an almost comically oversized diving helmet sitting on his shoulders, resembling a clunky robot from a 1950s sci-fi B-movie.

Bizarre, seemingly unreal touches like this dot Mud‘s portrait of a weary current South. Nichols (also the film’s screenwriter) combines such heightened details with romance, intrigue, and adventure, or at least their deluded suggestion. But his heart and soul, as with all of his films, is in the worn-out grind of quotidian Southern life, the hazy sweat of the toil of low-key struggle and survival. Mud dwells on the depiction of that reality with the ambition of art but the intermittent result of tedium. How odd, that this more superficially realist film has considerably less metaphorical heft than the director’s less strictly realistic films. Yet how perfectly understandable as well.

Categories: Film, Reviews