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Film Review: Blade Runner 2049

October 29, 2017 Leave a comment

Blade Runner 2049 (2017; Directed by Denis Villeneuve)

The first thing worth knowing about Blade Runner 2049, and quite frankly the last thing as well, is that it is incredibly beautiful. Directed by Quebeςois prestige-film dynamo Denis Villeneuve and shot by the venerable English cinematographical master Roger Deakins, the 30-plus-years-hence sequel to Ridley Scott’s seminal, influential, and lingeringly divisive 1982 science-fiction opus replicates and indeed surpasses its feats of visual invention, forward-looking production design, and neo-noir neon-infused chiaroscuro mood lighting. As recent James Bond series highlight Skyfall demonstrated, when Roger Deakings is armed with a blockbuster budget, he delivers stunningly-lit images of striking, memorable magnificence. Indeed, Skyfall‘s knock-out sequence of Bond taking out a foe at night in a Shanghai skyscraper with a blue neon jellyfish reflecting off of its glass facades seems now like a dress rehearsal for Deakins’ similar work with the high contrasts of harsh artificial light and deep, encompassing darkness in this film.

I could expend hundreds, perhaps thousands of words describing Blade Runner 2049‘s most gorgeous moments: pinnacles must include a pursuit and fight in an abandoned casino ballroom while a projected hologram Elvis and a chorus of showgirls flicker in and out onstage, the wavy, dappling light filtering through an artificial lake into the Brutalist/pharaonic/neo-German Expressionist premises of a powerful corporation, and an emotionally-charged encounter with a towering, pink-hued advertisement of a naked woman. But the slowly-enfolding wonder of Villeneuve’s and Deakins’s alchemical imagery in Blade Runner 2049, which for my money surpasses Scott’s often turgid and borderline-pretentious original in nearly every vital way, is how it functions as a poetic encapsulation and artistic fulfilment of the film’s themes and ideas. One might rightly contend that this sequel’s philosophical depth doesn’t approach that of the 1982 film, which located a crisis of identity and human authenticity in a depersonalized dystopia of the near-future and grounded it in classical myth and Freudian psychology. But like Arrival, Villeneuve’s science-fiction triumph of last year, Blade Runner 2049 intelligently and sometimes movingly synthesizes intellectual concepts and emotional swells into a powerful work of cinema that understands and advances the notion that these seemingly opposing impulses are in truth two sides of the same cosmic coin.

Blade Runner 2049 is the latest in a recent spate of Hollywood franchise sequels/reboots to incorporate the elapsed decades between the previous and current installments into the textual narrative itself. Much of the expository work covering the 30 years between Scott’s Blade Runner (set in 2019) and Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is achieved by an opening title card: the rebellious replicants – bioengineered humanoids intended as slave and servant labour on Earth and in off-world colonies – encountered by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) in the original film were discontinued after persistent revolts and a catastrophic social, biological and technological infrastructure failure known as “the blackout” a year or two after Deckard escaped Los Angeles with Rachael (Sean Young), the replicant he had fallen in love with.

The bankrupted creators of the replicants, the Tyrell Corporation, was bought up by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and his Wallace Corporation, whose wealth is based on world-saving mass agriculture technology. The Wallace Corporation has resumed production of a new series of replicants programmed strictly to obey their masters. Wallace himself has one such right-hand servant, a steely enforcer named Luv (Silvia Hoeks), and another Nexus-9 replicant, K (Ryan Gosling), toils at Deckard’s old “blade runner” job with the LAPD, tracking down and “retiring” the remaining rogue Nexus-8s at the behest of his human superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). During one such call at a California farming facility maintained alone by a Nexus-8 named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), K discovers a series of clues leading to a replicant-related “miracle” connected to Deckard and Rachael – and, K begins to suspect, intimately connected to himself – that is of revolutionary import to ever-tense human-replicant relations.

This summary doesn’t come close to encapsulating the imaginative and symbolically-charged world-expansion that Villeneuve engages in here, working from a screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. From the opening wide-shot panorama of K’s squad car flying over seemingly endless solar power plants to the dark smoggy sprawl of future L.A. to the post-nuclear, radioactive-fallout-strewn ghost-town of Las Vegas to a gigantic post-industrial junkyard in the ruins of San Diego sifted through in a neo-Dickensian workhouse by thousands of orphaned children, this is a grand nightmarescape of structural decay and physical alienation evocative of social, political, and psychological dislocation.

The protagonist K, his replicant status certain in contrast to the continued ambiguity about Deckard’s true nature, embodies this dislocation. K was built to destroy his own kind and is reviled as a “skinjob” by the humans he is meant to be protecting; even his superior Joshi, although she values his ability and shows a modicum of personal interest, ultimately conceives of him as her servant or her trained pet (“Good boy,” she tells him at one point, like a dog who has fetched successfully). His only non-cop-shop personal relationship is with a Wallace-manufactured female holographic companion named Joi (Ana de Armas), whom he cares for dearly but whose reciprocation of those feelings resides ambivalently in between the programming of her corporate designers and tantalizing hints of sentience and self-determined love. This ambivalence is delicately poised in K’s pre-climactic meeting with the monumental ad for Joi, which might have served to dishearten him at a critical juncture in his quest with its suggestions that their connection was artificially constructed but instead seems to stiffen his spine with a fond reminder of the tenderness of that connection (Gosling plays exquisitely to the ambiguity in this moment, mind you).

K’s feelings for the simulation Joi echoes Deckard’s love for the replicant Rachael, which is at the core of the plot and is sorely tested by the blind, ambitious Machiavellian Wallace (this is too good a film to be derailed by any one performance, especially one consisting of a mere two scenes, and if the usually preening Leto isn’t great, he at least damps it down a bit). When the detective K begins to suspect that he himself might have been the product of this love, his existence gains a measure of significance; when this measure is wiped away, an underground revolutionary replicant movement restores it in altered form, with the politicized promise of sacrifice for the cause of liberation. But even these interlinks are suggested to be coincidences of programming, breadcrumbs implanted in his mind by a gifted designer of memories, Dr. Stelline (Carla Juri). Perhaps this was done intentionally as part of a wider plan, perhaps not.

Free will and determinism, being born and being built, a sentient being with a soul and a self-aware machine with a pre-set functional purpose. These are the dichotomous themes of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and of Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 as well. Their sharp opposing contrasts and their permeable bleeding edges are the subject of both films, a metaphorical focal point made aesthetically manifest in their visual design and in their intertextual referentiality. In the movie-long unfolding of Deakins’s stunning cinematic imagery, his starkly-delineated contrasts of light and dark lose this firm definition, and in the process gain something more indefinable and compellingly ambiguous. In the way that, according to screenwriter Fancher, K moves from being a sort of rule-bound instruction manual to an embodied poem through his experiences, the film itself undertakes a similar journey towards poetry.

This poetry is infused into Blade Runner 2049 with a literal (and literary) reference to Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, including an excerpt of a poem discovered by the novel’s protagonist and repurposing it as part of K’s “baseline” debriefing programming process. A kind of post hoc version of the original Blade Runner‘s Voigt-Kampff test used to identify replicants, the baseline test isolates K and repeats back phrases from the Pale Fire poem (“a system of cells interlinked within / Cells interlinked within cells interlinked”) as well as confrontational, difficult elaborations on those phrases, expecting to compel and maintain emotionless replies and a lack of empathy and engagement on the part of the replicant. K fails at this ongoing technical indoctrination if even his microreactions are hesitant, if his experiences imprint themselves upon his perceptible self.

How can we not be changed, not merely in our perspective or reactions but in our fundamental state of being, by exposure to the world, to love and pain, joy and suffering? The human (or human-like replicant) self is produced and moulded by the stimuli it encounters, formed like rocks under erosion by emotional and intellectual forces beyond its control or resistance. The irony of employing Nabokov’s poem as a fixed-point calibration for replicants is that its conclusion offers a harbour-in-the-storm image of stalwart beauty standing athwart the depersonalized blackness: “Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.” Blade Runner 2049 crafts tall white fountains amidst its dystopian dark, and provides a heartening illustration of how deriving meaning from those comforting structures, which gain significance and dimension of feeling through our engagement with them and not through the separate intentions embedded in their design and manufacture, shapes our identity amidst the unceasing torrent of a hard world.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Colossal

October 25, 2017 Leave a comment

Colossal (2017; Directed by Nacho Vigalondo)

Is Colossal, Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo’s Frankenmovie hybrid of indie dramedies of youthful ennui and mass-destructive Asian kaiju monster films, a good movie or not? I confess that I’m not entirely certain of the answer after watching it. It’s certainly unique, or perhaps just uniquely derivative. It’s got ideas aplenty, but its gaps in internal logic gradually grow too wide to be effectively spanned, its characters barely hold together under even mild scrutiny, its jokes increasingly fail to land, and its more uneasy implications lack consistency.

In broad concept, Colossal follows a directionless 30-something unemployed web content writer Gloria (Anne Hathaway) who, having been dumped and asked to move out of of her New York City apartment by her patronizing professional boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) after one too many alcohol-fueled all-nighters, moves back to her sleepy New Hampshire hometown and takes up residence in her parents’ vacant home. Falling in swiftly with her old school friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who now owns and operates a local bar, Gloria’s aimless into-the-wee-hours unemployed drinking continues unabated until she wakes one day to the globally-reported news of a skyscraper-sized monster mysteriously appearing and then just as mysteriously disappearing in Seoul, South Korea.

Gloria quickly realizes that there is something very familiar about this monster that is captivating the world. Very, very familiar, in fact: the monster is Gloria herself, magically transposed into towering kaiju form halfway across the world. Although I shan’t spoil the expository details (which begin to be revealed as clever little delights and incorporate childhood psychological scars, but become ever more head-scratchingly incomprehensible), Gloria determines that her movements in the sandbox of a school playground at a precise time each morning are mirrored by the creature in Korea (one scene demonstrating this is visually framed as a bit of a technical in-joke on performance-capture CGI practices). And not only her sandbox movements, but Oscar’s as well, his building-sized avatar manifesting in Seoul as a giant robot.

From this fuzzily-defined but nonetheless compelling bedrock idea, Colossal moves in unpredictable and not entirely fruitful directions. Vigalondo (who wrote the script as well as directed it) turns the old friends into rivals and even enemies, their differences over their life’s ambitions and their clashing self-images transposed into Godzilla-sized city-levelling physical battles between their kaiju avatars. A big problem with the application of this metaphorical device is that Vigalondo and Sudeikis are sloppy and inconsistent with how exactly Oscar is meant to be feeling about and relating to Gloria.

Oscar is given big, broad, neon-lit creepy stalker warning signs through the first act or two, suggesting that he’s romantically/sexually interested in Gloria and attempting to curry her favour: he picks her up and takes her to his bar without even asking if she wants to go there, admits to keeping tabs on her online over the years, and makes daily gifts of furniture to fill her empty squat pad. He asks her to wait tables at his bar, and acts on her suggestion to open up an unused western-themed portion of the establishment that he had boarded up. His behaviour towards her – in real life and via their kaiju avatars – takes a negative turn after she hooks up with his handsome but dim buddy Joel (Austin Stowell), and descends into disturbing recklessness when Tim shows up in town to convince Gloria to come back to the city. But his actions in the last act, as well as Gloria openly (but only semi-convincingly) accusing him of being jealous of her for being bright and capable enough to escape their New Hampshire nowheresville while he remained stuck there, call this angle into question.

Sudeikis himself is a big part of Colossal‘s problem in this vein. A decent choice for the good-natured, uncomplicated drinking buddy role, he strains beyond his ability when asked to become a villainous asshole. Miscasting hints aside, however, it’s not entirely clear that Vigalondo doesn’t intend Oscar and Gloria’s conflict to be essentially comic and tongue-in-cheek. There are certainly purposely funny moments undercutting the epic quality of their head-to-head face-off (for a low-budget film, the CG monster effect are fairly good – the nocturnal setting in Seoul helps smooth over the fine details – but more noticeably low-quality when computer animation is used for flames in Oscar’s bar). Hyper-dramatic bursts of Bear McCreary’s score and Vigalondo’s use of slow-motion are sending up heavy-handed Hollywood blockbuster ponderousness, for sure, and the virtual-reality surface of a literal child’s sandbox is surely couched in similar terms.

There’s a growth in self-determination angle to Gloria’s arc in play as well, and an undercooked feminism to her relations to the men in the film. Tim claims to love Gloria but habitually condescends to her, shames her for her lack of drive and ambition, and pretends to protectiveness without properly recognizing her vulnerabilities; Oscar insinuates Gloria back into his life but is not thoughtful or empathetic enough to really understand why he wants her around or what light she throws on his bruised male ego, and becomes an implacable antagonist rather than letting her leave him again; and poor, pretty Joel goes to bed with Gloria at her instigation but hasn’t the steel to stand up to Oscar’s vindictive turn against her.

In the end, Gloria stands up to Oscar and wins the day, locating a power and control in the outlandish kaiju-related circumstances that he leveraged against her. This theme of a put-upon woman pushing back against the men who tossed her about between them must have been one of the elements that drew Hathaway (an executive producer on the film whose headlining star-wattage helped get the film financed and made) to Vigalondo’s screenplay in the first place. Like so many of the ideas in Colossal, however, this one never really manages to land a punch. Moreover, Vigalondo’s plotting often seems more driven by his willingness to move from one such half-cooked idea to another, rather than by comprehensible character psychology or coherent rules of his fantastical conceit.

Much more of Colossal is shambolic in this manner than is advisable. Vigalondo even brings in the great, underrated character actor Tim Blake Nelson (whose gloriously cartoonish bumpkin sidekick Delmar O’Donnell in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of my favourite comic performances in any movie ever) and renders him as a tweaking, rambling second-fiddle to Oscar without even a hint of a funny line. Nacho Vigalondo is revealed by Colossal as a filmmaker with a firm hand at times and a shaky grip at others, sometimes within the same scene or in treatment of the same theme. On which side of the line does Colossal as a whole fall? I confess to still not really being confident in my conclusion either way, but would ultimately recommend giving the film a shot to make up your own mind on the matter.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Television Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

October 21, 2017 Leave a comment

The Handmaid’s Tale – Season One (Hulu; 2017)

Recently awarded the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series, The Handmaid’s Tale is a quality production marked by visual flourishes, powerful performances, and resonant themes amplified by contemporary political applicability in a revanchist era of resurgent authoritarian ideologies and empowered anti-woman figures. It’s also deliberately an extrapolation and an expansion of its seminal source material, Margaret Atwood’s 1986 dystopian novel of the same name. In opening up the imagined totalitarian American theocracy of Gilead and the key role that the red-robed Handmaids play in it, the show’s creator Bruce Miller and his collaborators re-direct and re-focus its implications and meanings.

Told entirely from the first-person narrative perspective of a young woman known only as Offred (a slave name linked to her controlling male authority figure), Atwood’s novel imagines an alarming but eerily familiar near-future in which the United States of America as we now know it is no more. Taking advantage of social and political crises related to plunging birth rates caused by pollution and STDs, Christian fundamentalists have launched a violent coup and gained power over an indeterminate portion of the country: the Eastern Seaboard for certain (geographical clues place the immediate setting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Atwood attended Harvard University), with the Midwest as an apartheid-type mass internment zone for African-Americans and unspecified “Colonies” spoken of as hellish penal settlements where the most undesirable are hidden away to expire. A perpetual territorial war is fought by young soldiers known as Angels, who battle Baptists in Appalachia and the South and serve as convenient vessels for unifying national propaganda efforts.

The Republic of Gilead organizes itself as a fascistic patriarchal theocracy. Democracy is abolished, religious freedom has been eliminated, and adherents of other faiths who do not convert are executed, their corpses exhibited publically as medievalesque warning about the costs of defying authority (along with homosexuals – called “gender traitors” – and anyone else resisting Gilead’s power). All political and social power is held by the Commanders of the Faithful, a rich white male cabal who decide policy on strict Old Testament grounds (though, typically, do not hold themselves to such pious standard of personal behaviour) and enforce it brutally with jackbooted armed men called Guardians and secret police known as Eyes. Women cannot work, hold money or property, read, or manifest any independence outside of subordinate roles to Gilead’s men; they are the either blue-dressed Wives of the ruling class, the lower-class Econowives who marry men of lower status, the household servant Marthas, or the red-clad Handmaids, who are trained and monitored by the strict nun-like subalterns of state power, the forbidding Aunts.

The Handmaids are women identified as fertile in an increasingly infertile society and therefore are treated as valuable if unfree human breeding stock. They are to live with Commanders for two year terms, where they are regularly forced to have sexual intercourse (in a twisted ritualistic “Ceremony” involving not only the Commander but his presiding Wife as well) in hopes of becoming pregnant and delivering the children of the ruling class. They are allowed out of home confinement only for brief walks to shop, as well as for ceremonial occasions such as rare births by their fellow Handmaids and propagandistic communal executions of enemies of the state called Salvations.

Atwood teases out these details entirely through Offred’s narration, interweaving them with memories of Handmaid training and of her life before the Gilead revolution (when she had a husband, Luke, and a young daughter, who was taken from her), as well as her heroine’s psychological reactions and observations on her plight and small notes of defiance. The television version of The Handmaid’s Tale accomplishes the same effect with a primary focus on Offred (played with steel and commitment by Best Drama Actress Emmy winner Elisabeth Moss, whose cloistered and intimate perspective is smartly imparted in cinematographic terms) but with tangents, backstories, and multiple perspectives filling out the picture of this world (not to mention some punchy, interesting musical choices, including an uncertainly-pitched but definitely memorable closing-scene use of the late Tom Petty’s “American Girl”).

We see things not only through the perspective of Offred but also of Luke (O.T. Fagbenle), who gets his own standalone episode detailing his escape north into Canada (the series was filmed in Southern Ontario, a Hamilton mansion serving as the Waterford house and Cambridge, Ontario’s riverfront standing in for that of Cambridge, Massachusetts); of Offred’s Commander, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his Wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), a power couple within the Gilead-establishing Sons of Jacob movement who tensely see the arrangement of influence shift considerably once the unforgiving gender hierarchy is in place; of Offred’s pre-Gilead-era best friend Moira (Samira Wiley), who escapes Handmaid school and is relegated to duty as a Jezebel, a caste of entertainers and prostitutes used for the amusement of the ruling men; of Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), Offred’s strolling partner, a resistance underground member, and a lesbian; of Ofwarren (Madeline Brewer), a fellow Handmaid whose successful pregnancy exacerbates her mental problems; and of Nick (Max Minghella), the Waterfords’ driver, Offred’s clandestine lover, and either an Eye or a member of the resistance group Mayday (or perhaps both; the second season may portend more revelations on this point).

The expansion of Atwood’s vision of Gilead and its translation into a visual storytelling medium involves not only this widening of perspectives, but also any number of other additions, some more successful than others, that alter the course of The Handmaid Tale‘s thematic streams and render the series as a deeply related but ultimately unique artistic statement. Gilead is simultaneously more open and more repressive on screen than on the page; Offred’s resistance to the order of the regime comes to be more open and undeniable, providing stronger impetus for her supposed arrest at the narrative’s end than merely her trysts with Nick or nocturnal Scrabble sessions and illicit gentleman’s club visits with the Commander. Luke and Moira’s scenes in Canada and a diplomatic visit by Mexican officials present opportunities to provide an outside view of the workings of Gilead’s society, as well as hints about how other nations are coping with declining birth rates.

Furthermore, the Waterfords are not only named and given a backstory and related believable tensions in their marriage, they are aged down from the older couple of the novel. This not only adds sexual tension to Offred’s interactions with the Commander (Fiennes is memorably reptilian here), but it erects a whole new dynamic between Offred and Serena Joy. In the novel, Serena is a former televangelist singer, now aged and cynical and implacably bitter towards this younger, more fecund woman entering her household. Strahovski’s younger Serena is a generational contemporary of Offred, thus emphasizing not only their rivalry for the Commander’s interest but also establishing a curious solidarity, a weirdly deferred sisterhood (even if Serena, as an architect of the Gileadean order, is one of the masterminds of both of their objectifications). An expanded role for Handmaid enforcer Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd, who won the Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Emmy for her performance) gives Offred a firmer antagonist than the good cop-bad cop Waterfords or “the system” itself, and allows a more nuanced and detailed exposition of the Handmaids’ symbolic role in Gilead beyond their practical reproductive function.

The biggest shift from novel to screen for The Handmaid’s Tale must surely be its ramping-up, in tonal terms as well as tangible visible subject matter, of the oppressive violence of the totalitarian state in Gilead. Rebellious Handmaids are physically punished, dissenters, enemies of the state, and gender traitors are put to death, street protestors are brutally smashed by military force (although the racial divisions of Atwood’s Gilead are left aside; there is no suggestion of specific state discrimination of African-Americans, and Moira – Wiley is African-American – is set on the path to Handmaid status). These violent fascistic eruptions and open crackdowns on dissent were alluded to by Atwood, hinted at, but only rarely integrated with Offred’s own experiences as fixed-perspective narrator. The novel took form as a memoir of a single individual in the midst of a totalitarian theocracy, her resistances minor and perhaps ineffectual, her own awareness of Gilead’s horrors too slow to arrive at first and too narrow to act meaningfully on in her current situation. It would seem that onscreen, this violent oppression is the ultimate trump card in the effort to establish Gilead’s dictatorial bonafides, while on the page the disturbing details of women’s lives under this order are more the point and the thrust of Atwood’s political satire. Those details are very much drawn out effectively in the series, too, don’t get me wrong, but Miller and his team feel the need to bold and underline This is Fascism for their audience.

Although it might have been assumed that Atwood’s impetus to write The Handmaid’s Tale (the title gestures to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) in the 1980s lay in the emergence into American public life and political influence of conservative Christian Evangelicals during the Reagan years, the ideas grew from other sources with more authentic dictatorial bonafides. Atwood’s readings on American Puritans while at Harvard revealed a people alighting on fresh land seeking not freedom of worship but a theocratic dictatorship where only their own beliefs were tolerated (Atwood’s own ancestor, Mary Webster, survived a hanging sentence for witchcraft in Puritan New England, and the novel is pointedly dedicated to her). Atwood observed the utopian extremism of social-engineering totalitarian regimes in Romania and Cambodia, whose restrictive laws often fell hardest on vulnerable women. And her feminism informed the misogynistic rhetoric underlying Gilead’s unforgiving reproductively-ordered gender hierarchy, taking discriminatory attitudes about women’s appearance, temperment, and sexual status in free, secular, tolerant North American to their logical and oppressive extreme.

But in a fruitful accident of timing, The Handmaid’s Tale series has seen its themes amplified by contemporary political conditions in the country where it is actually set. The election of Donald Trump as U.S. President, with Mike Pence as his Vice President, has made a dystopian vision of a religiously-mandated gender hierarchy in American society that has dire consequences for women seem troublingly current. Of Trump’s many defining character faults, his bluff chauvinism and privilege-fed objectified treatment of women is among the ugliest, if not the very pinnacle of his towering mountain of moral deformity. A twice-divorced serial adulterer with a history of nasty statements about women, Trump infamously bragged on tape about sexual assaulting numerous women and getting away with it, behaviour which has destroyed the careers of other powerful men but which barely touched Teflon Don on his road to the White House. Pence, meanwhile, is a near-exact match for a Commander of the Faithful, with his fundamentalist faith, legislative history of curbing abortion laws and women’s health policies, and unnerving insistence on never being alone in a room with a woman who is not his wife. If they have not instituted a full Gileadean order as of yet, there’s little doubt (especially in the case of the quiet fanatic Pence) that they wouldn’t much mind doing so, if for almost diametrically opposed (but equally misogynistic) reasons.

As compelling as it was in its first season, The Handmaid’s Tale promises to proceed into true uncharted territory in its second season. Though it takes a different path to get there, its finale episode ends just where Atwood’s novel does, with Offred leaving her forced home and entering a van into the unknown of either deeper suffering or desperate freedom. Miller and his writers will have naught but their own inventiveness to guide them, as well as Atwood’s curious academic conference presentation coda for her short novel, which suggests that whatever else happened to Offred, she did at least briefly get out of Gilead, as well as that the regime is now studied as a curious historical phase in America. We might hope that the current American phase will also be studied as a historical curiosity by more enlightened and secure future thinkers, and that the troubling views and wider policy intentions of current leaders do not portend a real Gilead in the States. Whether on the page or on the screen, The Handmaid’s Tale is the sort of art that warns of the darkest potentialities of politics and culture so as to argue for course corrections that allow us to evade those possibilities.

TV Quickshots #34

October 15, 2017 Leave a comment

Mindhunter (Netflix; 2017-Present)

Mindhunter, the new Netflix crime procedural drama created by Joe Penhall and produced and partly directed by David Fincher, is more of an inventive hybrid than it might appear at first glance. Set in the late 1970s (topical references to Operation Entebbe and revival screenings of Dog Day Afternoon place its start in 1977), Mindhunter follows FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) as they shepherd embryonic practices of criminal psychology and profiling into increasing usage in law enforcement as the now-famous and popularly glorified Behavioral Science Unit at the Agency, featured in cultural products such as the Hannibal Lecter franchise in books, movies, and television, as well as the long-running CBS drama Criminal Minds (which focused on the BSU’s successor department, the Behavioral Analysis Unit or BAU).

With Fincher directing the 10-episode initial season’s first two and last two hours, Mindhunter assumes the visual signatures and structural and tonal dimensions of the acclaimed auteur of handsome, tense, thoughtful mystery thrillers. Zodiac in particular, a labyrinthine and absorbing take on the Zodiac killings in and around San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is a key touchstone, but Fincher and the other creative minds also mine a fertile vein as regards the audience’s familiarity with the conventions and practices of the police profiling procedural drama. Mindhunter sees those conventions and practices being worked out and honed, often by trial and error. It’s an origin story for the prolific profiling genre.

Ford and Tench (respectively based on BSU pioneers John E. Douglas, whose co-written book on the unit is the primary source material for the series, and Robert K. Ressler) are versed in established psychological policing techniques, but the younger, more idealistic and adventurous Ford, who comes from hostage negotiation, which he is seen doing (unsuccessfully) in the series’ opening scene and later teaches to new Agency recruits at the academy in Quantico, feels that current psychological and sociological frameworks from the academic world can be of benefit in identifying and arresting a new breed of murderer that he awkwardly dubs “sequence killers” (the precursor term of the more familiar “serial killers”). He faces an uphill battle in convincing hardboiled cops of its potential efficacy, from the initially-sceptical Tench (a veteran of the FBI’s nationwide travelling seminar presentations on these methods to law enforcement) to his old-school unit chief Shepard (Cotter Smith) to local detectives and police.

Mindhunter is a bit slow-moving in its premiere episode, but once its premise is established, the show add layers and key players at a steady pace. These include academic and psychologist Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) who sees wide-reaching value in what Ford and Tench are proposing to do, Ford’s intellectually challenging sociology student girlfriend Debbie (Hannah Gross), and talkative, self-aware serial killer Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), whom they interview repeatedly in order to glean insight into the mind of a sociopathic murderer.

Mindhunter is most interesting in how it depicts Ford’s earnest boundary-pushing of the classic, ossified police conceptions of criminals as mere evil monsters and the introduction of psychological and sociology analysis of criminal behavior. Police dramas are frequently politically and socially conservative morality plays, good vs. evil fables that elide the web of psychological complexities, environmental triggers, and systemic oppression and inequality that feed into criminal activity. They can’t all be The Wire, and Mindhunter isn’t either. But it introduces a limited progressive viewpoint that, while it does not promise to destabilize the established institutional structure or thrust of American law enforcement, does introduce a tension between the old-fashioned conservatism and a fresher, more humane, more intelligent set of processes.

BoJack Horseman (Netflix; 2014-Present)

Speaking of refreshingly original extrapolations on existing generic television tropes, Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s BoJack Horseman has built occasionally audacious new elements into the colourful comic misadventures common to the animated adult-oriented sitcom format for four seasons (the most recent 12 episodes were recently premiered for streaming on Netflix). Single episodes and larger arcs of the show alike tackle controversial and even taboo subjects with trenchant but never entirely cynical humour and often climax with surprising, sometimes deeply affecting moments of emotional honesty.

At its core, BoJack Horseman is a sharp satire of the madness of American society in general, and of Hollywood and the entertainment business in particular. Its titular protagonist (voiced by Will Arnett) is a washed-up former family sitcom star always searching for a career comeback angle while struggling with alcoholism, doubtful depression, and recurrent self-destructive behaviour. He’s also a talking bipedal horse, part of a richly and amusingly imagined world which human beings and anthropomorphic animals share. He lives in a modern star’s home in the Hollywood Hills with his couch-crashing live-in housemate/verbal punching-bag Todd (Aaron Paul). His Persian Cat agent Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) arranges for BoJack to work on a juicy tell-all memoir with a ghostwriter, Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), who is also dating his frienemy Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), a cheerful but dim dog who was his sitcom rival from the 1990s.

BoJack Horseman skewers easy targets of American satire like Hollywood’s insularity, greed, indulgence, and ostentation, consumer capitalism’s saturating inanity, and the corporate media’s decontextualized and dumbed-down controversy hunger. But it’s braver and more iconoclastic than that, too. When the lazy, unthinking glorification of the American military is openly questioned in only the second episode of the series (BoJack runs afoul of a Navy SEAL who is, of course, actually a seal), you know that BoJack Horseman is set to be more challenging vis-à-vis social norms and cultural assumptions than we are accustomed to from American animated comedy (outside of a show telegraphed to be political agita like The Boondocks).

Sure enough, later episodes tackle everything from factory farming (the harvest of animals as food being an issue given extra frisson in a universe in which animals are equal citizens to humans) to prominent men in showbiz leveraging their power to take advantage of women and quash any who would expose them (although likely targetted at serial sexual assaulter Bill Cosby, “Hank After Dark” has gained renewed relevance given the recent revelations around producer and sexual predator Harvey Weinstein) to a thinly-veiled multi-episode critique of Scientology (via Todd’s inculcation into a cult-like improv comedy company). Even more impressive is how BoJack Horseman pivots from standard sitcom gags about damaging misbehaviour, substance use, and emotional abuse to more nuanced and poignant explorations of the triggers for and consequences of these easily-lampooned but personally destructive forces.

The emotional scenes that typically close out episodes, a semi-meta reproduction of the easily-digestible “morals” at the end of family sitcoms, transcend the standard platitudes and reveal emotional scars inside of BoJack, Diane, Carolyn, and others that will not be healed before the credits roll, or else constitute choices and actions that will not be tidily forgiven and forgotten. The jokes are often laugh-out-loud funny, but the social and political critiques and emotionally raw admissions of sadness are given extra attention and weight. This has made BoJack Horseman an unlikely but appropriate standard-bearer of the animated sitcom legacy of The Simpsons. Indeed, BoJack Horseman takes The Simpsons‘ episodic model as a template and both amplifies and specifies its satire and its emotional core for a complex contemporary America more fractured and anxious that that encapsulated by the nation’s greater animated comedy program at its peak more than two decades previous. It’s a true heir.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: Force Majeure

October 7, 2017 Leave a comment

Force Majeure (2014; Directed by Ruben Östland)

Swedish director Ruben Östland’s Force Majeure is a subversively funny deadpan satire of brittle masculine pride and impotent self-regard hidden inside the shell of an oblique arthouse drama about the breakdown of a family’s confident pretenses during an Alpine holiday. Catalyzed by pater familias Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) ungalantly fleeing and abandoning his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and children (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) to their fates in the face of an (ultimately false-alarm) avalanche, Östland’s film perceptively observes and then pitilessly kneecaps the dissemblings and chest-puffing demonstrations of men whose biological imperatives are threatened and even fatally punctured.

Before a frightening (but finally harmless) wall of driving snow descends upon the restaurant patio of a pricey mountain resort and shakes the family’s opinion of Tomas, Östland and his cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel craft a series of memorable widescreen images of comical detachment and awkward faux-recreation to set the scene. Family members encased in ski jackets ride conveyor belts and cable cars and ski lifts, passively moved by machinery from place to place on the slopes: at one point, they are literally dragged along on their skis, tethered to one such sizable device as if to a towering metaphor for powerless ennui. Even when the controlled avalanche threatens to go uncontrolled on the restaurant deck, Östland films the entire scene in a single fixed-camera shot, showing cell-phone-cameras held aloft, Tomas and other vacationers scattering in momentary panic, and then filtering back to their drinks and snow-dusted lunch plates once the white fog dissipates (the Swedish title, Turist, emphasizes the commodified performativity of upper-middle-class travel as a symptom of the dishonest pretenses of the contemporary bourgeoisie that Tomas and his family represents, while the legal reference of the English-language title more succinctly summarizes the film’s core ideas).

The awkward tension of the scenes that follow, as Tomas denies cutting and running when Ebba confronts him one-on-one and in front of friends and his kids sullenly insist on being left alone in anxiety over a potential parental divorce, shows a momentary but revealing lapse of character becoming gradually exacerbated. Ebba definitively lays bare Tomas’ actions and dishonesty in the midst of an evening with their divorced Norwegian friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and his college-age girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius), confronting him humiliatingly with his perceived cowardice.

But Östland is careful not to ascribe his movie’s bedrock premises about gender stereotypes and male patterns of self-worth too much self-importance and sincere significance. This insistence on popping these overinflated balloons saves Force Majeure from sharing and thus parroting the reactionary implications of its characters’ rote conservative assumptions about gender roles, and it results in several of the movie’s most unexpected explosions of dry but uncompromising Nordic humour. Quite perfectly, at the climactic moment during Ebba’s intervention in front of Fanni and Mats (who attempts ineffectually to rationalize Tomas’ choices in futile solidarity) at which Tomas’ tension and anguish bring him right up to the verge of a crisis point and perhaps even an admission of guilt, his son’s drone helicopter buzzes in and breaks up the scene by knocking over a wine glass (Östland, in a technical masterstroke, cuts suddenly to the drone’s own camera for the interruption).

The oddball left-field humour continues to recur in subsequent vignettes, at every point upending smug assumptions of masculine supremacy. Borne down by sadness over his damaged self-esteem, Tomas cuts short a male-bonding day on the slopes with Mats (after some impromptu primal scream therapy), but an après-ski sequence of the two friends drinking beers at a sunny resort spot offers both male egos a stinging blow: a young woman tells them that her friend thinks they’re the most handsome guys there, but then returns a moment later with the deflating news that her friend was talking about someone else. The testosterone injection provided by Hivju’s arrival in the film (he’s best known to English-speaking audiences as the lusty wildling warrior Tormund on Game of Thrones) promises to renew Tomas’ bruised ego until this moment, but Hivju’s hirsute manliness proves just as limp and laughable at this moment.

Later, either unwilling or unable to return to his hotel room and waiting family, Tomas’ nighttime wanderings lead to him being suddenly swept up by a stampede of the Euro equivalent of drunken, partying frat boys; the shirtless, strobe-lit dance club revels that they share manifest as some bizarre homosocial ritual of masculine release. When Tomas finally breaks down and admits his weakness and inadequacy to a stony Ebba, his rending sobs are not cathartic or moving but ridiculous, diminishing, and deeply hilarious (kudos to Bah Kuhnke for effectively playing off the difference). The mildly-amazed voyeurism of a resort custodian (who has to open the hotel suite door for the keyless Tomas and Ebba after his embarrassing meltdown in the hall) further chortles at the spectacle of the fallen man. Even when Östland restores the classic chivalric gender-role balance by allowing Tomas to rescue Ebba in white-out conditions on their last day of skiing, there’s a strong suggestive undertone that she offers him this face-saving instance of quasi-heroism as a purposeful peace offering, a balm for his injured ego.

Force Majeure critiques and dismantles the forces of the male ego. That ego’s manifestations in this film are gentler and more harmless than the species of toxic masculinity that seems so dismayingly ascendant in the Age of Trump, but they flow from the same poisoned spring. Lonely and dwarfed by the majestic Alps, the male ego appears petty and small in Östlund’s film, its impotent weakness as white and stark as newly-fallen snow.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Blade Runner

October 3, 2017 Leave a comment

Blade Runner (1982; Directed by Ridley Scott)

Blade Runner is a classifying kind of movie. Perhaps more drastically and uncompromisingly than most films, Ridley Scott’s insidiously influential but stubbornly unique hard science-fiction neo-noir cult classic ruthlessly sorts those who see it into acolytes and doubters, believers and infidels, devotees and heretics. Even in its original theatrically-released version, minus a thematically key (and highly suggestive) unicorn dream sequence (restored in a later, more critically definitive Director’s Cut) and plus an execrable and extraneous detective-movie voiceover from star Harrison Ford (whose disdain for its very existence drips from every line he reads), Blade Runner doesn’t pull its punches, reveling in its dystopian production design, its odd and disturbing details, its pregnant symbols, its philosophical quandaries, its sometimes glacial slow-burn pacing. It dares you to either love it immersively and totally or else to be left cold and unmoved by its particular aesthetic and intellectual vision. Ironic, in a way, that a film whose core mysteries revolve around its imagined highly permeable membrane between humankind and intricately designed human-like androids (and the moral and existential questions that this permeability summons) should catalyze such ironclad divisions of interpretation and quality assessment.

At least three determined viewings later (a couple of rounds with the obviously flawed original theatrical release and a whirl with the more venerable Director’s Cut), I can do little but declare myself for the camp of unmoved heresy. There’s much to like and even to adore about Blade Runner, without a doubt. Harrison Ford’s burnt-out replicant-hunting cop Deckard, dragged out of retirement for One Last Job, might be his best performance (and maybe the only example of REAL. ACTING. among his iconic genre blockbusters of this era), and although Rutger Hauer’s menacing Method replicant philosophe Roy Batty is not in anywhere near as much of the movie as you might remember, it’s also an impressive supporting turn: his closing “Tears in Rain” monologue (re-written by Hauer himself) powerfully crystallizes the unruly mass of Big Ideas that ricochet around the handsomely envisioned mise-en-scène. Vangelis’ eerie score, a naturalistic expression of techno-modernity, is subtly wondrous. Lawrence G. Paull’s production design is spectacular and thematically rich in its own right, a compelling amalgam of the vertically-stacked urban towers of Fritz Lang’s ur-sci-fi film Metropolis and, in Scott’s words, “Hong Kong on a bad day”. The cinematography (by Jordan Cronenweth) is all-world, among the finest of the era if not of all eras: Deckard’s killing of replicant Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) amidst neon tubes of light and reflective, break-away panes of glass is not only stunning but brutal, and shot through with any number of resonant visual metaphors (as with practically all the rest of the film).

With such deep reserves of richly-flavoured cineaste fodder (I’ve barely touched on its play with film noir conventions, although this video essay from Lessons from the Screenplay does a better job at that than I could) and its breadth of intellectual influences, references, and sources (biblical themes and religious symbolism, Gothic horror themes, Freudian psycho-theory, anti-colonialism, corporate hegemony, modern alienation, and the hubris of science, to list off only a few), you’d think Blade Runner would be right up my frequently-pretentiously-minded alley. But there’s something about it that I can’t help but feel holds the viewer at arm’s length. The invidious central puzzle – is Deckard, the great hunter and executioner of replicants, himself a replicant? – is played out in subtexts and suggestive details, only openly addressed when his sophisticated replicant love interest Rachael (Sean Young) asks him, point-blank, if he’s ever run the replicant-identifying Voight-Kampff test on himself (Deckard, perhaps tellingly, does not answer). But it takes over the already-daunting battle for empathy at Blade Runner‘s core, subtly short-circuiting Ford’s excellent and wounded performance and even some of its resonant central themes with mystery-box bait-and-switch tactics.

Because ultimately, it doesn’t really make a lick of difference to Blade Runner‘s thematic power if Deckard is a replicant or not. This is a film about perception and lived experience as an existential proof of sentience, and about humans without souls subjugating and even exterminating android with souls in a dying world that no one can wait to leave (the most suspicious thing about Batty and his band, in truth, is that they go to shitty, exhausted Earth rather than the heck away from it). Deckard has spent his days as a hit man for corporatist state authority, tasked to eliminate people deemed inferior slaves but designed to be veritably superhuman. He feels bad about it, and so we feel bad for him. His pain might gain some added pathos if he had been made to snuff out his own kind for so long, but it’s a relatively minor manner of degree, and in neither case does it render his legacy of acts morally correct.

Blade Runner is, in many ways, a fairly straight-ahead hard sci-fi take on the moral and existential implications of artificial intelligence, given particular form and aesthetic uniqueness through its design, imagery, and invoked symbolism. Like the replicants, it’s special but limited, by its very design. It’s seen things we people wouldn’t believe, but it shows us glimpses only, filtered through the uncannily familiar and through altered (sometimes even upended) conventions. It’s often been called visionary and it’s hard to say it isn’t, but it displays a sort of tunnel vision, in a sense (in much the same sense as all Ridley Scott movies, if I had to expand upon the observation further). Perhaps, as a non-believer, I am unequal to the task of thinking through its brilliance, but perhaps it’s Blade Runner that is unequal to that brilliance. I get it, but I’m not transformed by it. Maybe that’s all right, after all.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Guillermo del Toro’s At Home with Monsters at the Art Gallery of Ontario: An Alchemy of Passions

October 1, 2017 Leave a comment

One evident truth about filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is that he is fascinated with monsters, the occult, and the dark side of the world. In Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters, that fascination is detailed and quantified, expounded and expanded upon, given various compelling forms, and followed down every rabbit hole that the prolifically imaginative Mexican director is willing to allow the public to access. This exhibition of a variety of objects from del Toro’s personal collection opens this weekend at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto after successful runs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last year and the Minneapolis Institute of Art earlier this year.

The AGO and these two American art museums co-organized the exhibition with del Toro’s intimate involvement. Besides loaning a great number of items from his overstuffed creative-inspiration manse outside of Malibu which he calls Bleak House (after the Charles Dickens novel, his favourite of the author’s works), del Toro recorded the audio tour for the exhibition (which can be heard here) as well as contributed quotations and context for the printed interpretive materials, and even chose pieces from the permanent collections of each institution that complemented his own displayed memorabilia and art collection. Dark etchings by Goya and Delacroix from the AGO archives, along with psychologically troubled modern art works, match his preferred aesthetic of darkly beautiful, monstrous Gothic arcana quite well.

Born in Guadalajara, Mexico and now in his early 50s, del Toro made his own independent films and television in Mexico (where he met and became close friends and sometimes collaborators with Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexican contemporaries who have outstripped him in critical success and awards recognition in Hollywood). Moving to the United States, he worked as a special-effects artist before winning enough attention with films like 1993’s vampire film Cronos to begin directing larger-budget work in the 1990s, beginning with Mimic in 1997.

Del Toro has held to the pulpy realms of the fantastic and of horror for his greatest commercial successes: inventive comic-book adaptations Blade II and Hellboy and its sequel, as well as the more generic kaiju action blockbuster Pacific Rim (which is also getting a sequel). Alternately, he has made resonant and personal fantasy- and metaphorically-tinged historical dramas like the Spanish Civil War-set The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, the latter widely considered his finest film and winner of three Academy Awards (all in technical categories; Iñárritu’s more stately but inferior prestige picture Babel overshadowed it that year); his latest yet-to-be-widely-released film, The Shape of Water, is evidently in this vein as well, and is already his most critically-acclaimed work since Pan’s Labyrinth. A prolific producer and a novelist as well (his vampire book series, The Strain, was co-written with Chuck Hogan and adapted for television), del Toro has been such an overflowing fount of projects that a great number have either not been made by him (he was connected to this year’s new hit versions of Beauty and the Beast and Stephen King’s It at one point, and he dropped out of The Hobbit movies due to delays) or not been made at all (his famously unmade passion projects like screen versions of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein).

The constellation of influences – horror movies, Gothic literature, Victorian culture, comic books, genre popcorn flicks, Disney animated features, Expressionist and Surrealist art and film, politics and history, lapsed Catholicism and mystical spirituality – visible in his films is embodied in the displays of At Home with Monsters. The exhibition is organized rougly into theme rooms echoing similar theme rooms in del Toro’s Bleak House, a veritable cabinet of curiosities transposed from the house-filling collection of eclectic possessions. Props, costumes, conceptual drawings and designs, and even life-sized maquettes from his own films (including the Master from The Strain, the Angel of Death from Hellboy II, and the Pale Man and Faun from Pan’s Labyrinth) join other props (notably some items from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the most del Toro-esque thing Francis Ford Coppola ever made, for sure), paintings, sculptural recreations of movie monsters like Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein and gothic lit authors like Edgar Allen Poe and Lovecraft, and Victorian artifacts. There are even copies (original and browsably digital) of del Toro’s byzantine notebooks, written in Spanish, English, and maybe some arcane Lovecraft-style code languages as well, and overflowing with sometimes terrifying sketches and drawings. There’s even a re-creation of Bleak House’s Rain Room, a relaxing library and dream writing space which fulfills del Toro’s childhood fantasy of a room where it rains 24 hours a day (I hope he placed a washroom in the near vicinity).

The overall effect of At Home with Monsters is to give the impression of a voluminous, polymath-esque mind manifested in an effluvia of objects which are then emptied into gallery spaces and assembled in a sort of chaotic order. A goodly portion of the appeal of del Toro’s films is the density of their visual design and the alchemy of sources and influences in their writing, themes and structure. At Home with Monsters is a display catalogue of those sources and influences, a practical table of contents of Guillermo del Toro’s passions and interests, an ingredients list for his intricate, peculiarly-flavoured film recipes. It’s a fascinating glimpse for fans of his work, and perhaps an attractive carnival funhouse gateway for potential new fans as well.

Categories: Art, Culture, Film, Reviews