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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.

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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