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Decalogue: Top 10 Films of 2017

December 30, 2017 Leave a comment

Like 2016, 2017 was a year of odd distress and roiling anxiety. The reality of U.S. President Donald Trump proved no better than the promise, as his Administration brought regular troubling developments, painfully moronic statements, melodramatic chaos, suggestions of corruption and foreign collusion, and emboldening of reactionary extremists to the pinnacle of power of world’s remaining superpower. Deadly disasters, natural and gun-related, continued to wax in intensity in America as well, as the nation’s economic, political, and social resources seemed helpless to stop hurricanes and lone disgruntled white men with guns from devastating its citizens.

Meanwhile, the male-dominated spheres of entertainment and politics were convulsed with unprecedented demands for accountability for the serial abuses of sexualized power. Kicked off by revelations of decades of sexual harrassment (and thuggish bullying to cover it up) by Hollywood power-broker Harvey Weinstein, a cascade of similar abuses made public righteously felled movie stars, directors and producers, comedy heroes, and senators, decisively turned an Alabama Senate election, and further wounded a prodigiously problematic presidency. The burgeoning #MeToo movement has already transformed the social and political landscape, but the longer-term effects are yet to be glimpsed.

As they so often do, the movies of 2017 reflected and contextualized the forces shaping current affairs. For the rising tide of women reclaiming the fallen brass ring of triumphal feminism in the face of a barrage of hostility and criticism, there was a female superhero standing strong and proud against the literal bullets and shells of a mad war of another time. For minorities struggling against resurgent, arrogant revanchist conformism, there was a ravishingly gorgeous romance between a mute woman and an amphibious humanoid. Sequels to cerebral science-fiction classics and popular space adventures respectively wondered what it meant to be human and compellingly encapsulated enduring generational conflicts and unaddressed social and political impasses. Independent and foreign films interrogated the art world and social etiquette, the economic and psychological precariousness of the working class, and the morality of mass meat production. And standing astride the calendar year, an expertly-crafted, nuanced, and challenging literal and metaphorical demonstration of the “sunken place” of racial discrimination against African-Americans built into a genre-bending comedy/horror/thriller. These are the top movies of 2017, and they give us a particular view of the world of 2017.

1. Get Out (Directed by Jordan Peele)

Get Out is a consistently unsettling horror-thriller genre piece whose creepy central concept likewise functions as a resonant metaphor for anti-black racism in America. […] It’s masterfully poised and finely calibrated, the work of an assured filmmaker whose control of narrative, tone, tension, and visuals conveys his desired ideas and emotions with impressive effectiveness. […] Get Out is a masterful genre exercise that amplifies a vital political message about racism in America and beyond. But it doesn’t tell us that it will all be okay if we all come together (whatever that’s supposed to mean), and it doesn’t flatter us by allowing us to imagine that we can view through the eyes of another. […] Get Out doesn’t flatter its audience with the suggestion that such rapprochement, such intimate empathy of perspective, is possible. It opts for stark recognition instead.”

Review – 3 April 2017

2. The Shape of Water (Directed by Guillermo del Toro)

The Shape of Water [is] del Toro’s most magical, absorbing, and ambiguously moving work since his shamanistic career peak of a decade ago, Pan’s Labyrinth. […] The Shape of Water [is] a film of such textual and visual complexity, of such exquisite beauty and potent thematic heft, that it eclipses its genre film origins and inspirations and leaves us gazing in awe-struck wonder at the cinema screen. […] It’s also a wonderful, transporting film, an entertaining and heartening work of popular art by a singular artist, and a new classic.”

Review – 12 December 2017

3. Blade Runner 2049 (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. […] This is a grand nightmarescape of structural decay and physical alienation evocative of social, political, and psychological dislocation. […] 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.”

Review – 29 October 2017

4. Dunkirk (Directed by Christopher Nolan)

“Nolan’s Dunkirk is predicated on a certain visual and functional incongruity from the hard-edged realities of the Second World War even while it strives to replicate the unbearable sensory tension of the war-zone experience. […] This is not to say that Dunkirk is not excellent, potent, inherently impressive filmmaking. Or that its metronome-ticking rhythmic shifts between uneasy anticipation and smothering intensity are not, in their way, accurate representations of the lived experience of war. […] Dunkirk […] is highly superior at drilling deep into the experience of a single, defining episode of [World War II] and rendering it for a modern audience with powerful, intelligible clarity.”

Review – 6 August 2017

5. The Lost City of Z (Directed by James Gray)

“An example of resolutely old-fashioned cinematic storytelling with clearly-drawn characters and straightforward themes, The Lost City of Z may not be interested enough in anything other than its absorbing story to accurately be described as “important” or “compelling” or “powerful”. But James Gray’s handsome, thoughtful, expertly-crafted screen adaptation of David Grann’s acclaimed and popular non-fiction book about an English explorer determined to locate the remains of a lost civilization in the Amazonian jungle draws you in with sturdy seductiveness.”

Review – 20 May 2017

6. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Directed by Rian Johnson)

“Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is what it looks like when Star Wars makes a concerted, serious effort to put away childish things. It isn’t always pretty or consistent or clean, but it’s a fascinating, invigorating, and often powerful attempt. […] Under Rian Johnson’s steady eye and intelligent storytelling mind, this is a Star Wars film that understands and thinks as an adult: with pain, regret, doubt, and memory, and ultimately with a wisdom only earned with experience of a difficult and unromantic world. And with that wisdom comes a tempered but resilient hope, a wounded and wavering but never squelched sense of the persistent value of progress. In trying times, The Last Jedi steps forward to be the Star Wars we need it to be.”

Review – 18 December 2017

7. The Square (Directed by Ruben Östlund)

“There is plenty to like about The Square. The performances, often semi-improvised at the director’s urging, are uniformly good. As a filmmaker, Östlund has a wit both verbally sharp and visually sly, and many of the film’s best gags are placed out of the centre of focus in the frame, to be discovered by the sharp-eyed. […] The Square can be scabrously funny and definitely thought-provoking. […] The Square is often not acceptable or digestible, to its superficial credit. But it can be a bit too hard to choke down, too. Is that more of a censure on its creator, or on the movie audience whose prejudices and assumptions he conceives himself and his film as challenging?”

Review – 19 November 2017

8. I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (Directed by Macon Blair)

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore references, in both its title and its overall thematic direction, a generalized, frequently-invoked, amorphously nostalgic sentiment that things are getting worse than they once were. This sentiment has gained the calcified certainty of a set ideology for many Americans, especially older and more conservative ones. […] But this striking, oddly riveting, and very darkly funny film makes a potent case, in emotional philosophy terms if not in rational ones, for a downward decline in the norms of American society from the point of view of the young. It’s getting worse, sure, but it’s not clear why or who precisely is responsible, which accounts for the greatest share of the frustration.”

Review – 31 July 2017

9. Wonder Woman (Directed by Patty Jenkins)

Wonder Woman is a dynamite entertainment with surprising thematic and emotional heft. […] 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. […] Wonder Woman has ideals, and it thunderously upholds them.”

Review – 4 June 2017

10. Okja (Directed by Bong Joon-ho)

“The extremely campy and surprisingly moving social-commentary satire of Okja turned its director, Bong Joon-ho, into a vegan (though only temporarily), and an easy, surface-level assumption would be that the Korean/English film’s aim is to turn you into one, too. But such a glib summation would be manifestly unfair to Okja‘s at-once playful, cauterizing, and nuanced critique of contemporary capitalism, of mass production and consumption of meat, and of the limits of both revolutionary activism and human empathy in resisting corporate exploitation. […] Like a lot of critiques of this particular socioeconomic system, Bong’s suggests that the injection of a bit of humanity could go a long way in righting its wrongs. Unlike a lot of such critiques, it doesn’t flatter the capitalist superstructure by even entertaining the possibility that any moral rectitude […] could conceivably overcome the lucrative temptations of capital obtained by whatever means necessary.”

Review – 7 December 2017

 

 

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Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Murder on the Orient Express

December 28, 2017 1 comment

Murder on the Orient Express (2017; Directed by Kenneth Branagh)

The one true highlight, and by far the most successful feature, of Murder on the Orient Express is Hercule Poirot’s mustache. Fulsome and florid, it curves across the upper lip of Kenneth Branagh – who plays Agatha Christie’s refined and fastidious master detective as well as directs this new screen version of his most famous case – and curls ever-further up his cheeks like a garter snake cradling a bird’s egg. This is no thin, manicured pencil-stache, but a deep and broad explosion of expressive facial hair bursting with life and silvery truth. This mustache is a powerful river surging over a cataract, a shining band of precious metal, a swelling mountain range rising from the flat surface of a topographical map. It’s fascinating, mesmerizing, all-absorbing. A magnificent magum opus of a mustache. You can lose yourself in it, find yourself plunging into its hirsute abyss until all sense of self, of being, of past, present, and future, are swallowed by its compelling oblivion.

Somewhere in the wavering mists beyond the Mustache to End All Mustaches, there is a movie, too. Branagh’s Poirot, the famed Belgian master detective sought the world over to untangle the thorniest mysteries and riddles of the fashionable 1930s, is first shown theatrically solving a missing-relic conundrum involving clerics of the three Abrahamic religions before the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. This cold open is hardly Christie canon, having been invented by screenwriter Michael Green in adapting the popular 1934 detective novel, but it fulfills a clear purpose: it slickly introduces the fussy but brilliantly perceptive Poirot (who insists with obsessive-compulsiveness on his breakfast eggs being exactly the same height, but benevolently declines to blame the Arab boy who rushes them to him for it) to a modern film audience perhaps unaccustomed to his personality and to his Sherlock Holmes-like clever deductions.

That personality and those deductions get a thorough workout on board the iconic titular luxury train, which conveys Poirot and a rogue’s gallery of mismatched but increasingly interconnected passengers across Europe from Istanbul to Calais on the English Channel. Snowbound after an avalanche in the Balkan mountains derails the train, Poirot must unravel the secrets of his fellow passengers to resolve a confounding murder with a dark connection to one of the most notorious crimes of the age.

If the plot summary seems circumspect, that’s because whodunits like Christie’s deserve a minimum of pre-exposition to lay out their web of clues and revelations to maximum effect. Christie’s detective fiction is an elaborate period-specific pastiche of Arthur Conan Doyle’s more legendary Holmes stories (and Murder specifically draws liberally from the torn-from-the-headlines case of the Lindbergh baby), but its clever clockwork surprises merit the respect of an absence of spoilers at least. Green’s script and Branagh’s direction trust in the witty labyrinth of breadcrumbs left by Christie, embellishing minimally. Some of these embellishments, such as quick chase sequences, tussles, and climactic gun drama, flatter conventional modern audience sensibilities and offer easy tension and frisson in predictable but hyper-competent forms. Other embellishments, such as parenthetical references to (the thoroughly sexless) Poirot’s lost love Katherine, present as extremely tacked-on, or, in the case of flashbacks to the projection of what appear to be 1930s home movies (?), completely unrealistic.

Such criticisms should not be construed as being dismissive of Branagh’s direction, which is generally strong in technical and aesthetic terms. His camera impressively conveys sweep and scope and dynamism to a scaled-up locked-room mystery set almost entirely on board a luxurious but claustrophobic train (which, for much of the movie, isn’t even moving). The luxury is depicted with a lush vignette-montage of tableaux of polishing and arranging, while the claustrophobia is emphasized in a single-take overhead shot which allows the examination of the crime scene like a schematic diagram, and is equally overcome with long horizontal tracking shots through or alongside the train cars. Branagh uses the camera smartly and expertly to maximize his mid-range budget and triumphantly surmount the potential feeling that Murder on the Orient Express might be merely television-level in scope, a smallish product inherently unworthy of cinematic scale (let alone old-fashioned, widescreen-friendly 65mm cameras, which Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos used to shoot the film). This is a film so well-made and well-shot that one cannot but laugh off and forgive an indulgently over-clever choice like Branagh’s  self-conscious reference to a seminal work of visual art in the climactic reveal scene (you’ll know it when you see it, I would wager).

But for all of Kenneth Branagh’s keen and professional work behind the camera to help Murder on the Orient Express succeed, he often can’t help himself, can’t help Branaghing, behind but especially in front of the camera. Branagh’s youthful burst of popularly and critically successful Shakespeare film adaptations in the late ’80s and early ’90s are far enough in the cinematic past to be semi-forgotten, but then so is the preening, egocentric excess of their director and star boldly self-evident in them. It’s taken Branagh two decades to work himself back into Hollywood’s good graces as a profitable filmmaker after the misbegotten Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and his indulgent four-hour Hamlet in the mid-’90s, helming blockbuster fare like Thor and Cinderella like a dutiful soldier while rebuilding his on-camera performance cred with his starring role in the moody Norse-noir grit of the BBC detective drama Wallander. He even allowed himself to be seen to laugh at the heroic, self-involved golden-boy persona he built his fame upon (no wonder his chest-beating Henry V is so good, after all) as the foppish, self-promoting Gilderoy Lockhart in the second Harry Potter movie.

But Kenneth Branagh making movies with all of his toys and all of his gold can be a fraught proposition. In a lot of ways, Murder on the Orient Express should be a perfect fit for Branagh’s toolset at the moment: it allows him to tap his established skills of historical recreation, balancing literary origins with cinematic language, familiarity with the detective genre, and recently-won confidence with CG effects. And, honestly, in many ways, his Murder on the Orient Express is a success, not least of which is his use of his international all-star cast (Branagh has always been good with ensembles, no doubt a holdover from his theatre days). Branagh is canny enough to tap into Daisy Ridley’s poise and self-possession, to trust Penelope Cruz’s eyes to do the work which her mouth (when it speaks English, anyway) can never quite manage, to let Willem Dafoe fruitfully pivot from duplicitousness to impassioned decency, to work Josh Gad into a nervous sweat, to incorporate young talents like Tom Bateman and Leslie Odom Jr. alongside decorated acting vets like Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi, to realize that Johnny Depp is really only useful as a despicable slimeball anymore, and to cast Michelle Pfeiffer in a damn movie already!

But, you know, Branagh gotta Branagh. Holy Mustache aside, his perfectly well-played Poirot sticks pretty closely to the textual model and thus is barely differentiated from the iconic screen version of the character crafted by David Suchet for years on television. But Kenneth Branagh is directing a movie starring himself again, and beneath Poirot’s prim, sophisticated manifestation, his glee at being the centre of attention again is palpable. Agatha Christie’s mysteries are often just as interested (if not more so) in the eccentric figures clustering around an unsolved crime than the archetypal detective trying to solve it, but this Murder on the Orient Express is thoroughly Poirot-centric, and therefore thoroughly Branagh-centric as well. Poirot is always the smartest boy in the room, but is just odd and self-effacing enough (he is, after all, Belgian) to transcend the arrogance and presumption that status entails. In Murder on the Orient Express, as in his peak-period Shakespeare adaptations, Kenneth Branagh is once again the smartest boy in the room. He revels in it, and wants us to know that he does. In such conditions, the work itself suffers, inevitably. Like Poirot’s mustache (here we go again with the mustache-as-metaphor for the larger film!), Kenneth Branagh is just a bit too much for the movie he’s a part of.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

TV Quickshots #35

December 22, 2017 Leave a comment

Stranger Things – Season 2 (Netflix; 2017)

The much-anticipated Halloweentime return of Netflix’s buzziest binge-watching favourite about paranormal happenings and the pitfalls of growing up in the fictitious town of Hawkins, Indiana rewarded and frustrated in alternating measures. When last we peeked in on the Duffer Brothers’ 1980s genre-film revivalist homage Stranger Things, young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) had been rescued (though far from unscathed) from the shadowy, creepy alternate universe of the Upside-Down by the efforts of his family and friends, while Eleven (the poised-beyond-her-years Millie Bobby Brown, perhaps the chief child actor here likely headed for greater things in adulthood), the mysterious young girl with psychokinetic powers, vanished after destroying not only the Demogorgon monster who had snatched Will (and others) but also the sinister Hawkins Lab government agents who had imprisoned her.

A year later, the still-haunted Will is experiencing frightening visions from the dark-mirror Upside-Down of a looming, terrifying being that is the terrible, mind-conquering power behind the Demogorgon(s) and an imminent threat to Hawkins and the world. As his mother Joyce (Winona Ryder), her new boyfriend Bob (Sean Astin, hilariously avuncular and squarely decent enough to justify the period-reference joke of his casting), and Will’s best friend Mike (Finn Wolfhard, a good young actor whose name sounds like a discarded line from the cult-fave MST3K Space Mutiny bit) try to work out what’s affecting Will in semi-cautious interactions with the kinder-gentler Hawkins Lab administration of Sam Owens (Paul Reiser, an inspired piece of casting while also a 1980s gag), his brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) seek out a reclusive, free-spirited anti-government conspiracist (Brett Gelman) who they hope will help them wring out and spread the truth about the disappearance of Nancy’s wet-blanket best friend (and almost-inexplicable Season One fan favourite) Barb (Shannon Purser). Meanwhile, local sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is secretly keeping Eleven in hiding in a cabin in the woods, though her chafing at confinement and desire to learn about her past will not allow this situation to endure long. Also, Mike and Will’s best buds Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) are dealing with a fast-growing amphibian/reptile creature (named Dart by Dustin, after D’Artagnan from Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers), the new girl in town (Sadie Sink) and her bad-boy stepbrother (Dacre Montgomery), and the bumpy road of puberty.

There’s plenty happening in Stranger Things: sci-fi/horror action, suspense, and CG effects, silly jokes and melodramas, superficial themes and metaphors, and relentless period-specific pop-cultural allusions. The Duffers shuffle and recombine their cast members, looking for productive chemistry sparks and sometimes finding them in unexpected places: Harbour and Brown take big meaty chunks out of their tension-filled surrogate father-daughter approximation subplot, and the copiously charismatic Matarazzo strikes up an unlikely partnership with Joe Keery, who plays Nancy’s jock sometimes-boyfriend Steve Harrington.

Stranger Things is a good time and consistently compulsively watchable, although the penultimate episode’s sidetrip with a former lab-mate from Eleven’s past, played by Linnea Berthelsen, simply doesn’t work, despite the bravery of the Duffers to cut away from the main action. But it remains a bit of a mess that is simultaneously over-plotted and under-plotted. Consider Dustin’s adopted pet Dart, who grows into a juvenile dog-like Demogorgon: the creature whiplashes from cute to menacing and then vanishes for much of the building and climactic action completely; it is given a moment of emotional redemption with Dustin and an absolutely heartbreaking ending, but the series can’t decide if it ultimately wants Dart to be cute or scary or both at once. Plenty of more important characters are likewise handled this way, too (Wolfhard’s Mike rallies around the afflicted Will and hangs around until the telegraphed reunion with object-of-affection Eleven), while others (like Montgomery’s greasy jerk Billy, whose bullying nature is patly explained late in the season) remain nothing but gimmicks.

In a saturated television series landscape where even boilerplate mainstream network sitcoms and dramas feature rich veins of implication and meaning, Stranger Things‘ complete dearth of subtext can be galling, as well. It’s even more frustrating when the Duffers gesture towards such subtexts and then don’t bother to follow through. This is the case in Season Two, in which the fall of 1984 presidential election between Republican incumbent Ronald Reagan and Democratic challenger Walter Mondale is established as significantly upcoming but never materializes into anything more than background detail, a set of in-universe jokes about which Hawkins homes would have which candidates’ election signs on their lawns. Stranger Things is already (very) nominally about a disturbing shadow world lying behind the safe white-bread image of 1980s suburban Middle America. It would have been uniquely positioned to build to a subversion of the cagey, disingenuous optimism of the Reaganite “Morning in America” political propaganda, but it misses this golden opportunity and furthermore seems blithely unaware of it. In this and other ways, Stranger Things is an entertaining but shallow potboiler that you just find yourself wishing would reach for more.

Dark (Netflix; 2017)

If you find yourself yearning for compelling, mind-scrambling conceptual reaches and roiling thematic subtext from a Netflix-produced sci-fi genre thriller, however, give the German-language drama Dark a whirl (do yourself a huge favour if you do: leave aside the English-dubbed version and choose German audio with English subtitles instead). Superficially similar to Stranger Things – odd quasi-dimensional happenings emanate from the high-security-science-facility-adjacent woods, embroiling families from a nearby small town – Dark is nonetheless very much its own strange and unique trip.

One hesitates to say too much about Dark‘s plot, characters, and challenging timeline ourobouros, as spoilers diminish its impact more than is the case with most texts. But suffice it to say that Dark is about disappearing children in a small German town in three time periods precisely 33 years apart, and how time-travelling quests to prevent, reverse, or solve the sinister abductions instead make the troubling events inevitable and worsen their multi-generational blows.

The co-brainchild of Swiss writer/director Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, Dark is built out of the dramatic ironies of time-travel theories (the hoary old grandfather paradox forever haunts the margins) and more dense, significant allusions to quantum physics, nuclear power, electromagnetism, existential philosophy, Christian scripture, and classical myth than in any television work since Lost. The family connections through time can become confusing (the show’s Wikipedia page features a handy branching hereditary tree, though be warned There Be Spoilers), and the unfamiliar cast of German actors does not aid in differentiation (I personally had only seen Oliver Masucci before; he starred as Hitler in the sly satire Look Who’s Back). But in truth, this only serves to sink the viewer deeper into the enigmatic swamp of Dark. And while it is never explicit about it, there are resonant echoes of recent German history in a story of the dangers of meddling with the past. What Dark does well, it does very well, and in a streaming TV landscape where surface-level entertainments like Stranger Things huff much of the oxygen, a deep and enigmatic work that breathes mystery in and out is extremely welcome.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review – Star Wars: The Last Jedi

December 18, 2017 Leave a comment

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017; Directed by Rian Johnson)

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” – 1 Corinthians 13:11 (King James Version)

If we’re being honest with ourselves, and we only rarely are, then we have to admit that, at its core, Star Wars – the biggest entertainment phenomenon of our time and a time or two before ours, as well – is a childish thing that we, as a culture, have never been able to put away. For all of its nascent futurism, Star Wars, even in its original iteration in 1977, is a relic of another time, a Manichean morality play of light vs. darkness built out of the venerable folkloric archetypes of myth (insert obligatory faux-intellectual Joseph Campbell namedrop here) and based in the aspirational chest-swelling of heroic adventure. It defined the childhood of a generation not merely because of its thrilling space battles and laser-sword duels, or because of creator George Lucas’ prescience in the marketing of cross-product commodification, for that matter. More profoundly, Star Wars enthralled youth because it employed the tools and the language of the technological age to conjure a distant, romantic magic that seemed not only inaccessible but almost unintelligible to the inhabitants of the sociohistorical context into which it dropped like a neutron bomb. Believing in the Force, if only for a couple of hours while watching a movie, was not only an escape from the modern world but a transcendence of it.

But believing in even the limited fantasy idea of transcendence, in rising ethereally above the messy, alarming, helplessly unjust modern reality in which find ourselves painfully mired, is childish. In this real world, the mythic dichotomous framing of light and darkness inspires not heroic self-sacrifice but endless conflict, wanton slaughter and destruction, and iron-fisted oppression and persecution of visible difference, all eagerly supported and greedily profited from by self-enriching plutocratic elites. Breathless boyish narratives of action and adventure undergird the horrors of war and colonial exploitation, and the destabilizing empires of territory, resources, and capital. Fate, magic, and destiny are the stalking horses of religious fundamentalism, choking off minority rights and murdering in the name of eternal reward in the hereafter, stoking imaginary divisions forever used by the powerful to maintain and expand their dominion. A text reliant on these tropes, no matter how thunderously popular and profitable, was always missing something essential and vital in our contemporary context. It was always, honestly, a bit childish.

Writer/director Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is what it looks like when Star Wars makes a concerted, serious effort to put away childish things. It isn’t always pretty or consistent or clean, but it’s a fascinating, invigorating, and often powerful attempt. “We are what they grow beyond,” says an unlooked-for and delightfully Frank-Oz’s-puppet-like Yoda about mentors and their apprentices, but he could be talking about the film he’s in, which is reaching (sometimes overreaching) to grow beyond what Star Wars has been. It’s stretching beyond the nesting-dolls of mythic archetypes and comforting nostalgia baked deep into the series and which Disney’s generally well-received new franchise entries have both productively worked to overcome and cynically relied upon, at different (and sometimes the same) times. It’s a similar movement to the one The Empire Strikes Back is understood to have made in the wake of the very first film, but with a much greater weight to be shaken off.

A common observation concerning last year’s standalone anthology film Rogue One was that, in its tone of fatalistic heroism and mud-splattered in-the-trenches content, it was the first Star Wars movie to take war seriously. The Last Jedi extends that seriousness concerning war to moral, political, and even economic grounds. It opens with, continues through its running time, and closes with a desperate pursuit-battle of gradual attrition, as the military-industrial Space Nazis of the First Order chase down a dwindling remnant of the plucky but outmatched Resistance, fighting as ever for the survival of a nebulous freedom. The latter’s leader, General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher), is worn down by the battle losses, but soldiers on, forever shifting to the last lingering shred of hope; the dynamically foolhardy, action-inclined Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) questions the seemingly unwise patience of Leia’s surrogate, Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), even as the slashing assaults he leads (including an intense bombing run on a First Order dreadnought that opens the film) inflict more crippling losses on the Resistance than they do on the enemy.

Poe, despite being demoted for insubordination, greenlights a covert side-mission by his established buddy Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to locate a renowned codebreaker who can help them infiltrate the First Order flagship and deactivate a tracking device that would allow the surviving Resistance fleet to escape into hyperspace. This mission takes them to a sort of interstellar Monte Carlo on a planet called Canto Bight, where the well-heeled galactic elites gamble and bet on animal races and generally engage in boundless hedonism with their ill-gotten wealth, obtained by selling weapons to both sides of the galactic conflict. Johnson has Finn and Rose (the latter lost a sister in the war and relates the strip-mining of her whole life and world by the First Order) engage in some wish-fulfillment smashing-up of the gilded mirrors of this self-satisfied casino world as they escape it, but the substitute codebreaker who aids them, a shifty, muttering and stammering underworld type called DJ (played, in an utterly non-Star Wars kind of performance, by Benicio del Toro), represents a much more pragmatic and cynically capitalist view of the socioeconomic order of the galaxy.

On the side of the moral philosophy of power, budding Jedi-esque heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) engages in a complex and ambiguous journey to understand her relation to the Force, her role in the wide sweep of events, and her family history. The two magnetic poles tugging fitfully at her are Luke Skywalker (a haggardly badass Mark Hamill, acting the fuck out of this bitch) and Kylo Ren (the excellent Adam Driver), the conflicted, dark-side-leaning right-hand man of First Order Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), the estranged son of Leia and Han Solo (whom he killed in the last movie), and the former student of Luke, the master excoriating himself for failing with his apprentice. Luke, whom Rey sought out at the visually memorable conclusion of The Force Awakens, at first unceremoniously and then more comprehensively tries to disillusion her as regards the universe-saving potential of the Jedi, while a mysterious psychic connection with Kylo gives her insight into his inner conflicts which leads her to believe that he can be turned to the side of light, as Luke convinced Darth Vader to do before his death.

For a self-confessed diehard Star Wars fan, Rian Johnson certainly reveals himself to be a skeptic of many of its core assumptions, at least as they have developed in recent films. Productively so, mind you: not only does he recreate and then deconstruct the core light/darkness power dynamic that closed the Original Trilogy in Return of the Jedi (and punctuates it with one of the most thrilling and best-choreographed lightsaber fights in the entire series), he also gestures towards a certain democratizing of the Force, a freeing of its magical properties from the exclusive hegemony of quasi-aristocratic heredity. Johnson’s story structure and plotting have rough patches (there’s a moment with Leia that is already dividing fandom, Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma is a useless and perfunctory character, and Finn and Rose’s kicking-against-the-rich-pricks subplot is highly tangential, not to mention excessively on-the-nose, ideologically speaking) but it features repeated, delightful fake-out ruses which further emphasize his willingness to push Star Wars in different directions. Each of these shell-game story beats plays on audience expectations formed by common franchise conventions, and Johnson wrings meaning out of each sleight-of-hand misdirection.

Nonetheless, for Johnson, as for Star Wars at its best, the impact of the grander themes matter infinitely more than the tensile moment-by-moment strength of the plot. And The Last Jedi‘s themes are so ambiguous and resonant, so worthy of consideration and discussion for those versed in the franchise and even for the thoughtful general moviegoers, that it’s easy to focus on them rather than the spectacular, inventive movie that they are a part of. The visuals are epic and often gorgeous (Steve Yedlin is his cinematographer), and the use of red – both in Rey’s dramatic audience in front of Snoke and Kylo and on the salt-and-mineral planet upon which the final First Order-Resistance confrontation is set – is striking and, in the latter case, dramatically and symbolically significant. The dizzying detail of the casino sequence as well as the teeming life on Luke’s isolated Jedi temple island (including the already-popular big-eyed puffin-esque porgs) sees Johnson filling out the frame of his world. New kid favourite droid BB-8 is roughly treated but also demonstrates an amusing ability to infiltrate almost any piece of technology. Cathartic fist-pump moments (of a kind with Rey satisfyingly grasping the lightsaber Kylo was Force-calling in their final battle in The Force Awakens) abound, mostly timely, save-the-day character appearances but also a stunning use of a hyperspace jump as a devastating offensive weapon. Numerous performances are memorable, too, from Isaac’s boisterously confident Poe to Driver’s petulant but soulful Kylo to Domhnall Gleeson’s gloriously hateable sneering tool General Hux to Tran’s Rose, a humbly inspiring figure. With both Hamill and Fisher bidding their characters farewell (Leia survives, mind you, but what can be respectfully done with the character from here, it’s hard to say), there’s a certain pathos for longtime fans at work as well.

But The Last Jedi sees a franchise known for looking back gazing significantly forward. “Let the past die,” Kylo Ren tells Rey. “Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.” In hopes of becoming the dark lord that he believes he should be, Kylo has attempted to wipe out his past, from his father in the last film to his mother and his Jedi-instructing uncle in this one. His opposite, Luke Skywalker, might even agree with him, to some extent; he harshly criticizes the Jedi’s fatal arrogance and complacency in the face of the rising Empire, and bluntly advises Rey to abandon her naive notions of the hope that he might represent. But neither Luke nor Kylo can put the past behind them (nor can Rey, obsessed as she is – and as fans are – with her mysterious parentage): Luke cannot forgive his costly failure with his powerful nephew nor can he entirely rid himself of the Jedi legacy, while Kylo self-consciously impersonates his grandfather Vader’s menacing attire (though abandons this homage early in the initial act, when mocked for it by Snoke). And neither can overcome their personal history, which drives their decisions through the breadth of the film.

The Last Jedi cannot kill the past either. No Star Wars movie truly can while remaining Star Wars. But it can, and very excitingly does, put elements of that past away. Under Rian Johnson’s steady eye and intelligent storytelling mind, this is a Star Wars film that understands and thinks as an adult: with pain, regret, doubt, and memory, and ultimately with a wisdom only earned with experience of a difficult and unromantic world. And with that wisdom comes a tempered but resilient hope, a wounded and wavering but never squelched sense of the persistent value of progress. In trying times, The Last Jedi steps forward to be the Star Wars we need it to be.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Shape of Water

December 12, 2017 Leave a comment

The Shape of Water (2017; Directed by Guillermo del Toro)

Guillermo del Toro believes in many things, most of them fervently. Love and beauty, ghosts and darkness, people and monsters, art and literature. But what he believes in, above all, is movies. Specifically, and idiosyncratically, he believes zealously in the beguiling wonder of genre movies. Del Toro revels in the balance of audience engagement, visionary imagination, and the direct emotional/intellectual appeals of genre movies, how they generalize and focus big, unwieldy ideas simultaneously. Del Toro’s films are art and entertainment (and drawn from any number of other inspirations and sources as well) fused together, their bizarre, dreamlike troubled loveliness elevating genre movies but constructed inescapably from their accessible, open-armed DNA.

This is meant to serve as an illustrative preface for The Shape of Water, del Toro’s most magical, absorbing, and ambiguously moving work since his shamanistic career peak of a decade ago, Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s ironic that the director’s dedication to genre work, having previously proscribed his prestige-film profile in Hollywood – where the gold-statuette-conferring Academy looks down its nose at genre fare unless it’s thunderously successful or in their chosen genre (and a genre it absolutely is, no matter the unspoken disavowals): the realist drama – should bear fruit with his biggest awards-season breakthrough since Pan’s Labyrinth. It certainly can’t hurt the film’s case in this regard that The Shape of Water is punchdrunk in love with classic film, beginning with del Toro’s specific inspiration of 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon and continuing with included intertextual clips of other Studio Era films.

But The Shape of Water is telling a very different kind of story from the stardust fantasies of vintage Hollywood, though hardly a very different kind of story within del Toro’s oeuvre. Del Toro has long been fascinated by magnificent misfits and compelling monsters, and by their struggles to coexist with a prejudiced status quo protected by neighbourhood-fascist gatekeepers of social conformity. These gatekeepers, who brutally repress the unique beauty of weird outcasts in semi-desperate anxiety at the tenuousness of their own status, are the real monsters, Del Toro tends to suggest; here, he does so quite openly in an opening narration over a ravishingly-realized underwater apartment building. In another time and place (indeed, in the very time and place that The Shape of Water is set: 1960s America) these men (they’re always unfailingly men, aren’t they, ultimately?) were fêted as heroes of the sociopolitical vanguard, as virtuous all-American exemplars of liberty and truth. Those non-conformist unfortunates that they crushed under their polished wingtips sported in contrast the irremovable stain of sedition, which during the Cold War quite obviously carried the inescapable whiff of reviled communism.

The Shape of Water consciously and modernly inverts the assumed order of its historical context: the clean-cut suburban white man in the crisp suit is the vicious villain to be defeated, and the non-human monster gets the girl (and much, much more literally than you would have ever wanted to imagine). The girl is Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute custodian at a government research center (it’s called Occam, one of del Toro’s dizzying array of throwaway referential jokes) in 1960s Baltimore. Silently but reliably cleaning up alongside her chatterbox compatriot Zelda (Octavia Spencer), Elisa spends many of her off hours with her aging, closeted bachelor neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and his cats, watching Hollywood classics of an earlier time.

She’s lonely and thirsting for deeper connection, however, which is where the monster comes in. Named in the credits as Amphibious Man and played by frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones (who does for performance in prosthetic makeup what Andy Serkis has done for digital motion-capture acting), the mysterious creature plucked from the Amazon River where the natives worshipped him as a god is referred to as “the asset” by the lab staff and by the movie’s aforementioned real monster, his mean-spirited, thin-tied minder Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon). Amphibious Man is cautious and hostile towards the abusive Strickland (he rips off two of the man’s fingers, which are found by Elisa and re-attached but spend the rest of the film turning symbolically black and necrotic) and the facility’s scientists, but Elisa is allowed to tidy the chamber where his elaborate, controlled-conditions tank (with its highly-designed, mid-century neo-gothic-steampunk appearance) is located, and she begins to forge a tentative connection with the being over hard-boiled eggs and big-band jazz records. Elisa overhears the authorities’ pitilessly pragmatic plan to learn what they can from the creature and then terminate it before the Soviets find out about him, however, and hatches a scheme to spring him from his enclosure and eventually release him into a canal and thus to the sea.

Strickland is a classic Michael Shannon typecast role: the mid-level functionary in a crisp suit, simmering with incipient self-loathing that he directs at those he can wield power over in the form of violent anger (he’s an American counterpart of Pan’s Labyrinth‘s brutal Francoist antagonist, Captain Vidal). With his postcard suburban family, aspirational Cadillac (which predictably gets smashed up in the midst of the escape caper), self-help motivational books about achieving success, biblical analogies, and purposely modest taste for cheap green sucker candies, Strickland is a picture of thwarted masculine mastery transmuted into petty authoritarian viciousness. Del Toro (who co-wrote the screenplay with Vanessa Taylor) contrasts him not only with the soulful and empathetic Amphibious Man and the intelligent, strong, and determined but subordinate women Elisa and Zelda (whose involvement in the creature’s escape he casually but ignorantly dismisses due to their lowly métier) but with Occam labs scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a sensitive and protective force in favour of continuing to study the creature but also a covert Soviet spy named Dimitri; his Russian superiors are ruthless nogoodniks similar to Strickland, but it shouldn’t be surprising in a Guillermo del Toro Cold War film that the Soviet agent is more sympathetic than American government types.

Giles, played superbly by Jenkins with kind-hearted sarcasm and exasperated patience, features in a subplot that also contrasts Strickland’s striving pursuit of conformist success. A talented but outdated commercial illustrator whose Rockwell-esque drawings of blissful American families enraptured by coveted American products are losing favour to photography, Giles frequents a local diner and pretends to like their disgusting key lime pie in order to interact with a handsome young waiter. With his art rejected by future-gazing ad agencies and his object of homosexual affection rebuffing an open advance in the same breath as he prejudicially shoos an African-American couple from the segregated diner, Giles dedicates himself instead to aiding in Elisa’s quest to safeguard Amphibious Man and release him to freedom, and is rewarded with a new bloom of youth thanks to the creature’s semi-magical healing and regenerative powers.

The true poetic focus of del Toro’s film alchemy is Elisa and her amphibian-man lover. Hawkins (a Best Actress Oscar nomination shoo-in, and a very likely winner) and Jones both give (practically) wordless performances of extraordinary emotionally communicative power, which are fully necessary to sell the considerable and bold leaps taken by the narrative. I say “practically wordless” because the classic-film-loving Elisa is allowed to express her effusive adoration of Amphibious Man in an unexpected and delightful Hollywood musical fantasy sequence.

But del Toro’s deep-delving themes are brilliantly grounded also in symbolic objects and images. Hard-boiled eggs are Elisa’s favoured snack and the crack in the door to her deep connection with Amphibious Man, but also quite clear symbols of feminine fertility: she employs an egg-timer while self-pleasuring in her bath, which is also the setting for her first sexual encounter with the creature. The Shape of Water is suffused like a sponge with images of water: not only liquid in which Amphibious Man and Elisa are submerged on numerous occassions (and in which they together experience an elegant weightless freedom that the terrestrial world denies them), but wet fresh-mopped floors, glasses of drinking water, and pouring rain, the eeries horizontal movement of which on a bus window after Elisa and the creature become lovers poetically coalesces into two raindrops melding into one. The amphibian hue of green is also saturating The Shape of Water‘s palette (the cinematography is by Dan Laustsen, who also beautifully shot del Toro’s otherwise disappointing Crimson Peak), in the colours of Occam’s halls and rooms, in Elisa and Zelda’s uniforms and timecards, in the nutrients sprinkled in Amphibian Man’s aqua-habitats, in Strickland’s candies and his Cadillac (“It’s teal,” the salesman insists), in the key lime pies, even in the focal-point Jell-O in Giles’ advertising illustration.

The Shape of Water combines all of these elements to constitute a film of such textual and visual complexity, of such exquisite beauty and potent thematic heft, that it eclipses its genre film origins and inspirations and leaves us gazing in awe-struck wonder at the cinema screen, like Amphibious Man in the empty movie palace downstairs from Elisa’s apartment. But it never forsakes those genre beginnings as lesser lights, never uses them merely as stepping stones or clever reference points, but clutches them tightly to its breast as it soars. It’s an additional irony that, despite its great debt to genre material, The Shape of Water doesn’t really fit a genre. This is a poetic science-fiction fantasy romance, a comedy and a drama, with tragic and caper and thriller elements. It’s close to being unclassifiable and it’s not completely original, but it’s undeniably unique. It’s also a wonderful, transporting film, an entertaining and heartening work of popular art by a singular artist, and a new classic. Guillermo del Toro believes in many things, and in The Shape of Water he does everything in his power make you believe in them, too.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Okja

December 7, 2017 Leave a comment

Okja (2017; Directed by Bong Joon-ho)

The extremely campy and surprisingly moving social-commentary satire of Okja turned its director, Bong Joon-ho, into a vegan (though only temporarily), and an easy, surface-level assumption would be that the Korean/English film’s aim is to turn you into one, too. But such a glib summation would be manifestly unfair to Okja‘s at-once playful, cauterizing, and nuanced critique of contemporary capitalism, of mass production and consumption of meat, and of the limits of both revolutionary activism and human empathy in resisting corporate exploitation.

Okja is not only the title of the film but the name of its central CG-crafted focal point, an affectionate, loyal, intelligent “superpig”, a breed of genetically-modified swine roughly the size of a small Indian elephant. Okja is one of 26 such superpigs raised in accordance with sustainable, organic, and humane swineherding methods by specially-selected local farmers across the world. She lives in blissful harmony in the lush South Korean mountains with her human best friend Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and Mija’s grandfather Heebong (Byun Hee-bong). Placed there 10 years before by her owners at the multinational Mirando Corporation, the thriving Okja is considered the finest of the superpig specimens and the likely winner of a forthcoming competition to crown the best of the 26 creatures. To be held in New York City, the competition is the public-relations brainchild of the current company CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), who is seeking to improve Mirando’s image with consumers after the damaging tenures of her chemical-weapon-dealing father and her likewise ruthless sister Nancy (also Swinton).

Despite the deep bond between girl and superpig, Mija and Okja are fated to be separated by the competition and whatever follows it, which, headline-grabbing spectacles aside, will very likely be the animal’s death and sickening processing as (apparently very delicious) meat. Mija’s determination to save her big cuddly friend will take her to Seoul, Manhattan, and finally to a sprawling mechanized nightmare slaughterhouse that serves to demonstrate that Mirando’s gestures (and, by extension, those of all corporate entities in the same business) towards humane treatment of livestock are only gestures, and nothing more. She’ll have help from the radical animal-rights activists of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), led by the thoughtful but sneakily uncompromising Jay (Paul Dano), who seek to expose Mirando’s mass-marketed ruse and the cruel abbatoir realities that lay behind it to a shocked public, but need Okja as an unwitting inside agent to do it.

Like Bong’s inescapably flawed but unquestionably visionary and attention-snatching last Korean/English feature Snowpiercer, Okja casts a withering eye on the disingenuousness of capitalism and its underlying exploitative monstrosity and constriction of choice. However, Okja is a gentler film than the brutal, viscerally gut-punching Snowpiercer. The paradisical glow of the opening act in the Korean countryside infuses Mija and Okja’s odyssey through pain and back to safety and never really leaves the film, despite Bong’s patented drastic shifts in tone; even the climactic visit to the slaughterhouse facility is relatively tame, certainly when compared to the real thing (which Bong witnessed while researching the film, leading to his brief foreswearing of meat).

But Okja is never a preachy or self-righteous film: Mija’s no vegetarian herself (her favourite food is chicken stew), and Bong pokes fun at one of Jay’s ALF comrades who has become weak and pallid from refusing to eat anything due to the ethical and chemical imperfections inherent to nearly all food products. Poking fun, sometimes with a hefty and sharply-pointed stick, is indeed Bong’s core instinct. Unlike the sinister cadre of villains defending the socially-stratified train of Snowpiercer, Okja’s antagonists are clownish (if still malevolent). Swinton’s Mirando sisters personify two sides of the same capitalist coin: constantly-pivoting, desperate-to-please Machivellian corporate spin (Lucy) and old-fashioned unscrupulous trodding on the necks of the vulnerable to maximize profit (Nancy). Bong intelligently associate the slaughterhouse directly with the slower, more grinding killing floors of older Industrial Revolution-vintage manufacturing plants, as Lucy unveils her purportedly kinder and more woke initiative (which is a mere PR cover for industrial slaughter) in the same abandoned factory where her father enriched himself working disposable people beyond count to their eventual graves. Behind quarterly profits then as well as now lies a disavowed continuum of suffering. Furthermore, an initially unrecognizable and completely frothing-at-the-mouth unhinged Jake Gyllenhaal shows up as a supporting Mirando toadie, the Crocodile Hunter-esque TV host and zoologist Dr. Johnny Wilcox; while the character is a broad parody of the degradation of American celebrity, he also presides (with sweat-soaked, inebriated guilt) over a horror-show Mirando experimental lab where Okja is subjected to awful treatment.

This tendency to emphasize the dark absurdity of the modern capitalist world transfers to Okja‘s action scenes, where subversion is the order of the day. The hijacking of the Mirando truck carrying Okja away from Seoul might have taken the form of a Dark Knight-type showstopping setpieces in the hands of another director, but Bong will have none of that here, thank you very much: he troubles the action waters by making a comic point of the ALF’s firm moral principles (“We are not terrorists!” they emphasize from behind their balaclavas; “We believe in non-violence!” Jay declares before ramming the Mirando truck into a tunnel wall) and by interspersing the comic relief of a cynical low-level Mirando truck driver very much not inclined to stick up for his corporate employer. And this is a mere warm-up stretch for when Okja gets loose in an underground mall, a sequence of stumbling, semi-comedic chaos reminiscent of similar moments in Bong’s Korean-language monster movie The Host. Scored by loopy carnivalesque music and finally, in a stupendously hilarious and inspired left-field choice, by John Denver’s “Annie Song”, this scene is neo-capitalist culture run ludicrously rampant, complete with a fuzzy-animal-ear-wearing teen girl equally desperate to escape the rampaging Okja with her life and to take a selfie with the beast.

For all of its varied critiques of capitalism (and of capitalism’s critics), Okja does not offer a cure to its incipient cruelty, nor anything but a pyrrhic emotional victory against the industrial-scale killing factories of the meat business. As much empathy as we feel for Okja, as much as we hope for a happy ending for her and Mija, Bong does not for a moment suggest that our empathy will overcome the inertia of the production line, let alone of the bottom line. Like a lot of critiques of this particular socioeconomic system, Bong’s suggests that the injection of a bit of humanity could go a long way in righting its wrongs. Unlike a lot of such critiques, it doesn’t flatter the capitalist superstructure by even entertaining the possibility that any moral rectitude – whether impelled by facing up to emotional connections like that between Mija and Okja or by being confronted with massive-scale cruelty as exposed by the ALF – could conceivably overcome the lucrative temptations of capital obtained by whatever means necessary. The only value that counts, ultimately, is the exchange value of wealth. That Bong Joon-ho can drop such a pitilessly realistic ideological conclusion and still grant Okja a limited but nonethelessly glowing final emotional boost is quietly impressive. A lot of movies have something on their mind, but Okja summons contradicting and self-challenging thoughts and feelings and gains much more by not resolving them than it could by tying them up cleanly and boldly.

Categories: Film, Reviews