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Film Review: Us

March 26, 2019 Leave a comment

Us (2019; Directed by Jordan Peele)

Before almost anything else happens in Us, Jordan Peele’s anticipated follow-up to his widely-acclaimed, Oscar-winning, high-grossing, conversation-starting debut smash “social horror” film Get Out, we in the captive audience are having Bible verses thrown at us. When little girl Adelaide Thomas (Madison Curry) wanders away from her half-soused, whack-a-mole-playing father (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) at the Santa Cruz boardwalk amusement park in 1986, she passes a ragged transient holding a handmade cardboard sign with “Jeremiah 11:11” scrawled on it. Adelaide will wander into a house of mirrors and have an encounter that changes her life and the fate of the world, but as in so many other moments in Us, Peele is gesturing at deeper meanings via the conduit of the intertext.

Jeremiah, Chapter 11, Verse 11 in the King James Version of the Bible reads:

Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.

Esquire‘s Matt Miller rounds up the lion’s share of the implications of this verse in terms of the premise and conclusions of Us, so I shan’t repeat the work (though be warned that he and I both delve into spoilers; of the movie, that is, not the Bible). But Jeremiah 11:11 is central to Peele’s dominant racial, social, and political metaphor in Us, and it simultaneously acts as a reflective hint (the duality of 11:11 is repeated in television sports scores and alarm clock digital readouts) at the doppelgänger premise of a story that operates much more as a straight (although intelligent and self-aware) horror-thriller than Get Out did.

In the present day, adult mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is spending summer vacation near Santa Cruz with her family: her husband Gabe Wilson (a very funny Winston Duke, Nyong’o’s Black Panther co-star), her smartphone-absorbed teen track star Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and her son Jason (Evan Alex), who is a bit awkward and is never without the double horror-movie-history nod of a Jaws shirt and a wolfman mask. Adelaide becomes alarmed and nervous when Gabe tells her that they are to meet their friends – strained but well-off married couple Josh and Kitty Tyler (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss) and their teen daughters (Cali and Noelle Sheldon), who, given the themes of duality at play, are of course twins – at the Santa Cruz beach, setting of her childhood trauma. Adelaide panics when she loses track of her son there, while Jason has a premonitory glimpse of horrors to come. But things get truly frightening that night, when the Wilsons’ summer home is visited by a family very like them. Almost exactly like them, in fact.

Without quite giving away the whole of Us‘s game (though much of it, so watch for falling spoilers), the Wilsons come face-to-face with their red-jumpsuited, single-gloved, golden-scissors-wielding doubles, who hail from a disturbing subterranean mirror-world located in underground tunnel networks stretching across the country (at least a little like those in Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad), whose rooms and halls also noticeably and provocatively resemble a public school. Known as the Tethered, they are mute, lobotomized slaves (not at all an off-base comparison) to the whims of their doubles on the surface, doomed to robotically replicate their movements like so many dumb puppets, or like human shadows (an association hinted at visually by a fine overhead shot from Peele’s cinematographer Mike Gioulakis of the family walking along the beach, their long shadows stretched on the sand). Adelaide’s shadow Red has had enough of the Tethered’s subjugation, and, believing herself marked by God for a special purpose after meeting Adelaide years before, has launched a joint bloody revolution and symbolic demonstration to put an end to it.

Peele’s premise for Us is a hybrid of a 1960 The Twilight Zone episode about a woman and her evil doppelgänger and the Eloi and the Morlocks of The Time Machine, H.G. Wells’ proto-science-fiction allegory for Victorian England’s socioeconomic disparity. White rabbits abound in the underground as well, referencing the animal guide into Lewis Carroll’s fantasyland of unreality Alice in Wonderland. The Tethered and their role in relation to their surface doubles is Peele’s charged metaphor for the history of African-Americans as an exploited underclass, whose hidden toil makes the comfort and privilege of middle- and upper-class white Americans possible. The film’s title, after all, might be read as US (United States), and when Adelaide asked Red who she and her family are, the eerie but revealing answer in Nyong’o strangled vocalization is, “We are Americans” (Nyong’o, both as Adelaide and especially as the graceful but twisted Red, is incredible; post-modern horror queen Toni Collette had better watch her back).

It could be argued that the Tethered represent poor minorities in general, but the symbolism of African-American enslavement is paramount: Adelaide spends much of the movie handcuffed, ie. in chains, and Red’s “fucked-up performance art” revolutionary stunt is an eerie re-creation by her shadow-people of the Hands Across America charity event of 1986, in which human beings literally embody the chain. One might likewise quibble that the precise nature of the Tethered underclass is of hazily-defined provenance and utility, but one shouldn’t discount the possibility that this entirely is Peele’s point: the maintenance of a permanent racial underclass by the ruling elites in America is often understood as having a macroeconomic impetus, but maybe it really is just a symbolically and surreally cruel charade with no overarching teleological function worth quantifying. Often, the cruelty is the point.

As in Get Out, these grander allegorical meanings of Us are accompanied and enticingly flavoured by social observations and cathartic humour. The black Wilsons are clearly comfortable socioeconomically (they can afford a summer home, after all), but Gabe in particular is stung that the white Tylers, despite being stupid and vain people, are a cut above them wealth-wise. Director Peele, his production designer Ruth de Jong, and his costume designer Kym Barrett show us this in ways both blatant and subtle. The Tylers’ summer home is noticeably more luxurious and modernly-decorated than the Wilsons’ homey, dated one, and similar gaps are evident (and are noted by Gabe) in the quality of their respective cars and boats. At the beach, Josh wears a black t-shirt with the Fragile label and broken wine-glass symbol on it, perhaps hinting at the fragility of white identity (maybe a bit of a stretch) as well as the careless alcoholism that he and his wife, who despise each other, rely upon to make interaction tolerable; as the Tethered terrorize the Wilsons through the night, Gabe is wearing a Howard University sweatshirt, marking him as an educated member of the African-American bourgeoisie.

Social politics abound in Us. When the Wilsons call the police when confronted by the Tethered, the 5-0’s promised response time is unfortunately slow, and in the end they don’t show up at all; one might nitpickingly accuse Peele of simply forgetting that the cops were supposed to be on the way, but again it’s just as likely that a point is being made about the police’s fraught relationship to African-Americans and crime, as it was in that gut-turning appearance of flashing lights at the climax of Get Out. In a later dark comic inversion, when Kitty tries to call the police during the attack of her family’s Tethered doppelgängers (Moss has one astounding horror reaction as Kitty’s shadow-person in this sequence, an agonized cry melting into maniacal laughter, that should also make Toni Collette nervous), her Alexa/Google Home digital assistant pod (called Ophelia after the tragic suicide case in Hamlet, because Jordan Peele has read books and thinks you ought to know it) misunderstands, and the last thing she hears is NWA’s ‘Fuck tha Police”. There’s even a moment that constitutes an added chapter in Peele’s career-spanning dissertation on code switching: when Gabe’s polite, respectability-coded request to the creepy lurking Tethered to leave his family alone fails to elicit a response, he tries again, this time wielding a baseball bat and talking a tougher, more aggressive street-talk-coded game.

As you might have gathered from these scattered observations, Us is a rich and ambitious but not always focused and coherent text in its political and social metaphors. Get Out likewise indulged a variety of ideas about race and social norms, but it snapped neatly and potently into place when the central body-snatching premise was made manifest in all of its terrible dimension. Perhaps, amidst Get Out‘s thunderous success, Jordan Peele was put off, if only a little, by how his film’s thesis was smoothly delineated in so many critiques and thinkpieces. Perhaps Us is the reaction to that, a film full of charged ideas and symbols and reference-points that is less confidently parsed and interpreted, an unruly work whose meanings don’t stand still and allow themselves to be deconstructed and apprehended.

But on the subject of unruly texts that defy firm interpretation, let’s return to that biblical quotation. Jeremiah 11:11 evokes a judgemental Old Testament deity unleashing punishment and misery on those he deems unworthy of his supposedly boundless mercy and love, chillingly unmoved by the pitiful appeals of his fragile creations for clemency. Jordan Peele’s Us conceives of this terrifying, inequitous tableaux as the model for the relation of the powerful to the powerless, which in America is always already a relation predicated on and inextricably tied up in race. It’s the painful flip side of the coin of the liberation theology of the African-American church that has held such a central role in the history of the African-American community’s organization and agitation for its civil rights, but which in its long-arc-of-justice incremental approach might well be seen by a more militant and less god-fearing activist generation as being insufficient to the challenges facing Black America. Us uses Jeremiah 11:11 as a pointed riposte to liberation theology: if an all-powerful God intends to set African-Americans free one day if only their collective faith is strong enough, why has he put them in chains in the first place, and been blithely deaf to centuries of his purported children’s cries for aid? If he intends to do good – indeed is the shining, remote, omnipotent epitome of good – why does he bring inescapable evil upon us?

The Tethered’s bloody uprising is the apocalyptic answer to this blithe unconcern for the plight of the vulnerable, on the part of God or White America or the government or elites in general or the common polity in general. Of course, even this imagined horror-movie revolution is hardly simple, straightforward, or uncompromised, and Peele prods insistently at his audience’s empathy for the shadow-people and their uncanny plight just as he deploys them as his stalking monsters. So much of the meaning of Us is tied up in the symbols and intertextual associations that Peele deploys liberally (there is an essay to be written on the visual nods to Michael Jackson, in child Adelaide’s Thriller t-shirt and the Tethered’s single-glove aesthetic), but quite probably its ultimate point is dropped into view with the film’s final twist, which for all of the spoilers I’ve delved into so far, I wouldn’t dream of revealing (I will only say to watch the clues around Adelaide, especially the foreshadowing of how Peele and Gioulakis shoot her in the scene in which she tells Gabe about her traumatic experience on the Santa Cruz beach as a child). Us is another expertly crafted elevated entertainment from Jordan Peele, and it shakes us just enough to make our question our place in a world that is never for a moment as safe or as fair as it may seem.

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Film Review: The Polka King

March 25, 2019 Leave a comment

The Polka King (2017; Directed by Maya Forbes)

Jan Lewan deeply, passionately wanted his life story to fit the promised contours of the American Dream. In his boundless self-belief and positivity as well as in his massive, fundamentally fantastical fraudulence, the self-styled Polka King of Pennsylvania wound up embodying, in a kitschy, niche-y manner, the darker yet entirely inevitable flipside of that vaunted capitalist Dream. Immigrating from Poland and working menial jobs for years, Lewan pursued his passion for polka music (he was a classically-trained musician in Poland, attending Gdansk’s conservatory of music and playing in orchestras across Europe), touring with his band the Jan Lewan Orchestra for years around Pennsylvania, the U.S. and the world. He also opened a Polish gift shop in Hazleton, PA, ran European bus tours which included Papal audiences in the Vatican, and was nominated for a Grammy Award for one of his polka albums in 1995. Unfortunately, Lewan funded many of these enterprises with promisory note investments that he failed to pay back, and in 2004 he went to prison for fraud, having swindled upwards of 400 people out of millions of dollars in an illegal Ponzi scheme.

This is the tale of Jan Lewan told in the 2009 documentary feature The Man Who Would Be Polka King, whose directors Joshua Brown and John Mikulak emulated the shoddy local-level hucksterism of Lewan’s empire, either through their low budget, competence level, or by conscious artistic choice. That documentary is the basis for the narrative of Lewan’s career, personal life, and crimes in director Maya Forbes’ comedy The Polka King. Co-writted by Forbes and former Simpsons writer Wallace Wolodarsky (co-writer of “Last Exit to Springfield”, one of the greatest episodes of the show’s classic era), The Polka King begins with great promise in the inspired, spot-on casting of Jack Black as Lewan. Black is a comedic actor with musical ability and experience, very capable in roles requiring broad, wide-eyed, loopy positivity (little wonder that he has worked mostly in children’s films in recent years), but likewise able to summon an almost-hidden edge of guilty darkness that lurks beneath. All of this makes him a fine match for Lewan, the man with the sweaty stage presence of a low-rent, perogi-skinned Wayne Newton, the insistent smile of a middling but hard-labouring salesman, and a consistent but ultimately insufficient strain of nagging Catholic guilt at his mounting lies and crimes.

Lewan, at least in Black’s amplified comic interpretation, displayed an unlimited, magnanimous positivity that borders frequently on the unhinged. This made him an ideal personality to rise high in the world of polka music, with its favoured tone of aggressive cheerfulness that can push liberally into demented and even weirdly desperate territory. But it also rendered him an insidious and attractive con man, selling rosy but ultimately empty financial prospects to mostly older investors who were also fans of him as a performer. Black’s Lewan has bought wholesale into the grand promise of American capitalism, but until he almost-innocently backs into swindling his fans out of their savings (he is very specifically warned by a SEC agent played by J.C. Smoove that what he is doing is illegal, so he cannot ultimately claim innocence), he finds the accruing of capital to be frustratingly difficult, no matter his hustle and his positive outlook. He is nagged constantly by his mother-in-law Barb (Jacki Weaver) to start living in the real world and settle for steadier work, a criticism likewise levelled at her daughter and his wife, former (and, with Lewan’s underhanded aid, future) beauty queen Marla (Jenny Slate).

But it is Jan Lewan and not the humble, native-born Barb who is more attuned to the amoral mantra of the American capitalist dream: fake it until you make it, and don’t let making it stop you from faking it. Forbes’ comedy film plays it all quite light (maybe too light, to be frank), but there is a undertone here of corrupt institutions failing in their purported oversight duties that allow Lewan to run amok. The beginning of the end of Lewan’s paper-tiger polka empire is here characterized as being the scandal that erupts around his bribery of the judges in the Mrs. Pennsylvania beauty pageant, which allows Marla to win an undeserved crown. But why shouldn’t Lewan think bribery will work in a two-bit beauty pageant, when a suitcase full of money can get him and his Euro tour a private audience with Pope John Paul II? Smoove’s SEC man Ron Edwards looks away from Lewan after a single interview, and is only later persuaded to crack down on this figure that he found harmlessly clownish. Even Barb, Lewan’s most implacable critic, cannot help but verbally smack down a couple of his defrauded investors who relish the slashed throat he suffers at the hand of his prison cellmate (yes, the Polka King of Pennsylvania got shivved; you can’t make this shit up). They got screwed because they got greedy.

Any sort of semi-serious critique contained in The Polka King is fairly rote, however, as is much of the humour here, to be honest. Black labours hard to make everything work, but most of the amusement is derived from the (admittedly very strange) nature of polka culture and from Lewan’s English misspeakings (“the invests”, he calls his promisory notes scam, for example). Lewan’s right-hand man in the orchestra and star clarinet player, Mickey Pizzazz (Jason Schwartzman), is pinballed left, right, and centre by the script, which can never quite decide what his role should be in relation to Lewan: foil, sidekick, antagonist, or humanizing influence? This is a man whose most deeply-held ambition in life is to have “Pizzazz” in his polka-band stage name; he should be hilarious, but is just sort of shiftless. A scene in which Black and Schwartzman sneak the suitcase of money through to the streets of Rome to bribe the Vatican is only the most egregious of many that consider themselves far funnier than they are.

It perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that a straight-to-Netflix comedy about a Polish-American polka musician starring Jack Black isn’t terribly funny. It has its moments (a local host introduces the Jan Lewan Orchestra for their first televised appearance as having “blazed quite a trail through the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre/Hazleton area”; the closing, nearly-impossible-to-believe “Rappin’ Polka”), but it should be acknowledged that expectations ought to have been not so much tempered as placed on life support. But the details of the Jan Lewan story are just so outrageously, eccentrically weird and specific (he rigged a beauty pageant, bribed the Pope, and was shivved in prison!), and its wider applicability to American society, culture, economics, and even politics (Jan Lewan as a mega-low-rent Donald Trump without the Teflon patina of privilege?) so potentially compelling, that it has to be classed as a disappointment that the final film telling that story is not better. Although perhaps its middling form might be a better match for Jan Lewan’s shoddy house-of-cards take on the American Dream, after all.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Little Dieter Needs to Fly

March 22, 2019 Leave a comment

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997; Directed by Werner Herzog)

A documentary film about war, survival, beauty, madness, dreams, nightmares, heroism, barbarism, triumph, absurdity, and above all memory, Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly evokes and summons more depth of meaning and indelible thought and fascinating ambiguity in a barely-feature-length 80 minutes than most films, fiction or non-fiction, can muster in twice that running time. It relates the incredible (and quite possibly embellished) story of German-American Navy pilot Dieter Dengler’s imprisonment in Laos and escape to Thailand after being shot down during the Vietnam War, mostly through Dengler’s own overflowing narrations of remembrance, but also through odd re-staged re-enactments of his time in the jungles of Southeast Asia featuring the aged Dengler himself alongside hired locals, and some archival wartime footage as well.

Like many of Herzog’s documentary subjects, Dengler is both a semi-autobiographical reflection of the inimitable (though often hilariously imitated online) German director and a profile of a figure entirely alien to his own (hardly proscribed) experience that deeply fascinates Herzog and his camera. Growing up in the abject poverty and starvation of post-war Germany as Herzog did, Dengler (who hailed from the Black Forest village of Wildberg in Baden-Württemberg, not too far from Herzog’s native Bavaria) became fascinated with flying during a wartime bombing raid on his village and moved to the U.S. to become a pilot, eventually working his way into the cockpit of a Navy fighter over Laos, where he was shot down in 1966. Captured by Pathet Lao guerrillas and eventually handed over to the Viet Cong, Dengler endured imprisonment and torture and witnessed myriad bizarre and brutal episodes in the sweltering jungle before escaping improbably and returning to the U.S. as a decorated veteran (Herzog returned to Dengler’s story with a more conventional Hollywood action movie telling, directing Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale in 2007).

Herzog introduces Dengler as an older man (he died in 2001, four years after the release of the film, as a postscript of his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery reveals), who is disarmingly voluble, bracingly forthright, and marked by his experiences in psychologically visibile ways. His house sits high on Mount Tamalpais in the Muir Woods north of San Francisco, which gives him a sense of security; one episode Dengler relates from his Laotian experiences involved scaling a mountain’s heights to escape his captors and (unsuccessfully) signal rescuers. He is shown obsessive-compulsively opening and closing his car and house doors numerous times, which he effusively explains is a reminder to himself to cherish his freedom, in remembrance of his imprisonment; he also hangs multiple paintings of open doors in his entryway, probably for the same reason (although Herzog, always ready to stage-manage the “reality” of a documentary in search of deeper truths about his subjects, crafted the moment for that effect; Dengler claimed that he only bought the paintings because they were such a good deal). Little Dieter Needs to Fly gives off the distinct impression that Dieter Dengler would be a strange man even if he had not suffered through what he suffered through in the jungles of Laos, but his eccentricity was more extremely shaped by those experiences.

But how much does Dengler, who relishes the storytelling and being put through the re-enactment scenes like a born performer, shape those experiences himself? In many cases, he is the only witness (or the only identifiable, surviving, English-speaking witness) to what happened in the jungle. His reminscences are so vividly, minutely detailed that they carry the whiff of hyperbole at least, if not fabrication. They are often quite literally unbelievable. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is not an open door on this question, but then the documentary films of Werner Herzog are not documents of bare, useless fact but existential quests through the swamps of lived reality for deeper, more mystical truths. All of their narrators are unreliable, because to be human is to be unreliable, unknowable, a well and a mirror of memory and experience.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly is also the rare Vietnam War film that does not stake out a stance about the conflict, let alone about conflict in general. Dengler’s prison camp sufferings are not understood by Herzog to be reflective of any particular injustice or larger political project, and they are not pivoted purposely against either the imperialist American war machine or the repressive communist state apparatus. They are points on an endlessly stretched-out continuum of barbarous fellowship, the infinite ribbon of violent and intimate proximity that constitutes human civilization, forever sustained and obliterated by armed conflict. Herzog even finds an incongruous and twisted beauty in modern warfare, interspersing hypnotic aerial footage of American bombing runs over Southeast Asian jungle villages. Scored by otherworldly traditional Tuvan throat singing and his trademarked narration characterizing the images as a “distant, barbaric dream”, Herzog edits devastating slow-motion napalm explosions to resemble precious unfolding flowers in an apocalyptic spring. He sees art in destruction, but not as fascistic romance like Marinetti did but as something alien, unfamiliar, and dangerous in its beauty, like the magnificence of a remote galactic supernova.

When Dengler’s Viet Cong guards try to make him sign a statement against America’s actions in Southeast Asia (many U.S. POWs did, especially after persistent torture), he flatly refuses. He harkens back to his grandfather, who suffered terrible reprisals when he would not cast his vote for Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party during World War II, and tries to emulate his strength of will and conscience. The connection between German fascists and Vietnamese communists is not an ideological one for Dengler, nor is it based in wider historical sweep. It’s family history, personal principle, psychological bedrock. History, like memory, is fluid and subjective, and what it is most subject to is perspective. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is a marvel of perspective, and, like all films by Werner Herzog, a unique, strange, and indelible experience.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Captain Marvel

March 13, 2019 Leave a comment

Captain Marvel (2019; Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck)

It must be said, from the top, that Captain Marvel is not a great film, only a competently good one. Given the absurd online campaigns against it by toxic sectors of male fandom, this assessment needs to be exhaustively qualified before being further delved into. The much-hyped latest movie from Marvel Studios is not distinctly average because it is the first out of the culture-dominating Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with a female superhero as the lead character, released to coincide with International Woman’s Day. Nor is it because outspoken self-described feminist Brie Larson plays that character, former American fighter pilot-turned-intergalactic energy-blasting super-soldier Carol Danvers. Nor is it because Captain Marvel is imbued with themes of women’s empowerment, self-determination, and solidarity, not to mention a potent metaphor for the gaslighting behaviour of abusive relationships buried deep in Danvers’ interactions with her male mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). Neither is Captain Marvel firmly in the middle of the road of quality due to its subtly controversial cross-marketed collaborative relationship with the United States Air Force. Although this likely means that, as is often the case with Hollywood’s insidiously cozy production relationship with the American military, the military had some say over the final script, that oversight did not preclude Captain Marvel from quite openly criticizing propagandistic, militaristic imperial expansion and the atrocities perpetrated against the vulnerable engendered by it.

Indeed, there’s a neat reversal to Captain Marvel‘s core ideology that reflects the contemporary political moment as well as the arc of personal conflict and resolution (such as it is) of Carol Danvers in the film. To discuss it properly, we will need to venture deep into plot detail, so spoilers ahead (hashtag that if need be). When we first meet Larson’s character, she is called Vers, and acts as a rubber-suit-clad member of the elite Starforce of the Kree Civilization. The Kree are a galaxy-spanning empire-coalition of diverse alien races ruled by the Supreme Intelligence, an organic AI that offers bland know-it-all advice about controlling emotions and subordinating your agency to the greater good of the empire like the smuggest offspring of the Jedi, the Vulcans, and army recruiters.

Vers has been with the Kree for 6 years and fights for the civilization in their ongoing war against their archenemies the Skrulls, Bat Boy-lookalike extraterrestrial shapeshifters who are branded terrorist infiltrators and earmarked for annihilation. But she is also haunted by flashes of memory from her life before Kree-ification, on what looks to us like Earth: at an airbase with a fellow pilot, smashing up a go-cart as a child and being admonished by her father, jeered on a military training ground by fellow cadets, and at a charred crash site alongside a woman who, if the same woman’s manifestation as Supreme Intelligence is any indication, Vers admires more than anyone else.

It’s not only Vers who wants to know more about these memories. When a band of Skrulls led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) springs an ambush on Vers and her Starforce unit, it’s to capture her and plumb the depths of her mind for more details about the woman she sees, who is named Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening) and who was last seen on Planet C-53, ie. Earth. Vers escapes the Krulls and crash-lands in Los Angeles in 1995. Meeting young S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Vers causes havoc on a L.A. elevated train in pursuit of a form-changing Skrull agent (a few French Connection homages in this otherwise unremarkable action sequence). She then joins forces with Fury to seek out clues of Lawson and her Pegasus project, coming across a cat named Goose (who steals half a dozen moments, and is no ordinary feline besides that), her former best friend and fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), and learning much about Lawson, Pegasus, the Kree, the Skrulls, and herself that will shake her reality and shift her perspective and her allegiance.

Lawson, our heroine discovers, was a Kree scientist named Mar-Vell working covertly on Earth to build an energy-core engine which, when destroyed by her top pilot Carol Danvers, grants the latter superhuman powers and mostly erases her memory. Returned to the Kree homeworld by Yon-Rogg – who, she recalls with horror, killed Lawson – and transfused with his Kree blood, the soldier now known as Vers is told nothing of her old life, nor of Lawson/Mar-Vell’s true, rebellious intent: to reveal the propagandistic lies of the Kree and aid the Skrulls, who are little more than hunted refugees in search of a home and are victims of an ongoing genocide by the side that Vers fights for. Talos reveals much of this history to the woman who can now call herself Carol, and the casting of Mendelsohn, even behind layers of Skrull prosthetics, becomes a minor masterstroke: he’s mostly been used as a villain by Hollywood and fills that role well enough earlier in Captain Marvel (he appears without makeup as Talos shapeshifting into the form of Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D. boss, Keller), but the Skrulls-are-actually-good twist allows Mendelsohn to mine deep reserves of desperate, soul-felt sympathy. Along with the steely Lynch and Jackson, having a fine old time as his aged-down self (that CG effect has come some way since Marvel Studios test-drove it a bit awkwardly with Robert Downey, Jr. in Captain America: Civil War), Mendelsohn is a supporting highlight.

But back to the point: Captain Marvel, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (whose previous directorial highlight is probably the indie dramedy Half Nelson, with a then-ascending Ryan Gosling), features a hegemonic military power ethnically cleansing a landless minority of oppressed people labelled shifty terrorists. Besides the Starforce (which includes Djimon Hounsou’s Korath, who appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy earlier in the MCU release slate but later in the in-universe chronology), the Kree also project the Supreme Intelligence’s unquestioned technocratic will through their enforcer Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace, also from Guardians, where he was the haughtily humourless villain tricked and defeated by Peter Quill’s cheeky distraction dance), who is summoned by Yon-Rogg to carpet-bomb Earth’s surface at the climax. Echoes of America’s (and, even more provocatively, Israel’s) imperial power-flexing in the Middle East and its humanitarian collateral damage run through these elements of the film, and an important part of Carol Danvers’ self-actualizing awakening has to do with her throwing off her Kree brainwashing, and then questioning and finally pledging herself to fight against its malevolent expansionist ambitions.

Vers’ conversion to Carol Danvers follows the established parametres of MCU heroes’ arcs while also firmly and a bit rousingly taking the form of women’s empowerment. Like a lot of Marvel superheroes, Larson’s embryonic Captain Marvel (not to be confused with DC’s male superhero of the same name, who will be incarnated onscreen as Shazam a month after this film’s release) begins her origin film as a very powerful badass warrior already. Much like Chris Hemsworth’s Thor in particular, she’s comfortable and cocksure (Larson plays this quality very well, with a keen comedic timing) with her formidable powers before being limited in them by circumstances and challenged by self-doubt. Like many a male MCU protagonist, Carol doesn’t so much undergo a real shift in her fundamental character (Larson does not handle the identity-questioning as well, which is surprising given her Oscar-winning dramatic pedigree) as stubbornly re-affirm who she was all along, and thus gains a decisive boost in power and heroism that allows her to triumph over adversity and her enemies.

Applying this familiar heroes’ arc to a female protagonist represents Marvel Studios’ careful, formula-savvy conventionality at its most noticeable, assuring fans as it does that even with a woman as a lead, matters remain comfortingly secure in the MCU, thematically speaking. But Captain Marvel rises to the implied feminist agency in its premise and marketed profile as well, no doubt shepherded forward by the numerous women in the creative team: not only co-director Boden, who also co-wrote the film with Fleck and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, but the trio is joined in the story credits by Nicole Perlman and Meg LeFauve. Carol Danvers’ emergence as a flying, super-strong, photon-blasting superhuman god in the last act is couched as a moment of female empowerment both literal and figurative.

Though she has already recaptured many of her memories from Earth and reconnected with her sister-in-arms Maria Rambeau and realized the errors of her Kree imperial-subaltern ways, Carol’s climactic overcoming of the hegemonic Kree (who are, nominally at least, a kind of scrubbed-clean patriarchy) is catalyzed by her memory-mining realization that her true power is the true power of all women who are marginalized and underestimated: the strength and bravery to get up when they are knocked down, to rise when others, especially men, would see them fall. This idea is imparted in a montage of Larson and the girls playing younger flashback versions of herself rising to their feet with a look of defiance and determination as Pinar Toprak’s score swells with on-the-nose inspirational flourishes. I’ll take the more metaphorical No Man’s Land sequence in Wonder Woman over a scene like this any day (in the representation of women and basically nothing else, the DC films, or at least that single, mostly non-representative DC film, have to be said to have been ahead of the Marvel ones), but it’s Captain Marvel‘s most moving moment. It may be upstaged, however, by Carol’s more viscerally satisfying defeat of her paternalistic mentor Yon-Rogg, who patronizingly chides her not to be so emotional and impulsive in a martial-arts training sequence at the film’s beginning and whose last-ditch effort to beat his now-overwhelmingly-powerful opponent at the film’s end is to patronize her again in insisting on a photon-less hand-to-hand proving-ground fight. Smacking his sexist gaslighting down with an energy burst, she asserts, with empowered confidence, that she has nothing to prove to him.

Captain Marvel might have a little more to prove. If I’ve gradually warmed to its themes and ideas and the execution thereof in this analysis, I must step back and re-assert its general averageness. It hasn’t really a memorable action scene to its name, and Larson slips into stiffness when the plot requires her not to remember important things that the movie never really adequately accounts for her not remembering. The Skrulls’ turn feels a tad whiplash-quick; perhaps a second viewing would make their actions and presentation seem less openly antagonistic before Talos bids for Carol’s, and therefore for our, sympathy. It is revealed how Nick Fury loses the use of his eye, and it’s a light, jokey moment rather than the portentous event loyal MCU followers have been led to expect. And of course, whatever Captain Marvel is doing on its own is subverted on a larger scale to its place in the Avengers cycle of the MCU, and the ending exchange of a pager between Carol and Fury and the related mid-credits stinger scene from the forthcoming Infinity War sequel in which Captain Marvel will play a part is a sobering reminder of that.

Captain Marvel‘s period setting offers more pleasures. The mid-’90s milieu winks and nods with references to Blockbuster Video, internet cafes, and comparatively glacial computer processing speeds. But it’s on the soundtrack that Boden and Fleck really kick into the palpable nostalgia, with a series of pitch-perfect needle drops of mostly woman-fronted period alternative rock and R&B. Danvers steals a motorcycle to the power-pop strains of Elastica’s “Connection”, then bombs through the desert towards a half-remembered roadhouse bar to Garbage’s “Only Happy When It Rains”. She and Fury drive towards the Pegasus facility with TLC’s “Waterfalls” playing on the radio, and Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be” is on in the background as she renews acquaintance with Maria Rambeau at her Louisiana country house. She battles her former Starforce mates to the spunky accompaniment of No Doubt’s “Just A Girl” (though the scene is murkily edited, one of the weakest fight sequences in all of the MCU), and the end credits feature the triumphal thunder of Hole’s “Celebrity Skin”. Veruca Salt is conspicuous by their absence (how badass would “Volcano Girls” have been over, say, her climactic devastation of the Kree bomber fleet?), and there are R.E.M. cuts, Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” over a Supreme Intelligence interrogation scene, and a spot-on Nine Inch Nails logo shirt worn by Larson for a third of the film, but the overall filmic jukebox tone is one of defiant and brash women’s voices asserting their agency and power.

Captain Marvel is a manifestation of those voices in action-blockbuster form, and thus is a manifestation of our political and cultural moment as well, at least as Hollywood chooses to understand it and profit handsomely from it. If it’s generally good but never close to great, then maybe that’s all right and even mildly encouraging: if big, expensive, obvious movies starring men and chiefly about them and their psychology and social positioning can be massive successes without moving any goalposts in terms of artistry or ideology, then why can’t such movies starring and chiefly about women be so, too? It can even be conceded that Captain Marvel has just enough going on in its surprisingly dense subtext (a subtext only amplified by the culture-wars nonsense that swirls around it online) to push it above the MCU average. As it smashes an important glass ceiling in Hollywood’s most sprawling franchise, Captain Marvel puts another few cracks in a larger and more resilient glass ceiling. But it’s far from a shattering blow, by any measure.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: First Man

First Man (2018; Directed by Damien Chazelle)

First Man is a space exploration movie that is sturdily, even stubbornly earthbound. Like the version of its focal character played by Ryan Gosling, Damien Chazelle’s biographical drama about NASA engineer and astronaut, American icon, and first human being to step onto the moon Neil Armstrong is determined, practical, and emotionally reticent, expending maximum effort on technical accuracy and experiential fidelity and allotting naught but a bare sliver of space to wonder and transcendence. As with many recent Hollywood films of note, First Man was burdened (and, perhaps, its box office and awards prospects weakened) by a boundingly moronic bad faith controversy (“con-troversy”, I call them, emphasis very much on the “con”) driven by jingoistic online-right reactionaries disappointed that Chazelle did not show Armstrong plant the American flag on the moon’s surface like a boastful interplanetary conquistador. Even the Con-in-Chief, U.S. President Donald Trump, weighed in stupidly on First Man‘s mortal representational sin.

Even if the Right’s self-serving whipped-up outrage over the missing flag-planting hadn’t blocked First Man from their sight like an artificial eclipse, it’s doubtful that these arrogant, magical-thinking nationalists would have found much to like in the film anyway. Chazelle, directing a screenplay by Josh Singer based on James R. Hansen’s book, gives us a profile of Neil Armstrong that is doggedly unromanticized, emphasizing his stoic work ethic, his ever-increasing matter-of-fact nature, and stone-faced emotional bottling in the face of recurring, agonizing tragedies. Gosling plays Armstrong as a man who puts his head down and presses on through pain and danger that consumes men around him, and wins enough saving throws to get through NASA’s sometimes lethally audacious Gemini and Apollo programs with his skin intact and, almost incidentally, with his name etched in the annals of human history.

But Gosling’s internally-contained performance also clearly registers how Armstrong’s professionally-focused march to immortality comes at the cost of his family and personal relationships. The early part of First Man details the devastating loss of Armstrong’s daughter Karen to a brain tumour. Armstrong tracks her symptoms and treatment options in a notebook, displaying a methodical approach that serves him well with NASA but makes her death no less inevitably or agonizing. The tears he sheds for her are last that we see stain his cheeks, and he buries almost any hint of open emotional communication with her. This walling off of Neil Armstrong from the world increasingly strains his relationship to his wife Janet (Claire Foy, doing remarkable things with the usually thankless wife role), who he eventually separated from and then divorced in the 1990s, and to his two sons (Gavin Warren and Connor Colton Blodgett), who he can barely bring himself to say goodbye to before his fateful (and very possibly deadly) trip to the moon on Apollo 11. Armstrong retreats ever further into himself and into his work, even as that work claims the lives of colleagues close to him like Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) and Ed White (Jason Clarke), the latter one of three astronauts to perish in the Apollo 1 fire.

First Man contrasts the earthbound scenes of Armstrong building up his personal walls with white-knuckle sequences of Armstrong tensely striving against the gargantuan forces of spatial physics. More so, perhaps it actually likens the scenarios that face him on earth and in space: Armstrong strains to survive against forces that would crush him pitilessly, protected only by the shuddering but stalwart metal armour of the space capsules. The space flight scenes operate as embodied metaphors for his personal life. What does Neil Armstrong do on earth but rely on similar armour to protect him from being crushed by forces of feeling that are all the more terrible to him for being unquantifiable and unmeasurable, unlike the realm of math and physics of rocket science? There’s a breaking-point tension to these scenes: his opening atmospheric test flight, his Gemini 8 orbital flight with David Scott (Christopher Abbott) that sees Armstrong narrowly avert disaster with timely ingenuity, and finally the nail-biting climactic lunar landing alongside Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), with the red digital fuel indicator counting down ominously and Justin Hurwitz’s score pulsing with mortal urgency. But for Gosling’s Armstrong, none are as tense and terrifying as looking his sons in the eye and willing himself to tell them that they may never see him again.

First Man functions as a demystifying artistic document as regards the mythical Neil Armstrong, who, at least in Gosling’s no-nonsense incarnation, would not have long suffered the grasping, grubby fools who sought to use him to represent the dubiously-conceived positions of their cause in the 21st-century American culture wars. But it also demystifies the inner workings of 1960s NASA: it’s a workplace, albeit a high-stakes and highly specialized one, with its rivalries and alliances, where the personnel decisions behind history-making missions are mostly about whose turn it is. And it leaves time, in a tonally incongruous but undeniably interesting montage aside, to demonstrate the contemporary disagreement about and criticism of the American space program. Although now beknighted and glorified by the boomer-centric epistemological elite for its leaping aspirational achievements, the U.S. space program’s literally astronomical costs and risks were controversial across the political spectrum in the 1960s, and Chazelle cheekily scores a compilation of these protests with a re-creation of jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” performed by Leon Bridges.

This sort of demystification is particularly abhored by the breed of power-worshipping authoritarian nationalists who criticized First Man sight unseen, like Trump and Republican Senator Marco Rubio (who called the choice not to show the lunar flag-planting in the film “total lunacy”, which makes one wonder how he would characterize his party’s legislative agenda). The complications of history and human psychology, the limitations and minutiae of science and engineering, and the realities of messy political and social non-consensus give the lie to their propagandistic fantasies of manifest destiny reaching into the cold, dark immensity of space. First Man very skillyfully and compellingly turns Neil Armstrong from an icon into a man, and transforms his historic steps on the moon from an act of immortality into the laboured achievement of a mortal, of many mortals. It brings this astronaut down to earth, and in the process tells us more about him than any number of jingoistic skyhopping hagiographies ever could.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

The Nuanced Dualistic Masculinity of Letterkenny

One of my recent favourite creators of soft-academic video essays on pop culture and entertainment is Jonathan McIntosh, whose Pop Culture Detective channel on YouTube features detailed, compelling, and well-argued video dissertations on the political, ideological, and psychological implications of tropes common to film, video games, and television. McIntosh is particularly insightful on the subject of masculinity and its depictions – toxic, troubled, insidious, and otherwise – in entertainment. His excellent dual video essays on the “adorkable” misogyny and the complicity of geek masculinity of the hit CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory are a video-essay lecture opus that deconstructs the often ugly sexual and gender politics of the most popular comedy on American television. Watch these intelligent and devastating 41 minutes and you’ll never want to watch a minute of The Big Bang Theory ever again (if you ever did in the first place).

McIntosh’s Big Bang Theory analysis put me in mind of another (much, much funnier) television sitcom that models both traditional and modern masculinity in complicated, nuanced, and often contradictory ways. The popular Canadian streaming hit Letterkenny, set as it is in a small Canadian town (based on co-creator and star Jared Keeso’s rural hometown of Listowel, Ontario) and peopled by farmers, hockey players, emo/goth meth-heads (known as the Skids), First Nations, and other sundry local oddballs, might be expected to be grounded in traditional and conservative conceptions of masculinity and gender politics, which is to say the patriarchal, privileged, misogynistic discriminatory arrogance of the contemporary political North American Right. This sort of stereotypical conservative masculinity is unfortunately very familiar and sadly resilient, as personified in its current exploded avatar Donald J. Trump, and recently and vividly played out in disheartening political theatre south of the border with the sexual assault allegations which very nearly derailed the nomination of conservative movement stalwart Brett Kavanaugh (of “I like beer!” infamy) to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The country certainly has no monopoly on the hallmarks of this traditional toxic masculinity: tendencies towards racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, dishonesty, or bullying, to say nothing of discomfort with women or people of colour in positions of power, insensitivity to differing cultural or ideological identities or perspectives, or distrust of open displays of male emotional sensitivity and preference for assertive and often violent shows of strength to resolve conflicts. The city can lay claim to the same flaws in the masculine character, and it would be urban liberal snobbery of the purest strain to assume that these dirtbag qualities are only possessed by rural men (perhaps together we can envision a glorious future wherein the country and the city join forces against their implacable mutual enemy: the suburbs). If the hicks that are the centre of Letterkenny – Keeso’s Wayne, Nathan Dales’ Daryl, K. Trevor Wilson’s Squirrely Dan, and Michelle Mylett’s Katy, Wayne’s sister – are carefully defined as non-judgemental and tolerant of other races, persuasions, and creeds, the main duo of hockey players, Reilly (Dylan Playfair) and Jonesy (Andrew Herr), do conform to the worst stereotypes of dim-witted, vain, womanizing male athletes, to the consternation of some who might hope for those stereotypes to be at least modestly moved beyond.

If Letterkenny is often at pains to establish its ag-hall protagonists as politically correct and mildly woke (or at least not openly bigoted), then its dominant masculine comedic discourse of heavily colloquial and homosocial chatting, joking, and chop-busting frequently runs towards the crude, and thus towards homophobic comments and negative suggestions of feminine qualities. Both of these less-enlightened turns are present among the first clutch of jokes in the series’ very first scene, even, and it’s hard to guarantee that none of Letterkenny‘s numerous involved dialogic digressions don’t also veer occasionally in such directions. Local pastor Glenn (played by series co-creator, co-writer, and director Jacob Tierney) is likewise a way-over-the-top flaming homosexual stereotype, and the First Nations characters from a nearby reservations led by queenpin Tanis (Kaniehtiio Horn) can veer close to the offensive as well. A brief survey of media articles on Letterkenny, in truth, turns up thinkpieces from right-leaning publications like The National Post and The Federalist. The show’s alignment can be tough to pin down, but it has certainly been embraced by certain conservative circles.

But masculinity is not chiefly concerned with political alignment, nor necessarily with prejudice or the lack thereof. It is above all about how men act, speak, and present themselves, how they interact with women, with other men, and how they think and feel about themselves. In these matters, Letterkenny can also be difficult to pin down, if for no more reason than its prioritizing of its jokes, with plot developments and even consistent characterization often left aside in favour of the big laugh. Still, even before Katy’s more consistent presence in the hicks’ jawing sessions after the first season shifts their nature to less mannish tones, Wayne, Daryl, and Dan only occasionally venture into the sort of lurid discussion of sexual matters or conquests that one might expect in the company of young men (extended simulations of orgasmic porn star exclamations aside), and when they do, Wayne (and indeed the other two as well) expresses care and discomfort (“It’s impolite to kiss and tell”), and the discussion is closer to sex ed than random horny chatter. It’s weirdly open and respectful, and even more weirdly sweet. Even in the locker room of Reilly and Jonesy’s hockey team, the expected “locker room talk” is conspicuously minimal: volumetric sex-related trash-talker Shoresy (voiced by Keeso) is a despised antagonist, and after Katy breaks it off with Reilly and Jonesy, their main encounter with the hockey-adjacent girls known colloquially as “puck bunnies” involves scaring one such woman off (with Katy’s invaluable aid) in order to improve their team’s on-ice focus.

In relationships, there is a similar respectfulness. Katy is characterized as sexually active, but make a negative comment about it and you have her formidable brother to answer to. Daryl is awkward and naifish towards the opposite sex, and when he does get a girlfriend at the end of Season Five (Kim Cloutier’s Anik), it’s practically in a soft-focus fantasy sequence, as she appears out of the blue to confess her love for him despite barely interacting with him previously. The Skids are understood to be basically asexual, with the exception of a brief and unsuccessful relationship between Katy and lead Skid Stewart (Tyler Johnston) early in the series that is forgotten about quickly afterwards (Sarah Gadon recurs as a more enigmatic sort-of love interest to Stewart). Wayne’s love interests include the bookish homebody Rosie (Clark Backo) and Tanis, who becomes pregnant by him in a season-ending cliffhanger and then discusses her choice to have an abortion matter-of-factly, with his level-headed understanding and even agreement.

Indeed, Letterkenny‘s protagonist Wayne is a key focal point in the show’s nuanced and difficult-to-pigeonhole vision of masculinity. We’ve discussed his respectfulness of both men and women (at least those judged deserving of this respect; those who aren’t, we’ll get to) and his absence of prejudice and indeed sensitivity to suggestions of bigotry. But in Keeso’s often near-monotone performance and even in the actor’s wardrobe, we see that Wayne is emotionally reticent and undemonstrative of his feelings, a Clint Eastwood-like strong, silent type (who, like most of the characters in this talky sitcom, is rarely silent). In his lack of emotional display and in his shirts, he is quite literally buttoned-up, an embodiment of traditional masculinity’s imperative to men to hide their feelings in all circumstances. Contemporary psychology tells us that this sort of emotional bottling is unhealthy to both the mental well-being of men and to their relationships with those around them, but it doesn’t seem to do Wayne much damage. When he does become unbuttoned emotionally, it’s played for laughs, as when he grows so heated while discussing Katy’s loss to Stewart in Letterkenny’s prestigious Adult Spelling Bee that he hilarious tears his trademarked button-up shirt open.

Any consideration of the depiction of masculinity in Letterkenny would be terribly remiss if it didn’t address one of the show’s consistent features: its numerous fight scenes, which with their stylish slow motion and rock-music accompaniment constitute a fairly textbook audio-visual glorification of violence. Wayne begins the series as a legendary tough-guy scrapper whose ex-girlfriend (Kalinka Petrie, later more fully characterized as the team-poisoning puck bunny) had made him foreswear punch-ups. Through the first season, he defeats a series of challengers to his crown of Letterkenny’s fight king, and begins a recurring theme of providing fistfulls of comeuppance to various jerks, rez gangs, snobbish city slickers, Quebeckers, tiki-torch-carrying alt-right racists, and, of course, the ultimate source of insidious evil in this fallen world: degens from upcountry.

Taking recourse to physical violence to solve disputes is toxic masculinity at its most brutish and blunt. It’s also depicted patriarchally as a men’s-only activity; Katy and other women mostly stand aside during the regular donnybrooks. But as Letterkenny continues through its current run of six seasons and five holiday-themed specials (so far), fighting becomes, if only through comic inversion, a perverse way of building community. The people who scrap with Wayne and his friends – Reilly and Jonesy, the musclebound Tyson (Jay Bertin) and Joint Boy (Joel Gagne), Tanis’ rez crew, even the Quebecois “hiques” – later become his allies and friends, often called upon or calling upon him when it comes time to vanquish the marauding orcish hordes of the Letterkenny universe, those hated degens from upcountry. Fighting, comically romanticized and glorified as it is on Letterkenny, is not a destructive social force, but one that brings people together.

It’s worth keeping in mind, of course, that Letterkenny is a comedy first and foremost, and as mentioned focuses on the laughs well before giving any care or consideration to consistent characterizations, themes, or ideas. Its comedic nature also renders it especially slippery as a text about masculinity; it can be difficult to pinpoint when exactly Letterkenny is lampooning the harsher elements of traditional masculinity and when it is celebrating them. There is a species of nuanced dualism to the depiction of masculinity in Letterkenny, a concerted effort to retain traditional markers of masculinity and integrate them with positive elements of more modern and progressive ideas of what it means to be a man.

One of the first season’s highlights is the second episode, “Super Soft Birthday”, in which Wayne and Katy throw an annual birthday party for Daryl that, as the name implies, revels in “soft”, childish, even feminized elements: pink balloons and streamers, a bouncy castle, a pony with a braided mane, tiaras and feather boas, cupcakes and cotton candy, and colourful and sweet alcoholic drinks. Letterkenny at once ironically contrasts this super-softness with the stereotypical hardness of rural masculinity (Wayne does fight Joint Boy when the latter crashes the party, after all), but it also unironically enjoys this super-softness, because it’s just fun, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. The super-soft birthday is Letterkennian masculinity in a nutshell. Letterkenny is comfortable with a more fluid and open conception of masculinity at the same time as it locates a certain old-fashioned value in traditional masculine definitions, which it also feels free to rib gently. It’s a nimble and nuanced dance that is always buoyed by humour and good nature, and despite its cruder and less sensitive moments, it’s a dance of the masculine that gets Letterkenny through.

Categories: Culture, Politics, Television