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Film Review: 42

August 29, 2020 Leave a comment

42 (2013; Directed by Brian Helgeland)

Late on the night of August 28th, 2020, the movie-loving world learned to its immense shock, chagrin, and sadness that Chadwick Boseman had passed away at age 43 from colon cancer after a practically entirely private four-year battle with the disease. One of the most prominent and acclaimed African-American actors of his generation, the charismatic and poised Boseman made a tremendous impact on screen in a very short amount of time, racking up a nigh-on unbeatable set of roles memorably playing renowned black cultural icons both real and fictional in the scant space of half a decade: James Brown in Get On Up, Thurgood Marshall in Marshall, King T’Challa in Black Panther, and, in his breakthrough performance, the immortal Jackie Robinson in 42.

Boseman carried himself with a grace, composure, and conviction onscreen and (seemingly) in real life, making him a superb choice to play Robinson, who in a very different and outwardly less tolerant time from our age of politically conscious and outspoken sports stars elevated the now-dismissive bumper-sticker slogan “shut up and play” to saintly proto-Civil Rights heights. Robinson, a talented multi-sport athlete out of California who had served in the military in World War II and then plied his sporting trade in the black-only Negro Leagues, became the first African-American player with the Brooklyn Dodgers in Major League Baseball in 1947, breaking the colour barrier in America’s favourite pastime despite considerable prejudiced pushback. Integration of the league followed this first significant, symbolic victory for black rights in segregated post-war America, a warning shot for the Civil Rights era to come. Jackie Robinson was a human being with flaws like all of us, of course, but along with a select few elite Americans (Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr.) became a rarified icon, a mythic embodiment of idealized national character all the more powerful for his brave defiance of one fundamental aspect of that national character (namely racial hierarchy) that persists in an apparent death-struggle to this day, to the shame of the country and its people.

Not that Jack Roosevelt Robinson would have claimed such a lofty mantle when he was a Dodger, or that white (or even black) American baseball fans of the late 1940s would have tolerated him doing so. Jackie Robinson just wanted to play ball, to show what he could do and show that he belonged with the game’s best, whatever the colour of his skin. The racial political dimension of doing so can’t have been lost on him, but focus was fixed on the athletic achievement rather than any hint of social revolution. Likewise, the trailblazing Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (played in 42 with pleasingly engaged broadness by Harrison Ford) was at pains to emphasize that he signed Robinson in order to win games and attract attention and money to his team, which as evidenced by their proletarian image and nickname “Dem Bums” had tended to be a poorer third-wheel to New York City’s other ballclubs, the dominant Yankees and the Giants (who, like the Dodgers, would move to California a decade after Robinson’s major league debut).

Although Rickey offers a private explanation of his choice to Robinson in the film (he claims lingering guilt over not doing enough to help a black college teammate who was driven from the sport by abuse and exclusion), capitalist motives dominate his public stances. Robinson and Rickey alike, at least as depicted in 42, hew to pragmatic utilitarianism rather than to moral elevation in their pursuit of a clearly apprehended but strategically disavowed incidental justice. Capitalist America is ever ruled by displays of value rather than by the higher principles it claims to hold to (hence slavery, Jim Crow, and the persistent racial hierarchy, which benefitted owners and elites with the capital they generated, financial and symbolic), and Robinson displayed the value of black ballplayers beyond doubt. Social change followed that revaluation, hardly as an afterthought but arguably as a corollary.

Boseman anchors 42‘s ensemble cast (including Nicole Beharie as Robinson’s wife Rachel, André Holland as his sportswriter friend and sometimes chauffeur Wendell Smith, and a sadly underutilized Christopher Meloni as the womanizing, no-nonsense Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, who is suspended at the start of Robinson’s rookie season due to a scandalous affair offending Catholic ticketholders) with a quiet strength typical of a man who could not respond to the racist provocations hurled his way by prejudiced whites lest he undermine the entire effort. Ford’s Rickey points out the Christ-like, patient, turn-the-other-cheek calm of this required equilibrium, and Boseman registers and communicates the unfair cost and simmering injustice of his plight. If the historical Jackie Robinson could not let out the resentment and hurt surely inside him at his treatment lest he labelled as angry, tempestuous, weak, and therefore inferior to the white men around him, then Boseman’s 2013 portrayal of him cannot let these unequal social aggressions of white supremacy pass without acknowledgement.

In an invented scene following the relentless racial abuse aimed at Robinson by Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), Boseman’s Robinson smashes a bat and howls and sobs in rage in the dugout tunnel after going out on his second at-bat beneath the torrent of Chapman’s slurs, only to be calmed by an empathetic Rickey. His teammate Ralph Branca (who acted as consultant for the film and no doubt as a result receives a sympathetic depiction as Robinson’s open-minded ally by Hamish Linklater) says the breakdown didn’t happen, but as compellingly acted by Boseman and central to Robinson’s myth as his stoic endurance and reserve is, the catharsis of allowing his frustration to show is to a large extent a necessary dramatic choice, demonstrating the psychological wear of persistent racism (distanced by time and located safely in the past, of course, as Hollywood liberalism prefers it).

42‘s writer/director is Brian Helgeland, who made A Knight’s Tale and wrote L.A. Confidential, and he crafts a sturdy if formalistically unchallenging sports-hero biopic along fairly predictable but bluntly effective formulaic lines. He builds to a climactic Big Game in which Robinson overcomes minor antagonists (including Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Fritz Ostermueller, played by Linc Hand and blanketed in anti-German slurs by Branca during a bench-clearing brawl after he beans Robinson in the head) and helps his team win the pennant, to the cheers of the masses and the swelling score of composer Mark Isham. Helgeland’s framing of the nature of the racism that aligns itself against Robinson’s unprecedented position is likewise bluntly effective. Robinson’s on-field defeats of the Phillies and Pirates are understood likewise as defeats of the racist prejudice of Chapman and Ostermueller and former teammate Kirby Higbe (Brad Beyer). Vignettes of segregation at a gas station, a hotel, and in a Florida town during spring training are unsubtle reminders of the Jim Crow order that Robinson was challenging.

42‘s treatment of 1940s American racial politics does not tend to challenge, but Helgeland and Boseman manage to carve out one sequence of mild insight. The Dodgers are in Cincinnati, just across the border from Kentucky, home state of the Dodgers’ future Hall-of-Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black). Reese, a generally beloved All-Star, has received a threatening letter ahead of the road trip (Rickey assuages his concerns about it by showing him the three folders’ worth of even worse letters addressed to Robinson), and sure enough, the crowd’s racist vitriol towards Robinson is particularly vicious as the team takes the field. Helgeland focuses in on a young boy in the stands with his father, talking effusively like a Reese superfan and then, clearly modelling the behaviour of his prime male authority figure as well as the communal mood around him, unleashes the n-word when Robinson takes his position. It’s an ugly moment, but Reese’s response to it is more heartening while also being sharply nuanced: he strides over to Robinson and puts his arm around his black teammate’s shoulders while telling Jackie that he wants to show his family in the stands what kind of man he is. His fanboy in the crowd brightens at this moment, the positive modelling of his idol overcoming the negative modelling of his father and tipping him towards a tentative tolerance.

But Boseman’s mostly-quiet performance in this scene explores different implications. There’s a keen awareness in Boseman’s expression that Reese’s actions (what we’d now generously call allyship) are as much about Reese’s own feelings and public appearance as they are about supporting Robinson. Pee Wee needs this as much as Jackie does, if not more; he as much as says so. Black’s Reese trots off with a casual note of further support, offering to get the whole team to wear Robinson’s #42 uniform “so they can’t tell us apart”. Boseman’s Robinson lets a wry smile escape his lips. If only it was so simple to shift the weight of his burden. Is Robinson glad to have Reese in his corner? Sure, and the scene clearly signals that we’re supposed to feel glad about it too. But Boseman turns the serene composure and strong-silent-type nature of his Robinson into a stealthy critique of the performative allyship of liberal whites, of their need to make aiding in the quest for black justice about their own edifying redemption first and foremost. It’s far from ungenerous of him, but it shows that he’s no man’s prop either.

Chadwick Boseman’s serene strength as a performer was a classic Hollywood feature given more modern contour and shape by such notes of wry knowingness, and it characterized his later movie-star turns, especially as T’Challa in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Little wonder that in the last new film he appeared in prior to his death, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, Boseman was cast as a strong, wise-beyond-his-years idealization of just and brave black masculinity, literally framed in a key scene by crepuscular rays like a holy ghost, a superhero. An iconic subject like Jackie Robinson would overwhelm many very fine actors, but it fit Chadwick Boseman like an old baseball glove. What a devastating loss to cinematic art.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews, Sports

Film Review: John Wick 2 & John Wick 3

August 20, 2020 Leave a comment

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017; Directed by Chad Stahelski)

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019; Directed by Chad Stahelski)

I have to admit that I underestimated John Wick when I wrote about it three years ago. The 2014 Keanu Reeves-fronted stylishly brutal and subversively emotionally cathartic action movie (directed by his stunt double from The Matrix, Chad Stahelski, along with uncredited partner, producer, and ex-stuntman David Leitch) got labelled a well-crafted potboiler with a twisted sense of empathy and, well, on I moved. I did speculate that there seemed to be considerable room for the John Wick universe to grow in sequels in terms of its crime-underrealm world-building, so perhaps I can claim a small victory of prescience for clocking, if only in passing and without the forethought of the strange evocative power to come, how these movies became both the past decade’s impeccable and bar-raising trilogy of action flicks and it’s most grandly mythic pop-art morality plays as well.

John Wick: Chapter 2 and John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (which we will henceforth refer to as John Wick 2 and John Wick 3 or Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 for brevity’s sake) dive deep into the mythology established in the first film and make it the water these latter two stories float in. We learn in John Wick 2 that Wick’s world is one peopled by secret contract assassins and ruled by a mysterious crimeboss cabal known as the High Table. There are a strict and binding set of rules laid down and enforced by the High Table that all who serve this council of the powerful are subject to, which includes not only hitmen like John Wick but managers of the sanctuary Continental Hotels like New York’s Winston (Ian McShane) and Rome’s Julius (Franco Nero), who provide refuge and equipment for the cost of gold coins, the currency of this underworld earned by killing (John Wick has earned a lot) that are just one of several elements of these movies that evoke video game tropes.

Another vital currency are the Markers, blood-oath tokens whose debts to the holders cannot be disregarded by the givers except on pain of death (there’s lots of death and pain in play here, literal certainly but also more figurative). John, it turns out, owes the ambitious and coldly conniving Camorra gangster Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio, an Italian Michael Shannon by way of genre character actor Marton Csokas) for helping him to get out of the assassin game, which if you recall from the first film he did to be with his now-deceased wife Helen and quite emphatically got back into to avenge the killing by callous Slavic mob punks of a puppy she posthumously gifted him. Santino holds a Marker for this debt that he was content to allow to gather dust if John stayed retired but is calling upon John to pay back now that he is un-retired. Very early in its sequel, the cathartic revenge violence of the initial John Wick movie spins off into unglimpsed and difficult moral consequences, and not for the last time in the trilogy. Some franchises made separately can play loose with narrative consistency, but the John Wick movies pin every consequential choice to the board like an exacting and pitiless butterfly collector, a moral specimen to be recalled and reckoned with (having a consistent director in Stahelski and a consistent writer in Derek Kolstad through all three movies probably helps with this).

Santino informs John that to fulfill the oath of the Marker, the returned “Boogeyman” must kill Santino’s sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) so that he can take her place on the High Table. John refuses, insisting that he’s still out of the game, and Santino firebombs Wick’s house and burns it to the ground in response (fortunately, John’s new dog, an unnamed bully breed who is a very good boy, escapes with his owner, and evades harm throughout the rest of the two sequels, you’ll be glad to hear). Thus chastened and reluctantly accepting his task, John travels to Italy to do the deed (though it doesn’t shake out how you might expect), which sets Gianna’s goons after him (most prominently prior acquaintance Cassian, played by Common) as well as earning a contract on his life from Santino, no doubt to disguise his own culpability in his sister’s death. But there is no evading consequences for anyone in Wickworld, and after John kills his way through legions of foes, he comes for Santino and rashly finishes the job on the hallowed safe ground of the Continental.

So John Wick ends Chapter 2 and enters Chapter 3 with a $7 million price on his head and an “excommunicado” order, both placed by erstwhile ally and father figure Winston, barring him from any aid or succour from the vast criminal underworld’s network of agents and safehouses. He finds some regretful and even somewhat hostile comrades in the Bowery King (a glint-in-his-eye Laurence Fishburne, Reeves’ Matrix co-star, who delightfully drops a joke about spending Wick’s contract prize money at Applebee’s and appears at the end of Chapter 3 lit by low firelight and sitting on a golden throne while sipping Fanta through a straw), the pigeon-training boss of a network of homeless ninja street agents introduced in John Wick 2, and then in Sofia (Halle Berry), a Casablanca resident and attack-dog trainer with whom Wick holds a Marker for aiding her in concealing her daughter for protection. Venturing into the desert to meet the Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui) who is the only figure with authority above the High Table, John Wick must sacrifice again for a chance to live and remember his beloved wife, but when his contract from the Elder against the disobedient Winston is thrown aside due to old loyalties, he must face down the might of a High Table assault squad as well as sword-wielding contract-killing martial-artist (and John Wick’s biggest fan) Zero (Mark Dacascos, who we have collectively failed and who should have been a massive action star instead of – or perhaps in addition to – the friggin’ Iron Chef Chairman).

That a fairly bare synopsis of this sort makes the John Wicks sound like pretty conventional action flick fare should not undersell on how consistently the action and the visuals and the mythos are elevated and top themselves as the movies go on. What I’ve been calling Wickworld is a rich and highly allusive frame setting, an act of dense comic-book-style world-building in the milieu of the usually simple and bloody-minded action genre. Movies with Mikey’s illuminating video essay on the first John Wick movie (he’s done videos on the other two movies as well) pointed out all of the parallels to Greek mythology in the film, thinking about how many characters are likened to Mount Olympus gods and mythological characters either symbolically (Winston as Zeus, Adrianne Palicki’s huntress assassin as Artemis, etc.) or quite literally (Lance Reddick’s Continental Hotel concierge is named Charon, like the ferryman of the underworld, and of course John’s wife Helen is the catalyst for his cataclysmic war as the Iliad‘s Helen was the catalyst for the Trojan War).

But Wickworld is also built from the visual motifs and mythological bones of Greek tragedy, Roman Catholicism, Islamic mystical art, Arthurian legend, architecture from classical Rome to Art Deco America, Gilded Age displays of luxe, Roma lore, Slavic folktales, and above all from the modern mythology of American cultural hegemony that is cinematic history: there are allusions and homages and references and sly repurposings all across these movies from deep in the filmic canon, from film noir to silent comedy (Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. is projected on the side of a building prior to the car and motorcycle chase that begins John Wick 2) to James Bond to surrealistic art films (there’s a reference to the infamous eyeball-cutting shock moment in the Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí film Un Chien Andalou, if you can believe that) to Asian martial arts films from Hong Kong to Japan to Korea to Indonesia (Reeves battles two cast members of cult Indonesian actioner The Raid late in Chapter 3). But the John Wick movies are hardly visual retreads; there is a strongly-established visual look to all three films of nightime noir cut through with high-contrast neon colour, founded by cinematographer Jonathan Sela in the first film and continued by the masterful Danish DoP Dan Laustsen (who shot Crimson Peak and The Shape of Water for Guillermo Del Toro as well as the wild French genre mashup Brotherhood of the Wolf, which starred Dacascos). Mikey Neumann gets into this more, as does video essayist Patrick H. Willems in his video on how the John Wick movies turn New York into an unpredictable and mysterious mythic setting.

But these are action movies, after all, and for all of the dense allusiveness of the world’s mythology, the John Wick movies never venture far from their core appeal: the gorgeous visceral magnificence of Keanu Reeves (who has spent the end of his 40s and his early 50s making these films) shooting lots of people in the head. Willems has another video grading every John Wick trilogy action sequence, and as a document of the remarkable feats of action filmmaking accomplishment on display here, it can’t be beat. Nor can John Wick‘s action scenes; there simply isn’t anything like them in any other movies. Eschewing both the balletic wire work of Hong Kong action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (who choreographed the fights in The Matrix) and the bone-crunching shaky-cam immediacy of the Bourne movies, John Wick‘s fights are constructed of sustained medium-wide shots, minimizing fast cuts and showing the totality of the movement, violence, and surrounding urban landscapes. They are brutally pragmatic but possessed with a beauty in their bluntness and intimacy, qualities reflected in the functional efficiency of Reeves’ choreographical profile as Wick (we can quibble all day about Keanu’s thespianic abilities, but in terms of physical movement, he’s an artist). They are often shot in visually striking settings, like the red-lit Circle Club in John Wick 1 or the hall of mirrors art exhibit that ends Chapter 2 or the opaque reflecting glass room (dotted with samurai artifacts in breakaway-glass display cases) at the climax of Chapter 3.

The best of them combine masterful choreography and stunt work and camera use with wild, guffaw-inducing creative invention derived from their settings, especially in the bar-raising third film. John and Sofia and her armoured attack dogs laying rousing waste to thugs in a Moroccan bazaar is one good example, while John killing a 7-foot-4-inch assassin (played by pro basketballer Boban Marjanovic) in the New York Public Library using only a book might be even better, but the absolute pinnacle has to be the extended running battle after the contract on Wick’s life kicks in at the start of the film, during which he fights off a gang of putative killers using the extensive bladed arsenal of an antique weapons museum before retreating to a stable to off more foes by having horses kick them in the head and then riding off on horseback and eliminating two chasing motorcyclists from the animal’s back (this is to say nothing of the later scene featuring swordfighting on motorcycles; seriously, the third movie is off the damned chain).

Matched with the depth of the mythological backdrop and the density of action invention is the intensity of the moral hazards that drive John Wick‘s stories, the way in which choices have consequences in a way that they rarely do in the video-game-esque logic of the action genre. Those consequences are increasingly serious and dire. The cathartic revenge fantasy of the first film (itself escalated by the fatalistic prideful loyalty of Wick’s mobster foes) is immediately complicated by the ultimatum of Santino’s Marker at the start of the second film; the emotional satisfaction of Wick’s puppy-avenging crusade is already blunted by Reeves’ very purposeful grim flattened affect in response to it, but becomes a step into the quicksand of this unforgiving underworld. The arc of John Wick’s fate in these three films bends away from justice and towards tragedy; with every adrenaline-pumping badass kill, he is further from the redemptive peace he sought with Helen.

Neumann’s Chapter 3 video is eloquent and perceptive about this thematic element: in his fateful audience with the Elder, John is asked what he wants to live for, and he doesn’t have a ready answer. Again, Reeves’ natural verbal reticence (reflective of a personal guardedness in his private life as well) maximizes this moment as Wick initially says nothing before retreating to the safe harbour of remembrance of Helen. But the effectively unsubtle thematic symbolism of these movies undercuts this assertion immediately: the Elder asks Wick to sacrifice a finger to be allowed to continue, and he chops off his ring finger and must give the wedding band to the Elder as collateral. Movies with Mikey notes this tragic dimension of John Wick’s moral identity by the third film, that transmuting his painful grief into vengeful wrath and dogged, diminished endurance has turned him back into the Angel of Death (Reeves returns to New York City in an all-black suit for the last act of Chapter 3; again, symbolism not subtle) that he vowed to cease being for his love of Helen. He has betrayed that love in the name of preserving it. We thrill at John Wick’s masterfully crafted feats of cathartic violence, but when ruminated upon, the catharsis curdles into existential dread. This is not an ascent but a fall. A man’s soul, clawed back at great cost, is being lost before our eyes. Greek tragedy indeed.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Paddington & Paddington 2

Paddington (2014; Directed by Paul King)

Paddington 2 (2017; Directed by Paul King)

Far more than actual cinematic continuations the Fantastic Beasts films (of which there surely cannot be three more of yet to come, especially given the toxic division embraced recently by their rich and powerful screenwriter), Paul King’s Paddington movies are the spiritual and metaphorical successor to the massively successful Harry Potter screen franchise. They are, of course, British-based productions from Potter‘s Hollywood studio Warner Brothers and produced by Potter‘s primary overseer David Heyman, and they feature several actors who also appeared in the Potter movies: Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson, and the voices of Imelda Staunton and Micheal Gambon. But like Harry Potter (and the James Bond movies and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and even Matthew Vaughn’s wildly amoral Kingsman movies to a much lesser extent), Paddington and its sequel Paddington 2 are among the carriers of the weight of post-millenial British (but especially English) national pride and international image-making both domestically in the UK and around the world. The United Kingdom is an empire no more; the sun has well and truly set on its global power, and increasingly sets on the disparate people and the harshly unequal society within its own borders, which its most important political leader of the past half-century firmly insisted did not exist, an assessment whose current Tory leaders seem bluffly determined to prove correct. Still, a prominent global position has mostly been maintained by the UK through high-finance shell games, disproportionate sport spending and consumption (see the English Premier League and the 2012 London Olympics), and particularly through internationally-disseminated popular culture: British television, popular music, the stage theatre of the West End, and mainstream cinema.

The greatest and most uncertain threat to that prominence since the end of the Second World War is Brexit (although its supporters will no doubt tell you that it will Make Britain Great Again), and it arrived like a bolt from above (or from below) in between the release of the two Paddington films. How sad and incongruous it is that the UK narrowly voted to sever itself from Europe and (in its right-leaning media and Conservative political ascendancy at least) embrace the besieged Little Britain fortress mentality of the Euroskeptic fringes at the same time as some of its very talented film artists were crafting a pair of transcendent family films whose themes, ideas, and emotions embraced a very different and more inclusive and warm image of the UK as a welcoming shore for strangers and a society and culture held together by fundamental goodness, fairness, politeness, and openness to vital changes of heart. It might strike one as wrong and deluded to preface the Paddington movies in such political terms, but make no mistake, these are political movies just as they are absolutely masterfully crafted entertainment storytelling for all conceivable audiences. The first Paddington movie is about the fundamental decency and good-heartedness of a foreign transplant winning over native-born anxiety around the risk of integrating difference and literally triumphing over the exploitative legacy of colonialism. The second Paddington movie is a parable of community cohesion and empathetic carceral state reform. These movies are about an adorable and clumsy talking bear in a hat and coat who loves marmalade, but they’re sociopolitical fables as well. If there’s a third movie, maybe Paddington will abolish the police. Who’s to say?

What is Paddington? Well, he’s a talking bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) from the jungles of “Darkest Peru” (that’s how it’s said every time, as if to emphasize a certain fantasy nature to the exoticized place). His Uncle Pastuzo and Aunt Lucy (Gambon and Staunton, respectively) are his adoptive guardians (he tells another character that they raised him after his parents died, and Paddington 2 opens with them saving him from a river as a cub), who speak English and have a dedicated fondness (if not exactly a deep knowledge) of British culture after a meeting with a friendly and respectful Brit explorer (Tim Downie) sometime in the colonial past. They pass this fondness and knowledge and sense of civilized politeness on to the cub, as well as a ritualistic adoration for marmalade (I can’t say that I share their taste for it, unfortunately) and their lifelong ambition to go to London on the invitation of their explorer friend (the movie corrects for the colonialist implications of all this, and we’ll get to that). When an earthquake shatters their homely tranquility in the jungle, Paddington is bundled onto a ship by the elderly Lucy bound for London, acquiring his English moniker when he arrives at the major city railway station of the same name.

Expecting to be taken in by a kindly family like a World War II orphan, Paddington has no luck attracting the attention and sympathy of the busy rail commuters until he meets the Brown family, gently bickering upon their return from a domestic holiday (the vital essentials of the family dynamic and personalities are imparted in the scant 30 seconds of screen time between train disembarkment and meeting with Paddington, a marvel of screenwriting and acting economy). Despite the initial distaste and dismissal of family patriarch and officiously prudent risk analyst Henry (Hugh Bonneville) and the embarrassment of teen daughter Judy (Madeleine Harris), muse-following book illustrator and warm matriarch Mary (Sally Hawkins) feels sorry for him and, supported by inventive tinkerer and pre-teen risk-taking son Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), offers to bring him home for the night and help him find a more permanent home the next day. Henry is eager to be rid of him, especially after a destructive flooding of the washroom and a later small kitchen fire threatens to push up their insurance premiums. But Paddington’s guileless and polite friendliness and fish-out-of-water wonder with their simple suburban lives gradually wins over even the more hardened Browns, as well as kindly locals like antique-shop owner Mr. Gruber (Broadbent), an immigrant to London like the bear. At the same time, however, Paddington must contend with an ornery and prejudiced neighbour, Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi, quite funny in the first film more so than in the second, where he has less of a plot role), and Curry’s loose ally and unrequited romantic interest Millicent (a gleefully villainous Nicole Kidman), taxidermist director of London’s Natural History Museum, who murderously seeks to add Paddington to the museum’s stuffed animal specimen collection.

Paddington slowly convinces the Browns to embrace their better qualities through his sheer boundless nicety, and even leads Mr. Curry to a limited redemption, when he balks at Millicent’s violent intentions and anonymously tips off the Browns after she snatches the bear (Henry recognizes his “disguised” voice on the phone right away). Pre-redemption, both Henry and Mr. Curry speak of Paddington in thinly-veiled prejudiced anti-immigrant language: Henry initially dismisses him as a likely urchin who will look to sell them something at the railway station, and Curry frames him in terms of an unwanted desirable likely to ruin the neighbourhood (Curry is a self-appointed neighbourhood watch agent in Paddington 2, even declaiming to the street denizens about a raised Bear Threat Level with a printed colour-coded Terror Watch-style chart); he is reinforced in this xenophobic-coded thinking by Millicent, who warns darkly of slippery-slope tableaux of comedic bear-related social decay like hair clogging storm drains and “all-night picnics”. This connects with the colonialist implications of the black-and-white newsreel prologue, when it is later revealed that (spoiler!) Millicent is the daughter of the friendly explorer who encounter Lucy and Pastuzo, who was blackballed from the Geographers’ Guild for refusing to bring back a not-so-alive specimen of the rare bear species for museum display and the glory of the Guild and of himself. Seeing her father’s kindliness and lack of ego as unforgivable weakness that carried with it harsh consequences, Millicent seeks to imbue the cathedral of knowledge with a neo-imperialist glory that will reflect on her as well, instead of joining the chain of goodness that so impressed itself on Paddington and is the foundation of the realm of polite warmth that grows up around him.

This realm of polite warmth is more apparent and expanded upon in Paddington 2, the far funnier but equally well-crafted sequel. Paddington is now firmly a vital heart of the neighbourhood, despite Curry’s fussy objections, and his decency elevates and brings out the best in not only the Browns but in most of their neighbours as well. In one visually illustrative moment, after Paddington becomes a window cleaner, he scrubs the grime off the windows of a sour, solitary military veteran (Ben Miller), quite literally letting the sun into his life and changing his outlook almost instantly. But this all changes with alarming suddenness when Paddington observes a bewhiskered thief snatch a rare and expensive pop-up book of London landmarks from Mr. Gruber’s antiques boutique. Due to Paddington’s pursuit of the robber along the city’s canals and his own publically-observed interest in obtaining the book (legitimately, by paying for it with his work earnings) as a gift to his London-pining Aunt Lucy in her Home for Retired Bears in Lima, however, the bear is arrested for the theft and sent to prison.

While the Browns attempt to prove his innocence and the guilt of suspected culprit Phoenix Buchanan (a terrific Hugh Grant), a disguise-loving egotistical washed-up actor who sought the book as part of an elaborate and potentially lucrative treasure hunt whose proceeds he plans to use to rejuvenate his flagging career, Paddington works his positive transformative powers on the (gently-)hardened inmates of the prison, particularly the intimidating cook Knuckles McGinty (Gleeson, doing his hard man with a heart of gold act to light-touched perfection). By the time the Browns have their first visit with him, Paddington has befriended the entire inmate pool (the scene where he introduces them all by name at the visitation window might be the funniest of the many very funny moments between both films, especially when one of the prisoners is a Tory-ish baronet politician who hopes he can rely on the Browns’ vote and “couldn’t possibly comment” on mugshots of potential criminal gang members behind the theft) after softening McGinty’s resistance with his delicious marmalade sandwiches, involving other incarcerated men in pastry cooking (another British cultural import), and convincing the warden to read bedtime stories over the loudspeaker, to make the jail seem more like a home. It’s Paddington’s positive influence taken to a purposeful and thus more impactful extreme: even prisoners, viewed as society’s dregs and barely-human criminals even in a nation like Britain that treats them more fairly than some others do, are worthy of kindness and good treatment, and respond with their (mostly) best selves when so treated (this is even imparted visually by their striped prisoner scrubs being dyed a soft pink hue by a red sock that sneaks into the washing machines as Paddington is on laundry duty).

It’s not often that children’s movies featuring a talking CGI bear speak simply but eloquently to the positive social influence of immigrants and advance potent arguments for progressive prison reform, but the Paddingtons are very special children’s movies, and not just on the level of surprising political themes. They are based on the children’s storybooks by Michael Bond, first published in 1958 and widely beloved and frequently adapted in Britain since then (Bond cameoed in the first film but died the year the second one came out, which is dedicated to him). Their director is Paul King, who also wrote the first film himself (from a story he co-penned with Hamish McColl) and co-wrote the second with Simon Farnaby, who appears in both films as a dim security guard who is very attracted to men dressed as women (another British cultural import). King hadn’t done much notable film work before totally knocking the Paddingtons out of the park, but he did direct the inventive Brit comedy series The Mighty Boosh (left-of-centre Brit comedic talent like Matt Lucas, Noah Taylor, Kavyan Novak and Richard Ayoade have small but funny roles in the films). Paddington and Paddington 2 are fantastic family entertainment in the vein of Pixar’s opuses, delighting children as well as including smart humour and sophisticated (but not pop-culture dated) references for older audiences, especially to film history from the silent comedy of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to Hitchcock thrillers to the Mission: Impossible franchise.

Patrick H. Willems details many of these references as well as numerous other great strengths of these films in a video essay about them: they are tightly and cleverly-written narratives full of efficient but effective visual storytelling, witty sights gags (for example, when the Browns first come across Paddington, he is seated in front of the station lost & found, with only the word “lost” lit up behind him; when Mary offers to let him stay with them, “found” flickers on as well), and satisfying pay-offs for even seemingly throwaway gags with later story callbacks and resolutions (King shares this screenwriting skill with another vet of small-screen British comedy who transitioned to feature film, Edgar Wright), they are often hugely funny, genuinely moving, and they are beautifully composed and shot (Erik Wilson was the cinematographer for both). The musical score hits the key emotional and thematic cues (Nick Urata is the composer for the first film, Dario Marianelli for the second) but it’s in the use of pop music inserts that the Paddingtons really shine (The Mighty Boosh was largely a musical comedy piece, so King is versed in mixing it into a comedic narrative). The needle drops in the first film can be pretty on the nose: James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” when Paddington commandeers a small dog to attempt to navigate the Tube like a confident local, Steppenwolf’s Easy Rider anthem “Born to Be Wild” over a flashback to Henry and Mary as motorcycle-riding hippies (Paddington 2 uses Boney M’s “Daddy Cool” to establish the freak-flagged young Henry as a deft hand at Brit carnival game coconuts), and a hilarious snippet of Lionel Richie’s meme fave “Hello” to underscore Curry’s lovestruck astonishment at first glimpsing Millicent. The movies’ most consistent musical element is King’s deployment of a middle-aged UK calypso band called Tobago and D’Lime as a recurring semi-diegetic Greek chorus, showing up on street corners and even in prison to sing jaunty tunes tonally related to Paddington’s adventures. And of course Grant’s spotlight-loving Phoenix Buchanan closes the credits of Paddington 2 with a big flamboyant production number with the pink-clad prison inmates as his chorus line; the Paddington films are generous enough in their souls to give even one of their self-centered bad guys a spectacular stage musical redemption.

These are movies with huge hearts but also with huge brains, and the combination is pretty special. The cast is special, too: Hawkins was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for The Shape of Water the same year Paddington 2 came out, and brings both a flighty suburban-bohemian quality and an emotional centre to Mary; Bonneville specializes in stodgy Brit authority figures with unglimpsed reserves of bravery and sentiment, and Henry (whose long-haired hippie past in amusingly flashed back to in both films, as noted) is a fine example of this; Walters is a flinty proletarian Scots delight, especially when she distracts a museum guard during the climax of the first film by drinking him under the table; the kids are solid, Broadbent is at his buoyantly avuncular best, and as mentioned the villains played by Kidman and Grant are hammy scenery-chewing joys (Kidman picks up a stuffed rodent as if it’s a phone when Curry rings her at her office at one point, while Grant slips from one accent to another while conversing about his treasure hunt masterplan with his mannequin-mounted stage costumes).

It’s Ben Whishaw who is the anchoring soul at the core of Paddington, though. Adopting a winsome, fussy, vulnerable tone, Whishaw uses vocal ability alone to give the computer-animated bear (who is given some furry realism but mostly held by the VFX artists as a cartoon figure) an irresistible heart without slipping into preciousness or even hinting at anything but a deep-felt sincerity. Whishaw has been recognized as one of the UK’s finest young actors for a stretch of years now and has headlined numerous British TV projects (his Richard II outshone the kings of Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch to be the best lead performance of the Shakespearean Henriad/War of the Roses series The Hollow Crown), but has not gained the American film roles to achieve international fame like some of his contemporaries (minus his role as the new Q in the Bond films). His voice acting in the Paddington films may not be a major breakthrough, but they are a testament to his powers as well as to his ability to chameleonically embody a certain idealized Englishness.

Likewise embodying a certain idealized Englishness, the Paddington movies are great, even if real-world events in the country of their setting has made them into even more fanciful fantasies than they essentially are, as imagination-laced children’s tales. King transitions with poetic wonder into Paddington’s imaginative liquid memory of his Darkest Peru jungle origins in both films: in the first, the bear steps through the watery membrane of a film projection screen into a lush green tropical woodland, and in the second, a tear he sheds in his prison cell when he thinks the Browns have forgotten him sprouts green shoots from the floorboard cracks that likewise grow into the jungle flora of his subconscious mind. In a similar way, if you’ll indulge the metaphor, the Paddington films are a wondrous, imaginative memory-dream of a Greater Britain that the nation seeks to project to the world but that also seems to be a form of faded nostalgia disconnect from social and political reality. Audiences can look upon a fairer and kinder land through the refracted liquid membrane of Paul King’s sparkling family movies, and perhaps even imagine, with their best hopeful hearts, that the United Kingdom will emerge from the contentious and dangerous crucible of Brexit as a better and more empathetic national community. The real UK appears unlikely to abide by Paddington’s favoured mantra from Aunt Lucy that “If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right,” if only because so many on or near the levers of power and wealth benefit from the opposite. But the Paddington movies can but be the best model for fair and friendly social and moral behaviour as well as for skilled, inclusive filmcraft that they can be, while hoping that as many others as possible follow their example.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: The Hunt for Red October

The Hunt for Red October (1990; Directed by John McTiernan)

It’s an ironic historical oddity that Hollywood only began to adapt the neoconservative military/espionage novels of best-selling author Tom Clancy after the Cold War was over and the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse. The first of the imperialist adventures of Clancy’s go-to hero – the intrepid CIA analyst, former Marine, and all-around instrument of covert American hegemony Jack Ryan – came out in print in 1984, at the mid-point of the Reagan Era of whose international political mentality and approach Clancy’s work was the purest popular-literary embodiment. Paramount Pictures only got around to making a film adaptation of the submarine-focused novel a few years later, releasing The Hunt for Red October in March 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the democratic revolutions of the Eastern Bloc, and the effective end of the U.S.S.R. with the Communist Party’s removal from power.

It’s somehow fitting that The Hunt for Red October arrived onscreen as an already-formed expression of the nostalgic fantasy view of the just-ended Cold War, a view that Clancy’s literary output is predicated on and that has pervaded American popular culture and even American global and domestic policy thinking down to today. In many ways, the Cold War mentality never really ended in the American psyche, because the Cold War was not where it started. This is the deep persistence of what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics”, pivoting after 1991 from the “Evil Empire” of the Soviets to alternately hyperbolized and wholly imagined existential antagonists to American power foreign and domestic: tinpot dictators like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Islamist terrorists after 9/11, and conspiratorial elite cabals deeply suspected on fringes of both the Right and the Left, before most recently circling back to the contemporary heirs of the U.S.’s literal Red Scare foils, Vladimir Putin’s election-disrupting Russia (whose association with President Donald Trump’s manifold corruption is a favoured Cold War callback attack vector of centrist neoliberals) and the ever-rising economic powerhouse of authoritarian Communist China (whose human rights violations and failures in pandemic containment Trump’s loyalist enablers on the Right have been eager to emphasize in order to deflect criticism of his own).

The Hunt for Red October‘s theatrical release timing is fitting because if Clancy’s earliest books were marinated in the historical context of the belligerent paranoia of Reaganite neoconservatism (his second, Red Storm Rising, was co-written with Larry Bond and fictionalizes a third world war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact), his very first novel (and first cinematic adaptation, which is extremely faithful to the book’s events) actually imagines a scenario of late Cold War rapprochement between the implacably opposed superpowers, or at least a couple of their national security representatives. This makes it part of a micro sub-genre of onscreen political thrillers made in a very narrow window of time that narrativized the Cold War’s imminent end with themes of peace agreements, burying hatchets, seeking reconciliation, and looking ahead to an uncertain but hopeful future. These are the kind of themes that liberal Hollywood could get behind as the Reagan Era transitioned into the First Bush Interregnum before the new false dawn of Clintonian neoliberalism. The sixth Star Trek movie, 1991’s The Undiscovered Country, is this film’s most notable sibling in this micro-genre, surpassing its thematic and symbolic eloquence as expressed via genre filmmaking more fully when viewed through the lens of the history of that science-fiction franchise, though not necessarily in more general terms.

The Hunt for Red October introduces a career-prime Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) as a voice of moderation, rational action, and cooperation amidst a shoot-first intelligence and military apparatus. Ironic again, perhaps, that this version of Ryan, conceived during the waning days of the Cold War, is an advocate of soft-power man-to-man diplomacy with the Soviet adversary, when later versions of the character – played in subsequent films by Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Chris Pine – shifted more in the direction of buttressing American power in a dangerous and unpredictable world, culminating in the current super-imperialist Amazon Prime television series, a glorified CIA recruitment video starring the oft-risible John Krasinski. Baldwin’s Ryan leaves behind his family (Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Gates McFadden has a single scene as his wife, and there’s some humanizing business with his kid’s teddy bear) at the behest of CIA Deputy Director Admiral James Greer (James Earl Jones) to delve into some worrisome surveillance photos and maritime reports of a new Soviet super-submarine, the titular Red October, which has put to sea with what is suspected to be a state-of-the-art new jet-like “caterpillar” propulsion system that would empower it to run silent through the water and thus evade sonar detection, allowing it to conceivably sail right into U.S. waters with its nuclear payload before anyone in the Navy knew it was there.

This, of course, profoundly worries the military brass, intelligence bosses, and National Security Advisor (Richard Jordan), who seek Ryan’s expertise as a CIA analyst and naval historian. But by the time he briefs them, the situation has only grown in complexity and urgency. Red October‘s captain, highly-regarded Lithuanian submariner Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), has blown off a training rendezvous with another Soviet sub (its Captain Tupolev pursues him doggedly and thus becomes the closest thing the film has to a villain; this was one of the first attention-grabbing English-language roles for Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård), surreptitiously murdered his political officer (named Putin in a historical irony that now seems almost unbelievable in its rich serendipity), and used his caterpillar drive to slip off of sonar and head across to the Atlantic Ocean towards North America, just as a pre-posted letter from Ramius lands on the desk of a Party leader informing his superiors of his intention to defect to the U.S. with his crew and high-tech boat.

As it heads west Statesward, the Red October believes to have slipped by an American sub, the USS Dallas, captained by Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn), but the Dallas‘ brilliantly observant classical-music-loving sonar operator Jones (Courtney B. Vance) picks up a hint of their sonar signature and manages to track and/or anticipate their trajectory. Presenting all this information and acting on a firm hunch that Ramius, whose file he knows back to front and whose wife recently passed away, intends to defect (the Soviets, ever deceitful in American eyes, inform the U.S. that Ramius is a renegade madman and ask them to help sink his sub), Ryan convinces the authorities at one turn after another to allow him to risk an attempt to intercept Red October and contact Ramius to ascertain his intentions, rather than invite a potential nuclear incident by firing on him. Their rendezvous on Red October will require them to find a mutual understanding while holding the trigger-happy Americans at bay, defeating the implacable Tupolev (a former protégé of Ramius), thwarting a mysterious onboard saboteur, and deceiving the Red October‘s crew as well as the entire Soviet fleet if they’re to have any chance at a successful defection on the road to a more lasting peace.

The Hunt for Red October was directed by John McTiernan, following on the heels of his helming of Predator and Die Hard, a high-quality three-film run nearly unparalleled in Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking (he would make up for it with the legendary flop Last Action Hero a few years later, a movie perhaps unfairly maligned for its attempt to subvert action movie tropes). With that kind of resume, I don’t have to say that his direction of the underwater tension is deft and surehanded, if perhaps not quite up to the gold standard of the claustrophobic submarine thriller, Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot. But McTiernan is a thinking-man’s action genre artist, and employs subtle but definite techniques to impress the themes of Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stewart’s screenplay into the perception of his audience. One of these techniques is shown through the use of language in dialogue, with the transitions between spoken English, unsubtitled spoken Russian, subtitled spoken Russian, and finally into English again chosen very deliberately and intelligently to impart core ideas about Cold War worst-case-scenarios (Russian and English share the same word for “Armageddon”, aptly) and the common-humanity olive branches of mutual understanding (Patrick Willems details these techniques and what they communicate to the audience in a good video essay on the movie). The cinematography also works to this goal, bookending the film with complimentary scenes of Ramius’ sub leaving and entering secure inlets and generally serving McTiernan’s needs for clear, effective visual communication with occasional stylish flourishes (the DP was Jan de Bont, later a notable action and thriller director in his own right).

As is often the case when movies deal with social and political issues, The Hunt for Red October grounds the macro in the micro, rendering the slow crumbling of large-scale generational ideological conflict and global-power rivalry in illustrative gestures of relatable human connection. Ryan’s family life is imparted in broad strokes early on and paid off with a closing callback moment. Ryan speaks Russian to build a bridge with Ramius; the Lithuanian submariner’s father was a fisherman, and he and Ryan discuss angling in the coves of New England in the nocturnal denouement. Ramius chats with his right-hand man Borodin (Sam Neill, also in one of his early breakthrough American film roles) about their future lives in the States, and Borodin speaks with aspirational humility about a simple life in Montana, which grants pathos to his eventual fate.

We’re used to American characters, ever the protagonists in movies of this sort, being given human dimension, but vitally the crew of the Red October is afforded the same privilege of identifiable traits and earned empathy; even supporting figures like Tim Curry’s fastidious ship’s doctor (left out of the officers’ defection conspiracy and target of a ruse to remove the ordinary crew for the very reason of his rule-bound nature) and Ronald Guttman’s chief engineer (who nails a particularly Russian sense of sarcastically grim dedication to duty redolent of the character actors in Chernobyl) are given space to paint quick-stroke personalities among the larger plot intrigue. Films that render larger-scale politics in small-scale emotional intimacy can oversimplify and stereotype in the process, but the most remarkable thing about The Hunt for Red October is that it preserves the political sweep and the personal dimension. Especially given its genre, subject matter, and primary source material, all often subject to whittled-down archetypes and black-and-white moral dichotomies, this makes it a notable effort, regardless of the resonance-granting incidentality of its release timing in historical context.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: This Is the End

This Is the End (2013; Directed by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg)

This Is the End answers a question you’ve probably never thought it worthwhile to ask (and may not think it so even after watching the movie): If the apocalypse happened, a full-on fire-and-brimstone Book of Revelations Judgement Day event with demonic beasts and the Rapture and cataclysmic earthquakes, what would happen to all of the comedic actor bros from Judd Apatow’s movies and TV shows? You know, Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Jay Baruchel, favoured Apatow collaborators since his television days of Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared, and maybe Jonah Hill and Micheal Cera from Superbad, and also Danny McBride and Craig Robinson from Pineapple Express. Since it goes without saying that these guys hadn’t lived life blamelessly and righteously enough to be deserving of ascension straight to heaven (I mean, you’ve seen Your Highness, right? There’s no coming back from that), would they survive? If a pack of them were holed up together with dwindling supplies in, let’s say, James Franco’s pretentious contemporary-art-strewn mansion as Los Angeles burned outside, could they cooperate and coexist in order to stay alive, or would resentful bickering and masculine disagreements tear their de facto band apart amidst the unusual pressures of Armageddon?

This Is the End takes this bottle-episode scenario of homosocial bunker mentality to appropriate extremes. All of the aforementioned comedic actors play exagerrated versions of themselves, and come in for rough treatment in Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s script (the duo also direct and produce) as well as in the heavy improvisations (apparently only Franco, who presents as a pompous self-interested prick second only to the generally abrasive McBride, did not object to how he came across, suggesting a capacity for self-deprecation henceforth largely unglimpsed in the man). The premise is that they’re all attending a lavish Hollywood housewarming party at Franco’s new pad (not filmed in L.A. but in tax-break-offering New Orleans), along with cameoing celebs like Rihanna, Emma Watson, Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, Kevin Hart, Jason Segel, Paul Rudd, and more. Baruchel is visiting and staying with his old friend and Undeclared and Knocked Up co-star Rogen and had hoped to spend more time with him rather than being reluctantly dragged to a big Hollywood affair. The tension in their fading friendship is at the heart of the movie, and becomes all the more strained when Baruchel watches people being raptured out of a convenience store and he and Rogen barely escape crashing cars to get back to Franco’s place, where a deep sinkhole with a magma bottom opens up on the front lawn and starts swallowing B-level talent like a Netflix development contract (Got ‘Em).

Micheal Cera goes first of many, which is honestly surprisingly disappointing seeing as wild degenerate coke fiend Micheal Cera is a great improvement over halting awkward Micheal Cera (he was grateful to Rogen and Goldberg for helping him to try to escape his typecasting with this role). This movie is hardly gentle, and carries a serious body count; as in The Interview, Rogen and Goldberg’s comedy sensibility is not unafraid to get blood on its hands. Quickly enough, the cast is whittled down to the volatile sextet of Rogen, Baruchel, Franco, Hill, McBride, and Robinson, with a brief re-appearance by a bat-swinging Watson, who they quickly alienate and drive off (with a clutch of their precious supplies, to boot) with an overheard conversation about making her feel at ease among so many men that swiftly degenerates into misapprehended (and actually carefully contextualized so as not to offend) rape concern commentary (Mila Kunis was originally supposed to fill this role, but then one of the film’s best jokes would have been lost, McBride’s crestfallen post-mortem summary: “Hermione just stole all of our shit”). This conflict-heavy fratty atmosphere (Franco and McBride clash over many things, although none at quite the absurd length of an interminable argument about ejaculation) persists as their situation becomes more desperate and the demonic beings unleashing the apocalypse threaten them from outside the house and eventually from within.

This Is the End is based on Jay & Seth Vs. The Apocalypse, a short film Baruchel and Rogen made in 2007 to stir up industry interest in the final feature film’s core concept of a pair of bickering buddies navigating both the existential threats of Armageddon and the prideful microaggressions of male companionship. Like most of the comedy movies from this stable of creatives, This Is the End is a predominant (and only fleetingly ironic or self-examining) sausagefest lorded over by a smothering dude-ish sensibility, with all the women’s roles either sexualized (Kaling, Rihanna, and Watson are all basically reduced to sex jokes, although the latter two are allowed to clap back at least) or very much not (a mean woman at the convenience store gets a violent comeuppance). There’s also some percolating, troubling homophobic anxiety at play in the comedy, with Hill being sexually violated by a possessive demon and his 21 Jump Street co-star Channing Tatum showing up in a cameo as a submissive sex slave to Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic raiders.

The humour runs towards the usual dude-comedy fodder of food, sex, bodily functions, pop culture references, recreational drug use, and prolific cussing (though not prolific enough to crack this most definitive of masterlists) as befits a largely improvised movie from a bunch of guys well-versed in such (not necessarily) sophomoric material throughout their careers. Your mileage may vary with this stuff, but Rogen and Goldberg are capable enough filmmakers to keep happenings fresh and unpredictable, particularly in late-film action and effects sequences and horror homages to The Omen and The Exorcist (the demon-possessed Hill is quite funny in the latter, with his unimpressed and casual asides during the believer Baruchel’s attempt to get the power of Christ to compel him: “Guess what? It’s not that compelling.”) There’s surprisingly nice cinematographical work as well from DP Brandon Trost, including the very memorable image introducing McBride below.

Given that we’re living through an era of viral pandemics, mass unrest, rising authoritarianism, and imminent socioeconomic and climatological collapse in which the apocalyptic is not merely in vogue but presenting as a terrifyingly urgent possibility, This Is the End could be approached today as either a trifling trivialization or a cathartic invocation of those fears. As befits its comedic genre, this is not a disaster movie circling and underlining the supposed realism of its depicted end of the world as we know it, grounding this apocalypse very much in Christian eschatology and its fantastical supernatural elements (see the final face-off with a hundreds-of-feet-tall Satan, who you’d better believe is on the receiving end of a penis joke). This choice becomes funnier when you consider how much of the core onscreen and offscreen creative talent is Jewish (and thus presumably do not subscribe to Christian millenarianism), but it does not transfer to grounding the events in the moral and ethical questions of these beliefs; one conversation comes close to addresses these conundrums, and there is a generalized suggestion that being a good person and sacrificing for the benefit of others is the path to paradise, but it’s not really interested in such matters and clumsily mangles them in the service of humour. The Good Place, this ain’t.

This Is the End is a shock-humour stoner comedy about the end of world with a frat-boy-meta take on self-regarding celebrity culture (Rogen cited Charlie Kaufman’s films as an influence, which is quite the thing) in which a major plot point is Jonah Hill being raped by a demon and which ends with a Backstreet Boys cameo in heaven (a semi-ironic “Christmas in Heaven” for the millenial generation). It’s more ambitious than your usual bro-heavy knee-slapper, but it still hardly reinvents the wheel and doesn’t have anything much to offer in the way of social commentary, as the apocalyptic genre frequently does. It was an understandable impulse in 2013 to want to laugh at the end of the world, but in 2020, the joke is not nearly as funny.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods (2020; Directed by Spike Lee)

Probably the main factor that make the movies of Spike Lee so exciting (even when they aren’t very good or are full of questionable ideas) is how they meld American history, social issues, and racial politics with film history and masterful technique. Lee’s movies are not always resonant and engaging narratives featuring memorable characters and involving themes, but they tap into cultural and political zeitgeists like an alchemist dowser armed with a mystically true divining rod. They are effective visual polemic; you could call them propaganda and be definitionally on the mark. Watch a stunning, shocking scene like the assassination sequence in Malcolm X and marvel not only at the dramatic push-ins and kinetic but never chaotic motion and quick-cutting edits, but the tussling street tension between black witnesses and white police outside the hall, and before that a sequence on a staircase that could be a stealthy Battleship Potemkin homage. Or consider the wells of implication and meaning created through juxtapositional montage during the Birth of a Nation scene in Lee’s recent return to form, BlacKkKlansman: as Harry Belafonte, a living giant of the 1960s civil rights movement, tells gathered black activists a tale of a brutal, horrifying lynching of a black man inspired by the notorious but technically revolutionary D.W. Griffith historical epic film about the Civil War, Reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, a crowd of Klansmen screen the film after an initiation ceremony, hooting and hollering and throwing popcorn in a whipped-up racist froth. Do the Right Thing has myriad scenes that contain multitudes like this as well.

Because cinephiles know this, they also know that if Spike Lee is making a movie about the Vietnam War, it’s going to be just as much about how American movies have created an idea of the Vietnam War in the (inter)national imaginary. You would likewise expect, or at least be unsurprised to learn, that Spike Lee’s Vietnam movie examines and likens the white supremacist oppression of African-Americans and the imperialist oppression of the Vietnamese by the Americans, and by the French before them, in a manner that is provocative, problematic, not entirely connected or effective, and neither intellectually nor emotionally sensible. Da 5 Bloods, a film about a quartet of black Vietnam War veterans who return to the jungles of Indochina where they once fought for two intertwined but vastly morally different quests half a century later, is in frequent open conversation with past Vietnam films, especially the colossus of this notable war-movie subgenre, Francis Ford Coppola’s bloated, visionary descent into cinematic and psychological madness, Apocalypse Now (which, in its Heart of Darkness in Southeast Asia high-concept conceit, elides vital elements of and perspectives on the war just as surely as it focuses on its symbolic meaning in the collective American unconscious, but that’s a whole other discussion).

That iconic film’s distinctive, blood-ink title logo appears directly on screen in an early scene of Da 5 Bloods, but Lee undercuts its weighty portent immediately: the Apocalypse Now title image forms a splashy backdrop at a tourist-geared nightclub in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon, the capital of the Americans’ South Vietnamese allies until it fell to the Communist North Vietnamese at the end of the war in 1975), and Lee pulls back from it past a DJ booth emblazoned with a Budweiser logo banner of a similar shade of red and carrying equal representational space in the frame. Even in the foreign urban setting of America’s soul-shaking defeat to an implacable ideological adversary in a conflict (that, lest we forget, was really a civil war over another country’s soul) that irrevocably divided the homefront, global capitalism is ascendant, and more than holds its own against the ultimate idiosyncratically critical work of art about that defeat, which has been commodified to a similar extent as a globally-imported brand of weak beer. Another later Apocalypse Now homage sets a montage of picturesque and light-hearted video-shot clips of the still-friendly party travelling downriver into the jungle to Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, iconic soundtrack to a sequence featuring a fleet of avenging attack helicopters in Coppola’s film.

As the featured movie poster to the right suggests, the colour red is something of a visual motif in Da 5 Bloods. It’s in those suggestively paired movie and beer logos, and of course in the titular bodily fluid, a not-inconsiderable amount of which is spilled before the credits roll and which is the fraternal self-title for the unit of black veterans who reunite in Vietnam. It’s also the prime colour of the Donald Trump presidential campaign’s infamous “Make America Great Again” hats, which have become a visually symbolic shorthand for hard-right white supremacist political positioning in the American culture war, in historical lineage with white hoods, burning crosses, and Confederate battle flags but, for the moment at least, acceptable at the country club. One such MAGA hat features as a central symbol in Da 5 Bloods, worn with seeming incongruity by a black man (who do form the largest block of voting support for Trump among the African-American population). This is Paul (Delroy Lindo), the most haunted and unstable and paranoid and bigoted and confrontational of the four reunited Bloods, all of whom claim to suffer from gradations of PTSD from their war experiences. The others are trip organizer and former field medic Otis (Clarke Peters), who retains a contact with a former Vietnamese courtesan (Lê Y Lan) whom he learns had a daughter by him in the ’60s; trip funder Eddie (Norm Lewis), a well-off used car salesman fallen on hard times; and Melvin, who doesn’t really get much distinctive character development (he knows how to use a metal detector, I suppose), but is played by Peters’ The Wire co-star Isiah Whitlock Jr. so the seasoned viewer is ever on notice for his distinctive delivery of the word “Shiiiiiiiit!” Don’t you worry, he obliges.

These four Bloods, joined semi-reluctantly by Paul’s concerned, college-educated teacher son David (Jonathan Majors), are venturing back into the Vietnamese jungle where they fought and were irrevocably changed on an ostensible mission to find and repatriate the remains of their deceased squad leader, “Stormin'” Norman (Chadwick Boseman). As shown in flashbacks and spirit-visions, Norman is a sort of idealized paragon of enlightened black masculinity, a brave and capable leader and comrade but also a socially-conscious amateur preacher of civil rights justice and liberation theology. He’s a sort of revolutionary warrior monk (and is shot as such by Lee and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, heavenly crepuscular rays slicing through the trees behind him at one point as if a benediction from on high), a Fred Hampton of the Viet jungle, and he suffers a similarly violent final fate. He is venerated as a martyr by the surviving Bloods, especially Paul, who claims to be visited by his ghost. But it’s not only peace for this beloved ghost that the Bloods seek. They also hope to find millions of dollars in gold bars from the American government intended as payment for their tribal Vietnamese allies, which the squad was sent to retrieve in the mission that claimed Norman’s life in the late ’60s and was buried with him for safe-keeping. Norman’s plan was to liberate the gold as reparations to fund civil rights causes and uplift their people; the surviving Bloods want to uplift themselves and fund their own comfort in their waning years, which they feel their service and sacrifice for a nation that continues to treat them as second-class citizens has earned them. It’s a Vietnam-era Three Kings plot concept, with plenty more racial politics thrown in.

Lee and his editor Adam Gough intercut between the Bloods’ modern-day journey and their original 1960s mission with Norman, with occasional supporting archival footage added for emphasis as well (Lee, a sometimes-documentarian, has long preferred this technique as well). This time-period dichotomy further demonstrates Lee’s technical skill and cinematic know-how, as the transition back and forth over the half-century gap is indicated by a shift in historically-accurate aspect ratio and film grain (the older actors playing the older Bloods also play their younger selves in the flashbacks alongside the much younger Boseman; one accepts the choice readily enough, but an aged-down photo near the movie’s end puts one in mind of ILM’s digital de-aging effects work on The Irishman, although such a technique might have as much as doubled Lee’s budget, which although large by his standards is still fairly modest). Lee and Sigel craft classically-pitched war sequences of cinematic sweep during the Vietnam War sequences, firefights with the Viet Cong scored with heroic orchestral swells by Terence Blanchard. They also put together several white-knuckle tension-and-release scenes later in the film involving land mines (so forcefully foreshadowed are the mines, one expects characters to step on them at nearly every point so that it is no shock or surprise when it finally happens) as well as explosive shootouts with Vietnamese tribal gangsters who are after the gold at the instruction of shady-dealing Desroches (Jean Reno), a Frenchman who the Bloods (especially Paul) do not trust one whit but who they must rely on to help them smuggle the gold out of the country.

Impressive craftmanship aside, however, the ideas and themes that underscore these elements are messy, contradictory, and often highly questionable in their reproduction of discriminatory Hollywood war movie tropes and in interrogating the African-American experience to the war and to American imperialist projection. As Viet Thanh Nguyen observes in a critical review of the film in the New York Times, Da 5 Bloods reproduces many of the problematic tropes of prior American films about what the Vietnamese refer to as “the American War” (a phrase used in the early scenes of this film, it should be acknowledged), namely the casting of the Vietnamese as faceless enemies to be snuffed out in rousing battle scenes, a framing that Lee, eager to nod to the genre’s history, is absolutely guilty of here. The war is wrong, Hollywood’s framing has long assumed, but killing othered enemies in that war is not only not necessarily wrong, it can even be exhilarating. Whatever Coppola’s critical intent with his Wagnerian evocation in the chopper assault scene may have been, the aesthetic power of the scene has been embraced by some as a glorification of war, as a scene referencing Apocalypse Now in Jarhead demonstrates. Lee does not shift this perspective one inch here, it must be said.

Nguyen also highlights a discomfiting scene of Paul tossing a racial slur at an insistent Vietnamese vendor at a floating market, although Jeet Heer responded to this criticism on Twitter by noting the context is important (Paul is couched as highly troubled, his friends call him out immediately for what he says, and Lee has long made a point of using offensive racial language openly in dialogue in order to make purposeful points about how racism operates). Another thoughtful perspective on this element of the film is provided by Hoai-Tran Bui at Slashfilm, who says almost entirely what I would say about how Da 5 Bloods considers black trauma and the larger imperialistic implications of “the American War” and again finds that the film frames the Vietnamese people above all as victims (millions of them died, but one faction did defeat a world superpower and unite the country, after all), although the Bloods’ local guide Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen) is characterized a bit more and becomes a comrade-in-arms before the bloody end.

Vinh is one of the focal points of the way that Lee, who did a re-write of the original script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo with previous collaborator Kevin Willmott (director of the laughably blunt agitprop mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America), uses conventional themes of fatherhood to deal obliquely with the complex and guilt-ridden legacy of American involvement in Vietnam as well as its history of black oppression. Vinh’s father was in the ARVN, the South Vietnamese army that fought alongside American troops against the V.C. and the Communist army of the North, and was sent to a re-education camp after the South’s defeat (a better fate than many of American’s allies in the country met, as he notes); like his father, he fights alongside Americans, even embraced by Paul at one point as an honorary Blood, a “yellow n***a”. Paul himself has a strained relationship with his educated, bourgeois son, resenting David for his wife’s death in childbirth and symbolically and emotionally associating this resentment with his guilt over the death of Norman, and the laboured double-reconciliation with both his living son and his dead idealized mentor is a key part of Paul’s complex arc (Lindo gives a spectacular, intense performance with this meaty material, devolving in the end to mad biblically-inflected ranting alone in the jungle; no one has any idea what the Academy Awards will look like next spring with the pandemic-effected dearth of theatrical movie releases, but if they happen, the long-undervalued Lindo should be remembered for this performance). And Otis finds a fatherly sense of fulfillment in the denouement, meeting and embracing his half-African-American, half-Vietnamese daughter Michon (Sandy Huong Pham) before the two of them are given the honourific treatment of Lee’s signature double-dolly shot.

While this thematic focus on fatherhood is an approach that renders knottier ideas about difficult legacies in an emotional form that is relevant and identifiable to audiences, it has a way of eliding more penetrating questions about the war and the role of African-Americans in it that Lee merely gestures at (for example, the My Lai Massacre, the most notorious American war crime of the conflict, is used as a pre-shootout taunt by the lead Vietnamese gunman, played by Nguyen Ngoc Lam). Lee’s touchstones of political philosophy, moral instruction, and cultural commentary are firmly planted in the Vietnam War era: he opens his film with Muhammad Ali’s famous quote that “no Vietnamese ever called me a n****r” and closes it with an excerpt of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech (given exactly a year before his assassination), includes a scene of the Bloods learning with rage of King’s death while in Vietnam, and peppers the movie with Marvin Gaye songs both diegetic and non-diegetic, especially from his seminal album of socially-conscious R&B, What’s Going On. There’s also the liberation theology rhetoric underpinning Norman’s beliefs and Paul’s ravings.

Lee is grounding the ideas of Da 5 Bloods in the activism of the era that the Bloods recall with a mix of nostalgia and traumatic horror, and that’s valid enough, I suppose. But it’s another instance that seems to lay bare that Lee, an activist artist of a previous generation, is out of step with the social justice movements of the present, which view the Vietnam War with a much more witheringly anti-imperialist eye and are less seduced than he is by romantic fantasies of soldierly fraternity or martial heroism that might buttress black experience and fights for equality. As Bui notes, for all that Lee invokes pregnant associations between American imperialism, systems of anti-black racism, and the threads connecting the two in Da 5 Bloods through dialogue, spliced-in archival clips, and visual technique, the film doesn’t finally manage to say anything definitive about their symbiotic linkages, coming just to the cusp of doing so before reaching for Hollywood convention and a satisfactory narrative and emotional conclusion. The closest he comes is in having Desroche don the vanquished Paul’s red MAGA hat at the conclusion of the climactic shootout, this central symbol connecting American white supremacy and European colonialism, acting as a literal scarlet thread between the two. But even this isn’t without a neoliberal counterpoint of an anti-landmine advocacy organization called LAMB run by a French woman named Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), who become enmeshed in the conflict over the gold between the Bloods and Desroche’s goon squad. Hedy’s family became wealthy from plantations in Indochina under the French colonial regime, but she is redirecting that wealth with all the white guilt she can muster towards charity non-profit do-gooding. Imperialist wealth can be bad or it can be good, says Spike Lee. Both sides!

In the denouement of the Da 5 Bloods, Lee includes a scene in which the once-wealthy Eddie’s portion of the gold spoils is donated to Black Lives Matter, an in-text statement of solidarity with their cause from Brother Spike. Much of the rest of Da 5 Bloods, however, like BlacKkKlansman before it, betrays Lee’s generational, socioeconomic and ideological distance and divergence from the less-compromised and more militantly impatient BLM and their allies. His previous film closed with his trademark double dolly shot being utilized to suggest the future of black liberation lay in an alliance between activists and law enforcement. If that symbolic thesis statement seemed more than a little out of step in 2018, it is even more so in 2020, amidst massive popular protests demanding more significant advances in racial justice and defunding or even abolishment of the police, especially coming from a filmmaker who was literally paid by the NYPD to help improve their public image. The problem of unified purpose is a consistent problem of political activism on the Left and in the African-American community, and Spike Lee’s latest film embodies that lack of unified purpose in its invocation without reconciliation of American global imperialism and white supremacist racial hierarchy.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One (2018; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

Ready Player One is about a dystopian socioeconomic reality existing alongside a utopian technological fantasy. Notorious as a desperately obsessive compendium of 1980s popular culture featuring namedropped references to almost countless movies, television shows, video games, comics, and other media products (key moments include the protagonist winning a game of the ’80s arcade staple Joust and re-enacting an entire scene from the Matthew Broderick movie WarGames word-for-word), Ernest Cline’s 2011 science fiction novel is quite divisive among pop culture geek fandom for these “remember this?” nostlagia bombs as well as for the mid-level stalker-ish behaviour and toxic masculinity of its main character, arrogant teenaged super-gamer Wade Watts. I haven’t read it, but film adaptation nut and YouTuber Dominic Noble has, so check out his (spoiler-ful) video on it if you want to know more (he also reviewed the film and how it differs from the book, which you can watch here; I may borrow from his expertise here and there in my write-up, especially as regards book content).

What emerges from the 2018 movie adaptation of Ready Player One co-written by Cline and veteran screenwriter Zak Penn and directed by Steven Spielberg (whose work is treated reverently in the book, as a giant of 1980s American cinema, flattery that no doubt interested him in helming the film) is that Cline’s world-building details and his narratives themes contain, or possibly unwittingly conceal, a noticeable if tonally neutered critique of contemporary American post-capitalism and its subordinate culture industry dominated by intellectual property juggernauts slugging it out for overwhelming box office grosses and fleeting attention primacy in the cultural discourse. Jenny Nicholson’s video critique of the movie finds Cline’s breathless invocation of pop culture touchstones superficial and meaningless; I’m not sure I disagree, but in the margins beyond authorial intent, there’s some grim critical considerations going on as concerns the implications of the dystopia/utopia dichotomy of the text.

Ready Player One is set in 2045, where a series of social and economic calamities (brought about by an energy crisis in the novel, the Corn Syrup Droughts and Bandwidth Riots are mentioned as catalysts for collapse in Watts’ voiceover narration, which sound buzzy and punchy until you think about them for a second and they cease to make much sense) have reduced the world to widespread poverty, starvation, and general deprivation. Our Marvel Comics name-alike hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in a vertical trailer park slum in Columbus, Ohio known as the Stacks, a low-income neighbourhood of mobile homes rising in stacked towers of precarious-looking scaffolding. Having lost his parents in the aforementioned catastrophic unrest, Watts lives with his aunt (Susan Lynch) and her latest ne’er-do-well boyfriend (Ralph Ineson). But where he really lives, where everyone in the world spends their most important time, is in the Oasis, a virtual-reality massively multiplayer online role playing game that constitutes an entire alternative universe as well as the sole remaining driver of the global economic system (in the book, it’s where education happens as well; Wade attends high school in the Oasis).

A vastly expanded and monopolistic hybrid of a MMORPG like World of Warcraft and something like alternate-reality social digital network Second Life, the Oasis features avatars of players vying for rewards and coins that carry real-world value. In addition to its economics being based on in-game micro-transactions, the Oasis is a single-life game for players; if your avatar dies in the Oasis, it is rebooted from the beginning, depriving players of all the leveling-up, improvements, items, and rewards that they have earned and, in many cases, spent real money on. Noble, a seasoned gamer, sharply criticized both the micro-transaction aspect of the Oasis, a charging method from video game developers that is extremely unpopular in gaming circles, and the single-life conceit, feeling that losing everything you’ve built up for your avatar at one stroke would be such a harsh result as to prevent the Oasis from achieving such widespread popularity. What this system does accomplish, however, is create a large class of players buried in crushing in-game and out-of-game debt, which they must then work off in corporate workhouse debtors’ prisons called Loyalty Centers, toiling virtually in the Oasis until their debt is paid off (which for many is never).

The Loyalty Centers are run by a massive tech corporation known as Innovative Online Industries (IOI), who under the leadership of scheming CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, who is far better than such thankless bad guy roles but carves out some decent moments) seek to control and further monetize the Oasis with intrusive, blanketing advertising. Control is competitively up for grabs because a key design element of the Oasis, and the main video game-style quest in the story, is a challenge open to all users to gain sole dominion over the Oasis for themselves by solving three puzzles planted as “easter eggs” (a term for hidden secrets for fans to seek out in games or even other visual media) by its late mad-genius creator, a widely-revered Steve Jobs-like tech savant named James Halliday (Mark Rylance, who only turns out for Spielberg now, it seems), before his death. Players known as “gunters” (shortened from “egg hunters”) make finding Halliday’s concealed clues and keys their main goal in the Oasis, studying his memories for hints in a library/museum archive and memorizing his pop-culture obsessions, certain that the answers to the puzzles lie there. Halliday’s obsession with 1980s pop culture serves to explain the avalanche of said references in the book, if less so in the movie (which I will not entirely spoil but tend to run more towards the IP owned by the film’s production studio, Warner Brothers; no Star Wars stuff, for example, as that IP is owned by rival Disney). The movie’s challenges in this Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-derived contest for heirdom are not not based in pop cultural references, but they link more closely with Halliday’s personal social interactions, especially those involving his fallen-out business partner and Oasis co-creator Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg).

Wade’s Oasis avatar is called Parzival; the name is a reference to the Grail myth, though possibly more via John Boorman’s 1981 Excalibur film than original Arthurian stories, knowing the source; the Holy Hand Grenade from Monty Python’s The Holy Grail also makes an appearance. Parzival is a dedicated gunter, alongside his hulking virtual best friend Aech (Lena Waithe, whose real-life identity as an African-American woman is supposed to be a twist but is ill-concealed) and his sometimes allies the samurai-esque Japanese brothers Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao). Early in the film, Watts/Parzival encounters another legendary gunter, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), during a run at the first quest challenge, a car race through a virtual Manhattan involving exploding obstacles, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and King Kong vaulting off the Empire State Building to smash any racer who lasts to the cusp of the finish line.

Although Parzival and Art3mis are rivals for the keys and the final egg, they begin a flirtation/romance that proceeds quite precipitously (the book takes place over a less compressed time period than the movie, and Watts goes full stalker after Art3mis breaks it off with him, which the movie at least avoids). They are aligned against Sorrento and his army of corporate-owned gunter avatars known as Sixers (so called because they have numbers and not names as Oasis callsigns; both Nicholson and Noble note that they are dubbed “Suxxors” by Wade and his friends in the book, a dumb online-gamer detail that feels true and is therefore missed in the movie), as well as a pair of shadow-agents: a champion-level online operator known as i-R0k (T.J. Miller) who Sorrento sends after Parzival after the latter solves the first egg challenge, and a real world super-investigator named F’Nale (Hannah John-Kamen) who tracks down Art3mis’ real-world alter ego, Samantha, who is active in a resistance movement against IOI’s socioeconomic tyranny.

Ready Player One proceeds as a video-game-style sci-fi adventure, but for once the saturating CGI effects of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster actually have a realistic and believable context: the Oasis is an entirely digital world, after all, therefore everything looks like a computer game because it is one. Spielberg doesn’t let the computer-generated artifice get in his way, though; he delivers a fairly cracking entertainment that mostly holds together at the seams, and his technical mastercraft is impeccable as always, aided by his usual cinematographer Janusz Kamiński (yes, the same man who shot Schindler’s List also shot a movie in which Mechagodzilla fights a Gundam). Pay attention to the circular movement of the camera as Parzival approaches his vehicle (the DeLorean from Back to the Future, natch) before the first race scene; Spielberg and Kamiński can impart fluidity and drama to even a small connective moment like this. Their craft, elegance, and cinematic savvy are evident in the final battle between IOI and the unified independent gunters (which controversially includes the Iron Giant blowing shit up despite being an animated metaphor for non-violence) and especially in the memorable second key challenge set-piece, set inside an impeccable, callback-heavy re-creation of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining that is a clear film-geek highlight (and more fodder for thinkpieces about Spielberg’s fraught relationship with Kubrick’s legacy, whom he met and befriended on the Overlook Hotel set; as if more such fodder was needed after A.I.).

Ready Player One is not without its problems. Wade and Samantha’s relationship in the real and virtual worlds is a little dull and stilted and lacking in real building emotion from the young actors, and indeed everything happening in the Oasis is far more interesting and engaging than any of the real-world conflicts. Spielberg is a master film craftsman, but he has his favoured conventions and slots them in dutifully, especially at the film’s climax: he cannot help but drop a blatant audience-signalling shot of cheering observers to underline the final moment of triumph, and police arrive to collect the villain at the end for purely formulaic reasons. This latter throaway moment raises any number of questions about the nature and power of actual government authorities in this world that are not remotely addressed in the rest of the movie, which casts the corporate giant IOI as the main antagonistic and coercive locus of power.

Indeed, the Oasis and IOI are the vehicles for post-capitalist critique in Ready Player One, which again may not be entirely intentional and indeed may cut against the grain of Cline’s purpose. It isn’t hard to read Cline’s 2045 context as a sci-fi commentary on contemporary modern America, with its crumbling social and physical infrastructure, massive socioeconomic inequality, smothering corporate dominion, debtors’ servitude, and all-consuming media monoculture focused increasingly on technologically-enabled escapist fantasies (Noble mentions that all of this, in addition to the book’s background of most political leaders being shallow, spotlight-seeking television personalities, struck him as far more real and applicable in the context of the 2018 film release than that of the 2011 book release). The Oasis is great, immersive fun in the in-film diegetics and for audiences to observe, but it’s an opiate of the people writ extremely large (its name gestures to this: a literal wellspring haven of refreshment and pleasure in an arid and unforgiving desert environment). Spielberg, Cline, and Penn seem to acknowledge this to some extent, dropping a unplugging-time note in the denouement about the future of the Oasis under its new management (as Noble observes, however, shutting down the world’s main animating economic, social, entertainment, and educational engine for two weekdays each week would have major consequences).

This older-generation moral to the young to shut off the video games and spend some time outside dammit occupies space in Ready Player One alongside a core theme about how authority, authenticity, and belonging are understood by online gaming communities and even weaponized as self-justifying mechanisms and against inclusionary efforts in such communities. Halliday’s easter egg challenge, at least in theory, is a Willy Wonka-esque test of worthiness in an heir to control of the Oasis; the victor will, by completing Halliday’s byzantine esoteric challenges like a tough game on a high-difficulty setting, prove themselves to be a better and more authentic avatar gamer than anyone else. There’s a self-righteous gatekeeping habit to online gamer communities noted by video essayist Harris Brewis (a.k.a Hbomberguy) in his superb video on gamer-centred webcomic Ctrl+Alt-Del that is encoded in Ready Player One‘s larger conflict between scrappy, talented independent gunters and the deep-pocketed infinite resources of the underhanded corporate giant IOI, a conflict literally embodied in the conflict between Wade and Sorrento. The former logs onto the Oasis in a makeshift repurposed abandoned van, the latter has a futuristic top-of-the-line gaming rig in his office but has to jot down his password on a sticky note because he can’t remember it. Watts has studied and memorized every detail of Halliday’s life and compendious pop culture obsessions and honed his skills in hours of gaming labour, while Sorrento can only trade John Hughes movie references with Watts if he has a team of dozens of lab-coated IOI-employed researchers feeding him the info via earpiece. Watts calls out Sorrento as a fake corporate vulture, unconcerned with anything but growing profits and not sufficiently appreciative of the animating truths and fulfilling experiences of the Oasis and Halliday’s pop-cultural overlay in the way that Watts is, as a true gamer.

Hbomberguy highlights a didactic Ctrl+Alt+Del comic ranting angrily about this precise tense dichotomy between the consumers who self-identify as superior scholars of games and guardians of their ultimate cultural capital and see the corporate monoliths expending real capital and the labour of its employees into making those games for them as greedy, bottom-line-focused capitalists ready to deform the treasured experiences and betray the dollar-loyalty of these “real” gamers for profit. This gatekeeping impulse is not necessarily anti-capitalist in nature, and can easily be marshalled against perceived interlopers and unwanted intruders to the gaming world, especially women, minorities, and anyone who dares to challenge and shift the often toxic male power fantasies of the video game realm. These community practices and poses have led to far more problematic and antagonistic political views about diversity and progressivism in video games (ie. Gamergate and its spinoff ideological communities and pernicious effects) that has minted much of what is now known as the alt-right, one of the most disturbing and damaging political movements in the history of the internet. Ready Player One reproduces this dichotomy in its central narrative and thematic conflict uncritically, erecting a shorthand framework of intertwined morality and cultural savvy to establish IOI and Sorrento as the antagonistic force against authentic gamer Wade Watts and his friends. As with many corporate capitalist villains in blockbuster movies, there is little substantive in the ideological dimension of Sorrento and IOI that leaves space for their capitalist assumptions to be critiqued via an oppositional pedagogy, even if they do maintain their equity base via a sizable system of debt-burdened indentured servitude.

The centrality of this dialectic between consumer and producer amidst the gamer and geek culture context favoured by Ernest Cline in Ready Player One, book and film, reveals the inadequacy of any critical commentary in either text as well as the complicity of both texts in capitalist media processes. Cline, like his insert protagonist Wade Watts, doesn’t want to abolish or even reform the capitalist monoculture represented by the Oasis. He only wants to conquer it and thus prove his superiority in the enjoyment of it and in his comprehension of its cultural value. If dystopian narratives imagine exagerrated nightmare scenarios to highlight real social ills and utopian narratives imagine idealized scenarios to suggest how those ills might be ameliorated, Ready Player One, for all its screencraft and pure entertainment, is an oddly dissatisfying hybrid of the two. A utopian dystopia where endemic social problems don’t matter as much as beating a video game or quoting a line from a 1980s movie. Perhaps inadvertently, Ready Player One is a more biting critique of our culture than its creator could have ever intended or fathomed.

Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews

American Reckoning: The George Floyd Protests and the Dimensions of Civil Unrest

June 5, 2020 1 comment

On the evening of May 25th, 2020, four Minneapolis Police Department officers responded to a report of a “forgery in progress” and rolled up to a food shop where 46-year-old African-American male George Floyd had been accused of trying to pay for goods with a counterfeit $20 bill. A confrontation ensued as Floyd resisted arrest and eventually wound up prone and face-down on the pavement outside the store, held down by MPD officer Derek Chauvin, whose knee was on the back of Floyd’s neck. As shown in a disturbing video taken of the events that went viral online, Floyd was in obvious and serious physical distress, pleading with Chauvin to relax the force of his suffocating hold as he couldn’t breathe, and later began to visibly bleed. Despite exhortations from a bystander to allow Floyd to breathe and no attempts from the other three officers on the scene to intervene, Chauvin persisted with his knee on the man’s neck for nearly seven minutes, including for four minutes after Floyd has stopped moving. George Floyd was dead, another in the long line of African-Americans whose lives were lost at the hands of law enforcement.

Observers in America and around the world had seen things like this happen before, and many on the social justice Left wearily expected a series of dispiriting developments to follow. The United States has a long history of racial violence, after all, perpetrated both by the legal authorities and extrajudicially, and just as long a history of such violence going unpunished. The officers would be placed on administrative leave or at worst suspended without pay, but likely not charged and even if so, certainly not with murder (if you’ve never heard of qualified immunity, the legal doctrine’s application to law enforcement has something to do with this). Floyd would be smeared in the press by police sources and supportive allies (mostly but not entirely on the Right), and whatever demonstrations of opposition or calls for justice and police reform presented themselves would be endured and/or indulged superficially by law enforcement and political leaders until the news cycle moved on to something else and the whole matter could be swept inobtrusively under the rug. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, with millions of Americans out of work, anxious about their finances and their health, and still under gradually-lifting lockdowns limiting public assemblies, the authorities might well have expected the pattern to repeat, perhaps with even less open complaint from activist groups such as Black Lives Matter. Certainly the last thing we would see would be any sort of large-scale public protests.

But 2020 is a year that has comprehensively re-defined our collective understanding of the word “unprecedented”. Increasingly large, vocal, and persistent public protests against George Floyd’s killing began in Minneapolis and quickly spread to every major and minor city and even numerous small towns across the country and indeed around the world, eventually involving hundreds of thousands of people from across a diverse racial and ideological spectrum (although mostly from the left in partisanized America). Predominantly peaceful from the protestors’ side, although with undeniable, diffuse sidelines of violence, looting and rioting (as when a MPD precinct was torched in the Twin Cities) which are ever-present elements of social unrest, these protests employ Floyd’s shocking and galvanizing death as their core grievance and rallying point but also sought justice for the recent killings of Breonna Taylor by police in Louisville and Ahmaud Arbery by police-connected figures in Georgia. Beyond these fixed calls for justice, the protests have increasingly embraced wider demands of left-leaning social justice and anti-racist causes, from police department defunding and abolition to consequences for racist and white supremacist speech and actions to larger First Amendment concerns about authoritarian police state tendencies.

The protests, now in their second week with no predictable end in sight, have registered numerous tangible successes already. Officer Chauvin was arrested on May 29th in the wake of the incendiary initial Minneapolis protests, initially charged with third-degree murder but later upgraded to second-degree murder on June 3rd after the state attorney general took over the case, with the other three officers being charged with aiding and abetting on the same date. New charges followed in the Arbery case as well, and an investigation was opened in Louisville to probe the Breonna Taylor case. Beyond these developments, accelerated action on long-simmering factors of division of American racial politics also began to be taken, with long-controversial monuments to Civil War-era Confederate Army generals coming down in some Southern cities and even a statue of notoriously segregationist Philadelphia police commissioner and mayor Frank Rizzo being removed from in front of a city government building. In a less tangible fashion, political leaders, corporations, celebrities, pro athletes, and even notorious YouTube frat-boy pranksters have flooded social media with expressions of support for the larger Black Lives Matter movement (once smeared by conservatives as a terrorist hate group and long held at arm’s length by the mainstream media) and for the protests in particular, often accompanying these expressions with open and searchingly thoughtful examinations of their own privilege and biases. Many of these statements, especially from corporations and celebrities, have hedged their bets with vague language and even exploited the groundswell of political sentiment to trade on what YouTube video essayist Harris Brewis discussed as “woke brand capitalism” marketing strategies. And the “Blackout Tuesday” social media campaign embraced by popular online celebrities and influencers was criticized in many quarters as insufficient and performative quasi-direct action, when considerable monetary donations (bail funds in particular are being overwhelmed) and even street-level participation would be far more productive (nobody’s saying that about Star Wars star John Boyega, though, who went viral pouring his pained soul out to a Black Lives Matter protest in London).

Considering the general left-wing bent of the protests and its central themes of opposition to police brutality, racism, and white supremacist systems, it shouldn’t be surprising that conservatives, who control the White House, are over-represented in police forces across the States, and who default to “law and order” no-tolerance reactions to politically-motivated civil unrest in general (except when the protestors are their ideologically compadres), have sought to push back. A flood of misinformation, threats of arrest and state violence, likenings of protestors to criminals and terrorists, and any number of discursive attempts to criticize, delegitimize and break the protests has erupted across the right-wing media’s propaganda networks. Republican President Donald Trump, well-known for his racist and authoritarian leanings, has amplified this rhetoric on Twitter and in public statements, quoting a 1960s Miami police chief’s explicit threat to shoot protestors and joining the conservative echo-chamber in blaming the unrest on Antifa, an ideology of direct anti-fascism action more than some kind of organization that he instructed his cronies in the Department of Justice to pursue in the legal realm.

The frenzied, constantly shifting lines of attack from the Right demonstrate how poorly their usual discursive tactics have worked to quell the protests or turn the public against them. This was most clearly and memorably shown in Trump’s big swing at a public relations knockout blow on June 1st: his now-infamous bible-brandishing photo-op at the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House in Washington, D.C. The basement of St. John’s had been lightly damaged by fire during post-curfew protests the night before, which sparked a hyperbolic round of whipped-up right-wing outrage at the destruction of a historic church that, like the fire itself, didn’t spread beyond underground of the conservative fever swamp. The same night, Trump was reported to have been hidden in the White House bunker by the Secret Service for his protection (he later claimed to have been “inspecting” it). Following numerous fulminating expressions by Trump that day of the need to “dominate” the streets and crush the protests in meetings with state governors and Cabinet officials, Trump gave a speech outside the White House threatening to deploy the military to quell the protests.

Then came a chaotically-executed television stunt that will no doubt prove to be one of history’s defining images of these events, however they turn out. As peaceful protestors were cleared from Lafayette Park 45 minutes before the 7pm city curfew by federal, city, and county law enforcement and security forces firing tear gas grenades and beating on protestors and media with riot gear, Trump walked with a retinue of Cabinet members and advisors (include his daughter Ivanka Trump, purported to be one of the architects of the moment and holding a several-thousand-dollar luxury handbag) to St. John’s Church, which he had not received permission from the clergy to visit (indeed, they claim to have been cleared from its porch by force with the rest of the crowd) and was boarded up for its protection in any case. With sirens blaring and gas bombs to be heard exploding in the background, Trump held up a bible for the cameras.

Apparently conceived as an appearance conveying strength, defiance, and piety to his shaken and ever-shrinking Republican base (some polls have his Democratic opponent in the forthcoming presidential election, former Vice-President Joe Biden, leading him by ten points), this photo-op was greeted with simultaneously derision for both its ridiculousness (an awkward, sour-faced Trump held the bible upside-down, and, when asked if it was his bible, responded hilariously, “It’s *A* bible”) and for its horrifying authoritarian theatricality. In the moment and shortly after, in combination with threats of military deployment to U.S. cities and reports of mass arrests and legal targeting of protestors on ideological grounds, it appeared that it might at last be the long-feared moment predicted by left-wing commentators when the authoritarian Trump went full fascist and bent all of the oppressive powers of the formidable federal government and politically-sympathetic law enforcement to his capricious will. But the shoddiness of the stunt and the pointless and unconstitutional brutality deployed to make it possible seemed to shake off a certain complacency from many Americans great and small. The next day’s protests grew greatly in size and determination, and the media and even his own Cabinet pushed back against a political PR attempt that was clearly backfiring.

Persistent, escalating police violence against protestors has done even more to popularize and expand the size and scope of the protests, as well as to expose and turn sentiment against the police claims to being a force of law, order, and protection of citizens and their rights. Not only the photo-op tear-gassing in Washington but numerous other bursts of brutality, mass arrests and confinements, kettling tactics to force trapped protestors to break curfews, and attacks on media, legal observers, and non-protesting citizens have been reported and recorded on video. A Twitter thread of video-documented police brutality instances complied by attorney T. Greg Doucette has stretched beyond 300 posts so far. Faced with direct mass criticism of their actions, wider anti-police sentiment, and calls for defunding or even abolishing their departments by people generally understood by cops to be their ideological opponents (if not outright enemies), police from New York to Los Angeles to Philadelphia to Seattle have seemed to respond with force driven as much by anger and bitterness at being held to account for their actions as by a principled desire for order and stability. This escalatory lashing out has only exacerbated the problems they face by proving right the protestors’ assertions about their ingrained violent assumptions, and how they are most commonly and brutally manifested against America’s historically oppressed minorities. George Floyd’s death shocked many Americans enough to get them into the streets, but there’s no question that the police’s forceful response to the protests, especially when it falls upon the heads of white Americans, has shocked even more to show up in solidarity and perhaps to begin shifting their consistently positive views of the police, particularly among better-off Caucasian-Americans.

My tone and framing should make it clear that I support the George Floyd protests and agree with their anti-racist and anti-police state goals. The broad-based diversity of this protest movement, seemingly including a great variety of Americans from all walks of life, sets it apart in the public discourse from the anti-war protests of the 1960s, which while also quite diverse, became pigeonholed (and purposely targetted by the paranoid reactionary J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI) in generational gap terms as a movement of longhaired hippie college kids with communist sympathies. Although even thoughtful and concerned critiques of the protests can either be co-opted by bad faith actors to kneecap them or undermine them unintentionally, I do feel the need to engage in one or two. It’s evident that both the conditions resulting from and the anxiety and even anger stemming from the poor official response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. (which at this moment leads the world in cases and in deaths from the virus) is feeding into the protests in ways both easily apprehended and less obviously visible. The fact that the largest mass protests in America since the Vietnam War era are occuring during a global pandemic that has been responded to with public-health strictures about lack of contact and limited assembly orders is remarkable and impressive while also being highly worrisome in terms of curbing viral disease transmission, it has to be said.

If you listen to many conservatives and concern-trolling centrists, it’s likewise hypocritical: leftists insisted on quarantines and lockdowns while mocking and criticizing right-wingers who broke them for any number of reasons considered to be illegitimate, but now it’s fine that the Left is organizing in huge numbers because they say that their cause is important enough (and there are many conspicuous precautions from protestors, especially mask use and even some measure of social distancing, that were less evident during right-wing protests weeks ago). Certainly many of these criticisms are in bad faith and could be turned right back on their utterers: the Right didn’t care so much about quarantines a few weeks ago, and even got crowds of Trump supporters out to protest them as illegal tyranny, but now they’re defending them as necessary when it’s the leftists out in the streets fighting against racism. There’s a strong note of being stung with bitter disappointment on the part of conservatives that their own attempts to break the lockdowns with (sparsely-attended and highly astroturfed) protests were roundly criticized and never really caught on (nor did they receive a skull-cracking police response, as has been illustratively pointed out by progressives), while the Left has a practically spontaneous (unless you’re in agreement with the conspiracists who think it’s all a George Soros-funded antifa black op) mass movement on its hands. But I would also not question the commitment and bravery of the protestors willing to face down not only phalanxes of hostile and provably violent police but also a highly contagious and potentially lethal virus in order to improve American society, as they see it. It’s a hard call that I’m not sure I’d be able to make, and I admire those who have done so.

But the deeper question about the George Floyd protests that I keep returning to is their endgame. The immediate initial goals have been met with regards to Floyd’s death, as well as encouraging steps with Taylor’s and Arbery’s cases. The larger demands of protest leaders run towards profound alterations to police training and tactics and indeed their very relations towards the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect while frequently doing neither, defunding or abolishing police departments, or even dismantling large-scale, well-ingrained systems of racial hierarchy and discrimination in American government, business, and society. Numerous political resignations are also being demanded, from police chiefs and commissioners to (often Democratic) mayors and governors enabling police brutality to U.S. Senators calling for troops to crush the uprising to the President himself. The question ought not to be what concessions by the powers-that-be will get the protestors off the streets, especially given the record of elected officials expressing support and promising change on racial issues and then not delivering when the attention has died down.

But it does hang in the air: what will end these protests? Like the pandemic lockdowns that were beginning to be lifted (largely at the instigation and due to the agitation of conservatives), they cannot continue indefinitely, although like the expected future of the lockdowns we might be prudent to expect waxing and waning escalations and de-escalations. Might the awaited Trump-ordered crackdown on civil rights yet be coming, or is this weak and cowardly and vain man too sunk in those qualities (especially after looking the fool on national television) to take that alarming step? The Republican Party and the police are losing, it seems; how will they react with their back against the wall? How many, and which, nation-shaking changes are required to satisfy this diverse protest movement for progress on anti-racism? Either way, these momentous protests have taken on the appearance of a historic American reckoning before our eyes. Where they end, or if the grievances and fissures at their core come to any sort of conclusion at all, is anyone’s guess.

Film Review: Austenland

Austenland (2013; Directed by Jerusha Hess)

Everybody knows by now that Jane Austen’s novels are the Book of Genesis of the romantic comedy movie genre. There’s a whole lot more to her work, of course. I could ask you to step into a third-year English Lit lecture room to hear all about how the Regency-era novelist wrote masterfully witty prose full of acerbic commentary on social habits and mores and penetrating observations on human nature. I could go on about how Jane Austen is a satirist, and one of most important novelists in the English language. An artist of the highest order! She’s not just an early 1800s spinster Nora Ephron, people! Please stop looking at Colin Firth’s smoulder and listen to what I’m saying!

Many Austen fans know all of this, but many more seem to skew towards the “perfect romance” side of her appeal (even if her romances are anything but perfect, and often run towards the pragmatic). I bristle at the phrase “chick flick”, and not just as a cisgendered male; plenty of women find the conventional romantic comedy construction to be hokey and predictable, if not outright retrograde in its gender role assumptions and insidiously toxic in its psychological implications. Modern screen adaptations of Jane Austen novels often focus on historical details and don’t necessarily lean into the nostalgic meaning of “romance”, although the standard approach of removing Austen’s cutting narration in a visual medium cannot help but privilege the stories’ matchmaking sincerity over the author’s contextual ironism (although the better ones manage to preserve it, with visual wit or with imaginative time-period recontextualization).

But there has always been and always will be a portion of their female audiences who yearn for the polite, complexly mannered, prudishly rule-bound, and anachronistic portrait of courtship in Austen’s era as a “simpler” past ideal, a fantasy world of chivalrous, moral gentlemen and clever, sensible ladies from a rosier time before the fraught relationship politics of our age. To be entirely fair, contemporary women who must constantly tiptoe around anxieties of rape and violence and online dating and the multilayered pathological traps of toxic masculinity in their personal lives can’t really be blamed for fantasy-lusting after a figure like Pride & Prejudice‘s Mr. Darcy in their free time, even if this particular misapprehended prelapsarian male ideal is a rude and privileged snob who consistently negs the object of his eventual affection, who is of course the proxy figure for the reader/audience. The essential narrative structure of the Hollywood romantic comedy – woman and man meet cute, they get off on the wrong foot because she’s insecure and he’s a dickhole, but with further acquaintance their good qualities come to the fore and they fall in love and marry and live happily ever after – is after all also the narrative structure of Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, when reduced to the absolute, nuance-stripped barebones of the Elizabeth Bennett/Darcy plot and without the contrasting context of the novel’s other characters and relationships.

This is probably far too much over-intellectualized preamble for the relatively light and insubstantial movie that is ultimately under discussion, but all of it is important background context for Austenland. Based on Shannon Hale’s 2007 novel of the same name and co-written by Hale and director Jerusha Hess, Austenland is about a 30-something modern woman named Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) who got into Jane Austen’s writing (and of course the 1995 BBC Pride & Prejudice miniseries featuring the aforementioned Firth as Mr. Darcy, the focal point for many a similar fangirl mania) as an awkward teen and never really outgrew her obsession into adulthood, to the detriment of the health of her love life. Jane learns about an immersive Austen-themed resort at a country manor house in England, and pours her life savings into a dream trip to attend it, albeit at the lowest budget price point known as the “copper” package.

At the airport, Jane meets and quickly befriends a fellow American attendee, a wealthy, horny, bubbleheaded, big-talking blonde on the full-price “platinum” experience known only by her resort-only character name, Elizabeth Charming (if this character description does not immediately suggest the inimitable comic actress who plays her, Jennifer Coolidge, I have not done my job right). The two ladies are picked up by Kiwi chauffeur Martin (Bret McKenzie), and he and Jane hit it off with ironic batter before they even arrive at Austenland. Whisked brusquely through orientation by the snobbish resort operator Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour, whose real-life sister plays the maid who shadows her constantly), Jane proceeds to spend the week at a sumptuous historic house (actually West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire) in period garb and without modern amenities, alongside Miss Charming and another female guest (Georgia King), where they are pretend-romanced (with no touching, per strict Regency mores) during a series of aristocratic Regency activities by a trio of male actors playing upper-crust gentlemen: foppish Colonel Andrews (James Callis), West Indian beefcake (and former soap star) Captain George East (Ricky Whittle), and the sour, Darcy-esque Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild, acting as Jude Law’s Non-Union Mid-Atlantic Equivalent but also making a surprisingly good Darcy proxy). Made somewhat uncomfortable by the whole charade in a way she didn’t anticipate, Jane becomes close with the seemingly down-to-earth Martin, another actor playing a servant, although Mr. Nobley begins to warm to her as well, setting up the inevitable last-act rom-com choice of lover (not a convention that we can lay entirely at the feet of Jane Austen, mind you).

There’s actually some wry cleverness to Hale’s construction of Austenland that serves as layered meta-commentary on Austen’s work (especially the hegemonic Pride & Prejudice), on Austenite pop culture and fandom, and on the counterproductive pretenses of courtship and relationships both in 1813 and in 2013. As mentioned, Jane’s romantic throughline with Nobley mirrors that of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, and, when contrasted with what appear to be more natural and off-book interactions with Martin, provide a fairly superficial but entirely consistent thematic exploration of the romantic minefield of fantasy vs. reality. Jane has been living an adolescent romantic fantasy, Austenland is at pains to make clear, and ironically her trip to the immersive Regency romance resort grounded in that fantasy is just what she needed to disillusion her and come to live in the real world. Perhaps there’s a buried implication in this dichotomy about the nature of the popular fantasy-romance profile of Austen adaptations and the more rounded and realistic social portraits of the original novels, but it’s left mostly buried. Hale and Hess are, however, skilled at maintaining relevant pretenses and then pulling them back in consequential succession in a manner that registers strongly as key steps in Jane’s character arc.

Russell is vital to making this progression work. Austenland premiered at Sundance a mere twelve days before The Americans aired its pilot episode in January 2013, and this movie is redolent of Russell’s Felicity-hangover career period of girl-next-door roles, before her lead role in the ambiguous and often harrowing FX spy drama shifted perceptions of her as an actress. She’s imperceptibly good at making Jane likable and relatable but never annoying or precious, but it’s clear that she’s straining at the bit for something more worthy of her talents as well. Perhaps her director can relate: Jerusha Hess was, with her co-directing husband Jared, once a hot commodity in semi-indie American comedy, after their quirky micro-budget deadpan comedy Napoleon Dynamite became a sleeper hit in 2004 and its modestly-budgeted Jack Black-fronted luchadore follow-up Nacho Libre just missed out on $100 million in box office grosses. But then came the deeply weird and audience-befuddling Gentlemen Broncos and the Hesses became direct-to-video mainstays, which was possibly always a predictable result for squeaky-clean Mormon filmmakers working in a genre usually pitched at sarcastic and ribald young-adult male stoners.

Hess is absolutely a talented filmmaker (I will defend Napoleon Dynamite‘s hilarity to anyone, anywhere, anytime), and the gentler content and conservative sexuality of period-piece costume romances (which Austenland technically isn’t, although it has the production values of one) is a decent conduit for those talents, channeled as they are by her religious ethics (her husband worked on a modern-day Mormonist version of Pride & Prejudice, which is wild to imagine but probably actually pretty dull in reality). Austenland is well-made, even if it failed to make back even its tiny $7.6 million budget at the box office (it was produced by Twilight author and fellow Latter-day Saint Stephenie Meyer, who can well afford to light a lot more money than that on fire). Jerusha Hess, as she did in her films with her husband, is fond of and very good at communicating comedic and character detail through cluttered, sight-gag-filled production design; although her production designer James Merifield has a specialty in British period dramas that serves Austenland well in parodically approximating the look of the BBC literary miniseries, Hess squeezes in her preferred aesthetic in the fanciful re-created drawing-room froofery of Jane’s apartment design (shelves with row-upon-row of decorative plates), the flimsy surface-level rusticness of Martin’s faux groundskeeper’s shack (he’s got a modern stereo system in the corner, covered with hay and playing sad-bastard indie rock), and the “backstage” shared relaxation poolside space of the resort’s off-duty actors, a mix of chintzy tropical and English tourist leftover decor, fake-tanned footmen, and a flat-screen TV airing Captain East’s ever-shirtless soaps episodes.

Austenland is often pretty funny, to a large extent because Coolidge’s natural improvisational tendencies (honed in Christopher Guest’s ensemble improv comedies like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind) are unleashed to frequently hilarious effect (complimented on her “beauteous skin”, Charming blurts out that it must be because “late at night when I’m all alone, I put my face in the fire!”). Hess apparently had no choice in the matter, as Coolidge was unable to learn the script and thus had to be set loose. McKenzie drops some deadpan jokes with skill (his Flight of the Conchords co-star Jemaine Clement was in Gentlemen Broncos and even more obscure later Hesses movies), King (a veteran of period dramas) has a couple of inspired kooky moments, and I chuckled at the broad stylings of Callis and Whittle once or twice, too.

Indeed, the comedic loopiness often overwhelms the story and character beats, as during late scenes of a theatrical and a grand ball. Indeed, the screenplay by Hale and Hess is maybe a bit too intricate a foundation in its layering of detail and thematic ideas to support the weight of the comic abandon that ensues. Austenland rushes into the freewheeling wackiness of many semi-improv, throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks American comedies, right down to its silly cast-singalong vignette over the end credits to Nelly’s goofy-sexy club jam “Hot in Herre”, which Jane played with comic anachronism at the resort’s piano in an earlier scene, as it was the only song she knows how to play (honestly, this semi-music-video is one of the best moments in the movie even if it’s not “in” the movie proper, especially with a clearly hungry-to-impress Russell vamping with her best Lip Sync Battle micro-performance).

But Austenland is constructed like a screenplay-first romantic comedy, albeit a modestly meta one, with a carefully laid-down structure. The incongruity between this nature and its improv-vintage comedic wildness is never quite resolved, and it leads to an uneven final product. This unevenness and insubstantiality extends to Austenland‘s subversion of romantic comedy tropes, which play out rather like slightly clever reproductions of them instead, as the movie fails to choose one path and walk it with confidence. It’s stuck between the more biting literary profile of Jane Austen’s work and the popular romantic-comedy legacy of it, and this little movie, silly and smart in phases but never entwining the two into a stronger fabric, isn’t about to tackle the resolution of that dichotomy and wouldn’t have much success if it dared to try. Austenland is a copper package visit, and it feels at times like it could have been platinum.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

Film Review: Hustlers

Hustlers (2019; Directed by Lorene Scafaria)

“Doesn’t money make you horny?” seasoned veteran exotic dancer Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) purrs to tentative new girl Destiny (Constance Wu) upon their first meeting on the floor of a Manhattan strip club. Destiny (and the audience) has just watched Ramona make a stunning entrance, bringing the house down with a pole-dance routine to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” (foreshadowing!) in front of a light-wall of violet bulbs that leaves the strip-club stage strewn with paper cash. It’s an indelible introduction to the core themes and ideas of Hustlers. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s swaggeringly entertaining and doggedly substantial crime dramedy about a cadre of strippers who drug and swindle a succession of Wall Street bankers and traders to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars is a movie about the fundamental intersection of capital and sex, the tessellating forces of greed and lust, and the purely amoral transactional nature of American capitalism. It’s about a society and economy where money makes people horny, and the consequences of a cutthroat competition for the seemingly arbitrary expanding and contracting pool of that money – the eternally necessary hustle – being driven on a primal level by those animal urges.

And here you thought from the trailers that it was a just cock-tease heist movie full of sexy strippers! It’s not not that, but it’s also something even sexier: a trenchant social critique. Pull out your cash clips and get ready to toss those bills, gentlemen, because we’re going to talk about exchange value!

Destiny is not entirely fresh to the exotic dancing realm when she meets Ramona in 2007, but she is a newcomer at the club in question, New York City’s Moves, and isn’t sure how to fit in with the girls and pitch her wares to its high-powered Wall Street clientele. Ramona becomes her mentor and best friend, a pragmatic fount of penetrating advice and insightful street-level philosophy on how to maximize her earning potential in this snakepit of desire and wealth (“Are you an investor in this place?” she chides Destiny when she buys a drink at the club’s bar. “Let the guys get fucked up.”). Destiny is soon raking in the cash with Ramona’s guidance (despite the cuts of her profits owed to various male figures in the club hierarchy), spending lavishly and bonding with the sorority of dancers at Moves, including Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), Mercedes (Keke Palmer), and more minor characters like Liz and Diamond (cameos from pop stars Lizzo and Cardi B, respectively, the latter having actually worked as a stripper in her pre-fame days). Destiny (her real name is Dorothy, like The Wizard of Oz heroine adventuring in a strange world of fantasy and artifice) very much needs the money, as she lives with and supports her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho), having been abandoned as a child by her immigrant mother (leading to a central sense of emotional insecurity), and soon enough has a daughter of her own (Ramona is also a single mother, a deciding factor in their bond), although the ne’er-do-well father is soon out of their lives.

The apex of the times of plenty at Moves is a sequence featuring another pop star cameo, R&B star (and Lopez’s fellow one-time network-TV talent show judge) Usher, whose appearance sparks a joyful explosion of spontaneous release, all of the club’s women dancing for him on the stage in indulgent slow-motion. The good times do not last, however, as the 2007-2008 financial crisis hits and greatly reduces the gusher of easy money spurting from the once-deep pockets of Wall Street’s investment vultures (interstitial news reports from the time bemoan the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, a bit too real to watch now that we’re facing an even worse one barely more than a decade later). Destiny and Ramona each leave off stripping and fall out of touch as they struggle to support themselves in more straight-edged and respectable sectors of the contracted economy: Destiny ineffectually pretends that her dancing was actually bartending in an interview for a high-end retail job, while Ramona is frustrated by a clueless male manager who won’t let her off earlier to pick up her daughter from school.

Returning very reluctantly to a greatly changed Moves full of Russian immigrants willing to race each other to the bottom for paid sexual favours to customers, a discouraged Destiny crosses paths with Ramona again and becomes inculcated in the aforementioned drug-and-swindle scheme alongside Annabelle and Mercedes, slipping a mix of ketamine and MDMA (one of the movie’s funniest scenes shows them tweaking the formula and waking up on the kitchen floor after a taste-test) into the drinks of unsuspecting and horny businessmen and traders and then surreptitiously running up the men’s credit cards while partying at the club. Expanding their hustle and their network of collaborators along with their profits, Destiny and Ramona become the matriarchs of a loose family of women bonded by the exploitation of their exploiters (more on that in a moment), at least until their criminality inevitably brings the unavoidable personal and legal consequences.

Scafaria frames Destiny’s narrative through intercut scenes of her retrospective interview in 2014 with reporter Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), ostensibly for a fictional version of the 2015 New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler upon which the movie is based and which gets at the ambiguous and hypocritical meanings of the story with more thoughtfulness than Hustlers affords. This movie is a lean and cleverly ferocious animal, predating with relish on slow and fat themes concerning wealth, sex, gender power inequalities, and criminal enterprise as capitalist acquisition simply by other means, no more or less moral despite being very much less legal. Without question, it is deeply indebted to the style and thematic content of the Mafia films of Martin Scorsese; his fellow Italian-American Scafaria pays homage with the first shot of the film, an immersive one-shot long take following Destiny and the rest of the dancers from their dressing room down service hallways and across the neon-lit floor of the club that echoes numerous Scorsese oners, most notably and immediately obvious the Copacabana long take from Goodfellas.

Hustlers also references and recontextualizes the construction of Scorsese’s mob movies via gender inversion. The film depicts female-dominated spaces in which men serve either as sources of capital or leeches of their own hard-won capital, the reverse of the smotheringly homosocial world of Scorsese’s male criminals, with their patriarchal pursuit of capital and status interrupted by occasional demanding female anchors in the form of wives and daughters and mistresses. It’s not feminist, exactly, as all of the stripper characters are too hopelessly immersed in the tumult of mutual capitalist exploitation to care a whit for liberation, solidarity, or gender equality. Scafaria revels in scenes of female togetherness and bonding like a joyful Christmas sequence at the height of success of their drug-and-pump scheme, but this is not an entirely unified realm of uplifting sisterhood; Ramona and Destiny fall out a few times, and furthermore the interactions between Destiny and Elizabeth display cleavages of class and education that drive distrust and conflict, as does the late-film split over Dawn (Madeline Brewer), a reckless junkie recruited to join their schemes by a protective Ramona but perceptively viewed as a liability by Destiny (leading to one of the script’s bluntest but funniest zingers: “We’re breaking the law here. We don’t wanna work with criminals.”)

But Scafaria also finds it inherently romantic that sexualized female labourers subject to the most blatant male gaze brazenly swindled the swindlers, and Hustlers echoes some of the criticism of the avaricious perfidy of financial elites delved into more deeply and procedurally by a film like The Big Short (also produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay), albeit in a limited and targeted fashion reflective of media traditions of neutralization of radical political ideas, known as recuperation. Lopez (as much a creature of capitalist processes as any other enormously famous person, tonally spurrious claims to working-class authenticity notwithstanding) megaphones a few lines as Ramona criticizing Wall Street’s exploitation of Main Street and the lack of consequences for this exploitation, although Lopez’s performance (which is very good in a pure-movie-star way and, although hardly great, no less Oscar-worthy than, say, Brad Pitt operating in the same mode in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) is nuanced and perceptive enough to register that this is less principled political grandstanding than self-serving moral justification for her actions. Scafaria is careful to include one male client who is milked for thousands and confronts Destiny with the real pain and difficulties for himself and those close to him caused by being robbed. This is not a victimless crime, whatever Ramona tells herself and her compatriots.

One of Ramona’s macro-truisms resonates much more deeply, and serves as the thesis statement of Hustlers. “This city, this whole country, is a strip club,” she opines. “You’ve got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.” These words cut deep down to the transactional performativity of capitalist exchange value in America, and the seedy symbiosis of greed and lust that underlies it. Hustlers is doubtful about the purity of feminist solidarity and recognizes the superficial influences of socialist and anti-capitalist ideation in the national polity, but it’s one of the most perceptive and viscerally effective recent films in terms of the depiction of the wages of capitalist competition, especially when contrasting boom times and recessions. When the economy contracts, the ability of strippers like Destiny and Ramona to earn a robust income through skilled exhibition of their sexualized bodies while maintaining some measure of bodily autonomy contracts with it. Throttled flow of wealth sparks increases labour competition from abroad (ie. the Russian women at Moves), whose entrance into the labour pool drives down wages (by capitalist design, of course) while escalating the compromises required of labour to earn a living income (ie. $300 blowjobs).

The dancers’ fraud and theft is driven by these straitened circumstances; crime stems from economic desperation. But like the wider crime film genre and the mobster movies defined by Martin Scorsese’s work above all, Hustlers argues, or at least posits aloud, that there isn’t a meaningful moral distinction between the theft and fraud that Destiny, Ramona, and their collaborators engage in and the theft and fraud perpetrated on millions of Americans by Wall Street investment banks, nor is there a difference between the hedonistic spending habits on both sides of this particular coin either. There is a distinction of degree and amount, certainly, to the great advantage of the elite. Capitalism is the common denominator, and in the contemporary American economy, everyone has a hand in each other’s pockets (or under each other’s g-strings, as the case may be). It’s a competition at all times, and the winner is the one whose hand emerges from the other’s pocket with a greater share of the booty (pun very much intended). In the world of Hustlers, money is the ultimate turn-on, whether you’re tossing it or dancing for it.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews