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Film Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

February 15, 2019 Leave a comment

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018; Directed by Bryan Singer)

It’s extremely self-evident exactly why the Freddie Mercury and Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody was such a thunderous box-office hit at the same time as it is undeniably clear why it is not, properly speaking, a good movie. Spearheaded by a brassy mirrorball-smash of a performance by Rami Malek as Mercury and featuring numerous spectacular and exhilirating cinematic re-creations of the English rock legends’ bravado live performances, Bohemian Rhapsody leaves you humming and buzzing as its credits roll. It’s a spirited and slavishly faithful tribute to Queen’s ambitious, dramatic music, which, after all, remains very popular, so why shouldn’t a movie about them be likewise popular?

But this is a film that never met a musical biopic convention it could resist locking onto like a rocket ship on its way to Mars, even if (especially if) those conventions inconveniently did not happen to apply to Queen’s career. Outside of its performance sequences (and even inside of them), it’s also a frequent technical fiasco: a queasy cinematographical palette from DP Newton Thomas Sigel, frightfully, distractingly over-busy editing from John Ottman (he was nominated for an Oscar for editing like this, in run-of-the-mill dialogue scenes, no less), and a glaring lack of vision and finish. This last flaw might have been predictable, given the erratic and contentious stewardship of original director Bryan Singer, who was fired by 20th Century Fox with weeks to go in principal photography over persistent absences and was replaced by Dexter Fletcher (who isn’t allowed a directorial credit due to guild rules; he’s listed as an executive producer). Bohemian Rhapsody‘s success has been understood to be in spite of Singer, not because of him; at least one hopes so, given the litany of accusations of sexual misconduct made against him, which themselves did not rise to the level of disqualification from helming such a prominent studio release.

The extent to which any of these technical or behind-the-scenes criticisms will damage Bohemian Rhapsody, let alone matter to anyone watching it, will certainly vary. I, for one, was almost irrevocably lost to it when Mike Myers, buried under blotchy make-up, a permed wig, and an English accent as a fictionalized EMI record exec, directly references the unlikelihood of a scene like the iconic “Bohemian Rhapsody” singalong-in-the-car sequence in Wayne’s World ever happening when arguing with the band about releasing the six-minute rock-operatic classic as a single. If I hadn’t been watching the movie in my living room, I would have walked out right then.

That’s the kind of nail-on-the-head in-joke that Anthony McCarten’s screenplay thinks is amusing (and that Myers always has), and those thought processes transfer to more serious dramatic elements of Bohemian Rhapsody. The script builds in a growing distance and then personal rupture between Mercury and his first partner Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton); while they did end their romantic involvement with each other when Mercury told her about his sexual orientation, they were close friends until the end of his life. The pre-third-act crisis that “breaks up” the band is precipitated by Mercury’s desire to make a solo album, which the other three band members treat as an arrogant betrayal; in truth, every Queen member but Mercury released a solo album before he did. The band’s performance at Live Aid in 1985 – widely considered to be the greatest single live performance of rock era, which we must by now get used to referring to definitively in the past tense – forms the climax of the film (it was re-created and filmed meticulously in its entirety, though two songs are cut from the final film), and is built up by the implication that it was their first show together in some time, when really they had released an album the year before and toured extensively just prior to Live Aid. Quibbles about historical accuracy can be judged to be particularly fruitless in terms of a cinematic biography of self-mythologizing rock stars, but these things add up and give an impression that Queen was something other than they were.

Who Freddie Mercury was, however, is the real focus of the non-musical-number scenes of Bohemian Rhapsody. He was an unlikely person to become rock history’s most obscenely outsized talent: the son of Indian Parsi Zoroastrians born in Zanzibar before emigrating to England, he was a sublimely gifted singer with perfect pitch, a (rumoured, never quite confirmed) four-octave range, and pure, swaggering on-stage panache. Identifying as bisexual though increasingly involved in the growing gay community (from which he contracted the AIDS that would claim his life), he was and is nonetheless accepted by a wide range of music fans who responded to his talent and his music, whatever they thought of his lifestyle. Bohemian Rhapsody suggests that behind the arrogant rock star swagger was profound self-doubt and self-loathing without a specific root, that he projected supreme self-confidence but never felt it. The film stumbles clumsily around Mercury’s sexuality and identity, but always retreats to a safe neutral position that it didn’t really matter, because he will, he will rock you. For those of LGBTQ identity who find inspiration and tragic pathos in Mercury’s blazing comet of a life, a position like this in a film from supposedly progressive Hollywood in 2018 smacks of an insult.

The film that treated Mercury’s sexuality with a bit more respect and nuance than Bohemian Rhapsody does would be a better film. But then, a better film would have found a way to balance the joy and the tragedy of Mercury’s life in and out of Queen. A better film have explored the giddy inventiveness of Queen’s recording, rather than quick-cutting from the working band selling their van to pay for studio time to swinging guitar amps and scattering coins on drumskins because someone randomly shouted out, “We’ve got to get experimental!”. A better film would explore the interpersonal dynamics of massively popular and rich rock stars and their managers and entourage without inventing conflicts and ruptures that didn’t happen and tell us nothing about Mercury or Brian May, John Deacon, and Roger Taylor as people (and Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t offer us much about Mercury’s bandmates, although Gwylim Lee, Ben Hardy, and Joe Mazzello labour away to give them personality that the script is uninterested in).

A better film, too, would have been able to find a consistent and potent dramatic and emotional equilibrium between the mass-participation delight of Queen’s live shows and the private, diminishing agony of Mercury’s slow health decline from AIDS. Bohemian Rhapsody does better with this than it perhaps ought to, given its other related limitations. Rami Malek’s Best Actor Oscar nomination is really for his impressive physical approximation of Freddie Mercury as a performer (the Academy is full of narcissists and therefore responds strongly to good impersonations of famous people like them), but he is an observant-enough actor to effectively sell the film’s link between the fear and uncertainty he feels due to his AIDS diagnosis and his closing Live Aid performative triumph.

Malek registers, almost imperceptively but entirely clearly, how the awareness of creeping mortality spurs Mercury on to ensuring his immortality. And damn it, despite itself, here at the end, when it matters, Bohemian Rhapsody works. Malek’s Mercury has fully reconciled with his bandmates and told them of his AIDS death sentence. He has found sufficient inner peace to seek out companionship from Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), the loving partner of his final years, while also having a place in his life for Mary. He has earned the approval of his conservative Parsi family (although his father’s proud regard is only finally earned by the “good deed” of playing Bob Geldof’s preeningly compromised African famine relief charity mega-concert, so okay, then).

With all of that held in mind, with those charged atoms pinging through the electrified firmament, Malek-as-Mercury’s delivery on the Live Aid stage at Wembley of the passionate piano verse that is the second movement of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, with its melodramatic scenario of maternal entreaty, murder and death, and existential erasure, sees the film that shares the song’s name snap suddenly, unexpectedly into sharp and powerful focus. When he sings for a billion people “I don’t wanna die / I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all”, his face reflected in the surface of the piano, I’ll be damned if it isn’t finally moving.

Maybe it’s folly scratching at the picayune inconsistencies and inaccuracies of Bohemian Rhapsody (though I’d argue its technical problems are a bit more major). Almost certainly, however, it’s folly to wish it to have been more subtle and nuanced. This is a Queen biopic, after all, and you do not rush into Queen’s bejazzled bosom in search of subtlety and nuance. You go there to be swaddled in smothering grandeur and boundless ornate ambition, to be swallowed whole by the bloated, sparkling beast and sleep cozily in its gold-encrusted bowels.

Queen gets a bit of posthumous flack for the reduction of some of its stadium anthems (“We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” primarily) to sports-arena fan-riling fodder, or for unintentionally birthing the half-feral stepchildren of 1980s cornball hair-metal, that absolute nadir of a half-century of popular music genres. But Queen was unquestionably greater than the parasitic worms that would feed themselves from its spent body. It’s hard to argue, though, that despite its popularity and flashes of quality, Bohemian Rhapsody is one such worm. But Queen also gets the bombastic, unsubtle, mass-market biopic homage that it arguable deserves (and with manager Jim Beach, played in the film by Tom Hollander, producing and with May and Taylor as executive producers, the film the keepers of its legacy asked for and oversaw). Maybe that’s a decent measure of balance, after all.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review: Velvet Buzzsaw

February 12, 2019 Leave a comment

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019; Directed by Dan Gilroy)

“All art is dangerous,” a gallery owner warns a prominent art critic. In Dan Gilroy’s art-world dark satire/horror film Velvet Buzzsaw, the in-born danger of art comes to terrifying life as a deadly return-of-the-repressed revenge fantasy against the greedy, status-driven human apparatus of the big-money art industry. This is a realm of ridiculous displays of wealth, avaricious brokers, pretentious opinion-makers, and diffident creators, where the traditional markers of meaning and authenticity in art have been relentlessly commodified and thus drained of power and significance.

This significance was understood to lie in originality, mastery of technique, and power of expression, yes, but also vitally in the emotional and psychological anguish of the problematically idealized tortured artistic genius, who pours his (and it’s still always a man, of course) impossibly grand pain into masterpieces that no mentally healthy creative person could evidently conceive, and no wealthy purchaser would think of paying top dollar for even if they could. We can thank Vincent Van Gogh for this problematic framing, or more broadly a century of psychoanalytic Van Gogh scholarship, or even more broadly the cultural romanticization of bohemian deprivation, debilitating addiction, antisocial abusive behaviour, and mental illness in the mythifying biographies of creative people of note. Velvet Buzzsaw turns this paradigm of valuation of art’s cultural currency on its head, or rather takes it deadly seriously. The profound mental disquiet of a truly disturbed artist quite literally bleeds into his art, turning that art and any other art that crosses its path into fatal weaponry that kills and consumes anyone seeking to profit from its sale.

The dangerous art in question was the hidden life’s work of a mysterious, disquieted recluse named Vetril Dease, who dies in his apartment building and leaves behind a trove of vivid paintings (most of them reminiscent of the twisted modernist realism of Lucian Freud or the psychosexual torment of Francis Bacon, while his biography suggests a figure like Henry Darger). Despite his leaving unambiguous and ominous instructions that all of the paintings be destroyed, Dease’s work is snapped up by building neighbour and art world striver Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who works for that warning gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) and is sexually involved with Morf Vanderwalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), the aforementioned influential art critic whose reviews can make or break careers (Gilroy’s script is peppered with note-perfect silly art-world names like these, including Tom Sturridge’s rival art dealer Jon Dondon and a quickly-referenced fictional artist magnificently named Mertilla Splude). The Dease paintings create a sensation and are snapped up for millions, but the obsequious Vanderwalt begins to suspect their dark designs as he researches the artist’s past, as his acquaintances in Los Angeles’ art scene start to perish around him in ornate horror set-pieces, and as his previous dismissive critical pannings of exhibitions and works come back to haunt him.

Velvet Buzzsaw is Gilroy’s anticipated follow-up to the superb and compelling L.A. noir/television-media critique Nightcrawler, from which he retains stars Gyllenhaal (who is hilarious) and Russo (who is formidable and ultimately weirdly moving). It represents a considerable tonal shift to black-comedy/horror (and bounces around tonally during its running time as well), and probably is grounded too deeply in the inside-baseball details of the contemporary art trade to appeal to a wider audience. But fuck all of that, Velvet Buzzsaw (the title refers to Haze’s former rock band whose punk aesthetic her opulent current circles baldly expose and reject) is a visually clever, sharply trangressive delight (albeit a patchily-paced one with too many minor characters and subplots to keep airborne at any one time, like a less-assured Robert Altman film) that comprehensively skewers the bloated corpus of the art world and its shimmeringly ugly transformation at the hands of the monied elite.

Haze, Josephina, and the shallow Dondon are just in it for the money and the status, as is Gretchen (post-modern horror queen Toni Collette), who blows off a thankless curator position at an under-resourced contemporary art museum to become a private art consultant to a deep-pocketed collector. Lower down the ladder are gallery grunts like Bryson (Billy Magnussen), a frustrated artist labouring as an installer, and Coco (Stranger Things‘ Natalia Dyer), who bounces from one employer to another as they get bumped off in hopes of drawing enough income to avoid having to decamp back home to humble Michigan. Somewhere perhaps even lower in this pyramidical arrangement are the artists themselves, like inspiration-blocked recovering alcoholic Piers (John Malkovich) and former art collective street artist Damrish (Daveed Diggs), who are courted by the capital-rich galleries but seek some simpler and more essential creative truths away from the ravenous meat market of the lucrative art trade.

Because at the centre of Velvet Buzzsaw is a suggestion that most celebrated and high-priced contemporary art is not only not dangerous but hardly interesting or engaging and mostly laughably derivative. The art pieces created for the film drive this idea home. In the film’s opening scene at Art Basel in Miami, Vanderwalt is bemusedly dismissive of a piece called Hoboman, consisting of a deteriorating cyborg on crutches wearing a black Lone Ranger mask and tattered Uncle Sam jacket jerking robotically around and uttering imperial-decay phrases like “Once I built a railroad” and “I can’t save you” (the critic and Hoboman will meet again, before the end). An unimpressed Rhodora Haze walks into an installation at her gallery painstakingly re-creating a frozen, mundane moment in the kitchen and living room of an unremarkable suburban family, complete with wax figures of the family (she laments that it seemed “edgier at the Biennale”). Josephina’s ambitious self-rising embrace of artifice is confronted by a magic-realist sterile gallery space hung with wall graffiti that bleeds threateningly towards her, the creeping retribution of urban authenticity.

Other moments emphasize how the highly-intellectualized conceptuality of the post-structuralist breakdown in centrality of meaning has unmoored art from consistent apprehension and recognition. When Jon Dondon visits Piers in his studio, the bottom level where reproductions are made is bustling with the activity of apprentices, but on the bare second level where the blocked artist is supposed to be making new work, the foppish Dondon mistakes a clump of garbage bags for a “remarkable” contemporary piece. A reflective piece called Sphere featuring holes in which observers can insert their arms to experience various unique sensations is exhibited in a museum alongside a clutch of the poisonous Dease paintings; when it claims a victim the night before the big opening, attendees are non-plussed by the dead body and the pools of blood around the sphere, believing them to be part of the exhibit. Even Los Angeles itself is turned into a detached landscape in a series of interstitial long shots by Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswit, overlook vistas and overhead views of a cool, impersonal, disconnected lighted grid of urban sprawl like a Mondrian canvas.

Compared to this cerebralized and commodified art, the paintings of Vertil Dease in their agonized, pulsating expressionist honesty are vital, terrible, and dangerously real. It is this unsettling psychological realism and sublime power that is the true threat to the art market’s milieu of surface and capital (the Deases are labelled as “outsider art” when shown, as being outside the art establishment is at once a detriment and an advantage). Velvet Buzzsaw is a layered satirical critique of the art market which does not simplistically trade on juxtapositions of real vs. fake, authentic vs. constructed, original vs. derivative. It ruthlessly lampoons the fluttering contrivance of narcissistic art-world fools, yes, but likewise constructs the supposedly authentic artistic vision represented by Dease’s work as literally murderous in its revelation of a tortured psyche. In Velvet Buzzsaw‘s disconnected, sales-driven world of contemporary art, art that bares the human soul in all of its lurking darkness is indeed extremely dangerous.

Categories: Art, Film, Reviews

The Fyre Festival Documentaries and the Late Capitalist American Moment

February 9, 2019 Leave a comment

If any one contemporary event can be said to come closest to embodying a succinct-yet-nuanced summation of the semi-fraudulent, endlessly aspirational, wildly unmoored state of American Late Capitalism at this moment in history, it is surely 2017’s Fyre Festival. As depicted from differing, distinct, and uniquely compromised angles by a dueling pair of streaming documentary films released this year – Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened and Hulu’s Fyre Fraud – Fyre Festival promised to be an exclusively, luxury music festival on a tropical island in the Bahamas that would play out in the e-spotlight of social media, a baccanalian carnival of online influencers, beautiful people, celebrities, swimsuits, alcohol, and popular music. A sort of Coachella in the Caribbean for wealthy millenials, Fyre Festival was supposed to be the next big thing in terms of culture and online buzz and profit, but sputtered out in a spectacular implosion of shoddy half-completion, cut corners, disorganization, and rampant financial crimes.

It’s important to have a solid grasp of the narrative fundamentals of what happened leading up to and on a desultory April weekend on the Bahamanian island of Great Exuma in 2017 before leaping off from those happenings to a wider understanding of what they reveal about the contemporary American social economy. For that purpose, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened on Netflix, directed by Chris Smith, is a more detailed blow-by-blow chronicle and thus worth watching first.

In broad strokes, American entrepreneur/serial con artist Billy McFarland masterminded Fyre Festival, with the support of rapper and public hype-man Ja Rule, his overstretched staff at Fyre Media, Inc. (the company behind a semi-successful talent-booking mobile app that the festival was conceived of to promote), patchily-paid international event professionals and local Bahamanian labourers, and controversial social-media marketing firm Jerry Media (a.k.a fuckjerry, who are the problematic co-producers of the film). What followed was a litany of foolish decisions, shambolic planning on an unrealistically compressed timeline, an endemic lack of funds, and above all a virulently fantastical tone of upbeat positivity and yes-man assurances that it would all work out no matter how disastrous things seemed to be trending. When paying festival attendees and complimentary-admitted social media influencers arrived on Great Exuma, they found a half-finished festival site in a construction quarry dotted with disaster-relief tents, bad food, no running water or portable toilets, and a slate of cancelled performers. The situation dissolved into chaos quickly, attendees struggled to return Stateside as social and traditional media erupted with schadenfreude mockery of the shambles of an event, and McFarland’s astoundingly-scaled crimes of fraud and misreporting would land him in prison.

Fyre makes this all abundantly clear and entirely wacky and entertaining. There are countless mad details dropped by the cadre of half-bemused, half-ashamed interview subjects from whom Smith cobbles together the festival narrative. There’s the initial intended site for the festival, a private Bahamanian island with half-feral pigs and no infrastructure at all that was once owned by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Flown to the site by a pilot who learned to fly (and to perform dangerous zero-g drops for the amusement of McFarland, Ja Rule, and their entourage) from Microsoft Flight Simulator, the Fyre team shot a gauzy, enticing promo video featuring famous supermodels frolicking on the beaches. The clip attracted notice on social media alongside Jerry Media’s orange-tile Instagram event announcement post that “disrupted” the feeds of numerous top influencers (including Kardashian dynastic daughter Kylie Jenner, who commands a ludicrous quarter-million-dollar fee for such a promo post). But despite the buzz it generated, the promo’s brash mention of the countercultural Escobar association broke a specific stipulation of the island’s owners, who immediately pulled their agreement to lease its freehold for the festival.

Settling instead on the more-populated Great Exuma, McFarland and crew set a date less than four months from the New Year’s announcement, which also happened to coincide with a regatta weekend that is Great Exuma’s busiest tourist time of the year. A casually pragmatic local fixer and traumatized, nearly-bankrupted local restaurant owner give a local view of the chaos and lack of fiduciary compensation for workers, who considered kidnapping organizers and holding them for ransom just to make something for their time and effort. The detail that most illustrates the over-the-top lengths that McFarland and the organizers were willing to go to have the festival go forward – holding the event even in a diminished form was their sole hope to recoup the investment that they had made – has also become the defining viral moment of the Fyre Festival documentaries: a gray-haired male veteran event producer admits to being fully prepared to perform fellatio on a Bahamanian customs agent in order to get their shipment of booze cleared to enter the country.

Primed for the larger sweep of Fyre Festival’s failure by Fyre, moving along to Fyre Fraud, the Hulu documentary directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason, is even more eye-opening. Fyre Fraud might be less blessed with wild, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas details of savage greedy weirdness, but it is a smarter, more nuanced, and quietly, self-righteously outraged film from which no one involved in the event escapes unscathed. Although Fyre Fraud paid Billy McFarland for an interview to be used in the film, they use the material gleaned from this sit-down to comprehensively expose him for a shameless grifter and pathologically-dishonest confidence man, not only in the case of Fyre Festival but in prior ventures like Magnises, the over-inflated metal credit card for status-obsessed millenials that he came up with, as well as in shoddy ticket scams carried out while on parole for his Fyre-related fraud charges. McFarland is a fast-talking and convincing grifter but also one epically foolish enough to run a huge con fully in the public eye, where he wouldn’t be able to hide from what he must have understood would be its inevitable embarrassing unraveling. This film also reserves pointed criticism for Jerry Media, whose involvement in the Netflix doc becomes an evident pre-requisite for sparing them any such criticsm in that film, as well as painting McFarland’s earlier ventures – especially Magnises – as essentially legitimate before he jumped the legal shark with Fyre Festival.

Fyre Fraud also makes a stronger case for Fyre Festival as an illustrative, symbolically-charged moment in the Late Capitalist zeitgeist in the United States. It shows how McFarland ingratiated himself with wealthy venture capitalists and corporate titan mentors (including at least one charged with massive securities fraud), how he inflated projections and financial reporting at every company he founded, how he sold false bills of goods to nearly everyone who crossed his path. McFarland is presented not as an abberation but as an entirely predictable and even encouraged creature of America’s new Gilded Age of tremendous accumulated wealth, sharp income inequality, and exploitative rip-off capitalism. It likewise connects Fyre Festival’s buzzy pre-event marketing profile to the #FOMO-focused experience consumption of millenials locked out of traditional displays of affluence by the wealth-hoarding of the aging 1% elite, to the forced-cheer positivity-selling fabulism of the social media influencer image presentation, and to the magical thinking, creative-class economic insupportability, and consequence-free assumptions of white American privilege. It does not notice, nor really does Netflix’s Fyre, the disturbing neo-colonial implications of how black Bahamanians (the literal descendants of African slaves in the Caribbean) were made to labour long hours for no pay in the service of white leisure and profit.

Moreoever, Fyre Fraud registers, quite pointedly, how this all went down in the first months of the presidency of Donald Trump, a self-promoting grifter-elite capitalist par excellence whose ostentatious image of wealth is his prime selling feature in the public eye (besides, of course, his virulent white nationalism and generalized cruelty to others). Fyre Festival, of course, is not Trump’s fault (nor was it Vladimir Putin’s, one supposes), but what is clear by the end of Fyre Fraud is that the same confluence of forces produced both American disasters. The hard-sold expectation of wealth and prosperity ended for Fyre Festival attendees in the self-same disaster shelters that greeted citizens rendered homeless by destructive hurricanes. As on-the-nose as the metaphor may be, this extreme contrast of promised luxurious comfort and delivered bare-subsistence is the animating socioeconomic contradiction of Trumpist America. If only his regime would end with as few desperate victims as Fyre Festival ultimately claimed, but one ought not to hold one’s breath.

Film Review: Chappaquiddick

February 3, 2019 Leave a comment

Chappaquiddick (2018; Directed by John Curran)

What was it that the Kennedys meant to America? Did they leave a real, tangible mark on American politics, society, and culture, or was the brief, flaming-out ascendance of their heavily-compromised brand of masculine-coded New England brahmin liberalism in the 1960s of simple (or not so entirely simple) symbolic value? The romanticized patina of the presidency of John F. Kennedy, ended with assassin’s bullets in Dallas in 1963, was referred to with puffy chivalric non-irony as Camelot, and it’s arguable that the achievements of JFK’s administration were quite comprehensively eclipsed by camera-friendly appearances and the hindsight mythos of his martrydom (they were also outdone by the much more important legislative advancements of Lyndon B. Johnson’s succeeding administration, although both Democratic presidencies were fatally compromised by the expansion of the Vietnam War). Essentially, reality swamped by fantasy, in a manner that reflects, in a rudimentary funhouse mirror way, the complete devastation of reality at the hands of fantasy of the present presidential moment.

John Curran’s Chappaquiddick captures the moment at which the hard pitiless difficulty of reality – random, amoral, and unconcerned with justice or legacies or human intent or emotional fulfillment – most finally and most irrevocably caught up with the Kennedys, when the boundlessly consuming ambitions of the clan at last ran out of spare male scions upon which to lay the mantle of hopeful power. Over a weekend in July 1969, as the Apollo 11 crew set first foot on the moon in a vindication of JFK’s inaugural speech pledge to put an American on the lunar surface as an aspirational image of national courage, spirit and ingenuity, his younger brother Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy (Jason Clarke) drove his car off a dike bridge on the island of Chappaquiddick on Martha’s Vineyard off the Massachusetts coast, leading to the death by drowning of his also-slain brother Robert F. Kennedy’s former staffer Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara).

Ted Kennedy’s confused and shambolic response – he did not report the incident until 10 hours later, seems to have tried to suppress some details and positively spin others at several points, and later clownishly showed up to Kopechne’s funeral wearing a neck brace that he clearly did not need – deepened a PR crisis that erupted in the U.S. media once the glow of Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind faded from the headlines. Although Ted later ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President in 1980 (losing to incumbent President Jimmy Carter, who then lost the White House to Republican candidate Ronald Reagan), the Chappaquiddick incident was widely understood to have cost Ted Kennedy any hope of ever ascending to the highest political office in the United States.

The careful, procedurally-minded, step-after-step approach of Chappaquiddick shows effectively how poor the judgement of Ted Kennedy and his immediate circle was in the aftermath of the incident (which, of course, showed literally fatally poor judgement in the first place). Kennedy cousin and close advisor Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) acts as the exasperated voice of moral reason, while the imperious family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (Bruce Dern) – physically reduced by a stroke and months from the grave but still as unbowed and unscrupulous as ever – raspily urges his last surviving son to craft an alibi and summons a cadre of canny suits (including Clancy Brown as former Secretary of State Robert McNamara) to cover up and spin the situation as much as still may be possible.

Chappaquiddick notes that Edward Kennedy went on to four distinguished decades in the U.S. Senate (where he likely leveraged more influence on the direction of the country than he would have in four or eight years in the White House), and it treats his martyred elder brothers (not only John and Robert but eldest brother Joseph, Jr., killed in action in World War II) and their political and personal legacy as a model to which he could never hope to live up to. Indeed, while the script (by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan) is careful not to even hint at any sexual impropriety between Ted Kennedy and Kopechne (which was always forefront in the rumours and innuendo about the incident), it characterizes the Senator as being hopelessly weighed down under the pressure of the expectations of his greatness.

The crash on Chappaquiddick Island, this film suggests, was the final instance of Edward Kennedy crumbling under those expectations of his family, his country, and above all of his iron-willed father. In the scenes leading up to the crash and flashing back to before it happened to reveal additional details, director Curran and lead actor Clarke portray Ted Kennedy as being not so much drunk on alcohol (though maybe he was also that) but mentally and physically disoriented and exhausted by self-doubt and despair at the thought (perhaps the certainty) of failing to live up to those expectations. Kopechne is intelligent and sympathetic (we have patriarchy to thank for having needy man-children like Kennedy and not capable women like her as natural assumed leader material), and attempts to comfort, or steady, or understand this weak man who is supposed to be a great one. That effort sucks her into his vortex, and costs her life.

“I’m not gonna be President,” Clarke’s Ted Kennedy utters to Gargan as he returns from the crash site to seek his friend’s aid. Clarke is careful to imbue the necessary weight and sadness in his character’s voice as he says this, but surely there must have been a sore temptation for him to express a note of relief as well. One core premise of Chappaquiddick, made explicit in Clarke’s final scene with Dern’s wheelchair-bound Joseph Kennedy, is that Edward Kennedy never wanted to be President, whether or not Mary Jo Kopechne’s death made that impossible. The mythic Kennedy curse is invoked, but maybe the curse of Edward Kennedy and his elder brothers was one of inheritance, not merely of their difficult father’s character (or, more psychologically compelling, as a result of that difficult character) but of a patriarchal masculine hero complex (perhaps more firmly inculcated into the younger three after the eldest’s war hero demise) that refused to release them from its domineering grasp for even scant moments of respite.

This male hero complex, a cultural inheritance of the sort of chivalric knighthood romance that was being invoked with the Camelot moniker, is still often lionized by traditionalists and conservatives as a catalogue of lost virtue. But we know from the #MeToo moment of our culture, and can see from Chappaquiddick‘s case study example, that these conceptual frameworks of male power and superiority not only preclude emotional self-examination and psychological honesty in a manner damaging to men and to those around them, they also compel immoral (or at least self-interestedly amoral) conduct in those powerful men when the fanciful assumption intended to justify those codes is that they should compel moral conduct instead.

One ought not to suggest that John and Robert Kennedy were assassinated because they adhered to this code, but their younger brother’s troubles as re-created in Chappaquiddick can be traced straight back to it, and are. Hardened by self-righteous anger, Helms’ Joe Gargan confronts Ted Kennedy at one point during his messy, disheartening response to the crash that, after all, killed another person, telling him that he is not a victim. But Ted Kennedy, like most men reared in his time, is a victim, though not in the way that Gargan is thinking of.

Chappaquiddick feeds into the narcissism of focusing on male suffering when it is in truth eclipsed by the suffering of others with the misfortune not to be important men, but it also subtly tracks, so deep in the subtextual background that it could easily be missed, that this narcissism (a trait not alien to the Kennedys, whatever other positive things might be said about them) can also be debilitating, a peculiar species of slow-poison curse. There is a tension of surface and depths, fantasy and reality, political spin and bare human tragedy, in Chappaquiddick. As in the case of the real-life incident as well as in the case of the Kennedy political legacy, that is a tension that is never, and inherently can never be, satisfactorily resolved.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Venom

January 24, 2019 Leave a comment

Venom (2018; Directed by Ruben Fleischer)

You’d probably have guessed going in that a movie focusing on Marvel Comics’ Venom – a chaotic evil alien Symbiote who possesses the bodies of helpless human hosts and has mostly served in the past as an antagonist (ans sometimes ally) to Spider-Man – would be a dark, brooding, graphically violent, horror-tinged affair (Venom was co-created in the 1980s by Todd McFarlane, who later created that most oppressively goth of superheroes, Spawn). What we get instead from Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer is one of the most deliriously bizarre buddy comedies ever made, bursting unbidden out of the limp body of a fairly average Hollywood action blockbuster. Venom‘s star Tom Hardy veritably possesses this movie like the titular Symbiote, his dual role as both Venom and Eddie Brock, the down-on-his-luck Bay Area investigative reporter whose body and mind is parasitically occupied by the ravenous extraterrestrial creature, turning an unremarkable vehicle into something altogether more entertaining and singular.

Venom comes to Earth as a glob of black-coloured sentient goo, transported onboard a rocket shuttle sent on a scientific exploratory mission to deep space by the Life Foundation and its founder and CEO, Carlton Drake (a miscast and wasted Riz Ahmed). A visionary medical and tech boy-wonder zillionaire in the mould of Silicon Valley bro-tycoons and preening, spaceship-building Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Drake claims to have as his aims the curing of cancer and improvement of overall human health, but his true goals are more sinister. Brock, a maverick muckraker who rides a motorcycle and dresses like he never got out of college, is for some reason tasked by his boss (Ron Cephas Jones) to lob softballs at Drake in an interview. Of course, Brock instead asks Drake hard questions about rumours of dangerous human trials at the Life Foundation, armed with secret info gleaned from legal documents stolen from his lawyer fiancée Anne Weying (Michelle Williams on autopilot), whose firm is representing Life Foundation in a wrongful death suit. Brock’s actions get him fired, cost Anne her job as well, and end their relationship.

Drake’s spacecraft with the Symbiote samples has meanwhile crashed in Malaysia, and although most of the samples have been recovered, one gets loose and hops from host to host on its way to San Francisco. Months later, Brock can’t get work and is in a bit of a downward spiral when he gets a call from the morally conflicted Life Foundation scientist Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), who wants to give Brock an inside view of the horrifying things going on in Drake’s labs. Inside the facility, Brock has a meet-cute with the Venom Symbiote, and the fun really begins.

Clawing his way above the expensive morass of silly plot leaps, dodgy CGI, and unremarkable action sequences, Hardy makes Venom something notable with how he plays Brock as a frantic and frustrated passenger driven by Venom’s boundless, socially-unacceptable appetites. Hardy also voices Venom (though he does not motion-capture the creature, a pure CG creation), characterizing him a leering, every-hungry id lurking beneath Eddie’s ego and often bursting violently to the surface (Hardy claims to have drawn inspiration for their interactions from Ren & Stimpy, which is really funny). After compelling Brock to devour frozen tater tots and garbage-bin chicken pieces in a frantic search for sustenance, Venom’s oily black goop-tentacles thrust out of his host’s body to subdue the armed thugs Drake has sent to retrieve the Symbiote, while Hardy plays Brock’s reactions as amazed and alarmed and apologetic to the Life Foundation minions.

This scene is utterly hilarious, by the way, in the comic interplay of the helpless Brock and the confident-in-violence Venom, who acts as a sort of ever-present devil on Brock’s shoulder. Hardy’s Venom voice is strange and twisted and side-splittingly funny as it bursts unbidden into Brock’s head, especially when stating his mutilating intentions towards hapless humans: “Pile of bodies, pile of heads!” Brock/Venom flee Drake’s henchmen on his motorcycle through San Francisco’s hilly streets afterwards, the movie’s best action scene due to the continued developing relationship between Symbiote and host. Brock and Venom’s scenes together remain the movie’s highlight, Hardy’s performance one supremely quirky and kooky decision after another: seeking out the help of his ex Annie and her new doctor beau Dan (Reid Scott) at a gourmet restaurant, for example, an overheating Brock cools down in the live-lobster tank and snacks on a live crustacean.

Venom is, as mentioned, pretty unremarkable and even below-average outside of whatever the heck it is Hardy is doing at any given moment, but the symbiotic double-act overcomes the film’s paint-by-the-numbers thematic messages (Drake lectures about environmental degradation) with unexpected metaphorical possibilities. The most compelling and entertaining internal two-selves tug-of-war in a CG blockbuster since Andy Serkis played conniving Gollum and pitiful Smeagol in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Hardy’s Brock/Venom invokes everything from Sigmund Freud’s id/ego/super-ego psychological theories to bipolar disorder to schizophrenia to pervasive queer coding, the latter which sparked an enthusiastic Symbrock shipping community that is convinced (largely because of a scene in which Venom possesses Anne and kisses Eddie to re-enter his body) of a homosexual attraction between Venom and Brock.

It’s hard to say definitively if Venom is fully behind this last angle or not. Certainly, it shouldn’t be put past Hardy, often a gleeful trickster figure of an actor, to lean into such a subtext. The movie does openly state that Venom’s embrace of Eddie Brock as his preferred host on Earth is down to the Symbiote feeling a kinship with Eddie as a fellow loser. The script (by Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel) develops their relationship as a process of growth and acceptance of each other and of mutual moral behaviour: Eddie learns that he can have a world-improving purpose after his journalistic career implodes due to his own ethical lapses, and Venom is converted to a certain fondness for Earth and humankind while being convinced to only treat certain bad people as a ready source of food.

Venom, then, is perversely a species of novel of education as well as a buddy/romantic comedy, albeit with more biting off of heads. Given the general level that comic-book superhero movies have managed to ascend to on an artistic level, it’s far too hacky and formulaic in most of its elements outside of Hardy’s work to be good enough. It’s a movie that seems not to have learned any lessons from nearly two decades of superhero movie successes and failures. Indeed, especially as the credits roll to the strains of Eminem ridiculously rapping out the plot of the film in the title song, one comes to feel that the ghost of 1990s big-budget B-movies is undeniable. But Tom Hardy, in his audaciously eccentric split performance, makes Venom something weirder, grander, funnier, and infinitely more interesting.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Aquaman

January 21, 2019 Leave a comment

Aquaman (2018; Directed by James Wan)

Aquaman represents a golden opportunity to reconsider and discard an unfortunate habit of critical description whose demise is desirable. In an overdue gesture of belated enlightened sensitivity to those pervasive stigmas around mental illness that corporate-marketed public awareness campaigns tell me must be confronted and defeated (especially if it means larger quarterly profit margins in the process), I shall never again describe a movie with particular silly or unpredictable elements as crazy, nuts, unhinged, bonkers, or insane. Movies cannot be mentally ill, and it’s insensitive and even a little mean to real people struggling with those sort of conditions to suggest that a movie is mentally ill just because, oh, I don’t know, it happens to feature an octopus playing the bongos.

I don’t mean to congratulate myself for becoming woke on this point nor to suggest that this self-discipline represents any sort of sacrifice, but its timing, admittedly, is not auspicious. Giving up on the descriptive crutch of calling a movie insane just as one sits down to write about Aquaman is a bit like giving up alcohol before a comprehensive Scottish whiskey distillery tour. What else is one to do without it, after all? To reach for more neutral adjectives, then: James Wan’s Aquaman is wild, goofy, ridiculous, and ambitiously messy. It’s bad in the ways that every DC Extended Universe (DCEU) entry has been bad (with the blessed exception of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman): excruciating and unrevealing dialogue, overwrought and dull mythological exposition, stunted thematic and character development, insensible casting, stiff performances, and saturating CG action scenes with gigantic scale but zero real emotional stakes.

But unlike the leaden bores of Zack Snyder’s Superman-centred films (Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, Justice League), Aquaman is just woolly enough to manage to be fun, despite the flaws of its construction as cinema. A defining feature of the Snyderverse movies is that they really, deeply hate comic books, but Wan’s Aquaman (Snyder and his wife Deborah are executive producers on it) just loves comic books to bits, in all of their sophomoric, splashy, stilted, frothy, multicoloured glory. It would be wise to cultivate that sort of fondness for superhero comics at their pulpiest and most ludicrous if you’re going to make a movie about a goofball trident-wielding Prince of Atlantis, and Wan (best known before this for helming horror potboilers and the seventh Fast & Furious flick) gleefully does.

It also helps to have Jason Momoa starring as the titular hero of a movie given to such a tone. An impressively-proportioned actor of limited range but almost boundless infectious charisma who just seems chuffed to bits to be doing anything at all, at any time, really, Momoa is just unorthodox enough as a movie star – the long hair and goatee, the tattoos, the Native Hawaiian ancestry, the casual, un-self-conscious bro-ish ease – to be a proper fit as a superhero who, despite the screenplay’s many safe-minded attempts to skew his narrative towards convention, is inherently unorthodox in comparison to other genre figures.

Aquaman, whose real name is Arthur Curry, is a young man caught between two worlds, the son of a humble Maine lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and the runaway Queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman). The lighthouse keeper finds the queen on the rocks one stormy night and nurses her back to health, and the unlikely couple fall in love, sharing a few blissful years and bringing forth Arthur before Atlantean soldiers arrive to bundle her back to her betrothed Atlantean king beneath the waves. She fends off these troops (in the first and most memorable of the movie’s many, many fight scenes, perhaps made all the better by incongruously featuring Nicole freakin’ Kidman kicking undersea grunt ass), but realizes that she must return to Atlantis to keep her landlubber family safe. She promises to come back to them, but Arthur understands through his contact with Vulko (Willem Dafoe), a trusted advisor to Atlantis’ rulers who secretly trained the boy in the use of his Atlantean powers and combat techniques, that she was later executed for the treachery of bearing him as her son.

Arthur nurses this hurt at home in his Maine coastal town (where they apparently have Maori lighthouse keepers now; a brave new world), taking care of his dad but occasionally venturing out into the world’s oceans to superhero it up in a seemingly random manner. We see one such venture at the movie’s start, as Arthur foils the pirating of a Russian submarine by a strike force led by a father-son commando duo (Michael Beach and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) but in the process makes a revenge-minded archenemy in the form of Abdul-Mateen’s David Kane, nicknamed Black Manta. Soon after, Arthur is sought out by undersea warrior princess Mera (Amber Heard), who demands that he claim his birthright to the throne of Atlantis in order to prevent his currently-ruling half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) from forcibly unifying the kingdoms of the seas, declaring himself Ocean Master, and launching an apocalyptic war against the surface world in retaliation for decades of pollution and sealife hunting.

This is already pretty needlessly complicated, but Aquaman‘s plot only gets more so. Intricate Atlantean power politics and militaristic combat traditions are broken up with smoothly-transitioned flashbacks to Arthur’s training by Vulko, to Atlantis’ glorious history, and to heavy-handed but quickly-forgotten environmentalist criticisms of industrial-capitalist civilization’s awful damage to the oceans of the world and the preponderence of life that dwells in them. Meanwhile, Arthur and Mera travel to the sandy Sahara and to sparkling Sicily and to the deepest trench in the ocean on a video-game quest for various magical objects, namely the Trident of Atlan which when wielded by the one true king, etc., so on, you know the rest if you’ve read Arthurian legends or even seen the first Thor movie. They also, of course, fall in love along the way, which is a bit awkward seeing how Mera is betrothed to Orm and all, and even more awkward because they basically have no spark together at all, to be honest (Heard is kind of a blank, but her red wig looks great and that’s not faint praise because wigs are hard).

A big deal is made in the script how Arthur’s half-caste identity makes him an ideal King of Atlantis, and how he must be proven worthy before he can grasp the golden Trident. Aquaman, though, doesn’t show any sort of growth or transformation in Arthur Curry, though he broods on the meaning of mercy after his lack thereof later nearly gets him killed at the hands of the vengeful Manta. He comes into his own because the movie needs him to, and not for any other motivated reason. There are plenty of important personal connections to drive him: to his father, to his mother, to Mera, even to Orm. They’re all in the movie but they aren’t linked, aren’t used to build any impact or thematic or character crescendo. This is a common DCEU problem, and Aquaman does not solve it.

What it does solve is the creeping joylessness of DCEU movies. Aquaman is a wild time, its action scenes just massive and layered and richly imagined enough to work, from Arthur’s sub fight to his gladiatorial combat with Orm to a chase and fight in a sun-dappled Sicilian hill town between Arthur and Manta, Mera and Atlantean guards to the epically detailed climactic undersea battle sequence. The design and CG work on the underwater world of Atlantis and of its allies and rivals is tremendous and comprehensive, and Wan doesn’t skimp on giving his audience long, lavish views of its hugely expensive splendour. You could say that Aquaman is not only structured like a video game and feels like a video game, but looks like one too, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s a damned cool-looking video game that you sure as hell want to play.

None of this, however, quite gets at how fundamentally, astronomically weird Aquaman is. This is a movie in which Jason Momoa has a “shining” telepathic moment with a whale. This is a movie that casts arthouse mainstays Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, and Patrick Wilson as sub-marine aristocrats in shiny fish-scale armour. This is a movie with Dolph Lundgren riding a giant seahorse. This is a movie whose secondary villain, despite being named after a ray, dons a black-painted suit with a wasp-head helmet that shoots plasma rays out of its red eyes. This is a movie whose score, by Rupert Gregson-Williams, includes not only cornball hopscotch-strings cues during one of Momoa and Heard’s strained moments of romantic-comedic relief, but also an absolutely literal non-ironic “dun-dun-dun!” sting phrase after Wilson’s first utterance of the words “Ocean Master” (the funniest moment in the movie, including all of its intentional jokes). This is a movie that uses the twinkly bits of Sigur Rós’ powerful “Saeglopur”, but not the mighty, dynamic swirls of deep sound of its extended climax, and puts it in entirely the wrong place in the film. This is a movie with a goat reaction shot. This is a movie with a titanic crab-kaiju leviathan creature voiced by Julie Andrews. I’m no longer allowed to say this movie is insane, but good gravy, is it ever way, way out there.

Maybe, though, that’s why it mostly works. Aquaman is horribly flawed and insufficient in dozens of ways, and yet it still might be the second best post-Christopher-Nolan DC superhero movie after Wonder Woman (which, admittedly, is not saying much). Aquaman leans into the nonsensical frippery of its comic-book source, its pop-history synthesis of classical mythology and Arthurian legend and marine biology, its fevered imaginative urge to show us strange and fanciful shit that we’ve never seen before. Is Aquaman, properly speaking, a good movie? Of course not. Will you have a ball watching it? Can’t say that you won’t.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Outlaw King

January 19, 2019 Leave a comment

Outlaw King (2018; Directed by David Mackenzie)

It’s fascinating to watch Scottish director David Mackenzie’s earthily epic narrative telling of the initial stages of early-14th-century Scottish monarch Robert the Bruce’s largely successful wars of resistance and independence against the English crown in comparative contrast with its much more famous historical counterpart, Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning biographical epic of contemporaneous Scottish rebel warrior William Wallace, Braveheart. Outlaw King operates partly as a parallel story to Braveheart: Wallace is mentioned a few times in the first act, and his execution by the English is constructed (somewhat inaccurately) as an impetus for the Bruce’s own rising, so that if one was so inclined it would not be difficult to imagine that previous narrative of medieval Scottish-English warfare taking place somewhere just out of frame.

This makes Outlaw King a sequel of sorts to Braveheart, a sequel-in-spirit more than an intentional continuation. But to a greater extent, it functions as a corrective text, setting straight the story that Mel Gibson turned into such a self-serving Hollywoodized myth in 1995. Robert the Bruce was made an equivocating fence-sitter in Braveheart, whose doubting-Peter unwillingness to commit to Wallace’s rebellion cost Gibson’s mud-splattered paladin of freedom his life in a Christ-like sacrifice (Gibson has always loved those, which is why he literally filmed one a few years later). History tells us, of course, that despite swearing fealty to the English Crown and pledging not to take arms against it, Robert did eventually commit and accomplished what Wallace could not: Scottish independence from England, maintained by his descendants for centuries. He was the one actually called “Braveheart”, not Wallace; after his death, his heart was transported at his request to Southern Spain on Crusade by his right-hand man Sir James Douglas and, according to romantic poetry sources at least, tossed symbolically into the midst of battle against the Moors. But he did what he did as a more complex, compromised, and flawed figure than Wallace, or at least than Gibson’s absurdly lionized version of Wallace.

This complicated antihero profile (emphasized by the title card of Mackenzie’s film, which inserts a slash between “outlaw” and “king” to gesture at Robert’s dualized nature) marks Outlaw King‘s Robert the Bruce, played by Chris Pine, as a cultural figure of the moment, with all the good and bad associations that entails. In retrospect, Braveheart was the last gasp of a more traditional and soon-to-expire version of Hollywood historical fiction that almost entirely jettisoned the history for the fiction (the film’s depiction of belted plaid kilts in medieval Scotland remains the gold standard for period anachronism onscreen, for my money). Outlaw King is the reflection of the same sort of cultural view of the Middle Ages that Braveheart trafficked in, one characterized by violence, dirt-bound poverty, ritualized superstition, and brutality par excellence, what Umberto Eco classified as “Barbaric Age” medievalism and what Shiloh Carroll has called (largely in reference to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and its hit companion TV series Game of Thrones) “grimdark” medievalism. This more grim and realistic depiction of the medieval era (where “realism” generally means plenty of mud) is offered as an overcompensatory corrective to the colourful, scrubbed-up, ren-faire version of the chivalric Middle Ages derived from medieval romance poetry, which influenced films set in Medieval Europe for a long time; look at the Errol Flynn classic The Adventures of Robin Hood from 1938, for example, which does not at all seem to be in the same contiguous reality as a much later medieval film like Outlaw King.

Although possessed of a greater level of historical fidelity than Braveheart, Outlaw King still understands the Middle Ages, or at least the warfare in their midst over political power and dynastic succession carried out by feudal society’s war-drilled aristocrats, as a consistently dirty and bloody affair, with none of the trade and agriculture and prosperous plenty and feast-day revelry that characterized much of pre-Black Death High Medieval Europe. To be frank, though, if the barbaric terms of grimdark medievalism did actually apply anywhere on the continent in that era, it was surely in Scotland, with its almost constant warfare both intercenine and inter-state, the latter mostly with the England of King Edward I, known as the Hammer of the Scots for his forceful victories over and pitiless treatment of his country’s northern neighbours.

Outlaw King‘s avatar of that brutal reality is not Edward I (Stephen Dillane of Game of Thrones plays him here as a rusting iron fist) or even his more weak-willed and thus more desperately cruel son, Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), later Edward II. No, the grimdark ambassador is clearly Robert the Bruce’s lieutenant Sir James Douglas, played by a quite nearly feral Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a canny killer of enemies, a prolific fornicator, and a vicious berserker on the battlefield. Outlaw King‘s battles and skirmishes and slayings are prodigiously gory, full of mutilated bodies and bursts of red mist, and Taylor-Johnson’s the Black Douglas is ever at its blood-pumping heart. Outlaw King includes a rendition of the infamous Douglas Larder episode of the Wars of Scottish Independence, in which Douglas and his men-at-arms infiltrated his home seat of Douglas Castle and ruthless assaulted the English garrison that holds it, ambushing and slaying men as they prayed in the chapel (as an applicable side note, James Douglas’ great-great grandsons, the elder of them the 6th Earl of Douglas, were the fatal targets of the infamous “Black Dinner”, the model for George R.R. Martin’s centerpiece of grimdark medieval violence in A Song of Ice and Fire, the Red Wedding).

But Outlaw King is, after all, about the outlaw king, Robert the Bruce. Played by Pine (surely now established as the most able and gravitas-ready of the Chrises) as a plain, pragmatic, and conflicted moral man who leads more by example than by inspiration. He dutifully lugs his taxes to the English king’s agents but is persuaded to embrace rebellion by a popular riot at the display of the executed William Wallace’s severed arm. He is gentle and loving with his daughter Marjorie (Josie O’Brien) and gives space to his intelligent and strong-willed arranged bride, Irish aristocrat Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh), until she is ready to love him and come to his bed. He is kind and familiar with servants. He is thoughtful and sensitive but determined in adversity, and not boastful in victory. On the cusp of the turning-point Battle of Loundon Hill which forms the film’s climax, he digs strategic ditches alongside his men, and instead of full-lunged exhortations about freedom, his pre-battle pep talk to his troops eschews all the standard appeals to personal and ideological motivating factors in favour of bloody-minded directness: you’re here, now fight and fight hard.

Though still an idealized and glorified figure in many ways, the earthbound directness of Pine’s Robert the Bruce defines the film around him. This is a tremendously pragmatically-minded film, primarily concerned with the grim acceptance of unwavering necessity of action compelled by events, history as action and reaction. When Robert commits his most antihero of acts, the sudden, shocking stabbing of his rival John Comyn (Callan Mulvey) at the altar of a church where they were meeting under supposed truce, this cold-blooded murder is couched as being a snap decision of necessity driven by Comyn’s explicit statement of his intent to reveal Robert’s incipient disloyalty to the English authorities. Although the Bruce claims the mandate of the Scottish people upon his coronation, his rebellion against the English is not defined by fidelity to high ideals but by basic hardscrabble survival. Director David Mackenzie gained wider critical notice with 2016’s Hell or High Water (also starring Pine), a film about men driven to outlaw extremes by moral objections to wider injustice. Outlaw King doesn’t universalize Robert the Bruce’s struggle for an independent Scottish throne and, despite personal grievances between him and the English leaders, doesn’t turn it into a vendetta either. The real Robert the Bruce was ambitious and power-hungry, and Pine’s version isn’t not like that, though not too openly.

Whatever medieval historians might think of the species of social and military realism represented by movies like Outlaw King, there’s something convincing in its understanding of this particular conflict later enshrined as a national struggle as a nasty species of rural gang scuffle, a glorified street battle with swords and mail and lances and horses. It’s hardly a great film despite its handsome production and firm performances, but Outlaw King is a step away from the chest-beating of Braveheart and just maybe, in spite of its dominant grimness, towards a more honest and nuanced representation of the Middle Ages on the big screen.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews