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Film Review: Assassin’s Creed

September 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Assassin’s Creed (2016; Directed by Justin Kurzel)

One year prior to the release of 20th Century Fox’s distinct but patchy big-screen adaptation of the popular action-adventure video game series Assassin’s Creed, its director Justin Kurzel, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, and stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard collaborated on a dynamite cinematic take on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth that was one of 2015’s finest films. The clear next step for this core of creatives after an invigorating version of one of the pinnacles of the English literary canon was, quite obviously, a sci-fi/historical-fiction blockbuster potboiler with undertones of eternal Manichean dichotomies, pulpy hidden-past conspiracism, and creepy pure-blood genetic determinism. Assassin’s Creed is absurd both on its surface and in its depths, but Kurzel and his team treat it with the same serious-minded sincerity they accorded the great Shakespearean tragedy a year prior.

I can’t claim to possess any helpful familiarity with the Ubisoft game series on which Assassin’s Creed is based, though its acrobatics-and-combat gameplay and time-bending concepts do resemble the Montreal-based game studio’s previous platform hit, Prince of Persia (also adapted into a much worse film several years back). The film introduces and re-affirms its core concept several times, though, so it’s hard to miss: two secretive orders – the shadowy, cult-like Assassins and the patrician, theocratic, elite-entrenched Knights Templar – battle throughout history over the preservation of human free will, which the Templars seek to eliminate through the use of the Assassin-protected Apple of Eden, an ancient artifact of dangerous power and biblical symbolism.

In the modern day, the power and influence of the Templars has eclipsed the Assassins, a cadre of outcasts and criminals whose cultish killer’s “creed” (working in the darkness to serve the light, etc.) is a matter of genetic heredity. The Templar-affiliated Abstergo Foundation, headed by Dr. Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) and his brilliant scientist daughter Sofia (Cotillard), have collected as many descendants of Assassins as they can and imprisoned them in a facility in Madrid. There, the Rikkins and their minions hook these men and women into a sophisticated machine called the Animus and run them through a draining mental and physical process of reliving the genetic memories of their Assassin ancestors. Their goal is to use these subjects to locate the missing Apple in the mists of the past and apply its power to end violence, conflict, and strife in the world by choking off human freedom and self-determination forever.

Their most recent and important subject is a convicted and ostensibly executed murderer named Callum “Cal” Lynch (Fassbender), whose Assassin forebearer Aguilar de Nerha (also Fassbender) was the last known possessor of the Apple before it was lost to history. Flashing back to Aguilar’s experiences in Spain in the tumultuous year of 1492 via the Animus, Cal’s wounded identity (his Assassin father killed his mother and was captured by the Templar, leaving him alone) begins to meld with his Assassin legacy and physical prowess, and exposure to the other Assassin descendants and creeping doubt about the Rikkins’ stated peaceful intentions presses him onto a path of destiny.

As silly as its core ideas may be, Assassin’s Creed has a tremendous amount going for it as a film. Kurzel directs confidently, and there are some memorable visual moments involving a symbolic soaring bird of prey in particular: introduced alongside a song by the Black Angels on the soundtrack as it glides through time between late-medieval Spain and modern Mexico, the flying bird later appears multiplied on a magical, haunting animated ceiling at the Abstergo facility during a tense meeting between Cal and his father, played with great gravity by Brendan Gleeson. Arkapaw’s cinematography is again tremendously beautiful, though it is often saturated by Andalusian sunbeams and digitally colour-graded into moody, dim foncity.

Performance-wise, Fassbender brings intense commitment and ferocity to a blockbuster anti-hero role that most serious actors would imbue with arms-length irony, and memorably sings Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” in an aggressively unstable timbre as he is dragged into another Animus session. Cotillard’s character is buffeted about by the script (credited to Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, it smacks of repeated rewrites) and I can’t for the life of me begin to explain any of her words or actions in the closing sequence based on what came before it, but, like Fassbender, she really means it, anyway. An international cadre of supporting actors from Gleeson to Michael K. Williams to Essie Davis as Cal’s mother to Ariane Labed as Aguilar’s right-hand Assassin to a fiery, scenery-chewing Javier Gutiérrez as infamous Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada lend potency further down the cast credits, too.

But for a movie based on a consistent, even relentless action game, Assassin’s Creed disappointingly holds back on its action sequences. Cal’s first Animus session drops him into an uninspired Hollywood Western/Indiana Jones-style horse-and-cart chase through the parched landscape of Southern Spain, and the movie’s rote faux-climax features a rebellious Cal and his Assassin brothers and sisters fighting off Abstergo’s security thugs as the Rikkins helicopter away to fetch the Apple. Only a rambling, enervating mid-film escape from Torquemada’s theatrical, Goya-esque auto-da-fé that transitions into a white-knuckle foot-chase and running battle through Seville’s medieval streets, rooftops, and bazaars manages to simultaneously demonstrate the mastery of artful action filmmaking that Kurzel demonstrated in Macbeth and live up to the balletic, wall-climbing, Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling derring-do that makes Ubisoft’s games such a thrill to play. Scored with subtle but driving Spanish-Arabic rhythms by Kurzel’s composer brother Jed, it’s Assassin’s Creed‘s highlight sequence, bar none.

Assassin’s Creed doesn’t spend enough of its running time being fun, therefore. How does it spend its time? On repetitive and sometimes poorly-emphasized world-building exposition, much of which collapses upon even cursory examination. More than that, though, its themes of hereditary legacy and free will vs. determinism play out questionably not only through its fictional characters but through its wider historically-fictive backdrop. Cal’s anticipated turn to defence of his Assassin heritage as redemption for his family trauma doesn’t land quite right, despite being the central thematic fulcrum of the movie; the sense of ambiguity in Sofia’s attitude towards her father’s goals and towards Templar dogma, and its frequent opposition to her dedication to bettering the world through science, is never resolved, and she simply pivots into a sequel-teasing promise of villainy in the film’s abrupt denouement.

But this ambivalence is nothing compared to how Assassin’s Creed utilizes its historical setting in the Spain of 1492. A momentous hinge in Spanish history and indeed for the world at large, 1492 was the year that the Reconquista was completed, with Ferdinand and Isabella’s forces conquering the last Muslim stronghold of Granada and fully re-Christianizing the Iberian peninsula for the first time in centuries; it was the year that Spain’s Jews, who played a disproportionately important role in the cultural and intellectual vibrancy of Muslim al-Andalus, were expelled from the country in one of European history’s numerous anti-Semitic irruptions; and it was the year that Christopher Columbus sailed west from a Spanish port to “discover” America, with all that this would mean for Spanish wealth and imperial prestige and for world history.

Assassin’s Creed draws from the first and last of these vital events (self-serious as it may be, tackling anti-Semitic discrimination through time is a bridge too far for a video-game movie like this, at least for the moment). A key scene involving Aguilar and the Apple takes place in Granada’s Alhambra palace, and Aguilar then travels to Cadiz to give the artifact to the departing Columbus for safe keeping. The Rikkins soon enough deduce that this means that the Apple is hidden in Columbus’ tomb and saunter over to Seville Cathedral to fetch it with ease from the local bishop.

This plot point asks for a logical leap of faith similar to the literal Leap required of Cal in his Assassin training. We are already asked to leave aside the historical fact that the Knights Templar, a religious-military order of great power and wealth in medieval Europe, were dismantled by inquisitional forces in the Catholic Church in collaboration with its closest secular ruler, the King of France. We are informed instead that the Templars and the Church are intertwined, even united, sharing the same leadership, ideology, and short- and long-term goals. But, despite this established collaboration since at least the 15th Century, the Church seemingly knew that the Apple of Eden, the ultimate item of desire for their Templar allies for centuries, was sitting in a key spot in one of its largest catherdrals and didn’t bother to let them know? Add to this the clear missed opportunity for some clever last-act plot misdirection as concerns the Seville vs. Santo Domingo Columbus’ tomb controversy, and it’s a plot element that lands with a splat.

The Inquisition setting is thematically apt, certainly, emphasizing the Templars’ single-minded mission to crush all dissenting viewpoints and freedom of thought (Irons monologues about religion, politics, and consumerism as past grand schemes in this regard) and thus suggesting the Catholic Church’s infamously brutal crackdown on heretics of all sorts as a mere corollary of this more entrenched will. Combining it with the final defeat of rival Islam, understood here as another contending heresy, in Western Europe at the end of the Reconquista, these forces of control come to be refocused with renewed vigour on an entire new hemisphere and its unsuspecting peoples in the era of colonialism that Columbus kicked off with his Atlantic crossing. Assassin’s Creed comes shockingly close to distilling the disparate historical turning points of the momentous Spanish year of 1492 into a coherent and even powerful hybridized statement about human civilization, power and psychology, then and especially now.

There’s a hefty suggestion in Assassin’s Creed, in this over-ponderous, heavy-handed, only rarely purely entertaining movie adaptation of an action-packed video game, that the Templars’ long-running mission to choke off human freedom has already all but succeeded, Apple or no Apple. “The modern world has outgrown notions like freedom,” a senior Templar (Charlotte Rampling) tells the elder Dr. Rikkin. “They’re content to follow.” But what is the freedom represented by the Assassins but a genetically predetermined legacy of violence? In this theme concerning the human tendency to allow our past heritage to become our future legacy, or to poison and undermine that legacy, perhaps there is not such a wide gulf between Assassin’s Creed and Macbeth after all. That this suggestion can even be tentatively made is a testament to the kind of film that Justin Kurzel manages to make Assassin’s Creed into. Maybe he ought to have been making a popcorn movie, yes, but recognized for what it is, this is a film with something to say in between badass assassin killing, even if what it has to say is frequently self-contradictory.

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Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Icarus

September 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Icarus (2017; Directed by Bryan Fogel)

Icarus begins as one kind of documentary film and ends up as quite another. Its director, Bryan Fogel, is also a high-level amateur cyclist, and early in the film humblebraggily notes that he finished 14th in the Haute Route, considered to be the premier amateur cycling race in the world. Despite the strong finish, Fogel found that the discrepancy between himself and the top racers was so wide that he suspected that the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) was as rampant in top-tier amateur cycling as it infamously has been in professional cycling. With this in mind, he decides to put himself on PEDs for a year leading up to the next edition of the Haute Route, tracking and documenting his progress and improvement on camera (call it Super Dope Me, if you like).

To ensure his own health and safety as well as to optimize his results and chances of passing anti-doping tests, Fogel decides to work with experienced and accredited scientists. His first choice for consultation, the founder and head of UCLA’s doping laboratory, backs out, concerned about his reputation when it becomes clear that Fogel wants to show how to dope and get away with it. He recommends instead a Russian scientist and the head of Russia’s ant-doping program, Grigory Rodchenkov. With loose morals, voluble good humour, and a suspicious amount of experience in evading doping controls, Rodchenkov puts Fogel on a sophisticated and mildly alarming PED regimen.

Due to non-physically-related setbacks, Fogel finished lower in the Haute Route standings than he did the previous year, despite his program of doping. But along the way he gains a good friend in Rodchenkov and stumbles upon an inside view of one of the biggest and most explosive stories in the long but mostly-shadowy history of sports doping. It becomes clear fairly quickly to Fogel that Rodchenkov knows so much about cheating sports doping controls because it was precisely his job in Russia to help athletes to do so, not to catch them at it.

Rodchenkov soon confides in Fogel and his camera, and later in the New York Times and the U.S. Department of Justice, that every Russian Olympic athlete at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics was using PEDs and that he and his lab worked to ensure that they were not caught. Not only that, but at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia (which were even more awash in steroid use for domestic propaganda purposes after Russia’s weaker showing in 2010 in Vancouver, where drug tests were more difficult to get around), Rodchenkov and his staff worked with state secret police to swap Russian athletes’ PED-laced urine samples for clean ones in the IOC-sanctioned anti-doping lab itself. All of this was done with the clear knowledge and even expressed direction of the Russian Minister of Sport, who answers directly to President Vladimir Putin himself.

Struck by guilt after his team’s work turned Sochi into a podium-finish and propaganda success that Putin parlayed into a power-move into Ukraine, Rodchenkov’s revelations went public as Fogel filmed him in 2015 and 2016, leading to the entire Russian track and field team (and quite nearly all Russian Olympic athletes period) being banned from competition at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Fleeing Russia and fearing for his life, Rodchenkov is finally put into protective custody and witness relocation by the Department of Justice.

This is a heck of a story and Fogel knows it, but the more thematic framing of Rodchenkov’s perspective on his actions can feel a bit off, even heavy-handed. Rodchenkov is a devotee of George Orwell’s 1984, and the seminal book is quoted liberally in Icarus; the Greek mythology title isn’t nearly as justified as the Orwell connection, which can be patchy of its own accord. He feels that he was like Winston Smith, sunk in the constant pretentious lie of doublethink as he ran a purportedly anti-doping operation while actually running a prolific doping operation.

Icarus makes a belated point, though not a particularly forceful one, that the Orwellian doublethink at the core of Russia’s sports doping system reflects more generally on Putin’s discourse of propaganda and power in his modern Russia. Perhaps Fogel could have made this point sharper without his early focus on his own PED regimen, or his detailing of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s efforts, or his decision to humanize and thus build empathy for Rodchenkov (some left-field animation sequences don’t help, including the surrealist image of a crumpled, seated Rodchenkov with a stag’s antlers growing out of skull). Icarus is a fascinating and strong documentary, but the unanticipated sharp turn that makes its narrative so striking might also weaken its impact.

Film Review: Miller’s Crossing

September 5, 2017 Leave a comment

 Miller’s Crossing (1990; Directed by Joel Coen)

The Coen Brothers’ films are nearly always concerned with crime, but Miller’s Crossing is their only straight gangster movie to date (the application of the term “straight” to any of their work being inherently extremely loose). As such, it dusts off any number of genre references and homages (The Godfather, of course, but the Coens’ steeping in film history goes deeper than that), but very skillfully crafts several of its own: its opening image of a fedora drifting with dead leaves on the breeze; John Turturro desperately, moistly begging for his life on his knees in the woods; and Albert Finney’s venerable but still steely Irish mob boss (“an artist with a Thompson”, he is dubbed) deftly laying waste to his intended assassins in and around his grand home to the grammaphone-filtered strains of “Danny Boy” (for me, still one of the finest sequences in the Coens’ distinguished filmography; watch it below, you’ll be richer for it).

Miller’s Crossing‘s shrewd anti-hero protagonist, Tom Reagan (an excellent Gabriel Byrne), serves as right-hand man to Finney’s Leo O’Bannon. Tom becomes embroiled in a garden of forked paths of gangland rivalries, blackmailings, ordered hits, and double crosses, involving O’Bannon’s rival Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), Caspar’s ambitious muscle The Dane (J.E. Freeman), O’Bannon’s (and Reagan’s) lover Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), and her brother Bernie Bernbaum (Turturro), a perfidious bookie who has angered Caspar and strains Reagan’s intent to protect him.

As with all of the Coens’ work, Miller’s Crossing functions on one level as sophisticated but fundamentally potboiling pulp genre entertainment, classic Hollywood form touched by their idiosyncratic indie aesthetic, ear for repetitive language, and fondness for human eccentricity. On a whole other level, however, Miller’s Crossing is about the deepest themes of human morality: resentment, empathy, forgiveness, redemption, self-preservation, loyalty, independence, love. The titular location, the isolated forest in which Tom must demonstrate his dedication to his new boss Caspar by eliminating Bernie, is a crossroads of judgement, a venue of moral quandary. Tom’s pity and mercy for Bernie’s basic pathetic human weakness leads him to his least pragmatic decision of the film, one that he must remedy if he is to be free of the consequences of fellow-feeling.

Miller’s Crossing might not quite be comfortably placed in the upper echelon of the Coens’ work, but it’s smart and involving and resonant and practically faultless. Johnny Caspar (a hyperactive talker likely based partly on Chicago gangster legend Al Capone, just as Leo O’Bannon probably takes Capone’s Irish mob rival Dean O’Banion as a model) repeats several times that being well-regarded in this world is a matter of “ethics”. There is a buffoonish irony implied in the use of this term in this context: what “ethics” can one descry in the organized crime underworld with its betrayals, power plays, and shared dialect of violence and murder? But the Coens, too, are talking about ethics in the gangster portrait of Miller’s Crossing. There is famously honour among these thieves, far more than any of them can quite handle. So much that it drives them to act dishonourably to preserve that honour. Such inherent contradiction is a vein of rich mineral for the Coens Brothers, and they mine it lucratively here.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Snowden

August 30, 2017 Leave a comment

Snowden (2016; Directed by Oliver Stone)

If you want to know more about Edward Snowden, the computer whiz and intelligence agency contractor who exposed damning evidence of the United States government’s secret, sophisticated, and privacy-violating data-collection system of mass electronic surveillance of its citizens and of people worldwide in 2013, Oliver Stone’s dramatized narrative of the events of the principled analyst’s life ought to be close to a last resort. Far better to trust Citizenfour, the superb documentary filmed by Laura Poitras as Snowden hunkered down in a Hong Kong luxury hotel to release the revelatory NSA material to her and Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill, to get the details correct, compellingly featuring as it does the whistleblower himself in the very act of blowing his whistle.

It’s not that Snowden, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt in an eerily-accurate impersonation of the controversial figure, is especially non-good. Stone’s film treats its subject broadly, and presents Ed Snowden’s final truth-to-power choice to reveal what he feels to be inexcusable government overreach regardless of his personal safety and the potential legal consequences with the stirring triumphalism of a melodramatic victory in an against-the-odds underdog sports movies. The director of the magnificent JFK, the tour-de-force dramatization of the paranoid style in American politics, is no longer possessed of such tremendous conjuring powers.  But his depiction of Snowden’s disillusioning movement through the American intelligence deep state makes complex technical terms and systems intelligible without distorting their implications or consequences. He also makes it a dramatically and even emotionally involving odyssey (Stone co-wrote the screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald) while avoiding particularly inaccurate flights of creative license. Perhaps Stone had little other choice, as Snowden obtained the participation of and even a closing cameo by the famously exacting Edward Snowden himself, residing in peaceful (if precarious) exile in Russia since his revelations went public in 2013.

Snowden is structured to intercut between the progress of the Hong Kong hotel sessions in 2013 between Snowden and Poitras (played here by Melissa Leo), Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), and MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and the experiences in the intelligence world that shake his faith in fundamental American righteousness. A third plot thread details the costs on his long-term relationship with girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) of his frequent cross-global relocations, the strains of classified non-disclosure of his work, an epileptic condition, and his mounting moral doubts about what his government employers are up to. Yet another thread involves his CIA training mentor Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), who recognizes Snowden’s abilities and facilitates his rise through the intelligence world but also begins to suspect a wavering in his loyalties.

All of this presents vaguely as a political thriller, although any pursuits down dark alleys by shadowy, menacing figures are manifested primarily as sequences of furtive digital downloads (Stone can’t resist indulging in some danger-of-exposure tension in a climactic instance of this scene near the end of the film) or quiet displays of Snowden’s (justified) paranoia. Some ambitious and metaphorically-illustrative effects-driven sequences attempt to visually represent the mass aggregation of private digital information that Snowden discovers, including one in which countless linear streams of data flow to a circular central dome that pulls back to become a human eye. Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is varied but excellent, and he facilitates some of Stone’s most striking visual approaches, most notably a final video-link conversation between Snowden and O’Brian in which the teacher looms with intimidating, dominating accusation over his soon-to-be extremely rebellious student on a large screen.

Snowden is most an Oliver Stone film in his incremental dripping reveal of illegal government overreach and its disillusioning, curtain-pulling effect on Ed Snowden’s beliefs and understanding of patriotism. Snowden begins as a smart conservative with libertarian leanings (he earns O’Brian’s particular approbation in an entry interview with approving comments about Ayn Rand), though Mills’ liberalism works its way into his thinking over time and even convinces him that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama might abide by his promises to do things differently, better. Coming from a military family with intelligence and defense department ties, his earnest hopes to serve his country are redirected into intelligence analysis after a fractured tibia gets him discharged from the Army Special Forces. In his work, he learns of the secret FISA courts allowing the U.S. government to run electronic wiretaps without a warrant, a suite of technology and programs designed to search through reams of personal data of private citizens worldwide, CIA field operations that unethically destroy lives for miniscule advantages, and remotely-ordered drone bombings of children, families, and innocent people across the Middle East. In short, Snowden gets a closer and more detailed view of the processes and practices that prop up American global hegemony, and he doesn’t like it at all and decides to do something about it.

It goes without saying that Oliver Stone sees his own political beliefs reflected by Snowden’s evolution. He fundamentally understands the exposure and criticism of the clandestine operations of the U.S. deep state that support American interests worldwide to be the most patriotic and nation-loving act possible. What Stone thinks that he’s doing in films like Snowden (or more comprehensively in his revisionist history documentary series The Untold History of the United States), he sees Edward Snowden doing in his planned public leak of NSA data and processes. That Stone was unable to obtain Stateside funding for Snowden or to film it in the U.S. due to official government and Hollywood studio disapproval and even interference speaks to the controversial nature of Snowden’s story even today, as some political leaders acknowledge the positive conversation-starting contributions of the Snowden leaks and as some of the worst abuses of mass surveillance are preliminarily rolled back.

Snowden’s arc from the patriotism of following orders to the patriotism of disobeying them is a bit pat, however, and sees Stone falling into a classic trap of liberal thinking about political persuasion. Snowden’s is an exceptional case, an example of a citizen both tremendously intelligent and inherently principled with special access to classified information most Americans will never have, and with a willingness to ingest and be redirected to different ideological paths by the implications of that information that most Americans do not have either. The vast majority of American political alignment is a matter of inherited and socially-conditioned tribal loyalty, on both left and right. Most American voters do not change their minds or their allegiances even once during the course of their lives, even if the leader of their faction trangresses any and every boundary of civil and constitutional behaviour or proves quietly divergent from his pledged policy positions (like Barack Obama, who ultimately disappointed Snowden’s hopes for him).

If Edward Snowden is more exceptional than representative, Oliver Stone mostly treats him as such: a conflicted and flawed but ultimately true hero, the exemplar of a new sort of hard-won patriotism. It’s hardly as clear as Stone’s film makes it seem where America goes after Snowden’s revelations, and his story tells us much but offers little in the way of a roadmap forward on privacy issues or any other policies related to the nearly all-powerful national security apparatus. Stone, forever sceptical of government power and the influence of the intelligence sector no matter what party is in charge, firmly believes in speaking truth to power. He sees Edward Snowden through this prism. Snowden’s message has slightly more nuance to it, but Snowden gets as much of it as might have reasonably been expected. Just don’t expect too much of it, and give Citizenfour a glance to fill in its gaps.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: The BFG

August 26, 2017 Leave a comment

The BFG (2016; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

Steven Spielberg could comfortably churn out reasonably enchanting, amusingly diverting all-ages entertainment like The BFG until the day he dies. Although he challenges himself as a filmmaker with more adult-oriented films and while they have proven more divisive but also ultimately more rewarding, it’s with the inner-child sparkling-wonder stuff that he’s particularly in his element.

Adapting Roald Dahl’s 1982 book of the same name, The BFG (which stands for “Big Friendly Giant”, not “Big Fucking Gun”, as first-person-shooter gamers might automatically assume) is a slight, vaguely Disneyfied concoction but a heartfelt, impeccably-crafted, and often visually ravishing one. It follows Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a bookish, imaginative girl who is whisked away from a London orphanage after she catches a furtive glimpse of the titular elderly giant (Mark Rylance, recognizable in the giant’s kindly glances and tweedy whistle of a country-farmer voice) on his nocturnal rounds. He returns to his home in Giant Country with Sophie in tow, and the girl is soon charmed by the mild-mannered BFG and his malaprop-esque mis-speakings. She learns of his magical work of catching dreams and blowing them into the heads of sleeping humans, his whimsical fondness for green-tined, reverse-carbonated fart juice, and his subordinate relationship to the rest of the (much larger) giants, bulky brutes who bully him mercilessly and embark on human-eating expeditions. With Sophie’s aid and fond encouragement, the BFG will push back against these nasty giants and their leader Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement).

Melissa Mathison’s script crams in as much of Dahl’s verbal playfulness as it can manage, as well as plenty of kid-squealing gross-outs (Sophie escapes the determined hunting of Fleshlumpeater inside a moist, squishy vegetable called a snozzcumber, for example) and overt appeals to childish interests. Spielberg, for his part, densely packs in clever visual gags and winking movement beats. All of these elements come together along with a grinning nose-thumbing at upper-crust snootery as Sophie and the BFG dine improbably at Buckingham Palace with the Queen herself (Penelope Wilton). The palace staff engages in absurd contrivances to serve the giant, overflowing platters of delicious-looking food fill the tables, and the Queen’s corgis skid along the carpets on the wings of flatulence. Everyone is having mild, goofy fun, Spielberg chiefly, and it’s a low-key delight.

It feels churlish to object to such a well-polished trifle as The BFG, though a harsh eye might be cast at Barnhill’s slightly-excessive mugging, the stock-idea conception of captured dreams as standard-issue coloured glowing CG teardrops, or the plot-convenience implication that the Queen of England is the commander-in-chief of British armed forces. The BFG doesn’t blaze any new trails but it’s an above-average family fantasy film (albeit without the winks and nods at savvy adults that characterize much feature animation now) that is consistently pretty to look at and not only respects but, more vitally, is in love with its source material. What it lacks in originality, it makes up for in bursting, enthusiastic cleverness and fundamental, gentle good humour. At his core, Steven Spielberg doesn’t need much more than this to be happy in the movies. It’s difficult to watch The BFG and not find yourself agreeing with him.

Categories: Film, Reviews

The Confederate Lost Cause, Ruby Ridge, Waco, Oklahoma City, Donald Trump and the Alt-Right: The Roots of the American Moment

August 16, 2017 Leave a comment

The events of this past week, which have revolved around a far-right rally and march in Charlottesville, Virginia that turned predictably deadly, feel definitional of the fraught current moment in American politics and society. A complex web of long-simmering ideological subcultures and raging-id grievances combined in this event. Ostensibly organized and headlined by a variety of far-right internet and alternative-media figures to protest the debated removal of an equestrian statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from the recently-renamed Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park) in Charlottesville, the so-called Unite the Right rally last weekend became a magnet for right-wing groups from neo-Nazis to neo-Confederates, pseudo-intellectual white nationalists to heavily-armed “patriot” militias, the Ku Klux Klan to the smugly ironic online “alt-right”. The glue holding together these disparate pieces and giving them some desultory but dangerous sense of cohesion and social validation is a shared allegiance to President Donald Trump. His golf-course attire of light slacks, white polo shirt, and red “Make Americ Great Again” hat was even an unofficial uniform for many of the reactionary marchers.

The Unite the Right cohort were confronted by a prominent and critical swath of media coverage for their Friday night torchlight event and a strong showing of diverse but not ideological-fixed counterprotesters, united more than anything by their opposition to the white supremacist ideals being advanced by the chanting marchers, on Saturday. Violent clashes erupted between the opposing sides, culminating in a terrorist car-ramming attack by a far-right-connected young man who took the violent rhetoric of his confrères all too seriously. His attack killed one person and injured 19 more, but also turned general public opinion even more strongly against the fascistic rightists than it had initially been.

The aftermath of the deadly rally has become even more disconcerting. Amidst arrests, chastened media-shy Nazis losing their jobs, and denunciations by politicians of both parties, the reaction of President Trump was watched most closely. After running a victorious presidential campaign that featured the most openly racist and authoritarian tone in modern memory, Trump’s team continued to cultivate close ties with many of the very far right groups involved in the rally, who were also among his most loyal supporters. His chief political strategist, Steve Bannon, was a key figure in this new resurgent extreme Right through its most prominent media mouthpiece, Breitbart News. Moreover, Trump himself often echoed the language and beliefs of this troubling slice of the spectrum, spouting racist conspiracy theories, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and anti-left insults like a particular belligerent Redditor.

Trump first partially hijacked an intended inoffensive White House statement of dismay and denunciation with ad-libbed equivocation about the “many sides” to blame for the organized gathering of proponents of a violent ideology descending into violence. Then, after delivering a seemingly-forced stronger repudiation of the specific hate groups involved in Charlottesville’s tragedy, Trump alarmingly and semi-incoherently ranted out a series of Fox News talking-points and responsibility-deflecting YouTube comments blaming the essentially imaginary “alt-left” for the violence and insisting that there were many “good people” among the Nazi apologists chanting about exterminating Jews and threatening African-American churches with burning tiki torches. Even for wearied observers used to new descents into the muck by this most odious President, not to mention the savvy critics who have noted that Trump’s only consistently-held belief (besides his own continued self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment) is his racism, the sight of a sitting President openly and vociferously defending no-fooling Nazis and KKK was shocking.

How did America reach this moment? The contributing factors stretch on back before the founding of America or even the arrival of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere, to be frank, but the shock of Charlottesville has a set of clear antecedents. The rally’s impetus, the proposed removal of the Robert E. Lee statue, links everything back to America’s founding sin: slavery. Furtively outlawed after the Union defeated the rebellious Confederate States of the South in the grindingly bloody Civil War in 1865, the enslavement of black people, and the racial order of white supremacy that mandated it, was thereafter transmuted into different forms: Jim Crow laws, lynchings and racial violence, segregation, and mass incarceration. Ava DuVernay’s documentary on these mechanisms of structural racism, 13th, offers a strong summation of their intent and effects.

In cultural and discursive support of these structures, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy gained prominence almost immediately after the Southern surrender at the end of the Civil War. Valourizing the bravery and sacrifice of Confederate Army soldiers but eliding the truth that what they fought for was the enslavement of African-Americans, the Lost Cause manifested itself in many ways, from the founding and periodic resurgences of the KKK to cinematic fictions of Southern nobility like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. But through the first decades of the 20th Century, it manifested noticeably across the South and beyond with a flurry of monuments honouring Confederate generals like Lee and Stonewall Jackson, as well as political figures like Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Rebels against government authority who would have been hanged as traitors in previous times and historical periods, these Confederate figures were instead enshrined as heroes in the public spaces of the old Confederacy (and in a surprising litany of non-Confederate states as well).

The commemoration of these monuments (many of which were cheap and mass-produced for quick distribution to counties across the country) not only rallied white citizens to the Confederate values of white supremacy reflected in then-contemporary social, legal, and political elites, but it also served as an implicit statement and even a threat to the African-American minority and its white allies that trangression of this order would meet with the full force of its vengeance. Combined with the increasing official usage of the infamous Confederate Battle Flag by state governments of the South, these monuments to slaveowners and slavery-defenders were a clear message: the White Man is in charge here, and don’t you forget it. Thus, the gradual progressive effort to remove these flags and statues from America’s public spaces is understood by right-wing white nationalists as a symbolic prelude to their feverish nightmare fantasies of “white genocide”.

While the cultural and discursive battles of the Lost Cause narrative have worn on, another parallel force arose on the American Right in recent decades: the so-called “patriot movement”. Focused around white-dominated (but not necessarily or inherently racially-demarcated) state militia groups, gun-ownership activists, and anti-government libertarian extremists, “patriots” conceive of gun control campaigns and legislation as the opening parry in the establishment of an authoritarian suppression of individual rights in America. The development of this subculture is traced indelibly in two films from PBS’s American Experience which aired, with serendipitous confluence, in the weeks following Donald Trump’s inauguration as President earlier in 2017: Ruby Ridge and Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma City especially acts as an illuminating history of the anti-government ideology that radicalized Timothy McVeigh and led him to commit one of the worst terrorist acts of American history: the bombing of Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1995, which killed 168 people. The events at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992 – a deadly stand-off between law enforcement and an isolated and armed family – as well as outside of Waco, Texas in 1993 – where a 51-day standoff between a fundamentalist Christian sect and the FBI lead to shootouts and an infamous conflagration that killed 76 people in total – figured vitally into the self-conception of the patriot movement and into McVeigh’s motivation for his mass murder. But the films also detail surprising unorthodoxies in the belief-systems of their principle actors. Ruby Ridge raid target Randy Weaver was a conservative Christian who socialized with white power groups but did not share their racial views; Waco’s Branch Davidians might have constituted a cult, but David Koresh’s followers were an inclusive and racially-diverse cult; Tim McVeigh began doubting his government’s intentions after serving in the Gulf War, his stated objections to what happened in Iraq reflecting progressive anti-imperialism more than right-wing ideas.

Often appearing in public heavily armed but purporting to be fundamentally law-abiding, current “patriots” may not sympathize with many of the beliefs of Lost Cause neo-confederates or white power groups, but they feel that they share the same enemies (liberals, the federal government, cultural elites). And they also increasingly share the same champion: Donald Trump. Add Evangelicals and cultural conservatives to his basket of deplorable acolytes, as well; although they were not necessarily wielding torches in Charlottesville, the relative silence of these groups in the aftermath of this past weekend makes their sympathies, or at least their perceived best interest, crystal-clear.

The absurdity of looking to a petulantly unstable, hideously narcissistic, and incompetently corrupt New York City business tycoon far more interested in golfing weekends than in ethnic cleansing to achieve their oppressive goals will surely dawn on even the most obtuse of these new fashionable Nazis and their loose affiliation of fellow-travellers sooner or later (though they’re mostly stunningly dim, so perhaps not). Donald Trump will disappoint and betray them as he always does to those who put their faith and trust in him. He can do no better. But racist white supremacists have far more reason for confidence in his dedication to their cause than anyone else, and he has signalled once again that he is firmly on their side.

Much of the criticism of these new young Nazis, most of whom are little more than wishy-washy weekend fascists trying on a shocking costume as they stumble around in search of an identity, has focused on the unAmerican-ness of fascism. But as we’ve seen, the ideological bedrock of the Lost Cause and the patriot movement is deeply entrenched in American history. Indeed, in both cases, much of the heavy lifting of self-justification of baldly undeniable treasonous resistance to the authority and legitimacy of American government is achieved by a historical appeal to the founding national myth of the Revolutionary War. Confederate rebels during the war (and their venerators well afterwards) thought themselves the Second Coming of the Sons of Liberty, defending the social order enshrined by slaveowning Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence from a changing, confused, bastardized nation that had lost its way. From their self-given moniker, it should likewise be obvious that the patriot movement considers itself the heirs to the righteous rebels of the 1770 & 1780s, upholding their constitutional right to keep themselves well-armed in the event that they would need to revolt against government tyranny once again.

The alt-right, as the social-media-savvy millenials arguing for everything from anti-Muslim laws to unfettered gun ownership to rollbacks of LGBT and minority rights to old-fashioned racist views of the inferiority of blacks to whites with Facebook posts and Tweetstorms and YouTube video essays, have marinated in the juices of the various Lost Causes of the Right for their entire adult lives. They can trumpet these ideas without understanding them, without conceiving of the contours of their consequences, and certainly without having witnessed the damage those ideas can do. They dip their toes in water that runs deep and cold, toss around casual extremisms in meme form like so many skipping stones as the ghostly corpses of past horrors float up beneath the surface like in the Dead Marshes. But the past cannot be simply retweeted. Its roots entangle us all, and they will drag us down if we do not cut ourselves free from them, from time to time. Now, Americans appear to be coming upon just such a time.

Film Review: Dunkirk

August 6, 2017 Leave a comment

Dunkirk (2017; Directed by Christopher Nolan)

Christopher Nolan’s first shot of the infamous beach of Dunkirk, France is fastidiously regimented and technically ordered, as is his habit and his wont. When a British Army private named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), the last survivor of his retreating squad, stumbles onto the beach from which more than 330,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated to save them from the advancing German forces in late May and early June of 1940, he finds not chaotic terror and demoralized disarray, but orderly, geometrically-arranged columns of soldiers and materiel. Framed between rod-straight vertical flagpoles and the natural horizontal progression of beach, waterline, surf, sea, and sky, Nolan composes the notoriously desperate, frantic, and hellish Operation Dynamo as history’s grandest queueing exercise. This 70mm panorama view (like much of Nolan’s blockbuster work, the film was also shot and exhibited in IMAX, but never in dreaded, gimmicky 3D) of a pivotal event in human history’s deadliest war is carefully composed and impeccably clean. Even the sand on the beach appears to have been painstakingly raked; perhaps the BEF evacuees decided to do some calming zen gardening while they waited for rescue?

In case the observation being made is unclear, Nolan’s Dunkirk is predicated on a certain visual and functional incongruity from the hard-edged realities of the Second World War even while it strives to replicate the unbearable sensory tension of the war-zone experience. Jonathan Raban, in a perceptive piece on the film for The Stranger, notes that incongruity on the basis of the remembered experiences of his father, a survivor of Dunkirk. Raban recalls the memorable, five-minute tracking one-shot of the Dunkirk beach from Joe Wright’s 2007 film Atonement as a truer re-creation of the surreal horror and bedraggled absurdity of the evacuation, and indeed of the whole terrible, pitiful war. No less technically impressive than Nolan’s Dunkirk and a fraction of the length, the sequence in Atonement is infinitely psychologically (and, perhaps, artistically) deeper and richer.

This is not to say that Dunkirk is not excellent, potent, inherently impressive filmmaking. Or that its metronome-ticking rhythmic shifts between uneasy anticipation and smothering intensity are not, in their way, accurate representations of the lived experience of war. If Nolan’s controlled direction and fine shot-making, assisted by the cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema, can trespass into the too-perfect, the nigh-on precious, then other technical elements bring the full weight of craftsmanship and vision to bear with powerful affect. The sound design, in particular, is spectacular and extremely effective; when Luftwaffe planes make their first bombing and strafing pass over the sitting-duck soldiers on the beach, the roar of their engines is that of a swooping, avenging valkyrie, bent on soul-reaving. Shrill and penetrating, the sound evokes the terrifying sensation of an air assault better than any other film I can recall.

Since this is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, the story of the British soldiers’ peril and the efforts to evacuate them is told non-linearly. Cutting between events on the beach, on the sea, and in the air and covering the respective time of a week, a day, and an hour for each location, Dunkirk is arranged not by direct chronology but more in the interest of maximizing tension and impact. Characters’ dire predicaments – white-knuckle dogfights between RAF and Luftwaffe, escapes from sinking boats and planes, contentious bottle-episode dramas on board watercraft – are arranged to crescendo in concert with each other rather than for strict temporal or even thematic reasons. Hans Zimmer’s unsettled score of rising anticipation of disaster (while no match for his remarkable work for Nolan’s last film, Interstellar) contributes greatly to this overwhelming feeling of dread anticipation.

The tone and feel of Dunkirk is delineated so strong primarily because it must be, as its characters are purposely not. Plenty of capable and recognizable actors show up in the almost exclusively-male ensemble cast (a female nurse literally has a single line, and that’s it for women here). Frequent Nolan collaborator Tom Hardy is one of the RAF pilots (along with Jack Lowden), his face once again hidden behind a mask (a flight one, this time); Oscar-winner Mark Rylance is a weekend sailor who answers the Britain-wide call for small craft to ferry men from the beach at Dunkirk to the deeper-draught Royal Navy ships further offshore, and another Nolan fave, Cillian Murphy, is a traumatized officer he saves from the water; Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy are the commanding officers of the evacuation from the beach, while Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles (of One Direction fame) provide a grunt’s level view of the operation. Although all of Nolan’s actors inhabit their men-at-war archetypes convincingly and a couple of them even have something resembling an arc, the general intent is to depict men caught up in the larger sweep of the grinding war.

Dunkirk became a propaganda cause célèbre for Britain in the dark, dispiriting early days of WWII, a military debacle turned into a tempered victory and patriotic fodder for Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s legendary “we will fight on the beaches” speech to the House of Commons that steeled the nation for the forthcoming hunkering-down of the Battle of Britain. Although Nolan thrills and unnerves his audience by putting his characters in deadly peril, he does not telegraph their emotional responses with anything resembling the manipulative hand of, say, Steven Spielberg; the peril is impressionist, experiential, not necessarily empathetic in intent or effect.

The heroism celebrated in Dunkirk is of a stereotypically British stiff-upper-lip sort, driven by grim survivalism and undergirded always with firm, understated duty-bound commitment. Nolan does allow himself a moment or two of inspirational uplift: Hardy’s Spitfire heroics earn some throaty climactic cheers, as does the arrival of the greatly mythologized “little ships” at a moment of great despair for the evacuees. The latter scene is quite nearly indulgent and mawkish, with Branagh heralding the boats’ appearance with the word “Hope!” and Zimmer allowing his score to swell the heart just a bit. But the stoic eyes-forward poses of the flotilla crews save the moment from sentimentality; it’s on to the task, old chap, no need for fussing.

This focus on the task, on the ineffable realness of every moment onscreen, defines Dunkirk. It’s undeniably intense and immediate, resisting rote mythologizing almost (but not quite) to the last. Nolan’s approach and visual style can be a bit too clean and regimented to handle the full, ragged spectrum of the horrors of war, it’s true. But then human emotional trauma being smoothed over (erased, even) by sophisticated technical organization is also a vital part of the story of war, particularly of World War II, in which that organization, when combined with technological developments and mass mobilization of people, products, and ideas, produced great horrors on the battlefield and greater ones off of it. Dunkirk may not be especially good at representing the breadth and complexity of human history’s most cataclysmic conflict, but it is highly superior at drilling deep into the experience of a single, defining episode of that conflict and rendering it for a modern audience with powerful, intelligible clarity.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews