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Film Review – Kingsman: The Golden Circle

October 9, 2019 Leave a comment

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017; Directed by Matthew Vaughn)

There comes a particular moment in Matthew Vaughn’s deliriously left-field spy-action comic-book spectacular Kingsman: The Golden Circle in which Colin Firth (as dapper super-spy Harry Hart, codenamed Galahad) teams up with rock legend Sir Elton John (playing himself, because who else could?) in a retro-1950s bowling alley built by a drug cartel queenpin deep in Cambodian jungle. The two men – Firth in an impeccably tailored suit, Sir Elton in a typically flamboyant multichromatic feathered get-up – destroy a killer robot attack dog (Jet, who along with robo-sibling Bennie tips a hat to an Elton John hit song) by crushing its head between two bowling balls. To even begin to provide explanation and context for this beat scrambles one’s brain. How does it come to this? In what sort of movie does something like that happen?

The Golden Circle, the sequel to Vaughn’s non-trangressively transgressive 2015 action blockbuster Kingsman: The Secret Service, is the sort of movie where something like that happens. A ridiculous movie, that is to say. There is more wild and goofy shit in this movie than in a whole summer’s release slate of blockbusters. If big-budget Hollywood filmmaking is firmly set on its yellow brick road to total comic-book and geek culture immersion and the attendant total unmooring from the expression of lived experience that almost inevitably comes with that path, then it could certainly do worse than to lean into the aesthetic of cool-ass ludicrous frippery with even a fraction of the wacky, shiny, imaginative pop-surrealism that Vaughn sincerely chases in this movie.

The Golden Circle launches into this magnificent exhilarating nonsense literally in its opening moments. Walking out of the well-appointed Savile Row tailor’s shop that serves as a front for the exclusive and well-funded secret British private intelligence service that employs him as one of its best agents, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) comes face to face with Charlie Hesketh (Edward Holcroft), a failed former Kingsman recruit who resents Eggsy’s success with the service as well as his working-class roots. Armed with a gun and a bionic robot arm, Hesketh battles the athletic and well-trained superspy Eggsy in the latter’s luxe custom London taxicab, pursued by a fleet of machine-gun-equipped vehicles. Vaughn’s camera pushes in, twists, rotates, follows the action choreography moves with keen clarity and twitchy interest, like a high-tech bird following a tantalizing morsel of food. Like showcase action sequences such as Firth’s establishing pub fight and wild shootout in a church in The Secret Service and this film’s closing single-shot fight in a diner, this scene strongly marks Vaughn as an action filmmaker of distinction, wit, and intelligence amidst a glut of samey action setpieces in the blockbuster milieu.

Defeating Hesketh for the moment and exploding his cronies, Eggsy pivots to balancing his home life with his girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alström), the Crown Princess of Sweden whom he saved from Samuel L. Jackson’s tech bro and criminal mastermind in the previous franchise installment, as well as socializing with his modest, normal council estate buddies (Tobias Bakare, Theo Barklem-Biggs, Thomas Turgoose, and Calvin Demba). But Hesketh, working for the aforementioned boss of the titular Golden Circle cartel, Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), conspires to deal Eggsy a grievous blow both personal and professional.

With the Kingsman organization reduced to only Eggsy and his technical expert Merlin (Mark Strong), the two men follow a bottle of Kentucky bourbon Stateside to a whiskey distillery run by Statesman, their richer and more cowboyesque American counterpart private intelligence firm. They meet a set of spirit-and-soda-codenamed agents: shotgun-wielding Tequila (Channing Tatum, prominent in the marketing but in little more than a cameo role here; Elton is in more scenes and serves a greater narrative purpose), bossman Champagne or “Champ” (Jeff Bridges, also only in a scene or three), electrified-whip-and-lasso-brandishing rustler Whiskey (Pedro Pascal, who has a larger and more vital role), and their version of deskbound techie Merlin, Ginger Ale (Halle Berry). Statesman also have in their care an amnesiac Harry Hart (Firth), believed dead by Eggsy after being headshot in the last movie. Harry is alive but not well, having forgotten his Kingsman training and experiences and reverted to the obsessive study of butterflies.

So Eggsy must bring Harry back to himself, navigate relations with Kingsman’s brash (and possibly secretly treacherous) Yankee mirror organization, avenge the lost, and balance the demands of his spy life with those of his Swedish royal girlfriend. The Golden Circle stretches some of its elements a bit too far, and all of them together certainly beyond wise limits; this movie is certainly too long. But the loopy ambition of its strangest and most extreme setpieces carries it through, and it’s hard to deny that Vaughn shows us things in The Golden Circle that we certainly haven’t seen before.

Lepidopterist Harry’s padded cell features half-sketched butterfly diagrams, and after his amnesia is cleared, butterflies still occasionally flutter through the vision of his Kingsman monitoring glasses. Eggsy has a crisis of romantic conscience (and indeed precipitates a second-act conflict with Tilde) when he must engineer an intimate encounter with Hesketh’s girlfriend Clara (Poppy Delevingne) in a VIP tent at the Glastonbury Festival; a tracking device must be inserted on a mucus membrane to enter her bloodstream, and Vaughn very unsubtly follows Eggsy’s hand as it locates such a membrane in a very private nether region. Strong leans with vocal aplomb into an orchestral-score accompanied version of John Denver’s “Country Roads” while standing on a landmine to distract Poppy’s thugs. Vaughn includes a hardy-har dissolve cut from a bag of leafy marijuana buds in Eggsy’s mates’ flat to the jungle canopy of Poppy’s Cambodian hideaway, a set of 1950s Americana revival structures that gleam with formica and neon. A later battle down its main boulevard set to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” includes a sight-gag of two antagonists being impaled by an oversized pair of scissors from the signfront of the salon. Compared to this wildly inventive visual mayhem, the movie’s showpiece action spectacle sequence – Eggsy and Whiskey trapped in a cable-car lift glass orb that is plunging down the snowy slopes of the Alps – seems almost quaint in its relatively standard-issue blockbuster profile.

The weirdest thing about Kingsman: The Golden Circle, however, has to be that among this wacky and entertaining nonsense, it features a forceful (indeed, downright heavy-handed) sociopolitical message (and plot spoilers are necessary in order to explore it). Poppy (Moore is a delight, her murderous tyranny barely lurking beneath her wide-smiling exterior) is unsatisfied with her status as a wealthy and powerful but also highly secretive drug lord. She yearns for fame and recognition as well (although usually if you’re a cartel boss whose name is widely known, you’re on your way to jail at the very least).

Poppy concocts a plan to publicly force the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood, who has played Presidents before but never one this cartoonishly reactionary) to end the war on drugs and grant her blanket immunity from prosecution by spiking her distributed drug product (it is not made explicit what it is, but it seems to be marijuana or other “soft” recreational drugs) with toxins that will painfully kill anyone who consumes them. If her demands are met, she will distribute the antidote by drone. If they are not, millions will die. Unfortunately the President has internalized decades of anti-drug propaganda and is prepared to wipe away “the drug problem” by letting millions of users and abusers die in agony. The disturbing fascist implications of his approach are made explicit in a manner that Vaughn likely considered ludicrously exaggerated in 2017: the state imprisons millions of infected citizens in cages stacked inside the massive AT&T Stadium in Texas, an over-the-top image that became less fanciful not too long after the movie’s release when the real-world President had migrants caged up in concentration camps not too far from that stadium, along the border with Mexico.

Kingsman: The Secret Service wanted you to think it was being transgressive by blowing up the heads of some plutocrat One-Percenters. But The Golden Circle places leftist-sounding anti-drug and anti-mass-incarceration rhetoric into the mouth of its ruthless supervillain while casting an American President as party to a hard-right law-and-order-driven genocide of drug users. If it isn’t transgressive, it’s certainly provocative. The screenplay by Vaughn and Jane Goldman walks on eggshells with the implications of Poppy’s masterplan, with Eggsy and his allies attempting to foil it, and with how it judges or doesn’t judge the characters it marks as drug users (the toxin turns their veins bright blue, so it’s hard to miss it).

Poppy’s motives are selfish, of course; she doesn’t believe the drug war is any more morally objectionable than the drug trade, she just wants her cake and to eat it to. Eggsy has any number of motivations for stopping her, from saving living friends and loved ones to avenging dead ones, to say nothing of stopping the deaths of millions and taking out the Golden Circle; this movie is very careful to set the stakes in comic-book terms, and not to imply that an unintelligence agent is murdering his way to perpetuating the international drug trade. Even if the movie telegraphs how wrong the President is (his Chief of Staff is played by Emily Watson of all people, but her dramatic acting skills effectively convey the moral horror of his choice and the personal consequences of it as well), he also wants to stop the Golden Circle and thinks, with the logic of a fascist genocidaire, that eliminating its entire customer base in one fell swoop ought to do the trick. Particular caution is given to the victims, who are characterized above all as normal and essentially innocent; some mild opprobrium and comic scolding is reserved for users of drugs, but no one but the inflated hard-on-drugs President actually wants to see them die or even experience pain.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a wildly strange movie more than it’s a good one, despite the high competence of its action scenes, the winking commitment of its cast, and its mix of gleefully violent cynicism and vaulting visual and ideological ambition. This is blockbuster froth, ultimately, and doesn’t really have anything sustainedly serious to say about the drug war. But it’s hard to miss the big-tent fair-mindedness with which it treats drug users of nearly all stripes, not nearly lost amidst the overwhelming maelstrom of comic-book chaos. There are more Kingsman movies coming: a WWI-era prequel drops in February, and Vaughn and Egerton have promised a trilogy-capper for Eggsy, etc. as well. As a 20th Century Fox release, however, one has to wonder how much of the series’ frayed edges will be allowed to persist under the risk-flattening Disney aegis. Hopefully enough to surprise us just a little, which Kingsman: The Golden Circle manages to do, hardly a feat to be sniffed at in the world of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster.

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Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Cold War (Zimna wojna)

October 5, 2019 Leave a comment

Cold War (Zimna wojna) (2018; Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski)

Lovingly shot in sumptuous monochrome, Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-nominated international breakthrough Cold War is an often haunting portrait of a troubled and ultimately tragic romance set against the tumultuous backdrop of the first couple of decades of the Iron Curtain. A model of beautiful and affecting filmmaking in general, Cold War is a particular showcase for Polish actress Joanna Kulig, whose performance as confident singer Zula opposite her conflicted, internalized musical director/lover Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is the film’s open, wounded soul.

Zula and Wiktor meet in the ruinated aftermath of World War II, when the new post-war Communist regime of Poland seeks to establish its cultural legitimacy and shore up the battered national character with a state-funded stage extravaganza adapting traditional Polish folk music. Wiktor and his collaborators, including eager-to-rise bureaucrat Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), audition wide-eyed locals at a tumbled-down rural aristocratic mansion for spots in the show’s cast, and Zula wins not only a role but Wiktor’s heart.

Wiktor becomes disillusioned with the show when Kaczmarek, at the urging of state ideologues whom he is anxious to please, incorporates pro-Stalin propaganda into the performances. In East Berlin for a performance, Wiktor and Zula pledge to cross to the West together, but only Wiktor goes through with it. On his own as a fashionable but deracinated émigré performer and film composer in Paris, Wiktor riskily travels to the Communist-controlled Balkans to see Zula in the touring show. She eventually gets married to obtain a visa and then joins him in Paris, but their romance fails to sustain itself outside of their native land.

Years later, their passionate odyssey ends near where it began, amidst the ghostly bombed-out ruins of a country church. Pawlikowski, who co-wrote the screenplay with Janusz Glowacki and Piotr Borkowski, interweves personal appeals and conflicts with the obstacles of social restrictions and geopolitical realities in Zula and Wiktor’s relationship. The titular “cold” conflict in this film is not between political ideologies and hegemonic powers but between personal perspectives and emotional spheres of influence. There is complexity, ambiguity, and raw open wounds in how their love affair draws them together and tears them apart.

Kot is rogueish and uncommunicative, a neo-European New Wave leading man, but Kulig brazenly snatches the spotlight. Zula is bedevilled in her desires by not merely political restrictions and the vagaries of the patriarchy, but by the unpredictability of her own heart, the force of her passionate living. Kulig typifies her character’s frustrating, compelling allure in a memorable scene in a Paris club: pouting half-drunkenly against the bar after clashing with Wiktor over his past lovers and freely-embellished attempts to promote her solo singing career, Zula careens suddenly to delightful dancing abandon to the strains of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”.

Music in Cold War is also a compelling and unpredictable force. It expresses the deep longings and wants of the heart and soul, be it for poverty-stricken country peasants or ambitious, volatile singers. It is a tool of state-directed image-making, propagandistic acoustic nationalism that normalizes authoritarian regimes and cults of personality. It is a conduit for joy and hope and for loneliness and despair, bursting unbidden from deep and mysterious places. It is the scarlet thread that runs through the entwined fates of Wiktor and Zula, and through this measured and devastastingly lovely film exploring their minor-chord romance across a continent torn in two.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: You Were Never Really Here

September 3, 2019 Leave a comment

You Were Never Really Here (2018; Directed by Lynne Ramsay)

A distant, dead-eyed, and solitary man who lives with his aged, fragile mother, played by Joaquin Phoenix, becomes embroiled in a cycle of extreme violence that both stems from the psychological scars of a history of trauma and abuse and constitutes a twisted and more than a little unsettling quasi-heroic transcendence of the position of marginal male anonimity that he has every right to expect awaits him. From early trailers, reviews, and plot summaries of Todd Phillips’ forthcoming Joker movie, this is the general narrative and thematic arc of the Phoenix-fronted, Scorsese-aping “provocative” origin-story take on the notorious DC Comics villain. But it basically describes Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, while also not remotely pinpointing what is likely to set a film like Ramsay’s apart from something like Joker.

Phoenix is Joe, a haunted Iraq War vet who now takes high-risk jobs to find and rescue missing (and often sex-trafficked) young girls, with brutal, grisly punishment of their generally older male captors thrown in for good measure. He makes some money doing this through a plausible-deniability network of contacts that includes a convenience store owner (Frank Pando) and a businessman (John Doman), and he supports his mother (Judith Roberts) and has a sweet, slightly sad relationship with her in their New York City home. But he’s troubled and disconnected and not a little depressed, yearning for some sort of connection. It’s a by-the-numbers Joaquin Phoenix role on the surface, the sort of character that received its fullest study in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and that Phoenix could spend the rest of his career approximating without stretching himself too much or without much complaint from the critics who praise him whenever he takes on such a role. Only, you know, good.

Joe’s problems becomes less psychological and existential and much more viscerally personal when he frees Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of New York State Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), from an exclusive brothel with a powerful and influential clientele. Soon Joe and everyone he is connected to is under threat from merciless forces, and it will take all of his violent ingenuity to escape with his life while also freeing Nina, who becomes a talisman of bruised innocence worth protecting, a symbol of the shred of moral decency inside himself that he fighting to keep alive.

Even this fuller plot description could be from a dumb, hypermasculine, patronizing 1980s action movie. Certainly, You Were Never Really Here vibrates with push-button #MeToo-era themes and suggestions of secretive pedophile networks trafficking young women for rich and powerful men, and Nina is given a live-wire of violent agency all her own. But it isn’t hard to imagine, say, an ’80s-vintage Sylvester Stallone (or more likely a late-2000s-vintage Mel Gibson) featuring in such a movie, albeit with a very different tone and focus. Hell, one need not even reach back into the past or into the imagination for such an example: Liam Neeson’s Taken trilogy is built around a grimly violent man killing bad people who are out to exploit young girls.

But You Were Never Really Here is pure auteur stuff from Lynne Ramsay, a compelling and memorable arthouse take on this potboiler subgenre that rises to the level of minor masterpiece on the back of her vision and control almost entirely. Ramsay stylizes her ultraviolence and thus increases its vividness. But she doesn’t turn it into balletic grace like John Woo or ugly punctuation to verbal provocation like Quentin Tarantino. Ramsay’s gore is pure, still aftermath tableaux: a body slumped in a hallway, a slowly-spreading pool of blood, a straight razor on a table, eyeglasses stained red with a shattered hole through one lens. It’s a vision of violence focused on its terrible, silent consequences rather than on the adrenalized moments of its excited release.

When Joe invades the brothel holding Nina armed with a ball-peen hammer, Ramsay, cinematographer Thomas Townend, and editor Joe Bini erect a chilled distance by crafting the sequence through the grainy voyeurism of black-and-white security cameras. Joe’s blows are never seen fully landing, and we gaze like a peeping security man at the destruction in his wake. Ramsay approaches violence in other ways elsewhere in the film, but in each case she effectively drains it of its vicarious exhilaration. Nor does Phoenix ever allow Joe to creep into knight-in-shining-armour territory, even if Ramsay’s screenplay singles him out as an ultimately righteous crusader figure. He is only good compared to the rampant awfulness around him, but neither Joe nor the movie featuring him harbours any illusions about the awful things he does redeeming or overcoming that rampant awfulness pervading everything. You Were Never Really Here crafts a metaphor for a crumbling society out of the pain and strain of one broken man, and unlike the defining films of its aesthetic touchstone (and Joker‘s as well, for that matter) Martin Scorsese, finds a slim reason to hope for better in the fate of that man.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

August 28, 2019 Leave a comment

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019; Directed by Quentin Tarantino)

As its title suggests, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fairy tale, a fable, a fantasy. Jeet Heer even suggests at The Nation that it’s science fiction, presenting an alternate reality version of a historical event in a manner that critiques the conventional Hollywood happy ending, which our own flawed and dissatisfying world is almost never accorded. This roughly marks the film as the third in an interrupted trilogy of historical revenge fantasies from Tarantino, following Inglourious Basterds (the leaders of Nazi Germany are slaughtered in a movie theatre) and Django Unchained (antebellum Southern slave owners receive brutal comeuppance). Tarantino brings back a pair of the big-name stars of those films for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Brad Pitt from the former, Leonardo DiCaprio from the latter, respectively as laconic man-of-action stunt double Cliff Booth and fading, self-doubting genre movie and television star Rick Dalton.

The lion’s share of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood coasts seductively on the ample charisma of DiCaprio and Pitt as they move through an obsessively-detailed re-creation of 1969 Hollywood, while also peppering in appearances by flashy, jet-setting rising actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Married to then-hot Rosemary’s Baby director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), Tate lives with Polanski and Tate’s ex-fiancée and perpetual houseguest Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) next door to Dalton on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills, although they’ve never met and, judging from the hip Playboy Mansion parties that occupy their nights and the solitary pool-floating alcohol consumption that occupies his, their orbits may never truly cross. Of course, everyone knows what happened to Sharon Tate on Cielo Drive in 1969. Although that does not happen in this movie, Tarantino counts on our dread anticipation of that terrible moment in the film’s “last act”, when Cliff and Rick cross paths with a menacing hippie commune living on Spahn Movie Ranch, calling themselves a “Family” and following a long-haired mentor named Charlie.

The air quotes around “last act” reflect the looseness with which Tarantino, who of course writes as well as directs, approaches the traditional three-act movie structure in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Indeed, Tarantino approaches plot pretty loosely in this film as well; we are introduced to Dalton and Booth and Tate, and we mostly watch them live their lives for a couple of hours until some dirty hippies show up one night, spoiling for murderous violence. Dalton takes a meeting with producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), struggles but ultimately triumphs minorly shooting a villainous role in a pilot for a television western, then takes Schwarz’s advice and flies to Rome to make spaghetti westerns for Italian directors (Tarantino tiptoes right up to directly referencing Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West at this point, which is clearly hat-tipped in the movie’s title and is among the strongest of his extremely numerous career influences). Booth cruises through the California sunshine in his car and in Dalton’s, as cool as anything (Tarantino makes everybody look inescapably cool, as he is wont to do), but ends up making a tense visit to Spahn Ranch with Family member Pussycat (Margaret Qualley). Robbie’s Tate, for her part, seems to spend half of the film’s runtime sitting in a movie theatre appreciating her own screwball comedic performance (or the real Tate’s performance, to be precise) in the Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew.

Tarantino spends an inordinate and amusingly compulsive amount of time in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood re-creating contemporary period details, and this being Tarantino, those details are obnoxiously obsessive and impressively obscurantist. His period Los Angeles streetscapes are choked with neon signs for now-closed restaurants and cinemas and stores and clubs which he either remembers himself or painstakingly researched; there’s a sequence of such signs of establishments clicking on with a foreboding whirring sound, as dusk falls on the night of the Family attack. He painstakingly re-creates scenes from real television shows and movies (and period-type fictional movies and shows, including another Nazi-massacring flick which was a career highlight for the younger Dalton) airing in 1969 and digitally inserts DiCaprio’s Dalton in them, including an iconic scene from The Great Escape with Dalton in the Steve McQueen role, which he is telling a co-star on the pilot that he was close to getting (that whole pilot episode production is based on a real, short-lived Western series called Lancer). The carpet-bombing soundtrack delves into less-trafficked corners of countercultural late-’60s pop and rock, alternating with silence on the music track during Tarantino’s trademarked involved dialogue scenes.

Also, there are a lot of feet. Women’s naked feet, mostly (but sometimes in shoes or boots as well). Often dirty, frequently thrust up insistently into the foreground of the frame. This Quentin character pretty clearly likes feet. A lot. It might be a fetish. Probably best not to call attention to it. Not really sure if it means anything.

Does Once Upon a Time in Hollywood mean anything, beyond Quentin Tarantino’s aggressive nostalgic completistness and conspicuous podophilia? There’s been a robust late-summer debate about that, with critics and commentators across the discourse plumbing depths or bumping into a shallow false bottom, depending on the perspective and trajectory of their particular reading. Is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a superficial, breezy trifle that trivializes the Tate murders, or is it a sly and transgressive minor masterpiece that subtly deconstructs Hollywood mythmaking on multiple levels? As it happens, I think that there is something going on here, beyond the wish fulfilment fantasy of erasing one of the most horrifying things to ever happen in Hollywood. But what’s going on isn’t beyond that fantasy, it’s another facet of that fantasy, intricately linked with it, immersed in its shimmering waters as if in a nutrient-rich birth pond.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fairy tale fantasy of the fading, trailing edge of Hollywood’s golden age, a golden age that, like the swinging free-love Sixties counterculture itself, was brutally ended with the Manson Family atrocities even as it pivoted into a new phase behind the rise of a new creative generation of filmmakers. The rise of television and the expansion of American popular culture was fracturing the rigid regime of the Studio Era, as new creative voices (still almost entirely white and male, mind you) influenced by the formalistic freedom and rebellion of European art films (especially French New Wave and the glut of quick, cheap, aesthetically brazen movies out of Italy, the spaghetti westerns included) injected fresh lifeblood into mainstream American film.

Much of this is deep in the background here; of course Roman Polanski was an inventive young auteur direct from the Old World shaking up Hollywood at the time, and Dennis Hopper gets a shoutout, though not a positive one (Dalton insults the “dirty hippie” Family members idling in his cul-de-sac by comparing the male one to the Easy Rider director/star). What’s more in the forefront is what is identified by The Atlantic‘s Caitlin Flanagan as a sense of romanticist, heroic embrace of old-fashioned, cool-headed action-star masculinity, the kind which sidelines women and minorities and is underscored and maintained with the stiffest and most devastating violence. Patriarchy, in a word. Flanagan argues that Tarantino trangressively throws these “values that have repeatedly been proved—proved!—to be dangerous, outdated, the thing that people don’t want anymore” at the audience in this movie, and they eat it up (best opening weekend of Tarantino’s career, after all). This is not so much reactionary (although Flanagan seems to wish it was) as a fulfillment of the promise of the title. Was the inherent benevolence of the stiff-lipped masculine heroism that Dalton and (especially) Booth represent – of which Steve McQueen is the exemplar of this period, referenced not only in The Great Escape casting moment but also played in cameo by Damian Lewis – in this film ever real? Or was it, as Flanagan puts it, “always just a fairy tale, a world ‘that never really existed, but feels like a memory'”?

You might have guessed that Flanagan’s reading influences mine, cigarette-flicking edgelord right-wing-curious though it may be. Cliff Booth is certainly cool, sexy, capable, and highly able with violence. Rick Dalton is splashed across movie posters and marquees and screens as a tough-guy hero, but it’s his stunt double, who tags in anonymously for the most dangerous stuff, who is the genuine article, and not always in a good way. While fixing Dalton’s television antenna on a hot day, Cliff flashes back to a fight with the legendary Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on a movie set; Lee is arrogant and insufferable in talking up his warrior prowess, and Cliff calls him out and then throws the martial arts legend so hard into a car that it dents the side door (Lee’s family has objected to the moment, but it’s clearly contextualized as Booth’s rose-tinted memory of how he got thrown off a movie set, the unseen true events no doubt less flattering to him).

It’s an anticipation of Cliff’s mastery of violence in the rousing, comedically gruesome climactic face-off with the Family would-be-murderers, but then so, in a darker way, is the nasty rumour that he killed his wife (a flashback shows the lead-up to the moment on their boat, and leaves very little doubt as to how it played it out or what it was about). Cliff will turn his violence against women if need be, as the final battle demonstrates (two of the Tate murderers were women, after all). He is a man with a code, and although that code precludes sex acts with a teenager like Pussycat, it doesn’t preclude gory violent acts on her fellow female Family members, threatening to kill him though they may be.

Although Cliff’s (and Rick’s, and Rick’s Italian starlet wife’s, and Cliff’s dog’s) violence at the film’s conclusion spares Sharon Tate and her houseguests their horrific real-life fate, critics of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood have found Tarantino’s superficial, objectified portrayal of the surviving Tate through Margot Robbie to be a cold comfort tribute. Robbie remains a compelling screen presence, and her relationship with the male gaze of the camera (always already very present in a Quentin Tarantino movie) is one of the most fascinating in contemporary cinema (I would write a full essay on that subject but the effort would no doubt necessitate a re-watch of Suicide Squad, which is not an acceptable price to be paid). But her Sharon Tate is simply not accorded the agency or the psychological depth of Rick Dalton or Cliff Booth here. She is a cipher for appealing, guileless feminine sex appeal, the unthinking, uncaring beneficiary of the patriarchal forcefulness brought to bear by Dalton and especially Booth. This is kind of the point (her murder kept the celebrity-watching public from getting to know her and watch her career grow), but what’s even more the point is that Tarantino could not conceive of a role for Robbie’s Tate beyond this. Like his general whitewashing of the Manson Family saga (no mentions of an apocalyptic race war or Manson’s driving racism to be found, though to be fair the Charles character is only in a single scene) and late ’60s Hollywood in general, one can’t help but feel that Tarantino could have done better with Sharon Tate.

With all of this in mind, it’s difficult not to also read Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as Quentin Tarantino’s complex subtextual negotiation with the scales-falling-from-the-eyes aftershocks of the curtain-lifting Hollywood scandals of the #MeToo wave. Tarantino owes his acclaimed directorial career in no small part to Miramax and its now-disgraced serial sexual predator head Harvey Weinstein, and although he pushed back upon learning of Weinstein’s abuses on at least a couple of occasions, there remains a stain of complicity that Tarantino has acknowledged he cannot quite wash away. Given this disturbing darkness at the heart of Hollywood unveiled by the Weinstein revelations (as well as those about Kevin Spacey, Bryan Singer, Louis CK, Brett Ratner, John Lasseter, and many more), Tarantino’s choice to carefully immerse himself and his audience in a sunkissed fantasy of a vanished Hollywood starring strong, upright screen cowboys might seem like an embrace of nostalgic escapism as a coping mechanism. But of course, this sunny view through the bauble is bent considerably by the contrast with the Manson Family murders, even if those murders are rousingly headed off before the end.

Certain points of light amidst Tarantino’s kaleidoscope of references stand out as flashlight beams into hidden dark corners of these supposed halcyon days. As Rick and Cliff pull onto Cielo Drive for the first time, the car radio chatters about the town’s celebrities and Bill Cosby, whose fall from celebrated entertainment god to convicted rapist might be the grandest of our era, is conspicuously mentioned (in the same breath as Frank Sinatra, too, rumoured in the popular discourse to be the real father of Ronan Farrow, who was raised in the orbit of accused underage predator Woody Allen and who was the key journalist behind the breaking of the Harvey Weinstein sex abuse story). Roman Polanski is a character in the film, of course, and although he drops out of it halfway through and the unforgivable crime that has led to his ostracism from Hollywood remains still in the speculative future, the film-culture-knowledgeable (and Tarantino always pitches his films to them) will keep it forefront in their minds as they absorb this film.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does, on a surface level, preserve its vision of Hollywood’s waning halcyon days and fading patriarchal masculinity’s allegedly heroic glow by snuffing out the Manson Family threat and its bloody exposure of delusional murderous fantasism (a mindset integral to Hollywood action flicks) as a destructive force at the core of American culture. Unsuccessful as multiple murderers in the film’s historical revenge fantasy, what the Manson Family becomes instead is a metaphor for those dark forces within the culture of Hollywood and America that Tarantino slyly undercuts and critiques, all while simultaneously and a little subversively/problematically reifying their aesthetic manifestations. Squatting like stray hippie dogs on a former movie set where Hollywood shot westerns, those pre-eminent Studio Era cinematic projections of conservative individualist American values, the Family are like vermin in the temple, an infection in the larger corpus of Hollywood myth that stands in amorphously for all of those bad parts of that myth that Tarantino can’t quite pinpoint (or perhaps can, and decides not to, because it’s easier to punch a few nasty hippies than wrestle with the wasting disease of the American soul).

Before their fateful assault on Dalton’s home, the Family members discuss and seek to preliminarily justify their attack by claiming to have been taught violence by Hollywood, so how fitting to unleash righteous violence in revenge on one such purveyor of those images, after all (as a side note, I had a knot in my gut through this scene, as Maya Hawke plays one of the Family members plotting murder; what a distracting and troubling moment it would have been for Tarantino to have launched Uma Thurman’s daughter into an orgy of ultraviolence after notoriously endangering Thurman’s well-being in their last film together, but fortunately, Hawke plays Linda “Flower Child” Kasabian, who tapped out of the murders at the last moment and testified against the others in exchange for immunity). Although Tarantino gives his audience the climactic orgy of violence they have come to expect from him, he is simultaneously prefacing that violence with an aggressive in-text critique of it and, by emphasizing the dimwitted hippie colloquialisms in the speech of lead critiquer Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Mikey Madison), making that critique seem ridiculous and risible (and also making the Manson Family seem like liberal media critics and not nihilistic right-wing racist radicals they were, as Boots Riley pointed out on Twitter).

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a hopelessly tangled dialectic of messy positions and counter-positions, of nostalgic invocations and their cynical, worldly negations. If Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained reduced grand historical forces like fascistic, anti-Semitic genocide and racially-based chattel slave socioeconomics to exquisitely hateable movie villains to be violently dispensed with (and that assessment of those films is itself unfairly reductive), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood productively fails to boil down the social and cultural faultlines revealed in all of their intractable ugliness by the Manson Family madness to an antagonist that can be effectively killed away. The ideas percolating beneath the sunsoaked cool and brutal climactic slapstick of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood cannot be so easily channeled into revenge tropes, and Quentin Tarantino seems to at least partly realize this as he goes on, and even leans into it before he’s done. The result might not be his best film (there are broadly speaking two Tarantinos, in a way, their oeuvres and obsessions divided by the Kill Bill duology as a pivot point, and his best work is likely on the further side of that dividing line), but it might be his most rich, problematic, and infinitely discussable. Like all good fairy tales, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood troubles the waters as much as it stills them, and quite possibly unsettles far more than it serves to comfort.

Categories: Film

Film Review: A Knight’s Tale

August 11, 2019 Leave a comment

A Knight’s Tale (2001; Directed by Brian Helgeland)

Brian Helgeland’s cheeky and diverting genre mashup A Knight’s Tale wastes nearly no time in showcasing its purposely anachronistic take on the martial athletic culture of the Middle Ages run through modern Hollywood sports film convention. The movie’s title sequence takes place in a 14th-century jousting stadium and features the tournament spectators – peasants, nobles, squires, attendants, guards, and heralds – stomping and clapping out the instantly-recognizable three-beat pattern of Queen’s sports-arena staple anthem “We Will Rock You”. One of them even sings along to Freddie Mercury’s lyrics, the line of diagesis gleefully erased. The instant, in-your-face embrace of anachronism was divisive among critics and audiences upon the film’s release in 2001, but its point is obvious, if a mite facile: medieval tournaments were the big-game mass sporting spectacles of Middle-Ages Europe, with jousting knights as the well-paid superstars and hordes of adoring fans cheering them on to victory. Stomp stomp, clap.

Riding into this field of athletic heroes is William (Heath Ledger in his “The New Matt Damon” phase, well before sadly becoming a martyred artistic genius), the fearless, ambitious, social-climbing squire of a knight who expires of dysentry in the middle of a jousting competition in France. William and his fellow squires Roland (Mark Addy, by now a medieval film vet) and Wat (Alan Tudyk) can’t afford to lose their knightly meal tickets, so William poses as his dead master and manages to win (or at least not to lose) the joust. This is a big no-no in tournament circles, as the competitions are only open to knights of proven noble birth and not humble thatchers’ sons like William. But while Roland and Wat are all for turning their winnings into a decent meal and passage back to England, William senses an opportunity to “change his stars”, as his father told him he must try to do when sending him off into squiredom years before.

Purchasing cheap jousting equipment and spending a month training (you better believe there’s a montage sequence, set to War’s “Low Rider”, no less), William seeks to enter the tournament at Rouen. On the road to Rouen (Helgeland’s script makes that joke and har har, good sir), the trio meet a naked, penniless writer named Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany, thriving in his ideal role as the smartest guy in the room) who gives them bad news and good: only those who can prove four generations of noble lineage can enter the tournament at Rouen, but for some clothes and a bit of coin, he can provide William with a patent of nobility that will get him in. The offer is accepted, and Chaucer also acts as William’s herald at Rouen, giving him an extended, crowd-pleasing, greatly embellished introduction as Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein of Gelderland, like a prizefight announcer or pro wrestling hype-man.

During the Rouen tournament, William/Ulrich crosses paths with four important figures in his quest to be a tournament champion through the rest of the movie. There’s Kate (Laura Fraser), a widowed blacksmith who mends his dinged armour and makes him new, lightweight steel plates that give him a mobility advantage. He impresses tiltyard opponent Sir Thomas Colville (James Purefoy) with his audacity and his mercy, and gains a friend in a high place when Colville is revealed as Edward, the Black Prince. He contends with and is defeated by Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), an arrogant, conniving aristocratic soldier who will become his primary antagonist. And his heart is captured by Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon, in the brief, blinding glow of The Shannyn Sossamon Moment), a noble lady who chafes at the expectations of piety and decorum for women of her position, but also likes to wear nice clothes.

The creative anachronism in A Knight’s Tale doesn’t stop at the opening Queen number. A semi-improvised dance at a banquet transitions from medieval music and moves to David Bowie’s “Golden Years” and more modern steps, and the dialogue (some of it likely improvised by the actors, especially the comedic material) is peppered with touchstones out of time, like Wat insulting a Frenchman in a pub by calling him “Quasimodo”. But it would be nitpicking to hold such slips, purposeful or otherwise, against the movie. The classic rock needle-drops in particular firmly drive home whatever feeling or theme needs driving home (William and his party return to London to the power chords of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are Back in Town”, for instance), and as Helgeland pointed out at the time, are no more clashing with the period than an orchestral score, given the Middle Ages’ lack of orchestras.

In fact, A Knight’s Tale displays solid medieval historical research in its fine details, if not always in its larger plot strokes. Bettany’s earthy, baudy Chaucer is shown encountering various inspirations for The Canterbury Tales, including a Pardoner and a Summoner that he would lampoon mercilessly in fiction; Chaucer’s entire presence in the story, roughly set in the 1370s (despite an anachronistic reference to the Battle of Poitiers of 1356), seeks to account in fiction for a six-month missing part of the records of his life movements. I can’t speak to the smaller points of accuracy as regards the jousts, but the details certainly look and sound specific enough to be probably correct, subsumed as they are in the exciting thunder of Richard Greatrex’s cinematography and Kevin Stitt’s editing of the jousting sequences. Sossamon’s hairstyles seem wildly out of place for the period, but again, that’s most likely (part of) the point; her seemingly bizarrely fickle demands to William to first lose a tournament to win her love and then to win the tournament for her instead, meanwhile, are drawn directly from 12th-century French romance poetry.

A Knight’s Tale‘s rendering of the social hierarchy of the Middle Ages, on the other hand, might be more rightly criticized, despite being broadly correct, if you don’t squint at it too much. Tournaments in general and jousting in particular were certainly mainly activities of the European aristocracy and their vassal knights, but though I can’t say for certain that there were not strong legal prohibitions against non-high-born persons entering them, it seems doubtful. At least in the earlier Middle Ages, before the cult of chivalry turned them towards pageantry, the tournaments were primarily extensions of the constant training and preparation for warfare that Europe’s aristocratic soldier class were expected to engage in when they weren’t out fighting wars (which was most of the time). Helgeland’s film only really gestures towards this connection between war games and real war in order to shore up Adhemar’s villainy, darkly referencing his private army (all medieval armies were “private”, to apply a modern distinction that doesn’t really apply in the same way in that era) and its raping and pillaging in the Black Prince’s Poitiers campaign.

Indeed, Helgeland forwards a conception of medieval social mobility that feels both too narrow and too broad. Much is made of William’s impersonation of a noble knight to participate in tournaments; in fact, it’s the central conflict of the plot, his courting of Jocelyn and rivalry with Adhemar branching-offs of this tension. William, by virtue of his birth alone, has no access to knighthood at all, let alone nobility, although of course his character is knightly and noble in a way that a true-born lord like Adhemar cannot claim to be. Practically speaking, the social hierarchy of feudal society was extremely rigid compared to that of the modern capitalist-democratic era, but it was not necessarily officially so. In fact, becoming a squire to a knight like William would have been one of the best channels up the social ladder in medieval Europe; a squire could reasonably expect to be made a knight himself once he reached the age of majority. The move from thatcher’s son to squire would have been the more difficult step, but William’s father arranges this without too much trouble, as shown in flashback.

What A Knight’s Tale does get right, if read more cynically, is the way in which social mobility in the Middle Ages (and maybe today, as well, if one wanted to stretch the comparison) is not a mechanism of social disequilibrium or inversion but firmly under the controlling patronage of the ruling class. William’s humiliating problems after his peasant background is exposed are wiped away by the favour of the Black Prince, who releases him from the pillory, invents for him not only noble but royal lineage, and knights him, before joining William’s cheering section in the climactic joust against Adhemar. Although William’s father tells him that, like all aspirational Hollywood protagonists, he can change his stars if he only believes that he can, truly rising above your position in his historical time and place, this fairly light and fun movie shows us, is only possible if a grand personage is around to give you at least a little boost.

Categories: Film, History, Literature, Reviews

TV Quickshots #38

August 1, 2019 Leave a comment

Good Omens (Amazon Prime Video; 2019-Present)

Adapted from the 1990 fantasy/comic novel by the late Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Amazon Prime Video’s Good Omens is a good-natured farce about Armageddon. The final battle between good and evil prophesized in Revelations is but a few days away, but neither prissy angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) or swaggering demon Crowley (David Tennant) is quite ready for the world to end just yet. Both of them have been on Earth for thousands of years; since the Garden of Eden, actually, when Crowley took on serpent form to tempt Adam and Eve with the apple of knowledge and Aziraphale took pity on them when they were banished for eating from the forbidden fruit, gifting them with his flaming sword to protect them in the wilderness (as the angel and demon watch from the garden’s ramparts, Adam uses it against a predatory lion, with a suggestive and darkly funny damp squelching sound on the soundtrack as Adam swings the weapon at the beast).

In all of that time, they’ve become fond not only of the place, its many pleasures, and its flawed inhabitants, but of each other as well (this surface-level buddy comedy element takes on same-sex romance undertones that are barely subtextual and were intentionally seeded by Sheen’s performance at the very least). Their preference to keep living there soon grows into an intentional plan to defy their bureaucratic overseers respectively in Heaven (a lighty and airy floor of a gleaming modern office building) and in Hell (a dank, claustrophobic basement warren, seemingly under the same building) and prevent the apocalypse by any means necessary.

The agent of this apocalypse is Adam (Sam Taylor Buck), the Antichrist. Intended to be placed by the dark powers with the power-adjacent family of the American ambassador to the UK (Nick Offerman) and groomed for eventual cosmic battle on the Fields of Meggido in the Holy Land, this Antichrist is mixed up as a newborn baby by a bumbling coven of satanic nuns (the Chattering Order of St. Beryl, who take no vows of silence). This comic mixup leads to the Spawn of Satan being unwittingly raised as an otherwise normal boy in rural England, so that when Armageddon looms and his world-changing powers begin to emerge, nobody in Heaven, Hell, or anywhere else knows who or where he is.

Other characters cluster towards the apocalypse like moths to a flame. Anathema Device (Adria Arjona) comes from a long line of witches, one of which wrote the only accurate book of prophecy ever published, which gives her descendant a clear, if sometimes confounding and unpredictable, roadmap of what is to come; the prophecies are always correct, but that’s often only evident after they have come to pass, as it happens. In Adam’s town, she meets Newton Pulsifer (Jack Whitehall), an unemployed computer engineer with terrible luck around computers who has taken a job as a witchfinder in desperation; his superior is the loopy and quackish Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell (Michael McKean), who has never himself found a witch and mostly tosses ugly slut-shaming at his landlady and neighbour Madame Tracy (Miranda Richardson), who is also a medium and a part-time courtesan. And what would the apocalypse be without the Four Horsemen: Pollution (Lourdes Faberes; Pestilence retired a century back, muttering about penicillin), War (Mireille Enos), Famine (Yusuf Gatewood), and Death (Brian Cox).

Good Omens has been in production hell (har har) for something like 20 years, and finally landing as a streaming-service miniseries in the Peak TV era is likely a better fate for it than being produced as a truncated and compromised movie. If anything, Gaiman (who writes all six episodes) fleshes out and extends the story and the world of Good Omens, even if his tone and timing is a bit too deliberate for his late writing partner’s impeccable left-field comedic comets (though they shared the authorial credit, both agreed that Pratchett did most of the actual word-to-paper writing of Good Omens, and it shows; the book is a comic Pratchett novel with some Gaiman-esque mythology repurposings). Terry Gilliam was once attached to the property back when it was supposedly destined for the big screen (and back when anybody actually wanted to see a Terry Gilliam movie), and some elements of this final product carry a certain influence from his work (Hell, in particular, is a shabby bureaucratic dystopia reminiscent of Brazil).

Things hum along nicely enough and with strongly good-natured humour, at least until the big special-effects climax at an English military base with the arrival of Satan (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). It’s a bit of a flubbed finish (though the novel’s climax is too subversively anticlimactic to have done either), but it’s a nice ride up to that point, especially when the show is in the hands of Sheen and Tennant, both of whom are flawlessly cast and have a great and unique comic and emotional chemistry. One flashback to their common historical intrigues features the series’ funniest and most memorable moment, as Crowley hot-foots down the aisle of a church (consecreated ground, it burns) to aid Aziraphale during a book deal with Nazis gone awry.

The series’ flippant view of Christian eschatology angered some bible-thumping zealots (who petitioned the wrong streaming service to pull the show, with hilarious and fitting cluelessness), but really it’s a humane and humanistic vision that Good Omens embraces, supporting humans making decisions in their own flawed and shambolic free will by making the will of Heaven and of Hell even more foolish. Good Omens is not quite great, but it’s a lot of fun and gets its source material more right than a truncated cinematic take (whose ceiling would have been a box-office disappointment that became a cult favourite anyway) would have done.

 

What We Do in the Shadows (FX; 2019-Present)

Speaking of getting source material more right than otherwise: check out the What We Do in the Shadows TV series, would you? The series was produced and Americanized for FX by Jemaine Clement, who co-wrote, co-directed, and co-starred in the side-splitting 2014 vampire mockumentary of the same name with the ever-ascending king of New Zealand comedy, Taika Waititi (who directs three of the first season’s ten episodes, with Clement helming three more and their co-star in the film Jackie Van Beek directing two). This makes the show not a sequel or remake but a continuation, a doodle in the same font as the original film (whose characters, along with several surprise big names, cameo in a vampire council scene in the later stages of the season). It strikes the same tone as the film, straddling fantastical absurdism, dark humour, and observational realism and holding it all together with note-perfect deadpan hilarity.

What We Do in the Shadows the film focused on a quartet of vampire housemates in suburban Wellington, New Zealand, balancing mundane quotidian problems (doing the dishes, laying down newspaper to keep the rugs clean when sucking the blood of victims, etc.) with supernatural concerns about eternal life, burning up in sunlight, and beefing with werewolves and beastly arch-nemeses. What We Do in the Shadows the TV show assembles five housemates in a Neo-Gothic pile in Staten Island, New York: Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak), a murderous former Central Asian warlord mostly clueless about the modern world; vampire couple Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) and Laszlo (Matt Berry), the former a bit bored in their centuries-old marriage and seeking the reincarnation of her oft-decapitated lover (now returned as a disappointingly milquetoast parking lot attendant named Jeff, played by Jake McDorman), the latter an arrogant sex freak who has made porno flicks for a century and trims explicit topiary sculptures in the yard; “energy vampire” Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), who feeds on the energy of others by being painfully, stultifyingly boring; and Guillermo (Harvey Guillen), Nandor’s devoted but guilt-ridden Hispanic-Catholic familiar, labouring in demeaning circumstances on the dim and unlikely promise of one day being turned into a vampire.

The hijinks of these vampires are spread over 10 episodes and thus allow for more variation and difference than in the movie: the vampires aim to conquer the continent by first infiltrating the Staten Island Council, they tussle with a pack of werewolves, and mortifyingly botch a vampire orgy. There is also a greater number of peripheral characters to visit and revisit: Colin has a rivalry and then partnership with an “emotional vampire” named Evie (Vanessa Bayer), Booksmart‘s Beanie Feldstein appears as a LARPer virgin whom Nadja turns into a vampire in pity, and lanky body-suit-acting specialist Doug Jones is The Baron, an ancient and powerful Nosferatu-esque vampire from the Old World who goes out on the town to party with his vampire hosts (all while wearing a New Jersey Devils hat to blend in, a diabolically on-point detail) in the season’s funniest and best episode.

Both the sitcom format and the more minimal creative involvement of Waititi means that the series is more pure comedy than the film, which in the auteur’s trademarked style incorporated irruptions of longing sadness, especially in Waititi’s own romantic dandy character, Viago. That said, the show is very funny; practically everything Novak (who shone as dim-witted jihadi Waj in the brilliant satire Four Lions) says is hilarious just by virtue of the slow, naifish way he delivers his lines (although Berry, combining the sex-crazed machismo of Clement and Jonathan Brugh’s vampires from the film, becomes tiresome), and its running jokes (like how the vampires turn into bats by saying “Bat!”) never stop being amusing. And if it lacks a bit of the film’s heart, a twist involving Guillermo at season’s end promises to give it an added bite of tension and intrigue in its expected second season.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Documentary Quickshots #8

Apollo 11 (2019; Directed by Todd Douglas Miller)

50 years ago (plus one week), the eleventh numbered mission of NASA’s Apollo spaceflight program succeeded in landing the first human beings on the moon. American astronauts Neil Armstrong and, shortly after, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first people to walk on the lunar surface. The moon landing was watched by millions of American as well as enraptured people all around the world, and remains one of the iconic events of the 20th Century and indeed of human history, albeit an oddly amorphous one, in terms of practical effects. What the Apollo 11 mission unquestionably remains for America is a remarkable achievement of engineering and science, a clearly victorious knock-out blow in the Cold War space race competition with the Soviet Union, and the defining positive collective experience of the turbulent 1960s, still clung to tightly by Baby Boomers as their generation’s ultimate trump card (“Sure, you millenials know how to download a movie to a cell phone, but we put a man on the moon!”).

And nobody ever realized that the whole thing was filmed on a soundstage by Stanley Kubrick, either!

In all seriousness, Apollo 11 was a pinnacle moment for the grandiose myth of American self-projection, massive financial and technological resources and manpower and brainpower marshalled for a cultural supernova of aspiration-as-inspiration-as-history. One wonders darkly if anyone will be in a position to remember anything at all after American hegemony is gone (it most certainly will not go out without a tremendous amount of kicking and screaming, hopefully little enough of it of the nucelar variety), but surviving human memory could do worse than to select the moon landing as the thing to remember the United States of America for.

Apollo 11 is made in all seriousness, a scrupulously sober and matter-of-fact stage-by-stage and, on occasion, moment-by-moment documentary narrative of the Apollo 11 mission constructed almost entirely from archival footage and audio. Only brief, interspersed simple diagrammatic animations detailing the spacecraft’s progress to the moon and back to Earth and the various maneuvres it must execute on its journey break into director/producer/editor Todd Douglas Miller’s re-creation of this historic mission from the constituent parts of its contemporary visual and aural documentation.

The resulting film, a surprise box-office success as a documentary on the arthouse circuit, can be a little staid and procedural, it’s true. Any fleeting humour is drawn more from the hopelessly square nature of the jokes exchanged by the astronauts and mission control in Houston than from their punchlines, and truly surprising details (like the moon-orbiting astronauts discussing how its surface looks brown to their eyes rather than the grey that the camera always picks up) are few and far between in this most well-covered of historical events.

But Apollo 11‘s tone of straight-faced, responsible historical witnessing is also a breath of fresh air in this fabulist age of carpet-bombing disingenuousness and bullshitting, of lies so big as to swallow the world. This age is also one of nostalgia, not so out of place for an empire in decay, and reminiscing on a time when America could accomplish wonders and not merely consolidate privilege at the cost of spreading nihilistic misery at home and abroad fills chests with a warm glow indeed. More than anything, Apollo 11 renders a technological project that still seems implausible and even impossible (hence the legacy of disbelieving conspiracy theories) incredible tangible and tactile (although the landing approach to the lunar surface here, though fully real, can only suffer in comparison to the white-knuckle tension of the you-are-there experience of Damien Chazelle’s First Man). Even at its half-century anniversary, the moon landing can hardly be real. But in Apollo 11, it is real, with the thoroughness of recorded truth and the organized structure of narrative.

Knock Down the House (2019; Directed by Rachel Lears)

Back in the current-day U.S., Rachel Lears’ Knock Down the House tracks a more earthbound but no less ambitious and daring project to reimagine the developing history of the country. Lears’ Netflix-distributed documentary follows four female, broadly progressive, more-or-less working-class insurgent candidates for congressional nominations in the Democratic Party ahead of the 2018 elections. All four candidates were supported and shepherded in their primary challenges to established Democratic elected officials by grassroots left-wing activist groups Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, who see them (as the film does) as part of a progressive populist wave of electoral response to the complacent establishment wing of the Democratic Party, whose gullible centrism, reliance on consultants and focus groups, and back-scratching interconnections with lobbyists and monied interests made it vulnerable to defeat by a crooked, capricious, racist, democracy-threatening grifter who swindled the opposing political party and now sits in the White House like over-sated swine atop a pile of mud and manure.

Whether or not you think or feel that business-as-usual Democrats failed their country in the fall of 2016 (and surely the poor resistance of the entire Republican Party and its increasingly death-cult-like voting bloc to Trump’s clumsy machinations must take most of the blame), Knock Down the House is a fascinating look inside the American electoral system, a front-line institution of democracy that, to a Canadian used to the seemingly efficient nationwide impartiality of Elections Canada, comes across as astonishingly biased and slanted. All four of these women, along with their supporters and allies, know that the odds are stacked firmly against them in facing off with their own party, which has its hands on the levers in favour of their well-connected incumbent opponents.

Were it not for a remarkably unlikely history-making upset pulled off by the youngest and most charismatic of these women in the nation’s largest city and media power centre, Knock Down the House would be an above-average personal-profile documentary with some behind-the-curtain ambitions of exposure of the mechanisms of power sprinkled in. Three of the profiled candidates lose their primaries, but each provides an instructive case study into America’s problems. Cori Bush is an African-American woman running to represent the congressional district that includes Ferguson, Missouri, a recent flashpoint of the country’s eternally contentious race relations. Paula Jean Swearengin campaigns unsuccessfully (but with a strong-enough showing) against Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a state once reliably Democratic that broke hard for Trump’s rhetoric of white grievance (its population is 93% white) and empty promises of restoring the glory of coal mining, the low-income state’s largest industry but also one that Swearengin is at pains to point out devastates its environment and the health of its labourers. Amy Vilela, having been a corporate CFO before running for office in Nevada, is perhaps the least proletarian of Lears’ subjects, but she shares a compelling, wrenching personal trauma that drives her mission to be elected: her daughter died in her early 20s after going untreated due to a lack of health insurance, and Vilela harnessed her memory in fighting for health reform.

But the largest share of screen time and the clearest narrative arc in Knock Down the House belong to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the then-28-year-old waitress/bartender (and international relations/economics grad; and Ted Kennedy intern; and veteran of activist non-profits) of Puerto Rican descent who harnessed grassroots organizing, socialist rhetoric and imagery, savvy social media use, and natural assertiveness and likability to unseat Rep. Joe Crowley, a 10-term incumbent and then the fifth-ranking Democrat in Congress, in New York’s 14th congressional district in the Bronx and Queens, which, after defeating token Republican opposition in the staunchly Democratic district, she now represents in Congress. Lears surely cannot have believed her luck in having as one of her documentary subjects a burgeoning media star who has by now become the second most-famous politician in America, after only the lamentably attention-sucking Trump.

Knock Down the House is thus Ocasio-Cortez’s movie, and the tireless energy of her campaign (conducted in between lengthy bartending shifts at a taco-slinging bar in Manhattan’s Union Square, no less) transfers to the film itself. Whatever one thinks of her left-wing politics (one scene shows her discussing including the progressive rallying cry “Abolish ICE”, the authoritarian immigration-enforcement paramilitary unit that has become Trump’s private minority-brutalizing S.S., on her pamphlets), Knock Down the House leaves little doubt that AOC is a star, wielding the appeals of her youthful aura to draw in interest and then employing a sharp and nuanced intellect to turn that interest to desired issues, to say nothing of using that same intellect to dismantle anyone so taken in by her surface as to take her lightly (usually this is older white men, of course).

Knock Down the House becomes, through the as-it-happens development of AOC’s campaign and political stardom, a more rounded depiction of the challenges and issues facing the Democratic Party than it might otherwise have been. On the one hand, the well-considered, smartly organized grassroots efforts of Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress to recruit diverse congressional candidates unbeholden to corporate pressure interests is encouraging, demonstrating a concerted activist mission to remake America’s only remotely reasonable, reality-based, non-authoritarian political party into a force of equality, equitability, and progressive ideals. That’s only half the battle, of course; what the nation is to do with the fact that its other power-alternating party has become a glorified fascist gang of bible-thumping white supremacists who do the bidding of a cabal of reactionary billionaires is by far the more difficult and even intractable question.

But while Knock Down the House displays the pains and stretch-marks of building a new and better Democratic Party, it ought also to serve as a warning for the party and its faithful to be wary of the tendency towards cult-of-personality saviour-seeking that has often set back progressive politics in America. One of the best things about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a politician is that her charismatic appeal is merely the bait that leads voters to the hook of her progressive politics. The high personal popularity of Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, underscored by their thumping electoral victories, can now be seen as contributing factors to the damaging complacency of the Democratic Party that has seen them lose ground to the GOP, who are increasingly unbound by the rule of law in the pursuit of political power. Obama especially, not entirely through fault of his own, came to represent to the American left a figure of redemption in and of himself; who cares that he didn’t achieve the progressive domestic policy agenda he talked up in his campaigns, nor the people-empowering promise of Yes, We Can, he was good and therefore his presidency was good.

In the wake of Trump, whose dominant toxic personality rules over the snakepit of the GOP like a barbarian warlord who both embodies the pathologies of the party’s cultural adherents and presses its degeneration ever forward and downward in lockstep with his own, there is a clear constituency of Democrats with no interest in policy positions or getting the deforming power of money out of politics. No, they gaze longingly at the party’s deep bench of presidential candidates, looking for the next Great Leader to transcend policy wonkery and the dreaded S-word thrown around in reference to them by both fearmongering right-wing Fox News critics and conversation-changing millenials with roses in their Twitter avatars. The next Obama, Clinton, or JFK could be here among them, waiting to Camelot-ify America again and magically erase the dried-on layer of Trumpian slime! It could be Beto O’Rourke (though it almost certainly is not)! Pete Buttigieg (he can read Norwegian and he’s gay)! Even Barack’s best buddy from those internet memes, Joe Biden (no matter that he’s to the right of half of the Republican side of the Senate)!

Perhaps AOC is too belligerently progressive to enter this conversation. Certainly she’s too young, constitutionally barred from being President for a half-decade yet, which could be a blessing in disguise, allowing her to build her profile and legislative record in the House for some time yet. But the Great Person theory of American politics has hurt progressive efforts for too long, and if Ocasio-Cortez can help to move the party from it as well as towards her preferred progressive agenda, she’ll have done her party, her country, and maybe the world a pretty substantial favour.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews