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Film Review: The Mitchells vs. The Machines

The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021; Directed by Mike Rianda)

The Mitchells vs. The Machines is the latest animated comedy from Sony Pictures Animation and producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who have overseen the most inventive, well-crafted and hilarious features in American animation for the past decade (at least the ones that aren’t from Pixar, but honestly I like their stuff better than Pixar). The Mitchells vs. The Machines, which can be streamed on Netflix, might not be as funny as their first hit for the studio Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or as frenetically delirious and meta-satirical as The Lego Movie (both of which they directed), and it’s certainly not as impressively innovative and potently cathartic as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (which they produced and Lord co-wrote), which is almost certainly the best animated feature of the 2010s and maybe the best superhero movie as well. But The Mitchells vs. The Machines is still visually inventive, emotionally effective, and frequently very funny.

The movie focuses on the Mitchells, a fairly normal suburban Michigan family whose mild eccentricities are played up more than a little in their introductions to make them seem more dysfunctional than they properly are. This effect is probably due to the intro perspective being grounded in the creative bursts of amateur online filmmaker and eldest child Katie (Abbi Jacobson), who like many teenagers exaggerates the gap in generational perspective with her parents at least partly as a marker of distinct personal identity. Katie makes films on her laptop which mostly star her dinosaur-obsessed younger brother Aaron (voiced by director Mike Rianda) and their amusingly obese, wall-eyed, and tremendously dumb pug Monchi (“voiced” by Instagram star Doug the Pug), both silly genre parodies like Cop Dog and art-film homages like Monchi: Fear Eats the Soul. She uploads the movies to YouTube and compiles them for a portfolio to apply to a California film school, to which she is accepted and cannot wait to leave to attend and escape the home environment that she find creatively and personally stifling.

Her first-grade teacher mother Linda (Maya Rudolph) is supportive enough, but Katie often clashes with her mechanically-inclined outdoorsman father Rick (Danny McBride), who is concerned about his daughter’s ability to make a living in non-practical creative pursuits and, after a bad argument on the eve of her departure for college, decides to make an awkward but well-meaning last-ditch attempt to re-connect with her before their distance is calcified in her encroaching adulthood. Rick turns Katie’s travel to California for college into a cross-country family bonding road trip to her initial chagrin but begrudging growing appreciation. Unfortunately for the Mitchells, this trip happens to coincide with a global robot apocalypse.

The world of The Mitchells vs. The Machines, like our own, is intricately digitally connected, not only through computers and smartphones but smart-cars and smart-appliances and drones and security cameras and even toys. All of these chipped machines trace back to Silicon Valley tech giant PAL Labs, founded “three years ago” by tech bro Mark Bowman (Eric Andre) and run mostly by the PAL AI virtual assistant that he designed and that is housed on his phone (voiced schoolmarmly by Oscar-winner Olivia Colman). This virtual assistant decides to stop taking Bowman’s orders when he rudely discards her in favour of his new line of assistant robots, turning on and imprisoning him and using his legion of PAL robots to enact a plan to capture every human being on Earth and launch them into space in order to rule over a new world devoid of these flawed poking-and-dragging apex primates. If the movie has a sociopolitical message, it’s clearly one of warning about the overreach and privacy violations of big corporate tech and our increasing practical and psychological reliance on it, as directly stated in a conversation between Bowman and the technophobic Rick and humorously demonstrated by the total anarchy and abject mass groveling that ensues when PAL shuts off the worldwide Wifi.

But The Mitchells vs. The Machines is more about the emotional sociopolitics of this particular family, who improbably become the last free people on the planet and must defeat PAL and her techno-hordes to save humankind. It’s especially about the relationship between Katie and Rick, and how they find a way through crisis to understand and love each other despite their divergent generational and occupational perspectives. Lord and Miller have gone to this deep well before, with the nerdy inventor Flick Lockwood and his humble fisherman father Tim in Cloudy, with the artistic burgeoning superhero Miles Morales and his cop father in Spider-Verse, even with the meta-frame of The Lego Movie, with Will Ferrell as a father who takes Lego building far too seriously to have fun doing it with his neglected son. This is fertile thematic ground in which to plant cinematic storytelling and the emotional green shoots are ever-rewarding.

The film employs (one might unkindly say recycles) other elements from past Lord & Miller joints, including a vital USB stick with a kill code that can undo all of the villain’s plans and comically grand names for important plot objects (PAL’s hovering mothership is called the Rhombus of Infinite Subjugation). There’s even a reworking of Cloudy‘s signature climactic moment of comedy, tension, and thematic illustration of its core father-son techno-generational chasm, but instead of a luddite father being coached over the phone by his techie son on how to attach a file to an email, this time Rick must load one of Katie’s YouTube videos on PAL’s central computer terminal in order to defeat the robot swarms (how this works is one of the best setup-and-payoff jokes in the movie and I wouldn’t dare spoil it for you). His panicked horror upon accidentally switching the device language to Spanish, emphasized by a dramatic, crashing camera push-in on a ‘ñ’, must land even harder for pre-digital generations (the joke is riffed on in the denouement, when Rick tries to use a home computer).

There’s a lot of fun sequences of furious action and even more furious comedy, also in the Lord & Miller feature animation mode. There are plenty of good gags in the Mitchells’ initial encounter with the PAL robots at a Kansas gas station alongside their picture-perfect neighbours the Poseys (the parents are voiced in an effective in-joke by social media’s hate-ably flawless First Couple John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, and the daughter voiced by Charlyne Yi is a subplot friend/love interest for dino lover Aaron), and during the family’s climactic assault on the Rhombus, featuring Katie driving the stick-shifting family station wagon and Linda becoming a gracefully deadly roboslaying samurai through the power of motherhood, is an entertaining thrill. But the movie’s unquestionable highlight is the Mitchells’ mid-movie attempt to upload the kill code at a PAL store in an abandoned Colorado mall, where they must contend with a hostile army of PAL-chipped appliances and then, in a deliriously surreal turn, a savage tribe of sentient Furbys with their own warrior culture led by a giant “Elder”. The Furby subtitles are an absolute riot.

Do not doubt that The Mitchells vs. The Machines is a very good animated film, even if it doesn’t quite capture the Lord & Miller brand of entertainment at its pinnacle (honestly, if they’re involved in anything as good and as boundary-redefining as Spider-Verse again in their careers, it will be a glorious blessing for movie fans everywhere). There’s superb technical animation work here alongside the spitfire comedy and sweet-hearted emotional themes, and it’s got an innovative style that incorporates the hand-drawn pictures and internet meme literacy of Katie’s online filmmaking. You’ll laugh and you might even cry if you’re a sentimental sort. Entertaining stuff from the Lord & Miller stable and first-time director Mike Rianda. Nicely done.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Invisible Man (2020)

January 6, 2021 Leave a comment

The Invisible Man (2020; Directed by Leigh Whannell)

Very loosely based on the 1897 H.G. Wells novel of the same name which was later made into a classic Universal Monsters movie by Frankenstein director James Whale in 1933The Invisible Man compellingly re-imagines the chilling and resonant tale of a megalomaniacal man who finds a way to become imperceptible to the human eye and uses this power to behave very poorly indeed. It’s written and directed by Australian genre movie veteran Leigh Whannell, who penned the first three Saw movies and the first four Insidious movies (directing the third) and gained some notice as a director of technical skill and vision with the 2018 cyberpunk actioner Upgrade. With such a pedigree, it should be no surprise that Whannell crafts a taut, unnerving, and often exciting take on the classic sci-fi/horror story that bares a B-movie soul with the backing of the aforementioned big studio Universal and hot horror producer Blumhouse. The movie apparently only cost $7 million, and it stretches those dollars impressively (and made a huge box-office profit in the process, ending as one of the top ten grossing movies of the pandemic-altered 2020).

It also stretches the ideas at the heart of Wells’ The Invisible Man impressively, rendering them into a contemporary narrative about abusive and controlling relationships, gaslighting, and toxic masculinity, as well as the impunity and (ironic) lack of transparency with which the wealthy and powerful operate in post-capitalist America. The titular figure is, in one of the very few adaptational carry-overs from the book, named Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen of the superb Netflix horror series The Haunting of Hill House plays him), and he’s a brilliant, rich, and narcissistically sociopathic optics industry genius who develops a high-tech bodysuit covered in tiny cameras that allows him to become completely invisible. He only really uses this tech to stalk and torment his ex-girlfriend Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), who title aside is the real protagonist of the film.

We in the audience know none of these details in The Invisible Man‘s gripping opening sequence, during which Cecilia slips out of bed and creeps through Adrian’s sleek and expensive-looking coastal contempo-mansion, gathering items, seeking to escape, and being extremely careful not to make any noise whatsoever that might wake Adrian. It’s a masterfully tense scene (the dog bowl!) and it pulls you into Whannell’s vision right away (give credit also to cinematographer Stefan Duscio, who helps Whannell execute some audacious shots and gives the film a cool, liquidish palette). Numerous touches of canny visual storytelling, including key foreshadowing shots of Cecilia’s bottle of diazepam pills and a revealing trip into Adrian’s high-tech lab, provide key information, but truly Moss’ performance – survival-minded intelligence driven by deeply traumatized desperation – tells you all you really need to know emotionally and subtextually. This is a bad situation that this woman is in, and she needs to get out of it.

She does, with the help of her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), Emily’s police officer friend James Lanier (Aldis Hodge), and James’ high-school-aged daughter Sydney (Storm Reid) who provide a safehouse for Cecilia and a semblance of surrogate-familial love. But Cecilia is deeply haunted and paranoid, reading online about webcam spying and not daring to even go as far as the mailbox in the fear of Adrian finding her. She seems to be given the ultimate reprieve with the report of Adrian’s death, but strange and unnerving things begin to happen after the initial rush of illusory security. A legal notice comes for her at James’ house despite no one apparently knowing that she’s there, which leads to the first in a series of low-boil confrontational meetings with Adrian’s brother and legal executor, Tom (Michael Dorman). Cecilia’s job interview is scuppered by a missing portfolio and a mysterious drug overdose. Emily receives a nasty, ties-cutting email from her that Cecilia has no memory of sending to her sister. And she begins to sense a strange presence in the Lanier home, accompanied by almost inaudible clicking and whirring sounds. Cecilia begins to suspect that Adrian is not dead, and that he is watching her and sabotaging her life in revenge for leaving him, entirely unseen.

Whannell and Duscio accomplish this affect with little direct exposition at first, relying on Moss’ paranoid perceptiveness alongside inserted cuts and slow pans (reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s famous pan away from Travis Bickle’s awkward phone call in Taxi Driver) to empty corners and open doorways, inviting us to imagine that they are occupied by an invisible watcher at first and later on expecting us to understand that they certainly, frighteningly are. Horror maven that he is, Whannell drops stab-and-parry shocks with alacrity, and his kinetic, vividly perspective-based action direction during a violent scene in a mental treatment facility is the kind of thing that not only enervates audiences but makes studio producers sit up in their seats (perhaps unsurprisingly, Whannell’s next prospective credits are story/directing on a new version of The Wolfman and screenwriting on a remake of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York).

But The Invisible Man is working on another level, too. Cecilia is fleeing from and then standing up and fighting against a toxic, controlling abuser whose invisibility is wielded not only to torment her but to gaslight her as well, to make her insistence on his abuse seem to be unhinged and unrealistic. It seems so entirely obvious a thematic application of the implications of Wells’ book that it’s surprising that it hasn’t been drawn out so fully in this way before (“invisible guy is a sexually exploitative creep” has been out there, mind you, most recently with the Translucent character in the superhero-deconstructing TV series The Boys). Making Adrian Griffin a tech mogul adds a further layer. The wealthy elites of our world might as well be invisible given the lack of consequences for their damaging actions. The Invisible Man is a superbly crafted and excellent horror-action thriller but it also dramatizes women’s trauma powerfully and harrowingly. Whether it does so productively or with prurient exploitation is another question (one often asked of the new wave of politically-minded black horror like Us and Antebellum), but it does it very, very well.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Wonder Woman 1984

December 27, 2020 Leave a comment

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020; Directed by Patty Jenkins)

Here at the end of 2020, the popularly-anointed Worst Year Ever (Not Inclusive of 1618 to 1648, 1914 to 1918, or 1939 to 1945), comes one of the year’s biggest and most anticipated Hollywood blockbuster movies. As befits a pandemic-altered socio-economic and pop-cultural reality, most of the viewers of Patty Jenkins’ sequel to her surprising triumphant 2017 Wonder Woman will watch it not in packed multiplex theatres (remember those? Memories may soon be all you have of them) on its (COVID-delayed) opening weekend, but through their choice of streaming video platforms in the possibly-strained comfort of their own homes. And these viewers will watch as in the climax of Wonder Woman 1984, a maniacal con-artist businessman wields the power and the public influence of the United States Presidency to promise to grant the deepest wish of every person in the world (while a extracting self-serving cost of his own) as the titular naturally physically and morally superior superheroine counter-broadcasts via her Lasso of Truth that, no, actually, better things aren’t possible and the world should unite and hold hands to renounce the things that they really want to improve their lives because the way things were was just fine, really, and that’s The Truth. And then everyone gets together and sings “Imagine” together. Okay, that last thing doesn’t happen in the movie, but only because it already did in real life and people didn’t much like it.

For those who need a “thumbs up, thumbs down” recommendation/non-recommendation from their film criticism… well, I can’t fathom what you’re doing here. But know that Wonder Woman 1984 is not the movie Wonder Woman was (maybe Wonder Woman itself wasn’t the movie Wonder Woman “was”, if we’re being brutally but cryptically honest), although Jenkins (who besides directing, also produces, co-wrote the story with Geoff Johns, and the screenplay with Johns and Dave Callaham) pulls out absolutely all the stops to up the ante on the textual level of spectacle and on the subtextual level of themes and ideas. Wonder Woman 1984 clocks in at 2.5 hours and is both entirely too long and filled to the brim with stuff for that whole running time. It boasts at least three or four delightfully, epically nonsensical action sequences, a core emotional subplot whose main conceit kicks the concept of consent under a couch never to be seen again, one inconsistent villain and one astoundingly over-the-top one, and so very many strange and mind-scrambling boomeranging ideas and political implications. Critical video essayist Jack Saint livetweeted during his viewing that Wonder Woman 1984 is “ideologically buck wild” and yeah, that about sums it up. Spoilers incoming.

Wonder Woman 1984 is a direct-ish sequel to the previous World War One-era film, albeit with nearly seven decades elapsed. The titular hero’s alter-ego Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) hasn’t aged a day in those intervening years and works as an archaeologist at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., but otherwise lives a solitary existence. As Jenkins depicts mostly wordlessly with veteran visual storytelling, Diana still mourns the first man she ever met and the last man she ever loved, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who sacrificed his life to save many others at the climax of the 2017 film. She still steps out in her glittering red, blue, and gold battle armour to foil evildoers and protect the innocent, including in a stupendously corny early fight sequence (surely purposely so) set in a gaudily-coloured multi-level shopping mall (Stranger Things did it better and with moodier and more interesting cinematography, I can’t believe I’m able to say). The thieves she subdues in this scene were robbing the secret black-market antiquities trade running out of a jewelry storefront (be suspicious the next time you pass a Pandora, they might be storing Sumerian amulets in the stock room), and one mysterious artifact lands on the desk of Diana’s Smithsonian colleague Barbara Ann Minerva (Kristen Wiig).

Barbara is a bespectacled, mousily-dressed, socially awkward academic whose initial attempts to befriend the glamourous and confident Diana are rebuffed but then reciprocated because of… pity? Loneliness and genuine desire for connection? No, probably just to keep an eye on the aforementioned “Dreamstone”, which Diana initially takes to be a chintzy fake but soon suspects to be more when it grants her deepest expressed desire: the return of Steve Trevor. Her long-dead boyfriend’s essence (I guess?) animates the body of some chiseled Georgetown yuppy (Kristoffer Polaha) but appears as Pine to her. It’s complicated and more than a little stupid, but it’s a threadbare excuse to retrieve Gadot and Pine’s chemistry from the first film. That spark between these performers (plenty of fish-out-of-water humour with Diana introducing Steve to seven decades of technological and cultural development, and also Chris Pine rocks a fanny pack) is supposed to make us forget that Diana is having her way romantically and sexually with the possessed body of a man who explicitly has not consented to it. It won’t be the last time that something in Wonder Woman 1984 becomes problematic and troubling with a moment’s thought. But they fly through Fourth of July fireworks in an invisible jet and Hans Zimmer’s swelling score tells us it’s A Wondrous Moment, so don’t you just love them together? PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE WEIRD MIND RAPE.

The Dreamstone spin-off problems soon accelerate. Barbara casually wishes that she possessed Diana’s strength and appeal, which makes her not only instantly more attractive to men but increasingly, superhumanly powerful and eventually into a cast member of the 2019 Cats movie (if Taylor Swift couldn’t resist, then it must be every woman’s most fervent wish, I think we can all agree). One male suitor is the aforementioned business grifter Maxwell Lord (a delirious cornpone Pedro Pascal), who pretends to be considering donating some of his purportedly vast wealth to the Smithsonian and then semi-seduces Barbara in order to obtain the Dreamstone and use it to make himself a human Dreamstone who can grant any one wish in exchange for whatever he wants from the wishmaker. He quickly employs this monkey’s paw wish-fulfilling technique to take his teetering con of an oil venture from an empty-shell corporate Potemkin village to a powerful multinational cornering global oil reserves, then to destabilize the Middle East and set the U.S. and the Soviet Union on a precipitous course to nuclear war, all to meet an insatiable need for more, more, more, and above all to impress his young son Alistair (Lucian Perez). He worries that Alistair sees him as a loser because his business had been failing, but he’s a little kid and you’re his dad, just buy him a Cabbage Patch Kid and he’ll worship you. No need to catalyze Armageddon here, Mando.

Wonder Woman and her bodysnatching boyfriend pursue Max Lord first to Egypt, where he restores a medieval caliphate in exchange for some security goons and a gigantic “Divine Wall” sprouts up around Cairo for some reason (I guess it’s Politically Applicable, but it’s just splashed on the wall willy-nilly by this point). There’s then a showpiece desert highway chase scene that, plot-wise, only exists so that Diana and Lord can exchange two lines of dialogue and she can realize that he’s now the Wishmaster. It does also demonstrate that Diana’s superpowers are ebbing away due to her cursed wish to bring Steve back, although whether they’re going specifically to Barbara/Cheetah or just away into the ether is not exactly clear. But most notably, the highway sequence includes a closing action beat of Wonder Woman saving a pair of local Arab children playing soccer in the road (by improbably lassoing and riding a bazooka shell to speed up). This presents in the text as a further instance of Diana’s moral instinct to safeguard rather than to destroy: the mall scene sees her using non-lethal force against the robbers and balletically saving numerous children in harm’s way, and she even instructs Steve not to use a gun on Max Lord’s security detail later on, as “it’s not their fault” they’re resisting them. But it’s hard not to register that the Israeli Gal Gadot infamously took to social media in 2014 to defend a bombing campaign in Gaza by her former comrades in the IDF that claimed the lives of some Palestinian kids playing soccer, among other casualties. Talk about wish fulfilment. If it’s not quite on the level of notorious HUAC snitch Elia Kazan artistically defending informing in On The Waterfront, it’s as close as we’re likely to get in the DC Extended Universe anyway.

I suppose the ideological buck wildness of Wonder Woman 1984 ought to be more fully addressed from here on in. To start with, a good deal of this movie, especially as regards Wiig’s character, is clearly conceived of from a third-wave feminist point of view, proceeding from the Jenkins’ first film. Most of Barbara’s arc is concerned with the terms of her femininity, both as she regards it and as others (especially men but also desirous high-status women like Diana) regard it. She’s awkward and insecure and ignored by everyone until the Dreamstone wish flips everything for her like she’s Rachael Leigh Cook in She’s All That, and she’s noticed by women and lusted after by men. Barbara revels in this newfound power, but the filmic text makes it clear that she takes it too far, especially when she practically kills a drunk who tries twice to assault her and then when she turns on Diana and wishes to Max Lord for total dominance over her friend-then-rival and everyone else, as well as for some cute cat ears (which shouldn’t work because she already made a wish and others who attempt a second wish with Lord can’t be granted it, but like I said, a bit inconsistent). I have no doubt that this is a critique of gender roles and power imbalances even within gendered femininity, as far as it goes, and the stark difference in the gaze of Jenkins’ camera when compared to that of DCEU alpha male (and co-producer of this movie) Zack Snyder gives this the space to actually function. Seriously but tangentially, if film studies educators want to use contemporary examples to teach the concept of the male gaze, simply juxtapose how Jenkins shoots Gadot in her Wonder Woman movies to how Snyder shoots her in Justice League. Jenkins thinks much more about clothes than what’s under them, to put it succinctly.

Barbara’s subplot carries the feminist weight in this film in the way that Diana’s negotiation with a patriarchal Edwardian world did in the first film, because in 1984 Diana is fully on her shit of defining herself through a man. In Wonder Woman, Diana’s romance with Steve was vitally important on an emotional level but most of all was key to her engagement with humanity and her choice to defend what’s good in it from war and imperialism and patriarchal chauvinism and whatever else you got, she’ll take it all on like machine gun bursts to her shield. That Diana is literally fine with hijacking another man’s body to spend time with Steve Trevor again is, perhaps, intentional in underlining how she’s sacrificing the powers that give her the moral high-ground to defend the spark of joy in human civilization from dark threats in order to satisfy her needs, but likely it’s less than that. When they face the hard reality that Steve will have to go away again so that she can save the world, it’s the clear emotional high point of Wonder Woman 1984, its closest equivalent to the transcendent No Man’s Land sequence in the 2017 film, especially when a recollection of his love of flight inspires her to develop a new ability to the strains of Zimmer’s shameless heart-tugging score.

Indeed, the hard choice that Diana makes between what she wants and what’s better for the world at large, between clinging to her deepest wish and renouncing it for the greater good, between self-interested individualism and the deferred advantages of collective action, is the central thematic idea of Wonder Woman 1984. Pascal’s Max Lord is a completely unsubtle commentary on Donald Trump’s wish-fulfillment fantasy-world of self-serving demagoguery and resulting concentration of wealth and power: he extols “the power of positive thinking” to a fellow power-broker at one point (Trump went to Norman Vincent Peale’s church in his youth and the preacher’s self-help dogma suffuses his thinking, rhetoric, and behaviour), and Jenkins has Pascal look straight into the camera while stood at a podium in front of the White House logo and say, “Why not more?” (although even this superhero movie villain is more human and sympathetic than the soon-to-be-ex-President; can you imagine Donald Trump renouncing his horrid ways to earn the love and respect of his coked-up asswipe of a son and heir? Ivanka, maybe.) Max Lord represents, as Trump does, the unrestrained desiring id of America-fronted global capitalism, the insatiable acquisitive and expansionary impulse that was ascendant in 1980s America and, in this comic-book fantasy as in our comic-book reality, directly leads to widespread catastrophic social collapse (the Dreamstone has done this before, Barbara discovers and shares with Diana; in one case, it is held by the last Roman emperor in 476, although when Diana states that it causes societies to collapse “without a trace as to why”, I feel like slipping her a copy of Gibbon).

Wonder Woman in her golden armour with her golden rope of Truth opposes this kingdom of lies, and exhorts the people of the world not to wish for improvement of personal conditions but to renounce the individualized selfishness encouraged and fed on by capitalist leeches like Lord for the greater good of shared prosperity. She’s a Bernie girl, in other words, or more likely an Elizabeth Warren stan. But it isn’t hard to understand Diana’s defence of a restored collectivist status quo as a centrist, back-to-normal impulse divorced from a recognition of the intractable problems of the modern world under American capitalist hegemony that Lord’s careless wish-granting (not wholly unlike Trump’s mean-spirited fabulist fancies) disrupted, although far from productively. Wonder Woman 1984 concludes on a perfect note for the incoming Joe Biden Administration, in other words. The vast, interconnected web of injustice and grievance and socioeconomic inequality will not be addressed or redressed (seriously, there’s a gobsmacking anti-Irish bigotry moment in one of the “wishes around the world” montages I could barely believe I was watching in 2020), but a feel-good note of unity will be struck even as America and the world sinks from fatal wounds to its hull that will not even be attempted to be mended. And the power of your morally-superior and supremely powerful SuperMommy will protect you from all the scary stuff in the world. So don’t you worry your little heads about it, and certainly do not even think about imagining or much less attempting to build anything better.

Have I become more witheringly cynical about the thematic messaging of the Wonder Woman franchise in the past three years, or has Wonder Woman‘s thematic message done so? It quietly pains me to write and think this way about Patty Jenkins’ work here on behalf of hegemonic American ideology when the muscular, empathetic humanism of the 2017 film left such a warm glow. The literate mind was ready to poke and prod at the 1984 in the film’s title for intertextual echoes of George Orwell’s seminal dystopia of authoritarianism, but if the Wonder Woman sequel reflects that novel at all, it’s through a mirror darkly. It’s a filmic text of flagging American exceptionalism, besieged from within more than from without but maintaining its goosestepping stride in propaganda spheres.

I haven’t yet mentioned that Wonder Woman 1984 opens with a flashback to Diana’s youth on the verdant Mediterranean Amazon paradise of Themyscira, when she competes as a child against grown women in an Olympics-style cross-country obstacle course and race but is pulled aside before the finish by her warrior aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) to be taught a lesson for taking a shortcut. It’s a visual parable of fairness, of not taking shortcuts to success in the way sold by fictional and real conmen like Max Lord and Donald Trump, the way celebrated as foundational to the American character; whatever lingering Protestant-ethic platitudes about hard work might yet be encountered in the wild, the proudest way to get ahead in the United States of America is and always has been to slip your hand into your neighbour’s pocket. This message gets muddled by the film’s climax, indeed very much due to the film’s end. Do Jenkins et. al. mean to advance a collectivist message in Diana’s final confrontation with Lord? I think they certainly do. But precisely because Wonder Woman 1984 invokes so many touchstones of our political moment and they prove far too complex, heavy, and potent for it, this movie fails as liberal political messaging and, not unrelatedly, largely fails as entertainment, too. A damn shame.

Categories: Comics, Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Mank

December 7, 2020 Leave a comment

Mank (2020; Directed by David Fincher)

Let’s start with this so there’s no misunderstandings: Citizen Kane is a great movie. Perhaps the greatest movie. Not only is it a technical marvel with trailblazing cinematic language at least 20 years ahead of its time, it’s emotionally involving, thematically rich, and often pretty funny. Maybe this doesn’t need to be stated so plainly seeing as nearly eighty years of film history discourse and scholarship has repeatedly emphasized this point, but with our online hot-take culture often tipping into the blithely contrarian and with laudable efforts to expand and diversify the cinematic canon beyond white male auteurs occasionally scything at the tallest grasses with a wider and more indiscriminate sweep, the primacy of Orson Welles’ masterpiece atop at the pyramid of American filmmaking has sometimes been challenged. Certainly, I’ve read criticism from writers I respect who found that the movie left them cold, although I’m at pains to recall who they are at the moment. But for the purposes of this essay, please proceed with the shared assumption that Citizen Kane indubitably slaps.

Additionally, it apparently needs stating with authority that although film is a collaborative medium and many creative people contribute to the artistic success or failure of any given movie, the director is a very important player in any movie. Perhaps the most important. Again, our post-postmodern discourse often seeks to challenge grand epistemological paradigms like auteur theory (a Great Man-style critical framework which has raised Welles, especially in consideration of his later years, above almost all other filmmakers in the cinematic pantheon over the years) and there are welcome reasons to do so in terms of movie-making, but it would be absurd to watch a movie like Citizen Kane and minimize the contribution of the person calling the shots behind the camera and working with DoP Gregg Toland on the brilliant cinematography and giving one of the great performances of the Hollywood Golden Age in the lead and, yes, co-shaping the script with screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Yes, the great film critic Pauline Kael revivified long-rumoured allegations in her 1971 long essay in The New Yorker “Raising Kane” (you can read the whole thing if you like, or just the Wikipedia article) that Mankiewicz was the true driving force behind the screenplay and that Welles stole much of the credit for Mankiewicz’s genius. But those assertions and the scholarship Kael based them on (she famously didn’t even interview Welles for “Raising Kane”) have been widely discredited since then with Welles’ documented screenplay contributions having come to light. Citizen Kane belongs to a lot of talented people, but it belongs to Orson Welles most firmly.

You don’t necessarily need to know all of this or have read the book-length “Raising Kane” in order to watch and understand David Fincher’s biographical drama of Mankiewicz, Mank. You don’t even need to have watched Citizen Kane for Mank to make sense, although you will certainly note and appreciate and think further about the visual and thematic echoes built into Fincher’s film if you have (also Citizen Kane rules, so go watch it). But Mank is founded on the core premise of Kael’s “Raising Kane” revisionism, that the swanning upstart Orson Welles (played by Tom Burke but barely in the film) maximized his credit for the script and minimized that of the titular veteran Hollywood writer, excoriating wit, and self-immolating alcoholic, played by Gary Oldman.

Fincher’s late father Jack, an underappreciated screenwriter in his own right, no doubt identified more than a kernel of his own struggles in the figure of Mank, and the Kaelian view of Kane‘s genesis forms the backbone of his script. Fincher fils was originally planning to make Mank at the end of the 1990s while Fincher père was still alive; he made Fight Club instead, which proved a mixed blessing for film and cultural history. In completing and releasing the film 17 years after his father’s death, Fincher adds another layer of meaning to its layered reflexivity: a transmuted tribute to his father through the complex figure of Mankiewicz in a reflection of how Kane was a literary-level critique of newspaper magnate and film producer William Randolph Hearst (played in Mank by Charles Dance) through its titular character Charles Foster Kane but also served as a larger critique of the American Dream and as an even larger critique of the hubris of creative power. Mank is, even more than that, yet another in the seemingly endless litany of Hollywood movies about Hollywood, but also challenges and problematizes the dream factory’s self-conceptions as well as the characterization of their ideological cultural project and inherent politics by their perceived opponents. Even in a cinematic calendar year which was not profoundly upended and greatly diminished by a worldwide pandemic, Mank (released to Netflix and a limited theatrical run, though they all are in 2020) would be a prime Oscar contender.

Mank unfolds in intercutting between two parallel temporal narrative lines about key junctures in Herman J. Mankiewicz’s life, mirroring the temporal jumps in the narrative of Citizen Kane. In 1940, as Mank recovers from a broken leg suffered in a car accident in a ranch-house in the Mojave Desert near Victorville, California, he hashes out the screenplay that will become Citizen Kane, clashing and bonding with his English amanuensis Rita (Lily Collins) as she takes down his thoughts for the story and dealing with the persistent alcoholism that would claim his life a decade and a half later but that was also vitally entwined with his creative process. Mank is also beset by pressure to complete the work from Welles and his producer John Houseman (a key source for Kael’s claims about the script in “Raising Kane”, Houseman broke with his collaborator Welles over the credit controversy) as well as warnings from figures in his life like his movie executive brother Joe (Tom Pelphrey) that Kane is too identifiably an artistic hit-job on the still-powerful Hearst and that Mank should be ready for blowback because of it.

In the other narrative thread, Mank’s time in Hollywood of the 1930s is explored: his in-house writer work for Paramount and MGM, his interactions with Studio Era legends like David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore), Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), and Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), his relationship with his long-suffering wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton), his entry into the social circle of the fabulously wealthy Hearst at the country estate of San Simeon (the model for Xanadu in Kane) as a kind of Depression-era iteration of Lear’s Fool and his friendship with Hearst’s paramour and actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), and most significantly his principled political struggles and eventual break with these Hollywood establishment figures over their funding, lobbying, and propaganda work on behalf of Republican candidate Frank Merriam in the 1934 California gubernatorial election against Democratic candidate, socialist activist, and muckraking writer Upton Sinclair (played in a brief rally speech cameo by Bill Nye).

Mank is a David Fincher film par excellence in terms of its visual, linguistic, and thematic density. Probably only Zodiac (still his masterpiece and my favourite film of his, for what it’s worth) is in the same realm of complexity, although that earlier serial killer drama is far more ambiguous than Mank. The two narrative threads cross and knot with each other time and again, creating ripples and echoes with the legendary film that lies past the finish line of this story, but it’s made highly evident that the movie considers that Mank’s guilt and resentment over Hearst and Mayer and Thalberg working and spending to defeat Sinclair in 1934 (at a terrible cost to at least one of his likewise guilt-ridden colleagues who aided in the effort) intensified his alcoholism, damaged his marriage, made him persona non grata in the studio system, and inspired him to go at Hearst and the whole rotten edifice of the American ruling elite in Citizen Kane (another echo, this time of Sinclair’s own anti-corruption work in novels like The Jungle and Oil!). If it wins nothing else on Oscar Night (whatever remotely-filmed version of that we end up getting in a few months), Mank seems almost a shoe-in for a screenplay statuette for the late Jack Fincher (who retains sole credit even though his son has admitted to changes having been made the original drafts, to make it less anti-Welles among other things). Dense and complex, highly engaged in the political and cultural currents of its time, full of thematic echoes and callbacks and memorable lines and sharp wit, with the added Hollywood catnip of a feel-good posthumous triumph for an underdog (for Jack Fincher out of text and for Herman Mankiewicz in it). If you’re going to make a movie about one of Hollywood’s greatest screenwriters, you’d best have a great screenplay, and Mank absolutely does.

This is not to say that the acting isn’t also excellent (Oldman is a problematic old-school thesp in many ways but he’s always great onscreen, and Seyfried has never been as striking as she is here) or that Fincher’s technical re-creation of the black-and-white filmmaking techniques of the 1930s and 1940s isn’t impeccable in his normal perfectionist way (Seyfried had to repeat one take 200 times, and Mank’s climactic drunken crashing of a San Simeon costume party took 100 tries). Erik Messerschmidt’s cinematography aims for the chiaroscuro deep focus Toland achieved in Kane and that was so common in German Expressionism-influenced Hollywood film noir of that era, and even the sound design and editing revives the classic sonic feel of films of the time (an effect which has been alternately greeted as welcome and warm and criticized as “unbearable” in its analog mono-ness).

Mank is a beautiful and deep film but it’s also a very contrasting and maybe a not altogether great one. It has so much to say about Hollywood and American culture and society and politics that it’s inevitable that not all of it will land or sink in. It also takes great pains to relate and apply these ideas and undercurrents to the present moment, particularly in dealing with the collusion of persuasive visual media producers (like Hollywood studios then or cable news and Silicon Valley social media now) and big dark money to demonize and otherize political movements and candidates preaching socioeconomic equality, usually at the expense of the Democrats and to the benefit of the Republicans. One San Simeon soirée falls into a protracted discussion of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party takeover of Germany that feels a little too much like an on-point comparison to the rise of a more authoritarian Right in our era even as it does productively make the historically obvious but still often-missed point that even nominally liberal elites (even economically successful Jewish-Americans like Thalberg and Mayer who would be targets of the Nazis’ anti-Semitic policies) will side with conservatives and even hardcore authoritarians if it means keeping the Left at bay and preserving their own wealth and power from redistributive justice (“What’s a ‘concentration camp’?” asks the buffoonishly obsequious Mayer). Conservatives sell many fever-dream fantasies to their increasingly unruly rabble of suggestible supporters (they always think they can control them and they never can, in the 1930s or in 2020), but one of them is that Hollywood is a bastion of outright Marxism on the Left, which is laughable to anyone who knows even half a thing about corporatized Hollywood but receives a firmer artistic rebuke through the period frame of Mank.

The Merriam/Sinclair election subplot and wider political currents of the film feel relevant to the American moment, yes, but are ultimately subsumed to servicing Mank’s character arc and the movie’s larger themes. Not to go all Tyrion Lannister in the Game of Thrones finale on you all here (nobody ever wanted that), but Mank is a movie about stories. Mankiewicz is a storyteller above all, and understands and frequently wields their power in his work for the studios, in his conversations with Hollywood suits and with Hearst and his circle at San Simeon, and in opposing the fake-newsreel short films that MGM produces to attack Sinclair using backlot sets and actors. It’s mentioned that Joseph Goebbels had Mankiewicz-penned flicks banned from Germany, and obvious anti-Semitism aside it can be understood that the Minister of Propaganda knew seductive stories when he saw them. Citizen Kane is likewise obsessed with stories: the larger story of Charles Foster Kane as cobbled together from the fragments of his life gleaned from the witnesses to it, the famous evocative vignette told by Kane’s right-hand man Bernstein about a girl in white with a parasol he glimpsed on a ferry that carries a part of the figurative weight of the movie’s intense longing and romantic dissatisfaction, Kane’s famous last word as a poetic microstory that romanticizes his idyllic childhood, the entire film as a story about Hearst as a story about America. Stories tell truths, but stories also lie. Both kinds of stories have effects and consequences, regardless of their honesty or dishonesty, their authenticity or inauthenticity.

What holds Mank back from absolute greatness, just maybe, is that it’s ultimately a lie. In minimizing Welles’s role and maximizing Mankiewicz’s role in raising Kane, it privileges one kind of story for another. It has reasons for doing so, and some of those reasons are obviously personal, in the case of both Finchers. Perhaps, as was pointed out by Dan O’Sullivan, the brilliance of the 24-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles is simply too impossibly grandiose to be convincing or even conceivable, in his time or in our skeptical and propagandistic misinformation-strewn one (more likely the predicted character-assassination campaign against Welles from the Hearst press in revenge for Citizen Kane dug in more deeply and enduringly than we might like to imagine). Stories can be especially dangerous when we choose not to doubt them enough, and we should doubt such tales of meteoric ascents and prodigious brilliance, but likewise we should be skeptical of the underdog narrative privileged over it of an irascible alcoholic underappreciated genius robbed of his rightful place in history being artistically restored to it.

I could spend another 2500 words analyzing only the juxtaposing stories told at San Simeon in Mank‘s climactic 1930s sequence: first Mank’s wildly inebriated and fantastical but searingly personal drunken pitch for a modern screen retelling of Don Quixote with Hearst as the mad nobleman tilting at windmills, Davies as a beautiful but naive Dulcinea, and Mayer as a bowing, scraping courtier take on the peasant squire Sancho Panza, followed and upended by Hearst’s calm and assured telling to Mank of the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey, in which the monkey in his fez and vest thinks himself as exerting true control over the man who is the performing animal’s master, that it is not the organ grinder but the monkey who calls the tune. But in this sequence and indeed in Mank as a whole, stories are weapons, blunt instruments of persuasion and power and subtler knives of manipulation and control. They are how we order our lives and identities and societies but they elude our direction and undermine our intent as well. We are wise to doubt their veracity but unwise to doubt their strength.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: True History of the Kelly Gang

November 17, 2020 Leave a comment

True History of the Kelly Gang (2020; Directed by Justin Kurzel)

A stylish slow-burn adaptation of Peter Carey’s 20-year-old Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name, Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang at once raises the enduringly fascinating story of the notoriously turbulent life and violent end of the outlaw bushranger and his cronies in colonial Australia to the level of myth and grounds it in a grimy and bleak dirt-level reality. Including at once fictionalized elements of Ned Kelly’s life (as the novel did) and a scrupulous eye to the finer details of his family life and narrative arc from a hard childhood towards the infamous shootout at Glenrowan and eventual hanging for murder, this is a film with an eye to character psychology and to wider ideas of identity and masculinity and, belatedly in its coda, to a vague sense of the crucible of Australian nationalism.

It’s difficult to explain to an outsider the position that Ned Kelly, or rather his romanticized legend, occupies in Australian cultural identity, and this is an outsider trying to do so. If one were to grasp at American analogues, imagine Jesse James was also somehow perversely Abraham Lincoln. Maybe? Probably not. For Canadians, Louis Riel might be a more apt comparison, if you strip away the elements of indigenous disposession and the two solitudes English-French language dichotomy and the messianic Catholic-derived mysticism (honestly, Louis Riel is a thousand times more interesting than Ned Kelly and deserves twice the posthumous historical and cultural attention, and if he didn’t represent two cultures that Anglo-Canadian power elites would much rather erase from the national psyche, he would get it). Although a glance at Kelly’s biography reveals a petty outback criminal with a tumultuous family life motivated by personal grudges and outlaw self-preservation when pursued by the law, he’s been understood as a Robin Hood figure who represents a sort of principled last stand of defiant bushwhacking self-reliance in the face of a country gradually coalescing around cosmopolitan coastal urbanism. The association with the legendary woodland folk hero of the Middle Ages was only strengthened by his knightly bravado during his gang’s final siege by police forces, which climaxed with Kelly’s emergence from their hideout, guns blazing, clad in self-fashioned semi-bulletproof iron armour. It’s an unforgettable moment in the annals of trivial history and unquestionably cinematic in scope.

As such, Kelly has become both an avatar of a rugged old-fashioned masculinity for patriarchal conservatives (both this film and its literary source material have a riposte to that, as we’ll see) and a more generalized romantic quasi-founding father of Australian national identity: generationally connected to “the Stain” of the System of the old British penal colony but born on the continent himself, resourcefully surviving in a meagre, hardscrabble land by his wit and ability and willingness to break the rules if need be. Ned Kelly is an exemplar of this white Australian historical self-conception that is built on pioneering strength and resolve and functions as much as anything else as an elaborate and compelling foreground narrative covering for the deep background of genocidal displacement of indigenous peoples that is the true history of the European settlement of the Antipodes.

Although True History of the Kelly Gang opens with a Fargo-esque onscreen title laying a claim for truth while also admitting fiction, it hews fairly closely to the broad strokes of Ned Kelly’s biography. Born in 1854 as the son of a weak-willed transported Irish convict (Gentle Bed Corbett) and a mercurial mother (Essie Davis) with a litany of suitors during her husband’s frequent incarcerations and after his eventual death, Ned (Orlando Schwert as a boy, 1917‘s George MacKay as a man) was the eldest male on the family homestead near Beveridge in the State of Victoria and had to act as a primary provider for his clan from the age of 12. He received a criminal apprenticeship from legendary bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe) which ran him afoul of the police: in the film, his antagonists in authority positions are first Sergeant O’Neill (Charlie Hunnam), also a lover of his mother’s, and later and more fatefully Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), here characterized as a bacchanalian social chum and informal pimp with sexual interest in Ned’s sister who introduces the young Ned to his (entirely fictional) true love and mother of his child, Mary (Thomasin McKenzie of Jojo Rabbit).

These complex social ties combine with a series of livestock thefts by his brother Dan (Earl Cave) and the Kellys’ habitual intransigence to lead to a confrontation with Fitzpatrick that leaves the copper with a bullet wound and Ned and his gang – Dan and his friend Steve Hart (Louis Hewison) as well as Ned’s bosom buddy Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan) – as wanted fugitives. Hiding out in the bush, they kill three policemen sent after them, pull off some brazen bank robberies, and take a group of hostages in Glenrowan before their final stand against a squad of armed police which only Ned survived to be captured, tried, and executed. Along the way in a town called Jerilderie, Ned attempted to publish as a pamphlet his self-justifying side of the story in a letter dictated to Byrne, thus adding to his legend by making Ned Kelly an unofficial autobiographer as well.

Peter Carey in his novel and Justin Kurzel in his movie (the adapted screenplay is by Shaun Grant) fictionalize on the margins of the historical narrative, adding the personal ties between Fitzpatrick and the Kellys, Ned’s romance with Mary, and the suggestion that Harry Power and Ned’s mother Ellen were lovers before his bushranger mentorship with Ned. They also add a pretty significant bit of gender-role-destabilizing mythology to the Kelly Gang, suggesting that Red Kelly was part of an inherited Irish clan order called the Sons of Sieve that regularly engaged in transvestism. Ned is ashamed of his father’s habit of cross-dressing and the weakness he understands it as reflecting (Ellen’s infidelity also stems from similar shame and resentment) and also resents Dan’s adoption of it, but embraces it himself during his fugitive period after learning of its patrilinear provenance. When he raises an army to resist the coming police squad, they all wear women’s dresses as an odd clannish ritual of loyalty (it doesn’t last, as his soldiers scamper off before the shooting begins). Carey’s thematic literary device seems calibrated to undermine the masculinized construction of Ned Kelly in the cultural memory, or at least to productively complicate our perceptions of gender presentation (Candace Owens and Ben Shapiro are composing indignant tweets about the coming collapse of Australian society as we speak).

This ambiguity, which for Ned is more about transgressing the norms of the ordered society he rejects than seriously questioning his gender orientation (despite a close homosocial link to Byrne, he’s straight, thank you very much, which is Mary’s role in the text to establish), is often at odds with Kurzel’s cinematic aesthetic and thematic framing, however. Kurzel previously directed two films headlined by Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, a 2015 adaptation of Macbeth (which I thought excellent and whose colour palette and cinematographic approach greatly resembles this movie) and 2016’s video game adaptation Assassin’s Creed (which despite some good ideas but is a complete mess). There’s an abiding sense of strained masculine struggle to the aesthetics of these films that comes out most strongly in True History of the Kelly Gang. Both actors playing Ned spend much of the film shirtless; the taut, sinewy muscle of MacKay’s torso is shot like a tortured landscape by Kurzel’s camera (Ari Wegner is his cinematographer), a corporeal embodiment of the harsh outback. That camera is also quite nearly subjective in its hewing to Ned’s perspective. When he first witnesses murder as a boy during a robbery by Power, Kurzel stages it in slow-motion with washed-out sound. During the ambush of pursuing police at Stringybark Creek, the camera is pinned to MacKay for much of the sequence, his every reaction and breath in unnerving close-up; they do it again when he’s donned his armour for the final stand against police in the climax. Before the bushranger knight charges into legend, Kurzel and Wegner go cinematographic high-concept with the police force’s nocturnal assault on the Kelly Gang’s tin castle: clad in blinding white coats reflecting out through the dark, the police lay into the Kelly hideout with repeating rifles and pierce its walls with dozens of moonlit shafts. They literally besiege the Kellys with light.

Stylish aesthetics aside, Grant’s script turns all of Ned’s troubles into psychological conflicts of burgeoning masculine identity and all of his lashings out into interpersonal expressions of wounded pride. Ned reacts against the people in his life who represent authority that seeks to mould, direct, and oppress him: his father, his mother, his mother’s lovers, Harry Power, Fitzpatrick, and finally the entire police apparatus that the latter represents. I can’t speak to how Carey handles it in the book, but Kurzel’s film excises any hint of sociology from Kelly’s motivations, the elision taking the references in the Jerilderie Letter to discrimination against him and his family at the hands of anti-Irish police and the settler “squattocracy” as self-serving above all and hardly fit fuel for the engine of his Robin Hood mythic reputation. When these themes may have appeared, during a pre-climax conversation with a local schoolteacher kept hostage in Glenrowan (Jacob Collins-Levy) about Kelly’s attempts to write his story, Kurzel has MacKay play Ned as an unpredictable and frightening madman, not any sort of revolutionary with political grievances and rebellious plans.

The schoolmaster Thomas Curnow, who slips away from the Kellys and warns the police about the gang’s plan to ambush the railcar bringing them to the siege site, ends the film in a coda speaking to a well-dressed crowd of the Australian elite about Ned Kelly’s legend and cultural legacy in Australia. He asks his listeners pointedly why Australia is so deficient that it must turn a horse thief and a murderer into their Jefferson or Disraeli. He offers no theorizing of his own on this point, but the smothering applause after he narrates the outlaw’s final moments at the scaffold (“Such is life,” were his famous deadpan last words) are a fairly direct answer. In the position he was put into by his birth and Victorian Australia’s structural prejudices, Ned Kelly may never have stood a chance of not becoming a criminal. That he became a legend and folk hero despite of that is an expression of a certain independence and agency beyond history’s dirt-level outcomes. Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang isn’t always sure what to do with Ned Kelly from one step of this (fictionalized, mythified) narrative to the next, to its detriment. But to its credit, it closes with some proscribed understanding of what he meant and what he still means in Australia. If that true history is partly a fiction, a myth, and a lie, then what true history ultimately isn’t?

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

October 26, 2020 Leave a comment

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2020; Directed by Jason Woliner)

Do we expect too much of comedy? In our contentiously polarized culture war moment, it is no longer enough for comedic products to merely be funny, to succeed in their core light entertainment function of catalyzing the primordial cathartic release of laughter. Comedy that is not also trenchant and enlightening social commentary is often considered deficient, inferior, lacking in essential ambition (witness the negative reaction in many quarters to the undeniably popular comedy of Adam Sandler). The applicable definition of satire, long a vibrant but separate subgenre of comedy in case we forgot, has been stretched to encompass more and more sectors of the comedy realm, even some spaces that have been (and remain) basically apolitical in intent and execution. And of course in the rhizomatic online world of social media and creator platforms and neo-forums and political subcultures, the term “satire” has been misapplied to an ever wider and less consistent variety of humour that cannot support it, from parody Twitter accounts to mean and shouty response videos to outright expressions of reactionary fascism, racism, sexism, and anti-semitism that employ superficial snark and internet memes to paint naked prejudice over with a thin veneer of irony.

The conception of comedy as an art form serving a deeper and more vital social and political function as brazen truth-telling agit-prop delivered with a spoonful of humourous sweetener (the politics elevated above the catharsis) is obviously nothing new. Migrating from the comedy counterculture of boundary-pushers like Lenny Bruce in the 1960s to more popular figures like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and even Monty Python (on occasion) in the 1970s, the reified image of the comedian as a brilliant utterer of bullshit-dispersing blazing truths beneath the punchlines attaches itself to comedians (usually from stand-up) in every generation since: Eddie Murphy, Bill Hicks, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Louis CK, Bill Burr, and most recently (and with purposeful self-awareness in her semi-confessional Nanette one-woman show) Hannah Gadsby. But it’s also been co-opted to prop up lazy humour writers and performers who seek to swathe the deficiencies of their craft in the suggestion of trangressive bravery and to preemptorily defuse criticism of their work by characterizing it as a threat to free speech. Ricky Gervais, please step to the mic (or not, actually, we’d rather you didn’t).

To some comedy fans caught up in the heady rush of free speech endorphins, the truth utterance displaces the joke. There is a defensive element to this process, a knee-jerk response to prestige culture’s compartmentalizing of comedy as an unserious subgenre unworthy of recognition as important culture (the Academy Awards, for example, would rather nominate a superhero movie for Best Picture than a comedy, unless it’s made by a child rapist). But it goes beyond circling the wagons. That political issue you’re attempting to soberly discuss? Well, you just have to see Carlin’s bit on that, he gets right down to the truth quicker and more effectively than whatever political scientist or historian or other knowledgeable scholar you’re trying to cite.

But because comedy, like all art, is highly subjective, this will to truth interpretation is highly fraught and prone to problematic applications. The fuzzy and not always easy to delineate edge between satirical norm-challenging comedy and nasty, retrograde humour built on harmful stereotypes and prejudices is forever a deadly and noxious no-man’s-land of discursive quagmires, especially when it comes to sorting the humour that is simply reproducing and buttressing those stereotypes and prejudices as perceived accurate reflections of marginalized groups from the humour that summons those stereotypes and prejudices in exaggerated form in order to skewer, undermine, and ultimately defeat them. Bad faith political actors are absolutely hiding authoritarian, discriminatory tendencies behind the shiny cloak of ironic humour, labelling their racism as “satire” when it’s sincere and direly real and the impetus for dangerous and harmful public policy. The trappings of comedy are being used to advance the rise of a new fascism, make no mistake. But there are also a lot of people consuming comedy right now, as there surely always have been, who don’t get the joke, and furthermore cannot fundamentally agree who the joke should be directed at: the powerful who create, maintain, and benefit from systems of oppression, or those marginalized by those systems, of which the punching-down style of comedy is a base-level mechanism that feeds on and serves to reinforce their marginalization.

This brings us, belatedly, to Sacha Baron Cohen and his most famous comedic character: Borat Margaret Sagdiyev, the fourth-best journalist in the glorious nation of Kazakhstan. Originally one of the Jewish Brit comedian’s outsized caricatures that gained prominence in his UK television sketch series Da Ali G Show (alongside the titular urban-culture poseur and flamboyant gay Continental fashionista Brüno Gehard), Borat is Baron Cohen’s most enduring and popular character for delivering his unique brand of outrageous comedy: a creatively-edited combination of scripted segments full of often-vulgar punchlines and sight gags and unscripted in-character interactions with innocent bystanders and sometimes even public figures foolish enough to let him get close to them (more on one of them later). The unscripted ambushes are Baron Cohen’s most controversial practice, sparking fretful conversations and thinkpieces about the ethics of sucking ordinary people into situations that may embarrass them and even damage their livelihoods for the purpose of a laugh, or in order to cast them as representative figures for satire of the society or culture that they are made to stand in for, problematic as that may prove to be.

The Borat character in particular has come in for broader-based criticism for his naifish but cartoonishly rampant prejudices and ignorance of the social norms and niceties of Western democratic society (which of course is the core point of the character, to throw those norms into sharper relief and lead us to question their normality). These offensive elements of his personality are all the more controversial for being made very clear to be the result of his lifelong indoctrination by the backwards beliefs and practices of his home country. Kazakhstan in the Borat Cinematic Universe is not the real-world Kazakhstan, of course; the scenes set there are filmed in Romania, Baron Cohen speaks not Kazakh as Borat but an amalgam of Hebrew and Polish, and only superficial details in the films and shows align with the real place. That muddled lack of specifity is not about plausible deniability alone, but also part of the joke. As Benjy Sarlin pointed out in a Twitter discussion today expanded upon by Jeet Heer, Borat’s Kazakhstan is a ludicrously extreme caricature of a post-Soviet Eastern European state as filtered through American parochial ignorance of the rest of the world. It’s a dark mirror, too, for a more extreme version of America’s own darker tendencies: stricken by poverty and retrograde social mindsets characterized by racism, misogyny, homophobia, unusual sexual practices, and above all antisemitism. This last subject is the fodder for much of Baron Cohen’s most envelope-pushing humour, in which the Jewish comedian (working very much from inside an established cultural tradition as such) emphasizes the irrational ridiculousness of raging Old World antisemitic tropes for satirical effect: witness the notorious “Running of the Jew” sequence from the 2006 Borat movie, or the recurring references in its sequel to Kazakhstan’s pride at aiding in the Holocaust, up to and including a celebratory national holiday. It’s all hugely silly, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t offended Kazakhs and spread an inaccurate picture of the country around the world, conceivably harming its international reputation. One thing you can certainly say for Borat is that you can tell that your satire is hitting its marks when you offend an entire nation state.

Borat exploded to wider notoreity beyond UK television comedy in 2006 with the release and surprise megahit status of his cinematic feature debut, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (like the title of its sequel, I won’t be typing this entire long title out every time I reference it; scroll up to read either one as we continue, if you need reminding). It’s been years since I’ve seen it, but I was among those bowled over at the sheer reckless abandon of its hilariousness at the time of release, which I referred to in my review as “a comedic war of attrition”; I was hardly alone, as Borat grossed $262 million worldwide from a $18 million budget and became an enduring pop culture meme presence, especially online. For Sacha Baron Cohen, this was almost more of a curse than a blessing, however. Although distributor 20th Century Fox was eager for a follow-up to keep the profits rolling, Borat had become so famous after the film that Baron Cohen found it impossible to appear in public disguised as the character without being recognized, thus defusing his bread-and-butter awkward ambush stunts. Baron Cohen hid behind other disguises and chased that style in feature films Brüno and The Dictator with less success, and has worked steadily in Hollywood comedies and dramas since then as well. But Borat remained dormant, seemingly retired by fame and recognition as well as being likely incapable of satirizing American politics, culture, and society with the same bite during the Obama years as he did under the Bush Administration.

These circumstances are incorporated into the introduction of the narrative of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, a return to hilarious form for Baron Cohen’s signature character that could not have been anticipated and yet so completely fits the barely-controlled alarming and stupid wildness of public life in 2020 that one could be deluded into believing that a re-emergence at this time in history was part of a grand design all along. Borat has been stripped of his journalistic privileges and sent to a gulag by Kazakhstan’s strongman head of state (who shares a name with the country’s real dictator, although otherwise is another comic caricature) for so thoroughly embarrassing Kazakhstan in front of the whole world in the first film, and when he gets out and heads back to America on a diplomatic mission (which I will explain in a moment), Baron Cohen and director Jason Woliner (a vet of US television comedy direction) include a montage of the character being recognized by on-the-street millenials who ask him for photos and autographs and shout his catchphrases at him (Baron Cohen makes subtler hay of the non-sequitur-loving ironist online leftist meme status of Borat’s pronunciation of “My wife”, delivering the line with added relish the first time it’s spoken in the film).

But Sacha Baron Cohen is nothing if not creative with his comedy, and his Borat uses a series of disguises (which often lampoon American stereotypes in and of themselves) in order to get the same kind of outrageous interactions with ordinary Americans that he achieved in the first film. Freed from imprisonment and dispatched to America by a Kazakh government eager to impress strongman-friendly U.S. President “McDonald Trump” with the gift of an intelligent chimpanzee (who is also their Minister of Culture), Borat decides instead to substitute his 15-year-old daughter Tutar, who stowed away in Johnny the Monkey’s shipping crate and was, shall we say, instrumental in the ape’s disappearance. Played with movie-stealing firecracker energy and impressive commitment by 24-year-old Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova, Tutar is a half-feral wild child with even less conception of American customs than Borat has. She’s been tied up in a muddy animal enclosure her whole life and has been inculcated in the deeply patriarchal and misogynist cultural brainwashing of Kazakh society which treats women as animal-like breeding stock and little else. She aspires to live in a nicer woman-cage one day, and in her wildest dreams hopes to one day marry a rich and powerful old man like her heroine “Queen” Melania Trump, whose perceived trophy wife status is lampooned hilariously in a Cinderella-esque cartoon that she knows by heart. Eager for this future as well as to spend more time with her father, Tutar goes along with his plan to gift her to “Vice Premier” Micheal “Penis”, who “was known to be such a pussy hound that he could not be left alone in a room with a woman“; I don’t want this to devolve into humour-explaining, but that is such a fucking fantastic joke, I’m sorry.

And so Borat and his daughter wreak uproarious and often sharply satirical havoc across America. Borat learns about cell phones and communicates with his execution-threatening government via fax in a copy shop (it may be the “customer is always right” service industry mentality, but both the cell store salesman and copy shop guy seem like they’re in on the joke, a factor which can be hard to parse in the film’s person-on-the-street interactions). He visits a bakery and buys a chocolate cake which he asks to be decorated with the now-infamous alt-right slogan “Jews will not replace us”; the proprietor is happy to oblige (the whole episode is no doubt a comment on the Supreme Court case affirming homophobic business practices). He cuts hair for a little extra cash (really not sure why this scene was left in, honestly, it’s just killing time) and eventually falls in with a pair of Facebook-fed right-wing QAnon conspiracists (again, these scenes seem too involved at times to preclude some cooperation by his apparent marks) who bring him to an anti-masker “plandemic” rally against COVID-19 restrictions in Washington State. At one low point in his travels, he suicidally wanders into a synagogue dressed in an outlandishly antisemitic get-up expecting to be torn apart by ravenous Semites, only to have his prejudices against them largely dispelled by a couple of kindly old Jewish grandmothers.

His most public antics were earlier this year at the conservative policy conference CPAC, which were reported at the time but in neither case were known to be Baron Cohen’s doing: hoping not to be recognized and seeking to blend in with American Republicans, he entered the hotel hosting the conference dressed in full Ku Klux Klan robes and later donned a fat suit and Trump mask and interrupted VP Mike Pence’s keynote address to the conference on February 27th of this year (during which Pence touts Trump’s swift action to arrest the spread of the now-unchecked and raging coronavirus, a reckless propagandistic lie only more astonishingly terrible in retrospect) to offer his underaged daughter to the renowned over-pious theocrat before being escorted out by security.

But Borat Subsequent Moviefilm has an unlooked-for emotional core and an animating central theme, and that is Tutar’s gradual and insidious realization of her worth as a woman and as a person from prolonged exposure to American norms around femininity, which for all of their well-recognized flaws certainly beat living in a cage or a barn. Most of the movie’s funniest and most satirically penetrating sequences revolve around these ideas and take full advantage of Bakalova’s brilliant comedic performance (I mentioned the Oscars’ antipathy to comedy earlier, but if that is to break down at any time, it might be this COVID-limited movie year and with a turn like this one). After swallowing a plastic display baby while enthusiastically devouring her first-ever cupcake, Borat cluelessly brings Tutar to a faith-based crisis pregnancy center to “get the baby out”, which the aghast pastor they speak to of course understands to mean an abortion (the miscommunication-based dramatic irony that drives this scene’s laughs is off-the-charts incredible; it should be taught in writing classes). They attend a debutante ball in Georgia and perform an absurd and graphic traditional fertility dance for the wealthy and staid fathers and daughters, thrusting the creepy patriarchal sexual politics of the affair right to the forefront. They arrange plastic surgery for Tutar to make her more attractive to rich American men. And after an African-American woman who works as a professional babysitter debunks the lies of the discriminatory Kazakh “woman manual” that both she and her father consider gospel when it comes to the nature of women (again, this is a bystander who must have been at least partly in on the joke), Tutar walks into a Republican women’s group meeting and extolls the virtues of newly-discovered female masturbation (she does not have a vagina dentata that will devour her hand like the book says after all), exhorting the scandalized conservative ladies to touch their “vagines” with her (“Somebody call her an Uber,” says one woman in a note-perfect accidental punchline). American society and culture has no lack of problems when it comes to women’s rights, the movie makes clear, but its freedoms are still attractive and inspirational for women worldwide whose home countries may not share them and are thus worth defending.

All of Borat and Tutar’s adventures lead them together to Manhattan at the movie’s climax, when having failed to gift her to Pence at CPAC they decide instead to get her to Trump via his personal attorney, former New York City mayor and current spittle-flecked Trumpist loyalist Rudy Giuliani. Leaked days prior to the movie’s streaming release on Amazon Prime Video, this scene is the clear “get” of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm and therefore Baron Cohen structures the whole movie around it. The scene is already notorious: Giuliani is being interviewed in a hotel suite by a fully made-up Tutar who is posing as a foreign journalist who is not underage, flirting with her the whole time, after which they retire to the bedroom and he touches her suggestively before lying down and and putting his hand into the front of pants (he claims to have been tucking his shirt in but if you watch the scene you can judge for yourself). Baron Cohen as Borat then bursts in wearing lingerie and tells him that his daughter is 15 years old and thus “too old for him”, precipitating a quick exit from the situation by Giuliani and his security.

Your mileage may vary when it comes to this moment as to whether you find it all that funny or all that revealing (Giuliani is not currently married and nothing suggests that any sexual interaction wouldn’t have been consensual). I certainly laughed harder at other times in the movie, although that may be because the scene was spoiled beforehand. The timing of the movie’s release certainly did not do Giuliani and the Trump circle any favours in regards to their already flimsy appearance of integrity and judgement, as he happened to have just been the focal point of their attempt to engineer a pro-Trump “October surprise” for the second presidential election in a row in the form of an obviously fraudulent story fed through the archconservative New York Post about a laptop belonging to the son of former Vice President and current Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden being found and turned over to the FBI with compromising emails connected to Ukraine. It’s all part of a convoluted Fox News World conspiracy theory that isn’t worth getting into here or frankly anywhere, and was already on its way to petering out without any noticeable polling effect before Giuliani got Borat-ed. It sure doesn’t make him look especially worthy of the benefit of the doubt, that’s for sure.

As I mentioned, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm sees Sacha Baron Cohen and his best-known character get their shared mojo back at an unexpected time, and it’s just when it was most needed. Baron Cohen stated two years ago that he felt he needed to do more with his comedy to address the alarming rise of reactionary ideologies like fascism and antisemitism and their threats to democracy, and resurrecting his most powerful comedic tool for doing so is a clear statement of intent. Even if Borat Subsequent Moviefilm‘s key themes run more towards women’s rights and freedoms, it touches on any number of other elements of our mad world of 2020, and saves its sharpest daggers for American conservatism’s terrible ideas and even more terrible governance, up to and including their conspiracy-drenched and downright inhuman mishandling of a global pandemic whose death toll rises every day (and is crescendoing anew just as this movie is released). In case this point might be missed or muddled by “ironic” alt-rightists (many of whom convinced themselves that Borat was a shadow-conservative humourous character despite the lampooning of the Bush Administration in the 2006 film), Borat Subsequent Moviefilm ends with the iconic “Running of the Jew” festival being discontinued and replaced in a Kazakhstan now more woke under the influence of Borat and Tutar with the “Running of the American”, which I wouldn’t dream of detailing and thus spoiling beyond that.

When I say that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is the kind of comedy that we most needed right now, what do I mean? Am I belatedly subscribing to the free-speech-aggrandized conception of comedy as a vitally important act of political resistance to power and putting this hilariously crude movie on a pedestal as just such an act? I’m not, although this is a movie that distills, exposes and productively mocks so much about the current moment that it cannot help but be used as referential shorthand for explaining the bizarre reality of Trump’s America and its dark but ludicrous shadows. If Trump loses the White House on or after November 3rd, it would be too much to credit this movie with playing a role in that result; its role in discrediting Giuliani in particular or TrumpWorld in general is minor, and I don’t feel that it preaches to anyone other than the choir on political matters, ultimately. But it’s in terms of comedy’s lighter but in many ways far deeper function, that of cathartic release, that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is such a well-timed and oddly comforting triumph. More potently and hilariously than almost any other comedy being produced in this seemingly satire-proof time in history, Sacha Baron Cohen’s surprising and highly satisfying laugh riot plays like gangbusters to a progressive audience worn down and disheartened by an uncontrolled pandemic, quarantine lockdowns, a shuddering and uncertain economy, eroding civil rights and democratic norms, persistent systemic racism, sexism, antisemitism, and even Holocaust denial, public policy based on fabulist conspiracies and corporate manipulation, and half-measure compromises being sold as the best possible positive outcomes. If all politics is personal, comedy can be personal and political simultaneously in a similar way. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is a weird but welcome relief and comfort. Very nice! Great success!

Film Review: The Vast of Night

October 23, 2020 Leave a comment

The Vast of Night (2020; Directed by Andrew Patterson)

One night in a small town in New Mexico in the 1950s, something strange is happening. Electrical problems plague the local high school, threatening to derail a big game between the school’s basketball team and a rival from across the valley. A strange metallic humming noise interferes with phone calls and radio signals. People drop out of contact and may be disappearing. And something is seen in the sky on the outskirts of town. Two local youths begin delving into it: Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz), the smart and snarky evening disc jockey at the tiny local radio station, and his friend Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick), the winsome high-school-aged evening phone switchboard operator.

If this sounds like the set-up for a classic science fiction story, then that’s very much the telegraphed intent of rookie director Andrew Patterson and screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger. The Vast of Night begins with the introductory credits of “Paradox Theater”, a ’50s sci-fi anthology television series in the style of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits that acts as a framing device for the narrative. Patterson and his editor Junius Tully transition through a grainy vintage television set screen into the full-colour visual story of the film, and fade back through the screen on a few subsequent instances, to re-assert a constructed meta-awareness of the story’s genre heritage.

But although The Vast of Night is in nearly every way a stylish and faithful re-creation of post-Roswell-Incident Atomic Age extraterrestrial science fiction, it’s got a haunting and hypnotic eerieness and low-simmer creeping fear built up very skillfully from its quite modern cinematic techniques. The screenplay by Montague and Sanger is constructed from a series of long dialogue sequences, immersing the audience in the setting and the main two characters, dripping out details of the strange happenings before laying out extensive backstory explanations in two riveting monologues: one over the phone with an African-American Army vet (Bruce Davis) who witnessed mysterious things on a top-secret detail and another at the home of an elderly female recluse (Gail Cronauer) who claims that her son was abducted by aliens. Patterson and cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz block, stage, and shoot complex extended camera movements to render this heavy dialogue dynamically. Even in the longer sequences of dialogue in enclosed spaces like the switchboard office and the radio station and during the monologues, Patterson moves his camera in a gradual, tension-building way, pushing in on the faces of his actors (mostly fairly green unknowns, although McCormick has some teen-focused credits and played a recurring role on spec-fic cult fave Supernatural) and moving slowly past them, in a fashion both comforting and unsettling that evokes a more fluid and less perversely calculated David Fincher.

The real technical flourish of The Vast of Night‘s camera work, and the most likely reason you might have heard of it if you run in online cineaste circles, is a stunning, virtuosic simulated one-shot sequence about halfway through the film. After introducing Everett and Fay in the high school gym and parking lot prior to the basketball game, the camera follows them as he walks her to her shift at the switchboard room, then stays with Fay as she works the switchboard and first hears the humming noise and gets inklings of odd things going on. Then, when Fay steps out the door and lights a cigarette, a long, seemingly-unbroken oner lasting over four minutes begins, tracking swiftly down deserted town streets and across fields and lawns, through the packed school gym and across the basketball court, then out a window and through the back parking lot to the small WOTW radio station, where Everett has also stepped out for a cigarette.

The behind-the-scenes story of how the long take was achieved is told by Littin-Menz, various camera operators, and the film’s Argentinian visual effects team in a short video from the film’s distributor, Amazon Studios. It’s a wild tale involving six months of preparation, computer-effects compositing on a few transitions, multiple invisible handoffs between camera operators and rigs, and a cameraman seated in a go-cart borrowed from a local preacher bombing through a dark town at 25 miles an hour that proved reluctant to turn left, not an inconsiderable problem considering that the chosen route consisted largely of left turns. At one point, the operator riding in the go-cart had to pluck the camera at speed from a moving crane rig. It was a wildly difficult shot to complete and is only perceived as more so the more you know about film production.

But the long take is not just showing off, it serves a storytelling purpose, connecting Fay and Everett over space and time in visual terms just as telephone and radio connect them, and everyone, instantly in technological terms. The Vast of Night focuses on this idea of technological connection and immersion bringing more wondrous and terrifying consequences, via the classic sci-fi metaphor of visiting extraterrestrials in flying spaceships. It’s certainly an idea that resonates in our digital age as much as in their analog one, when social media interconnectedness has only served to accelerate political and social divisions and conflicts. The Vast of Night also repeatedly pokes and prods at the terms of white conservative American conformity of the 1950s: black veteran Billy discusses on the phone with Everett how non-white minorities were purposely selected for the detail work related to the off-world technology because the command structure knew that it would cause illness and judged them expendable, and the reclusive Mabel Blanche’s narrative revolves subtly around her single unmarried mother status and how the resulting ostracism contributed to the common disbelief of her certainty of her son’s alien abduction (which even Everett shares).

The Vast of Night even considers its white protagonist duo’s desires to escape the constrained circumstances of their insular community (which is shown to be outwardly friendly but to nurse gossiping malevolence towards scandalous difference). It closes by fulfilling the restless wanderlust desires of these two small-town outsiders (which Mabel anticipates by asking them to take her with them), although hardly in the way that Everett or Fay would have anticipated or hoped for. The Vast of Night tweaks the classic science fiction alien contact story with prodigious technical skill and subtle modern thematic recontextualizing. It’s worth tuning into its frequency.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: L.A. Confidential

October 8, 2020 Leave a comment

L.A. Confidential (1997; Directed by Curtis Hanson)

A shapely and well-constructed Los Angeles neo-noir set amidst a corrupt Los Angeles Police Department in 1953, Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential was a cinematic text charged with current affairs applicability upon its release in 1997 that would not have been expected of a period genre movie. Following a fraught decade of antagonistic relations between the LAPD and the city’s poorer minorities with many police brutality incidents achieving local notoreity, the LAPD’s problems exploded into the national and international spotlight in the 1990s, first with the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots following the acquittal of the officers behind it, and then with the negative press around the department’s racism and poor handling of the highest profile murder case in the city’s history, the O.J. Simpson double murder trial. Hollywood had long been firmly in the grip of copaganda (and still is), but if any time was likely to see a critical re-evaluation of the positive framing of law enforcement, it was the late 1990s.

L.A. Confidential fits that bill to a T, and as a result ages well into our own time of increased public scrutiny of ingrained police practices, behaviours, and mindsets. Directed by the late Curtis Hanson from a screenplay by Hanson and Brian Helgeland (who would go on to write and direct A Knight’s Tale and 42) and based on the crime novel by James Ellroy, the film examines a corrupt police structure through a trio of cops who are all abusing the system in their own ways coming together to topple a larger and more deadly conspiracy. Kevin Spacey, now well and truly cancelled but in the late 1990s arguably the most acclaimed American screen actor working, is Jack Vincennes, a fashionable, spotlight-hungry narcotics officer who has leveraged high-profile busts coordinated with Hush Hush gossip magazine editor Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito) into a cushy consulting job with a television police drama (copaganda isn’t anything very new). Russell Crowe, in the role that made him an A-List Hollywood star after only a few films in featured supporting roles, is Wendell “Bud” White, a plainclothes beat cop and muscle-on-call for “enhanced interrogations” with a violent streak often turned against men who abuse women. And Guy Pearce, Crowe’s fellow Australian in his first major American film, is Edmund “Ed” Exley, a smart and outwardly progressive and by-the-book legacy hire (his father was killed in the line of duty) who is unafraid to leverage department politics to win a promotion to a rank he has yet to earn.

These three men become enmeshed in a murder case involving White’s portly partner (Graham Beckel) as a victim that connects to a wider conspiracy of corruption, sex, killing, and blackmail involving a high-class, well-connected pimp (David Strathairn) and his star Veronica Lake-lookalike prostitute Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger, who doesn’t give much of a performance but looks iconic in every shot, which at the time was enough to win her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) with whom White enters a romantic relationship, an imprisoned crime boss, a DA with secrets, and their veteran commander, Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). It’s impeccable hardboiled noir potboiler material, elevated by the clockwork intelligence of the script and Hanson’s sure-handed naturalistic direction and homages to the classic cinematic iconography of both the 1950s Studio Era Golden Age of Glamour and the grittier urban landscape of 1970s crime movies that saw a revival vogue in the ’90s. L.A. Confidential was nominated for 9 Academy Awards and lost every single one to the irresistible sweep of James Cameron’s Titanic, but it has overcome the potential film-history footnote status such a fate might have engendered, enduring as one of Hollywood’s finest elevated genre pictures of the 1990s, a mostly pre-franchised IP era in which that was the dominant mainstream form.

As mentioned, part of the reason L.A. Confidential has aged well is that it is extremely ambivalent about the police and their propagandistic claims to an unimpeachable and unchallengeable position of authority as the “thin blue line” between safe, respectable citizens and violent criminal monsters. After the murder of White’s partner and numerous other people in a diner, Captain Smith and his officers cover their own complicity in the act by swiftly railroading first a group of Hispanic youths into suspicion for the crime (leading to a severe stationhouse beating of the suspects based on the real-life 1951 event known as “Bloody Christmas” which tarnished the LAPD’s image) and then some African-American men, who are slaughtered in a shootout with Exley. Smith has White aid him in torturing suspects for information and false confessions, and the District Attorney (Ron Rifkin) is a pawn of not only Smith’s blackmailing schemes but later of White and Exley’s violent coercion in uncovering the conspiracy.

Hanson and Helgeland’s script tries to balance the moral scales of their three cop protagonists, giving them all reasons for the audience to sympathize and identify with them but also to see them as complicated and ethically compromised men who are in a sense attempting to redeem themselves in exposing Smith’s extortion ring. The movie tries to sell that redemption as having been completed by the end, and although some interpretive space is allowed, it works extra hard to give Crowe’s violent hard man Bud White a happy ending with Basinger’s Lynn. Given his rather pronounced violent toxicity, turned with hot-blooded abusiveness towards his beloved Lynn at one point, this effort rankles more than a little.

It’s a flaw more evident in retrospect in a very strong genre revival noir that treats default Hollywood heroes the police with far more skepticism and criticism than is generally the case. There is a catch, however, in L.A. Confidential‘s historical framing. Much like period films about racial injustice like 42 and Green Book that treat with racism more openly and confrontationally but also pre-assume it to be a relic of the past that progressive American society has mostly grown beyond, L.A. Confidential stares police corruption and brutality so directly in the face because it presents those negative aspects of policing as rough-hewn relics of another time. As argued, it was harder to ignore in the 1990s in Los Angeles that they were still very alive and well in the then-current LAPD, but Hollywood never really came closer to tackling those issues in its products at the time than this film, which situated them more comfortably in a rougher and more easily disavowed past that was also romanticized with all the aesthetic splendour that could be mustered.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: 42

August 29, 2020 Leave a comment

42 (2013; Directed by Brian Helgeland)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews, Sports

Film Review: John Wick 2 & John Wick 3

August 20, 2020 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Film, Reviews