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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

Film Review: Paddington & Paddington 2

Paddington (2014; Directed by Paul King)

Paddington 2 (2017; Directed by Paul King)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: The Hunt for Red October

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: This Is the End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods (2020; Directed by Spike Lee)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews